Tuesday, August 28, 2012

It's the Curriculum, Stupid

It's the time of the year when children's smiles begin to look a little pinched. You can feel it when you walk through any school supplies store. While the colored pencils and lunchboxes on display evoke memories of "the good times," they also spark memories of all that filler work -- the spelling and grammar exercises, multiplication tables and the dates of the Revolutionary War.

It's also the time when parents think about what their children will study. We used to know the subjects assigned to the various grades, but common core subjects with common values were abandoned long ago, replaced by progressive theories and the dumbing-down of actual information. The emphasis was on methodology and social-activist doctrine, even in the lower grades. We continue to suffer for it.

America has never had an official national curriculum, but as E.D. Hirsch, the education critic, observes in his newest book, "The Making of Americans," "a benign conspiracy among the writers of schoolbooks (insured) that all students would learn many of the same facts, myths, and values and so would grow to be competent, loyal Americans." No more. A hodge-podge curriculum and splintered knowledge marks a decline in academic achievement, as compared to other countries.

Hence a reform movement is burgeoning in reaction to many of the changes of the last half-century. Although results are mixed, some are promising and deserve attention. New York City, with a million students in 1,700 schools, for example, became a focus for reform, with instructive lessons for the rest of the country.

After a child-centered focus for children was described as letting each child find his natural path for reading, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his schools chancellor at the time, Joel Klein, looked at the dismal reading scores of children in the lower grades and reread the criticism and creative ideas of E.D. Hirsch. In 2008, they tested the scholar's early childhood literacy program in the real-life laboratory of 10 elementary schools.

Hirsch had said that higher reading levels could be achieved when an emphasis was put on the content of old-fashioned subjects, like history, geography and science, as much as the mechanics of learning. It was something like rediscovering the wheel, but the wheel was soon rolled up the hill, getting positive results along the way.

After a year, the schools with the new curriculum achieved reading scores five times greater than schools with the old curriculum. Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute writes in City magazine that after three years, the results continue to be encouraging. It was time for other schools to take a look.

The Hirsch diagnosis could be summed up with a paraphrase of a familiar political campaign slogan: "It's the curriculum, Stupid." Hirsch emphasizes that specific shared content knowledge for each grade should be required. He believes the reform should start in the lower grades and work its way up.

Education reform is as complex as health care reform, but it's not exactly a dominant issue for current political campaigns. Despite the good intentions of No Child Left Behind, legislation written in the George W. Bush administration, teachers who "taught to the test" narrowed the scope of study.

The latest trend is "digital learning," where children work at their own pace on computers. It has technological value for the 21st century, but its emphasis on isolated computer teaching gives short shrift to the common cultural knowledge that was once the baseline for educating a child.

I find few high school seniors today who have read the old staples, like "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" or the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, such as "Self Reliance." They're unlikely to understand the metaphorical use of an "albatross" around the neck for terms like "the deficit" or even the idea of Social Security.

When a politician's change of opinion is called a "flip-flop," who will understand Emerson's aphorism that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."

It's been almost 30 years since E.D. Hirsch wrote the best-selling book "Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know," emphasizing the importance of the study of common documents, literary, historical and scientific, that cut across generations, ethnic groups, the privileged and the poor. It was written before the spread of the Internet, Facebook and Google, and the fragmentation of information only makes such core knowledge more crucial.

We risk becoming like those exiled adults in "Fahrenheit 451," the science fiction novel of Ray Bradbury, describing how a few people memorized the great books for safekeeping in a world that burns books.

We don't burn books, but neither do we concern ourselves with the knowledge we hold in common. That's too bad. You might say it's another albatross we must bear. (Say what?)


British Middle classes forced out of private education as costs rise at twice rate of inflation over 10 years

Thousands of middle-income families have been priced out of private schools by inflation-busting fee rises.  Average fees have risen at nearly twice the rate of inflation over the past ten years.

The increases mean that private schooling is now beyond average earners in well-paid occupations, including pharmacists, architects, IT experts, engineers and scientists.  A decade ago, these professionals would have been able to afford to pay fees out of earned income.  Now, however, they would struggle without funding from other sources, according to the study.

The average annual fee for a day pupil at a private school is £11,457, up from £6,820 in 2002, researchers found. Charges have risen 68 per cent in that period, 1.8 times faster than retail price inflation over the same period, which was up 37 per cent.

Private school fees are considered affordable if they account for 25 per cent or less of the average annual full-time salary before tax.

But £11,457 represents 35 per cent of this average, which stands at £33,011, according to the study by Lloyds TSB Private Banking. In 2002, fees would have taken 27 per cent.

Suren Thiru, economist at the bank, said the rises make it ‘increasingly difficult for the average worker in many occupations to afford a private education for their offspring’.

Those who can most easily afford the fees include accountants, senior police officers, airline pilots and  production managers as fees  represent 19 per cent of their annual earnings.

The findings follow a warning this year from the former head of a top private school that the sector is  losing public confidence by becoming the preserve of the super-rich.

Dr Martin Stephen, formerly of St Paul’s School, West London wrote: ‘Independent schools have put themselves in a very dangerous position; even more dangerous because they don’t realise the danger.

‘They are pricing themselves out of the reach of most normal people in the UK. The independent sector is becoming socially exclusive in a way not seen since Victorian times.’

Dr Stephen is now director of education at GEMS, an international schools group aiming to make private education ‘affordable’.

He added: ‘The sector has become too dependent on overseas parents and is profiting from a state sector in some turmoil as a result of radical change. Independents need to realign themselves with their clients.’

The biggest rises in fees have been in London and the South West, both up 79 per cent from 2002-12. Next were East Anglia (74 per cent) and the East Midlands and South East, both at just under 70 per cent.

The number of pupils enrolled at private schools has also fallen over the decade, according to the study.


Record EU students to get 'free' Scottish degree

The number of university places available for Scottish students is being squeezed by record levels of youngsters from other EU countries taking advantage of the SNP’s offer of a taxpayer-funded degree, it has emerged.

Successful applications by youngsters from the Continent are up 3.6 per cent on the same time last year when the previous record was set. The annual £75 million cost of providing them with ‘free’ degrees appears certain to increase further.

Although SNP ministers have boasted of allocating a set number of “protected places” for Scottish applicants, this quota also includes places given to EU students.

A loophole caused by European anti-discrimination laws mean children from the Continent benefit from the SNP’s promise of “free” degrees for Scottish youngsters.

Mike Russell, the Education Minister, announced almost 18 months ago he was examining introducing a charge for EU students that would not apply to Scots but no proposals have been forthcoming since.

Scotland is now expected to be the only part of the UK where admissions by EU students will increase as elsewhere they have to pay tuition fees.

Opposition parties last night said it was another example of the SNP’s higher education funding policies restricting places for Scottish youngsters.

The Daily Telegraph last week disclosed last week how other Scottish universities are being forced to offer thousands of clearing places to fee-paying international and English students only.

Universities confirmed that the number of ‘protected places’ for Scottish and EU students effectively acts as a cap on the number they can recruit. They are threatened with fines if they go more than 10 per cent above their quota.

In the most extreme example of the two-tier clearing system, Aberdeen and Stirling universities said no Scottish students would be allocated a place on the 137 courses with spaces available.

Liz Smith, Scottish Tory Education spokesman, said last night: “Mike Russell has done nothing to resolve the EU loophole and that’s putting additional pressure on the number of places available to Scottish students.

“That is in addition to the clearing situation, where Scottish students are being turned away anywhere where the quota has been reached.”

According to official figures, 3,535 EU students had been accepted in Scottish universities by A-level results day last week, an increase of 123 compared to the same time last year.

The 3.6 per cent increase was more than the 3.1 per cent rise in the number of Scottish students given a place. Data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency has shown the number of EU students has almost doubled over the past decade to 15,930.

The Scottish Government said acceptances for fee-paying school leavers from the rest of the UK is 10 per cent up (419) compared to last year, while the total for international students from outside the EU is 7.7 per cent down (201).

Mr Russell has replied to a letter from his opposition shadows calling on him to reform the clearing system and give Scottish youngsters a level playing field.

He confirmed: “There is no question of a place protected for a Scottish / EU student being taken by a student from anywhere else.”

However, he brushed off questions about what happens when the Scottish quota is reached, stating that: “Places available through clearing for Scottish students have always been limited and the clearing system is becoming less relevant to the majority of Scottish students.”

Although this newspaper has been contacted by upset Scottish students unable to obtain a clearing place, he blamed the media for generating “highly regrettable and completely avoidable instances of anguish”.


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