Monday, August 13, 2012

Academic merit denied

The Coalition of the Silence (a local minority advocacy group) plus the NAACP have filed a 16 page long complaint with the US Department of Education alleging that the highly selective Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, VA discriminates against black, Latino and disabled students. In particular, Fairfax County (which administers the high school) fails to identify these minority students sufficiently early and thereby shuts them out in an admission process heavy on past academic accomplishment and test scores.

The admission percentages are unambiguous-blacks and Hispanics comprise 32% of the Country's population but only 2.16% of those admitted (only three African American students in a student body of 476). Forty six percent are Asian; 43% are white (Asians are 20% of the school district, whites 44%).

Fairfax educators have attempted to help black and Hispanics (the Young Scholars Program), but according to the lawsuit, efforts are insufficient. The suit demands a total overhaul of the school systems, commencing in kindergarten: more money to help minorities, programs to identify gifted black and Hispanic students early on plus enrolling more minority students in academically oriented middle schools.  

To condense a long story, leveling will fail, many whites and Asians will leave these schools if the lawsuit is successful but rest assured, implementing a panacea will cost taxpayers a fortune while undermining public education in Fairfax County and elsewhere. What school district can afford the legal costs in today's economy?

Rather than dwell on past failures, let me instead outline the radical egalitarian playbook. These are quite alluring, sometimes seemingly harmless ideas disguised by lofty rhetoric. It will be a "controversial" tour but better to risk the unPC label than watch our schools go down the toilet.

Radical egalitarians always begin by asserting that all racial/ethnic groups are identical in academic ability so only wicked discrimination explains unequal representation in elite schools. Martina Hone, head of the Coalition of the Silence states this boldly: "Look at any study of giftedness. It is equally distributed across humanity. God did not change that rule when he got to Fairfax County." Now, I can't dispute God's power, but nearly all scientists reject Ms. Hone's assertion and this evidence is overwhelming. Experts only disagree on the source of these differences. There is no other way to put it: Ms. Hone and other egalitarians are either ignorant or lie.

Even if all groups were equal in innate intellectual ability, differences in culture and work habits can explain unequal admission. Asians (among others) venerate education; other groups favor entering the workforce early or playing sports versus hitting the books. Nor can group differences be explained by unequal school funding. Again, the research here is unequivocal and even massive infusion of funds to minority dominated schools has not produced equal outcomes. Moreover, fiscal equality has existed for decades and to give one contrary example, in 2009 Washington DC's schools spend an average of $29,409 per pupil compared to the national average of $12,500 and had dismal test scores and graduation rates. As before, egalitarians seem oblivious to facts.

What might Ms. Hone and the NAACP suggest to cure this inequality? After all, nearly a half century of programs and billions has failed, so what's their major bullet? More Head Start? Compulsory Sesame Street? Better nutrition?  More after-school tutoring? More black and Hispanic teachers and principals? Everything, absolutely everything has failed, so what's next? 

The next step in this playbook is to assert that any gap in achievement is a "problem requiring a solution" and that the newly identified problem requires government intervention. That group differences are ubiquitous, often rooted in biology impervious to government tinkering never seems to cross the minds of these egalitarians. What about group differences in sports, perhaps the most merit-driven institution in American?   

The egalitarian argument then shifts to defining "gifted" so that even those who cannot academically compete with whites and Asians should be admitted to Thomas Jefferson since, it is claimed, they too are "gifted" though their talent has nothing to do with academics.  The "hero" in this re-definition of "gifted" is the Harvard education professor Howard Gardner. For Gardner, being academically gifted is just one form of "gifted." Gardner posits eight "multiple intelligences"-linguistic, visuospatial, logical-mathematical, musical, interpersonal, intra-personal and bodily-kinesthetic (this list grows as Gardner discovers additional "intelligences"). Everything, moreover, it anchored in a particular culture so among the Navajo, a talented basket weaver is considered "intelligent."

Such linguistic gymnastics easily opens the door to admission by race/ethnic quotas. After all, everybody is gifted, not just Asians skilled at math, so the only way to be fair is to imposed strict proportionality. Yes, Asians will continue to excel at math, but blacks will now excel at bodily-kinesthetic activities like dancing and sports. Jefferson will thus remain an elite institution and one that, happily, mirrors the population of Fairfax Country but not in science and math.

This hardly exhausts the war on intellectual talent. Ironically, a major culprit here was President George W. Bush and his ill-fated No Child Left Behind. Under NCLB schools all across America were pressured into uplifting the bottom and attempted to "solve" the problem by abolishing (or sharply reducing funding) all gifted programs to release funds into de facto remedial education. Surveys of teachers reported that many re-directed their efforts away from smart kids to help strugglers since focusing on smart kids offered no professional benefits. Meanwhile, the federal Javits program that originally targeted helping bright kids was redirected to discover exceptional ability among blacks and Hispanics who otherwise lagged behind academically.   

Our brief account only skims the surface but it should make clear that the attack on Thomas Jefferson HS is not an isolated event. Its aim is destroy merit and level America into intellectual mediocrity. Claims of fairness, inclusiveness and all the rest are just battle slogans.

That said, what can be done? Let me be unfashionably blunt: in today's politically correct climate, any opposition to any proposal to help blacks and Hispanics that draw their ire will be condemned as racists, if not hateful. But on the other hand, giving Martina Hone and her ilk a free pass undermines American education and, ultimately, America itself.

Fortunately, there is an escape from being tarred as a racist: just demand hard, scientific evidence. Where are the studies showing that early intervention can close racial/ ethnic gaps in academic achievement? What data demonstrate that all groups are equally academically bright versus just have various "talents" having zero to do with school?  What makes a gap in professional sports acceptable while graduating with degrees in molecular biology in an unacceptable gap?

In other words, put the burden of proof on radical egalitarianism. How is asking for evidence "racist"? Admit that yes, it would be lovely to have an elite academic high school that perfectly mirrored Fairfax County, but absent eliminating all academic standards, how, exactly is this to be accomplished? Demanding proof from closed-minded ideologues may not be easy, but consider the alternative-a dumbed down nation where education only serves to inflate underserved self-esteem.


'Creationism' in Britain's free schools: the whiff of a witch-hunt

The British Humanist Association is trying to whip up anxiety about "Creationist" free schools scheduled to open in 2012 and 2013. This is from a BHA press release:

    "Grindon Hall Christian School in Sunderland, currently a private all-through school but approved last October by the Department for Education to open as a Free School from this September, has a "Creation Policy" on its website in which they "affirm that to believe in God’s creation of the world is an entirely respectable position scientifically and rationally" and state they will "teach creation as a scientific theory"; while Sevenoaks Christian School, a secondary school in Kent approved to open from 2013, sets out the creationist beliefs of the school’s founders, and explains that creationism will be taught in Religious Education (RE)."

Needless to say, the Guardian is on the case:  "The education secretary, Michael Gove, has approved three free schools run by groups with creationist views, including one with a document on its website declaring that it teaches "creation as a scientific theory"."

But, reading the BHA's fulminations, I can't help wondering if it isn't indulging in a little intelligent design of its own.

Don't get me wrong: I don't believe we should permit hardline Creationist schools to operate in this country. Why? Because they would teach children pseudoscience. Evolution is not merely one "theory" among many. The evidence for evolution by natural selection – and that includes the evolution of homo sapiens from its predecessors – is overwhelming. Nothing in biology makes sense without Darwin's insights.

But none of these free schools will be allowed to teach "scientific" Creationism, with its brazen manipulation of the fossil record to "fit" the Book of Genesis, in science classes. Nor can they teach the marginally more sophisticated intelligent design, once nicely summed up as "creationism in a cheap tuxedo".

Will these free schools merely shift Creationism's fake science from biology to RE lessons? Michael Gove says they won't be allowed to. Clearly, the situation needs to be monitored – in Islamic schools as well as Christian ones. (Islam is far and away the most important disseminator of Creationism in the modern world, a point rarely stressed by the BBC/Guardian.)

Actually, I'm not clear that these new schools are Creationist. The evangelical Christians who run them may privately reject evolution, in which case it's the Government's job to make sure that they don't undermine the discoveries of scientists in any lessons. But Grindon Hall says the following: "[We do] not share the rigid creationist’s insistence on a literalistic interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis … We are therefore very happy to believe that God could have created the world in six days. But we do not feel that it is helpful to affirm it as an unarguable fact." That's what I regard as a traditional Christian viewpoint rather than anything an American fundamentalist would recognise as Creationism.

The nearest any of these schools get to "scientific" Creationism are the following statements from Grindon Hall:

*    We vigorously challenge the unscientific certainty often claimed by scientists surrounding the so-called “Big Bang” and origins generally.

*    We will teach evolution as an established scientific principle, as far as it goes.

*    We will teach creation as a scientific theory and we will always affirm very clearly our position as Christians, i.e. that Christians believe that God’s creation of the world is not just a theory but a fact with eternal consequences for our planet and for every person who has ever lived on it.

These sentences are too loosely phrased for us to be clear what, exactly, the school means by creation – or science, for that matter. Attempts to reconcile belief in God-as-creator and empirical data often produce evasive statements, not least in unthreatening mainstream denominations. As I say, if there's a hidden agenda, then it's the Government's job to make sure it isn't implemented.

The key challenge is distinguishing between religious cosmology and false empirical claims – not easy, but it has to be done. There is a difference between saying that God's creation of the world doesn't conflict with science and is therefore in some way "scientific", and extracting  bogus science from the Bible or Koran. There's also a difference between saying that evolution doesn't explain everything (which is true) and claiming that there are significant holes in the theory (which there aren't).

The reason I've used the word "witch-hunt" in the headline is that I suspect the real target of the BHA/Guardian campaign is not the teaching of pseudoscience in classrooms, but Christianity in general (this poisonous piece by Hadley Freeman captures the ultra-secularist mindset perfectly). Plus, of course, the institution of free schools, the success of which has infuriated the Left.

It poses the question: what do "humanists" fear more – the teaching of bad science, or the freedom of parents to run their own schools?


The great PE revolution: Every school child in Britain to play competitive sports

Every pupil in Britain will be expected to play competitive team sports under plans to be outlined by David Cameron tomorrow.

The Prime Minister is to reveal the primary school National Curriculum will be rewritten this autumn to ensure all pupils play proper sports.  The move will end the culture of ‘prizes for all’ which has afflicted some schools since the educational establishment decreed no one must fail in the 1960s.

It will also see trendy exercise classes in schools, such as ‘Indian dancing’, replaced by sports.

Mr Cameron will make compulsory competitive sport a centrepiece of his plans to secure a sporting legacy for Britain after the success of the Olympics.

Senior Government sources have told the Mail that the National Curriculum for secondary schools, which is expected to be revised next year, will also be changed to ensure those aged 11 to 18 engage in competitive sport.

At present, the curriculum covering PE is a jargon-filled eight-page document. This will be torn up and replaced by a one-page document, including a requirement for all primary school children to take part in competitive team sports.

Mr Cameron yesterday attacked the substitution of exercise activities for competitive sport at some schools which are simply trying to fill the two hours of sport a week required under Labour.  The Government has scrapped the two-hour rule to encourage schools to do more.

He said: ‘I see it with my own children. The two hours that is laid down is often met through sort of Indian dancing classes.  ‘Now, I’ve got nothing against Indian dancing classes but that’s not really sport.’

The new guidance will also teach older children to compare their performances so they can keep improving their personal best.

A commitment to teach all children to swim will remain in place.

Education Secretary Michael Gove will publish the new primary school rules in the autumn.

A senior Government source said: ‘There will be similar moves to boost competitive sport to be contained in the forthcoming secondary curriculum as well.’

Data from the Government’s PE and Sport Survey in 2009/10 showed that only 40 per cent of pupils did competitive sport regularly within their own school.

When he makes the formal announcement, Mr Cameron will say: ‘I want to use the example of competitive sport at the Olympics to lead a revival of competitive sport in primary schools. We need to end the “all must have prizes” culture and get children playing and enjoying competitive sports from a young age, linking them up with sports clubs so they can pursue their dreams.’

The Prime Minister yesterday said that in future schools will be expected to ‘have a proper sports day where we hand out medals’.

They will also be urged to ‘get athletes and Olympians’ into their schools to encourage pupils and link up with local sports clubs.

Ministers will stop short of telling schools how many hours a week they should dedicate to sport.  But Mr Cameron claimed yesterday that the two-hours-a-week target had led many schools to ‘think they’ve done their bit’ by meeting it when it wasn’t enough.

He also made clear that he would maintain funding for elite athletes, which has driven the success of Team GB at the London Games.  He said: ‘We will absolutely learn the lessons of the Australian experience,’ – referring to the fact that the country has slumped down the medal table since the Sydney Games of 2000 after funding cuts.

The Government has already committed to maintain funding until 2014. The Prime Minister is expected to signal tomorrow that that will be extended to cover the Rio games of 2016.

It is already pouring an extra £500million into sport via the National Lottery and has committed to spending £1billion over four years on school sports.

But Mr Cameron came under pressure from Labour leader Ed Miliband, who called for a ten-year cross-party plan for sport.  ‘It’s no good blaming the teachers, or blaming everybody else, for what’s happening in our schools,’ he said.


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