Friday, September 04, 2015

Is School Choice Working in DC?

 It is the second week of June and classes at Thurgood Marshall Academy (TMA) have already been dismissed for the academic year. However, these high school students are still in the charter school’s library preparing to present their academic portfolios for evaluation before a panel of teachers. This once-a-year routine is an example of the academic rigor of an inner-city public charter school like TMA.

So why are charter schools so popular?

D.C. Public Charter School Board Chairman Darren Woodruff told the Washington Examiner, "Parents like the quality education, academic rigor, diverse programs and innovative approaches that public charter schools offer."

According to a Washington Examiner article this month, “Black families unsatisfied with traditional public schools are flocking to Washington, D.C.'s charter schools.” The article cited the D.C. Public Charter School Board's latest annual report, which stated that in the 2014 to 2015 school year, 83 percent of the students in Washington charter schools were black compared to only 67 percent of the student population in traditional public schools, a four percent decrease from the 2011 to 2012 school year.

National Affairs chimes in: “Charters mostly serve poor and minority students who would otherwise be stuck in the worst urban schools. Over 56% of their students are Hispanic and African American, versus 39% in district schools.” TMA, which opened in 2005, is nearly 100 percent Black.

Skyler Harris, Jr. just presented her portfolio in front of the panel. The junior said that “[she] learned a lot about law and the government and how lawyers make their decisions… This is a law-based school and other schools don’t really have that opportunity as much as Thurgood does.”

Harris mentioned the opportunities TMA offers such as going to law firms and interacting with lawyers. There, students receive tutoring and participate in law-related programs. “They get to help you be successful and they’re just here to help you, along with the teachers and staff at Thurgood,” said Harris.

As a college preparatory public charter high school, TMA students receive 90 minutes each of English and math lessons per day, twice the amount than in a traditional public school. Executive Director Alexandra Pardo emphasized the critical role that basic math and English play in helping other disciplines. “In order to be able to do science and social studies I need to have basic math skills. So if I cannot compute a one-step equation, I can’t be successful in a chemistry class. And if I cannot read a chemistry textbook… or a history textbook… I can’t access the content of social studies.”

When asked what makes TMA different than other charter and public schools, Pardo replied, “I don’t think it’s a question of what makes us different. I think the question is what has worked for us to be successful.” One way TMA has thrived is due to “[the] faculty and staff, and finding a team and a cadre of individuals who are absolutely dedicated to the work that [the school does] and also believe in the students. And [who] are not willing to sacrifice their beliefs for student outcomes and believe that our students can achieve and are willing to put in the hard work,” the executive director said.

As schools across the U.S. start a new year, the subject of successful charter schools such as TMA should be as important a part of today’s debate about the future of our education system as Common Core.


'Exams put pressure on children – that is their virtue'

Those who think children should never be challenged by exams are the enemies of good education, writes Barnaby Lenon, former head at Harrow

This year, nearly one third of GCSE/IGCSE entries from pupils at independent schools achieved an A* grade, compared to 7 per cent nationally. Sixty-one per cent of entries from pupils at independent schools achieve an A* or A grade, compared to 21 per cent nationally.

Even in the north of England, where entries achieving the top grades have seen the biggest fall, independent schools continue to do well, with 56 per cent achieving the top grades of A* and A, against the 18 per cent recorded in national figures.

And independent schools continue to do well in the traditional subjects such as maths, sciences and modern languages with many of our pupils going on to study these at A-level and then university. With languages in decline nationally many universities are now dependent on independent school students for their survival.

Exams are an essential element of a child's education because of the tremendous value of committing knowledge and information to the long-term memory. For most children, carrying what they have learnt in school into adult life depends in large measure on them being forced to memorise it. A typical 16-year-old boy can reel off 100 or so words in French three months before he sits the GCSE. On the day of the exam that figure has grown to 400+ – all driven by fear of the exam.

Exams put pressure on children, and that is their great virtue. Girls are more likely to want to please the teacher and are therefore more motivated during the course. Boys do not especially want to please teachers – in my experience of teaching boys, 80 per cent are relatively idle during the term but most make a big effort preparing for exams.

So exams are the essential building block of motivation. Ask any teacher who has had to teach an unexamined course to 15-year-olds, as many schools used to do with religious studies. It was a hapless task and almost all schools now insist that pupils take the RS GCSE as a way of improving attitudes in lessons. Anyone who thinks that exams are a bad thing has never taught a class of teenage boys. Exams work because they make pupils work.

The age at which pupils are required to be in education or training has recently risen to 18 so why do we need exams for 16-year-olds at all? Because in the English system we typically drop down from 10 GCSE subjects to four A-levels at that age.

On average one of those A-levels is a subject not done at GCSE, so most pupils drop about seven subjects at the age of 16. It is vital that, having studied these seven subjects for up to 12 years, pupils be examined in all of them in order to consolidate what they know and measure their progress.

Exam results are the necessary qualification for moving to the next level. We do not want pupils embarking on A-levels unless they have a GCSE performance which suggests they might achieve something worthwhile. We do not want students embarking on a medical degree if they cannot get an A grade in chemistry – they would be too likely to fail.

The alternative to exams is continuous teacher assessment. In England in recent years we have experimented with teacher assessment and it has been disastrous. Many teachers hate it because they come under huge pressure to get good marks for all pupils (where do you think grade inflation came from?) and because these ‘controlled assessments’ have been found to be intensely dull. Instead of getting on and teaching a course as they would wish, the academic year becomes dominated by dreary teacher-assessed coursework.

GCSEs have been reformed and new syllabuses will be introduced this September. January exams and resits have been scrapped, so halving the number of exams for many students. Exam ‘modules’ are dead. Grade inflation is being turned back. New syllabuses are being produced in every school subject to make them more relevant and demanding, bringing our courses up to the level of the best in the world. More stretching questions are being introduced, there will be less teaching-to-the-test, coursework will only be allowed when it is obviously better than a written exam as a way of measuring a child’s knowledge and ability.

GCSEs are designed to be taken by the full ability range so a small number of the questions have to be easy. Journalists pluck out those easy questions and poke fun at them – but those easy questions make up five per cent of the paper.

Pupils in successful countries take exams. They force children to place the knowledge they have been presented with into the memory. Once in the memory new things start to happen in the brain – like analytical thinking and the creation of links between different bits of knowledge. Educated people know things and the reason they know things is not simply because ‘they have been taught it’. Far too many children are taught things but know nothing. The essential step in the process is commitment to memory.

Of course exams cause anxiety and distress but those who think children should never be challenged in this way are the enemies of good education. Teenagers, and especially boys, have to be driven to succeed. Exams are that driver.


The founding of the modern research university

A fascinating new book explores the Kantian origins of the modern university

Towards the end of "Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Modern Research University", Chad Wellmon writes:

‘The sometimes nervous, sometimes euphoric debate about MOOCs [massive open online courses] crystallised our confusions about the place of the university and exposed our anxieties about what constitutes authoritative knowledge in a digital age.  As our institutions and digital technologies change so quickly, the capacity of the research university to fulfil its historical purpose – to generate and transmit authoritative knowledge by forming people in the practice of science – has been cast into doubt.’

It is the contention of Wellmon, associate professor of German Studies at the University of Virginia, that contemporary debates around the rise of new media technology and education, with the discussion of MOOCs a prime example, are underpinned by an anxiety about who or what has the authority to preserve and transmit knowledge. This is also an anxiety about the relationship of younger generations to the world of existing knowledge.

Wellmon distinguishes the modern research university, as a humanist institution that inducts students into a cultural tradition, from the medieval educational institution, which developed theologians and priests. As Wellmon sees it, the modern research university, as it emerged in Germany during the early nineteenth century, has produced both disciplinary knowledge and disciplinary scholars. Wellmon is interested in how this type of institution came to be a centre of epistemic authority, and the process by which it did this, through its devotion to wissenschaft (science or knowledge in general).

In the main, Organizing Enlightenment offers up a fascinating story about books, cultural fears and moments where individuals have made great intellectual leaps that have not only contributed to our common cultural and intellectual progress, but have also resolved particular epistemic anxieties – moments, that is, when the status of existing knowledge was in doubt. Wellmon locates the first moment of epistemic anxiety at some point during the late sixteenth century, when there was a growth in trade and markets and an increasing interest in knowledge about the natural world.  The consequent expansion of knowledge resulted in a proliferation of bibliographies, lexicons and encyclopaedias. But at some point, the sheer amount of these ‘technologies of print’ threatened to fragment the unity of knowledge.

Unfortunately, Wellmon’s account of this, and other important cultural developments, is unsatisfying. He squeezes several complex objective and subjective factors into one simple explanation involving changes in ‘technologies of print and/or information’. True, he does expand on this phrase, citing ‘different forms of media, institutions… and practices of the self and how they shape each other’, but this is not very helpful.

For example, his account of the first moment of epistemic anxiety in the late sixteenth century seriously underestimates the significance of the reintroduction of Ancient Greek and Latin texts into medieval scholarship. Aristotle’s early classifications of natural phenomena were admired and considered authoritative by some scholars. But Aristotle’s claim that man had always existed sat uneasily with the idea that man had been made by God at a particular moment in time. Much subsequent medieval scholarship was in large part aimed at limiting possible threats to Christian doctrine posed by Ancient Greek and Latin texts. This involved the study, and writing, of a huge range of works. The result, noted by Wellmon, was an increasing number of bibliographies, lexicons and encyclopaedias. But these were produced as much by monastic scholars pursuing moral and intellectual interests as by the existence of trade or markets per se.

During the sixteenth century, the tension between what Wellmon calls an ‘information overload’ and prevailing beliefs and customs became untenable, and the epistemic authority of existing religious doctrine and scripture weakened. In these conditions of epistemic anxiety, the work of Francis Bacon and others produced a new source of epistemic authority – science. The terms ‘science’ and ‘scientific’ at this point in history did not refer to the narrowly technical idea of science that we have today. It was a full-blooded, humanist endeavour to organise and produce new knowledge about the world, based upon observation and empirical methods. For example, Bacon aimed to:

"[C]ollect out of the records of all time what particular kinds of arts and learning have flourished in what ages and regions of the world… The occasion and origin of the invention of each art, the manner and system of transmission, and the place and order of study and practice… the principal controversies in which learned men have been engaged… in a word everything which relates to the state of learning."

Although the aim of Bacon and others was to benefit humanity with new practical knowledge, this was still understood within religious terms. For example, Bacon wanted man to control nature not to get one up on God, but to return humanity to a state of prelapsarian unity.

The various ways of producing and interpreting knowledge during Bacon’s time didn’t just generate material benefits; they also created a sphere of freedom. Texts, once in the market and out of monasteries, were open to a wider range of interpretations. With more books in circulation than ever before, the ‘free selection and judgement’ of texts, to quote sixteenth-century scholar Conrad Gesner, was left to readers. This spirit of freedom, combined with systematic learning, formed the wellspring for the early Enlightenment, epitomised by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert’s humanistic 20-year-long enterprise, the Encyclopédie. Unlike earlier encyclopaedias, which had been extensive collections of disparate information, Diderot’s version hoped to find ‘the general principles that form the basis of each science and each art, liberal or mechanical, and the most essential facts that make up the body and substance of each’.

It was an ambitious endeavour, the pursuit of which eventually led to another moment of ‘information overload’, and a failure to find the much-hoped-for general principles of knowledge. Once again, conditions of epistemic anxiety also gave rise to new solutions, this time in the form of Immanuel Kant’s ‘critical technology’. Referring mainly to the Critique of Pure Reason, published in 1781, Wellmon explains that in trying to address the problem of growing epistemic confusion and anxiety, Kant decisively limited knowledge to the phenomenological realm and located its unifying principle within human reason – a universal faculty of which each individual possesses. He thus laid the intellectual basis for a new form of knowledge, as well as a ‘technology’ of knowledge production – the modern research university. For Wellmon, Kant’s breakthrough was to ground the authority of knowledge in human reason, rather than in something external to humans. This is an exemplary achievement, a crowning glory of Enlightenment humanism.

Kant’s ideas influenced his philosophical peers like Friedrich Schelling and Johann Fichte, and were taken up by Wilhelm von Humboldt, who played a significant role in Prussian culture and public education in the early nineteenth century. Humboldt shaped the institutional practices and ethos at the University of Berlin and others along Kantian lines. Humboldt’s idea of the university exemplified the modern research university, an institution dedicated to producing both disciplinary knowledge and the disciplinary scholar. Epistemic authority was to be located in the institution of the university, and, to maintain this authority, universities required academic freedom. Humboldt argued that the state’s duty was to provide financial and administrative support, but to stay out of knowledge production itself. Wellmon concludes:

‘The research university became a vital institution of modernity not because it had a monopoly on the materials and technologies of knowledge, but because it provided ethical and normative resources for making sense of them. This was its primary purpose in the past. And we would do well to let it guide us into the future.’

Organizing Enlightenment is perhaps more interesting than compelling, but it’s central message is vital: knowledge is not information, and the way it is produced is not just an epistemological question – it is also a moral and ethical one.


No comments: