Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Eton headmaster slams 'exasperating' High School exams and says teacher training is 'a mess'

The headmaster of Eton slammed 'exasperating' GCSE and A-level exams as he launched a scathing attack on the teaching system.

Tony Little, who has spent 13 years at the helm of the exclusive school, said individual subjects were taught well but exams do not make pupils think laterally.

Mr Little, who is due to step down from his post at the prestigious boys' private school this summer, added that teacher training in Britain is 'a mess'.

The headmaster warned that schools are controlled by a university admissions system that focuses only on results - leaving teachers to follow a 'rigid' system to avoid risking a pupil's chances of winning a place.

Speaking to Insight magazine, published by the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, Mr Little said: 'We need to see the breaking down of the silo mentality that exists in all schools.

'My school is typical. Each subject is very well taught in itself, but I am exasperated by an exam system which makes it difficult for teachers to make links and pupils to see things in different ways. It's about encouraging them to see things laterally and be more nimble.

'The exam system is like an egg timer. There is a wealth of experience and learning at the top, then it is all squeezed through the narrow bottleneck of exams and pushed out of the other side. I am not against exams or rigour, quite the contrary; it's the way exams are designed.

'And we are controlled by a university admissions process focussed solely on exam results. No one wants to prejudice students' chances, which locks us into a rigid system.'

'I would like to see teaching as a highly trained profession, but not as it is now. I take unqualified teachers because I think we can train them better in my school. In the future I would like a new national framework which would open up teaching initially to people without professional qualifications but with good subject knowledge.

'Those wishing to become career teachers would have to work towards a charter mark which would have to be refreshed and which would include research.'

Eton counts David Cameron, the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry among its former pupils.  Mr Cameron follows in a line of 19 Prime Ministers that attended the school, including Wellington, Gladstone and Macmillan.


Welcome, High School Freshman! Pee in This Cup!

High school is rough for a lot of kids. As the captain of my high school’s academic team (we took tests competitively and competed weekly with other students in academic competitions—yes, this is real thing), you can imagine I wasn’t on the ballot for “Ms. Popular.” Others undoubtedly experience worse. Between parents, puberty, and prom, it’s a wonder we don’t leave our high school years with PTSD in addition to our diplomas.

During a recent visit to my parents, I heard a news report regarding a local high school’s new drug policy. Trinity High School, located in Louisville, Kentucky, is to begin mandatory drug and alcohol testing during the 2015 school year. The school cited how early kids are experimenting with drugs as a major factor in their decision. Approximately 75 percent of the students will be tested in the 2015-2016 school year. Further down the road, all students will be tested randomly throughout the year.

In a press release on the policy, the school stated it wanted to empower students to resist drugs. When confronted with a situation in which drugs and alcohol are present, Trinity students can now say, “I can’t, my school tests.”

My first reaction to this story was one of sheer bafflement. Imagine walking around your high school as a 16-year-old sophomore. You’re headed to class when some guidance counselor, principal, or other staff member hands you a plastic cup. Nothing goes with a statistics test like calculating the probability a random school administrator will ask you to pee in a cup.

This certainly isn’t the first time random drug testing has come up in the news. In fact, most schools drug test their student athletes. A plurality of schools test students who engage in extra-curricular activities and nearly a quarter of schools test all their students.

Stories of testing welfare recipients, workers, and other groups have garnered serious attention and pushback. In one such case from 2013, a federal District Court struck down a Florida law that required all applicants for the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to submit for drug testing, citing 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable searches by the government.

The case of Trinity High School is a little different. While the government cannot legally compel drug testing of a group just because they’re poor, the same cannot be said for this high school and their students. Trinity is a private Catholic school. Parents elect to send their children to the school and pay some $13,000 a year for their education. As such, the school can broadly test their students for simply being in the group that statistically experiments with drugs. Since parents are entering into this contract voluntarily and have viable alternatives (in fact, there are two other all-male Catholic high schools in the city), those offended by the new policy have little recourse.

So while I won’t condemn a private institution for implementing its own policies regarding drugs and alcohol, parents and administrators at Trinity and other high schools considering similar policies should think about the consequences of such a rule, and look some data.

First, such a policy is particularly costly. One study conducted by the Drug Policy Alliance and the American Civil Liberties Union found that such testing costs schools about $3,000 per positive result. What is more important than this raw number, however, is what economists call the “opportunity cost” of these tests. That is, what else could a school spend this money on? As it turns out, there are a variety of alternatives to these tests, like drug education, counseling, extracurricular activities, etc. The aforementioned study found that these methods were more effective at keeping young people away from drugs than random testing.

Second, random drug tests have not been found to be particularly effective. A significant body of work, in fact, has found such policies not only failed to reduce drug use, but in some cases led to increased use in harder drugs among students. (See here, here, here, and here for examples.) The data is so overwhelming, in fact, that the American Academy of Pediatrics has come out against using such testing as a cornerstone of school drug policy.

Moreover, such a policy is likely to encourage high school students to ingest some potentially very harmful substances. As we have observed with the rise of new ways to get high, like huffing keyboard cleaner, “bath salts,” and synthetic marijuana, people interested in doing drugs will find a way. The students of Trinity and other high schools who adopt random screening policies are more likely to try these and other substances to avoid having a positive drug test. They’ll look for substances the test won’t detect. It isn’t difficult to see how ingesting these substances may be significantly worse than something like alcohol or pot.

No parent hopes his or her child will grow up to be a drug user. School administrators understandably don’t want an institution in which drug use is encouraged and fostered. But when it comes to how we choose to educate and equip our children for dealing with peer pressure, drugs, and alcohol, it’s important we get the facts straight. Not only does this policy grossly offend the personal privacy of students, but the data shows its unlikely to have the desired effect. Although the policy implemented by this school in my hometown is likely well intentioned, I predict it will be largely ineffective and may lead to more students using particularly dangerous substances.


The Value of Education

Sean Gabb makes a case for non-utilitarian education

I went yesterday evening to a seminar arranged in London by the Social Affairs Unit. This began with a brief lecture by Theodore Dalrymple, a doctor who writes an occasional column forThe Spectator. His theme was “The Proletarianisation of British Culture”. He explained how notions of politeness and restraint were vanishing from the middle classes, being replaced by an increasing vulgarity of thought and behaviour; and that this was not a vulgarity copied from the working classes, but was part of a general decline also affecting them. It was a brief lecture, and was intended as no more than a summary of the problem. The discussion was then thrown open for others to supply answers or other pertinent comments.

These seminars, I think, have been arranged to allow free discussion in private; and so I will not report the discussion, or even say who else was there. Instead, I will give my own thoughts on the problem. I believe that much of the vulgarity of thought and behaviour can be traced to a failure throughout the English speaking world, since about 1960, to understand the meaning and value of education.

I will not presume to say what is the purpose of life. Though I wish it were otherwise, I suspect there is no objective purpose, and it is up to us as individuals to supply our own. But whatever the case, I think it reasonable to say that our purpose ought to be to make ourselves as happy as we can, and to contribute as much as we can to the general stock of happiness.

Now, happiness comes in many forms and is found in many places. If we want ecstatic pleasure, that can be found in any number of legal and illegal substances. If we want uncomprehending contentment, there are lobotomies or courses of electric shock therapy. But given that most people reading this article are at least moderately intelligent, I will not bother with criticising these kinds of happiness. For us, happiness surely includes understanding and even wisdom. This requires some subordination of present to future objectives, and in particular getting the best education of which we are capable. I will define an educated person as someone who can hold an interesting conversation with himself throughout the whole uncertain course of his adult life—someone with a fair knowledge of human nature, a tolerance of the milder follies, an understanding of the limits of what is possible, a calm equanimity of temper, and, ideally, with a sense of humour. Some of these qualities are innate. Others must be acquired.

A person who possesses these qualities cannot fail to be an interesting and a pleasing companion to himself through life. And the existence of many such people, largely connected with each other, gives rise to what the economists call a positive externality. A country in which the tone of life is set by such a class of people is invariably a more pleasant place to be than a country where such a class does not exist. That country will be more beautiful in its arrangement of material objects, and more gentle in its courtesies. Its laws will be more humanely framed and more humanely applied. Its politics will be steadier in their course and more temperate in their ends. It will go to war less often, and then mostly for the pursuit of legitimate interests. Because of the greater security of life and property, and the greater respect for thrift and sobriety, it will also be richer and more powerful.

Such an education means a training in habits of thought and the exercise of general intellectual ability. It may require the acquisition of specific skills—for example, learning at least one of the classical languages and few modern languages, and learning some of the technical aspects of music and the visual arts. It may also require an understanding of mathematics and of the natural sciences. It certainly requires a long study of literature and history and philosophy and law and political economy. But none of this may be useful in any direct financial sense.

This is not to disparage purely technical or professional training. These are not at all to be despised. Some while ago, I took a course in bookbinding, and was filled with respect for the skill and dedication of the old man who taught me. Accountancy and legal practice and medicine and the ability to see and make use of previously undiscovered business opportunities, are all of high value. But they are not in themselves education. My instructor in bookbinding was a man of wide culture. Not only did he know how to put books together, but he also had a strong appreciation of what he was putting together. I know accountants and lawyers and physicians who can keep me happily awake until three in the morning as we discuss the state of the world. That, however, is because they are not just what they have trained to become. It is because they are also educated men.

The problem we are now facing is largely the outcome of a decline of respect for humanistic education. My dear friend Dennis O’Keeffe is famous for his denunciations of what he calls socialist education—this being a denial that there is any value in the traditional curriculum, and that the cultures of all social classes and of all racial and national groups are equally valuable; and even that ours is inferior, so far as it contains within itself at least the implicit claim to general hegemony over all others. With this goes the dangerous absurdities of structuralism and post-modernism.

Of course, Dennis is right. But it is not only Michel Foucault and Louis Althusser and Herbert Bowles and Samuel Gintis who are to blame for the attack on humanism. It is also the intellectual philistinism of our own intellectual allies. When I was a boy, I got into an argument with my mathematics teacher, an Armenian Marxist who wore jeans in class an long leather boots spray painted green—this was the 1970s. I asked him one day what was the value of the simultaneous equations he was trying to teach us how to solve. He made what I now realise was a good attempt to explain their value, but began to lose his temper when I failed to understand him. Many years later, I read of a similar exchange in Alexandria between Euclid and one of his students. Euclid, it seems, did not even try to explain himself. Instead, he told his assistant to give the man his money back and throw him into the street.

I now understand the value of knowledge that has no immediate or obvious use. Sadly, many others who call themselves libertarians or conservatives do not. With their talk of “vocational learning” and “learning based outcomes”, they deny the value of any education that is not directed to the gaining of marketable skills.

I know of schools that teach information technology but not history. Again, I do not dispute the value of technical skills. I am proud of my ability to build computers and to make software work: my own website is almost entirely crafted by hand in HTML. But history also is important. An accountant who is ignorant of the French Revolution, or cannot recognise sonata form, or knows not a line of poetry, is nothing more than a skilled barbarian. In a nation where only a small minority is truly educated, legal equality becomes a hard concept to maintain, let alone political equality. In a nation without even that minority, public life must inevitably become savage and arbitrary—a thing of wild, inconstant passions, led by those unable to perceive or follow longer term goods.

That is where, I think, we are now fast approaching. We have a Prime Minister who cannot spell, and is not ashamed of the fact. We have a political class in general that lacks nearly all skill of persuasive speech and seems ignorant of the past. Of the first Ministers appointed to serve under Tony Blair, apparently, the majority listed football as their main hobby in their Who’s Who entries; and not one listed any humanistic pursuit. I doubt if the Conservatives are much better. Perhaps the Judges and permanent heads of department will soon follow the trend. Little wonder our freedoms are being given up, one at a time, to moral panics and appeals to administrative convenience.

Is there anything to be done? I am not sure that there is in the short term. It takes centuries of moral evolution to achieve the level from which we have now declined. Between the renaissance vulgarities of behaviour described by Norbert Elias to the gentility of life in the 1900s lie 500 years of gradual improvement. To suppose that the present decline can be arrested and turned round in one lifetime is perhaps too optimistic. But there are certain steps that may easily be taken towards an eventual improvement. One of the participants in the seminar last night described how he had thrown out his television set, and how this had already contributed to the moral tone of his household. There is an example to be followed—and cheaply followed, bearing in mind the decadence of broadcasting.

Aside from this, we can hope for a collapse of the universities. There are always exceptions, but most are nowadays a combination of training schools for narrow professional disciplines, and academies of falsehood. George Orwell once declared of some absurdity “you need to be an intellectual to believe that”. This needs now to be amended to “You need a degree to believe that”. I am not sure the universities, taken as a whole, can be reformed: better, I suspect, either to wait for their natural decline into irrelevance or to shut them down at the first opportunity. One of the first acts of the Ayatollah Khomeini after taking power in Iran was to close all the universities for three years. The bloody revolution of which this was a part is, of course, to be condemned. But I have no doubt that Shiite theology and law were much closer to the humanistic ideal than the western sociology they replaced. Perhaps historians will one day trace the growing stability and democratisation of modern Iran to this educational reform.

But as my readers may have noticed, I tend to be better at describing problems than giving solutions to them. I can only conclude by thanking the Social Affairs Unit for inviting me to so stimulating a discussion, and to hope that I shall be invited to others in future.


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