Wednesday, December 11, 2019

‘We’re proof old-school teaching works’, says British top teacher

If Australia can return to traditionalist teaching, with the teacher leading from the front of the classroom, in a condensed curriculum so there is depth of learning over breadth, education will be transformed.

That’s the vision of the principal of one of Britain’s most successful schools. Katharine Birbalsingh co-founded and heads Michaela School in Wembley, London and in just five years has produced academic results so startling she believes it is part of an education revolution.

This state-funded school prides itself on traditional teaching, eschewing trendy progressive child-based learning, and demanding students take individual responsibility for their actions. It is touted as Britain’s strictest school.

The result is 700 smiling, resilient and immaculately mannered pupils, all the more remarkable for the school’s poor socio-economic catchment area where boys from other schools will arrive at the school gates wearing masks and armed with knives to fight.

“A mistake people make thinking about schools that have a high level of discipline and expect a lot of the children, they expect they are being whipped and teachers are angry and mean, and forced to work, when the reality is if you divide learning by subjects — Eng­lish, maths and science — and the teachers teach … the children are incredibly happy and want to learn,’’ Ms Birbalsingh said.

In this year’s GCSEs, 54 per cent of all grades at Michaela School were level 7 or above, equivalent of A and A+, compared with the national average of 22 per cent. At the highest grades, 18 per cent were level 9s, compared with 4.5 per cent nationally. In maths alone 25 per cent of grades were level 9, an astounding result.

Why are these children performing four times better than the rest of the nation, even though they follow the same national curriculum? “We give them hope for a different type of future by actually teaching them,’’ Ms Birbal­singh said, stressing that teacher-led teaching and strong behavioural policies stand her school apart from others.

There is a consistent, school-wide policy about behaviour and homework. The school motto is Work Hard, Be Kind. Students move between classes in single file; there is a strict emphasis on respect, gratitude and kindness. Mobile phones are banned.

The Weekend Australian ­observed students having hot lunches in small “family groups’’ discussing NATO’s concept of countries supporting each other, and talking about which people are key supporters in their lives. Each student also has a specific task: get the hot bowls of food, pour the water, clear the plates. It’s a routine that ensures no bullying.

“The business of blaming the outside at the expense of taking personal responsibility is, I think, a part of the reason children fail in later life,’’ Ms Birbalsingh said.

“Adults who blame others and don’t take personal responsibility are unable to change their lives for the better. It is best to get children into the mindset. It is not their fault they are from poor homes and their dad is an alcoholic. But they are responsible for themselves. Life will throw all sorts of obstacles at you and life will be unfair. You need to make the most of your situation no matter how bad it is and however unfair it is ­because otherwise that’s your life gone. You only get one chance.’’

She added that “progressive” teaching methods favoured in Australia waste time because children have to guess answers, and teachers are dealing with poor behaviour because children who don’t come from homes with the information misbehave and “it all falls apart’’. Her focus on teachers standing at the front and imparting knowledge is considered “old-school’’ in many quarters, but Ms Birbalsingh tells detractors, “come to my school and observe’’.

“We teach English, maths, science, history, religion and French: we want them to know those subjects well. English, maths and science get more time and we don’t have any subjects once a week. Music and art is twice a week … ­because relationships between teacher and child are important.’’

Ms Birbalsingh believes students in Australia, as well as Scotland and Finland, have suffered declining standards because of teacher training in progressive learning with an emphasis on child-initiated learning. She said many schools and teachers think because progressive methods aren’t working they make the mistake of even more progressive methods, when they should adopt a traditional approach.


The Overhyped College Dropout ‘Scandal’

About 40 percent of Americans who enroll in college drop out before earning a certificate or degree. A high percentage of those who drop out are from poor families; they attended K-12 schools where academic standards were low and students who really tried to learn faced peer rejection for “acting white.” Still, some graduate and get into college. Then what?

In The College Dropout Scandal, author David Kirp, an emeritus professor of public policy in the University of California-Berkeley’s Goldman School, argues that what happens to those students should be regarded as a national scandal because the colleges that enrolled them often fail to get them “across the finish line” to their diplomas.

And because the dropouts are disproportionately poor and minority, our higher education system is increasing the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Kirp, therefore, believes that our higher education system is not only letting down students but also letting down the entire country.

Professor Kirp, it must be noted, is a political activist who looks at education policy through “progressive” lenses. He served on President Obama’s transition team and helped draft the administration’s initiatives. In his first address to Congress in 2009, Obama set forth a goal of raising America’s “output” of college graduates so that we’d lead the world in this statistic. Kirp and the former president both regard college completion as essential to individual success.

Those who do graduate, he maintains, will earn far more over their working lives than those who don’t —he hauls out that deceptive “additional million dollars” figure to exaggerate the benefits of getting the degree. Even if it’s true that, on average, individuals who have college degrees earn a million dollars more, it does not follow that all or even a few of the dropouts would enjoy such financial success if they earned their credentials.

In fact, it’s clear that many graduates of four-year colleges don’t even earn as much as many high school graduates do, and then struggle to pay back their college loans. (See, for example, my article on a paper that inadvertently shows how untrue the “college degrees ensure success” mantra is.)

That’s not to say that some people aren’t better off with a four-year degree or at least a community college certificate, but we shouldn’t assume that earning a postsecondary credential would be a game-changing accomplishment for most or all of those who now drop out.

On the other hand, leaving college without a credential isn’t necessarily a tragedy that consigns the student to a low-income life of drudgery. In a recent article, the Martin Center’s Shannon Watkins looked into the belief that community college students who leave school without receiving a credential have wasted their time.

She found that University of Michigan professor Peter Bahr’s research shows that a substantial percentage of community college “dropouts” chose to leave school because they had accomplished the learning they wanted. It makes far more sense for people to go to college to fill their perceived skill and knowledge gaps than to get a credential for completing some formal educational program.

Kirp’s error is in thinking that leaving college is almost always a disaster, while staying in college just to get a degree is necessarily beneficial. His goal of maximizing the number of graduates creates the appearance of national gain in terms of educational attainment.

That gain, however, is largely an illusion: Many of the students will be worse off for having spent too much time and money on unnecessary schooling.

In his zeal to end the “scandal,” Kirp overlooks nearly all of the critics of the “Let’s Get as Many Americans Through College as Possible” movement, such as Charles Murray, Richard Vedder, Jackson Toby, Bryan Caplan, and Alison Wolf.

The only critical book that Kirp does mention is Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa—but in a strange way.  Arum and Roksa found that a high percentage of college students make little or no progress intellectually during their years in school. But rather than concluding that many students just aren’t interested in college studies, Kirp blames the schools. That they allow this lack of learning to continue shows, he argues, that they don’t really care about their students.

I can’t agree. Our colleges and universities provide an environment in which any student can learn a great deal if he wants to, but which also allows students with minimal academic preparation and interest to coast along to their credentials.  There are a few schools with such high standards that each student must make steady learning gains or flunk out (Cal Tech, for instance), but the vast majority have decided to make peace with the fact that a high percentage of students entering college do not want a rigorous education.

There is the root of our educational problem. From kindergarten through high school, a high percentage of young Americans develop little love of learning, but instead come to regard school as just something to endure. Most expect good grades for little work. Professor David Labaree nailed the truth in his book How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning when he explained that far too many American students only want educational credentials for the least amount of effort.

Montana State English professor Paul Trout made that same point in his essay “Disengaged Students and the Decline of Academic Standards,” writing,

“Of course, there have always been students who hated studying and were bored in class. What has changed is that more and more of them feel that way. Judging from recent works examining this emergent problem, that number has reached some sort of critical mass at the primary, secondary, and now college levels.”

The educational theory that students must be kept happy and feeling good about themselves has led to hordes of students who’ve gone through school without learning much and thinking that every educational level should place a light burden on their time and fun.

Perhaps it’s understandable that a grad school professor at an elite public university would have a naïve view of students who drop out of college. Not having actually had disengaged students, Kirp takes an idealistic view of dropouts—they’re hard-working “strivers” who can accomplish almost anything, provided that their schools make them feel they “belong” and clear away all unnecessary obstacles to their success.

The first story in the book illustrates the way Kirp and his “completion” allies look at students. A black student had enrolled at the University of Texas, a “rock star” kid with an SAT score of 1350 to 1400. The university put him in a summer program before his freshman year so he could get a head start on his engineering degree.

Sadly, he failed his first exam in calculus and immediately afterward his family overreacted by pulling him out of school. What happened? The night before the exam, his girlfriend had broken up with him and he couldn’t concentrate. The UT official who spoke with Kirp blames the university for not letting him know that he could have come to them, explained the situation, and gotten permission to take the test another time.

In that instance, giving the student leniency would have been perfectly sensible. The trouble is that colleges can’t have policies just for serious, “rock star” students. If your announced policy is that you’ll bend over backward for students who encounter any obstacles, the result will be that many of the students who aren’t serious will take advantage. While an occasional “rock star” student might be saved (and we don’t find out what happened to the guy who left UT; he probably went to another school and is doing fine), coddling students will mostly enable slackers to coast along. They’re very good at inventing excuses.

Nevertheless, Kirp does advance some good reform ideas. Colleges do make it needlessly difficult for students to transfer, especially from community colleges to four-year institutions. The traditional curriculum (especially mathematics) is too daunting for many students who will never need (and often haven’t yet mastered) more than arithmetic. “Flipped classrooms” are probably a big improvement over traditional lecture courses. And Kirp writes convincingly about new approaches to intake and transition that have been implemented at schools like Georgia State and the combination of Valencia College (a two-year school) and the University of Central Florida.

Our author is correct that colleges can do much to clear minefields that can prevent students from graduating. Unfortunately, he misses the bigger picture. For most of the dropouts, as well as many of those who manage to get their credentials, the thing they desperately need is the intervention of a mentor who will convince them that, with knowledge, they can become successful, self-reliant people. They need someone like Jaime Escalante.

Escalante was the immigrant math teacher who famously took students from one of the worst schools in Los Angeles and turned them into calculus whizzes. (Here is an excellent story about him, written by Jay Mathews after Escalante died in 2010.) The students Kirp is so rightly concerned about don’t need college credentials, which don’t ensure success (a point Arum and Roksa drive home in their follow-up book Aspiring Adults Adrift), but instead need teachers who will convince them that knowledge is the path to success.

If that breakthrough occurs in college, fine, but it would be better if it happened much earlier. Given the inertia within higher education (particularly the requirement that faculty members must have proper terminal degrees), I doubt that Kirp’s ideas will find much traction there.

Finally, let’s keep in mind that the more graduates we have, the harder it becomes for non-credentialed people to get jobs they could do. America suffers from a terrible case of credential inflation, with employers now demanding that applicants have college degrees to be considered for entry-level jobs that used to be done by people with a high school education, or less.

That’s the real scandal—that we have oversold higher education to the point where the lack of a degree disqualifies “the uneducated” from a wide array of jobs. Pushing the college completion agenda actually makes that worse.


Australia: Students are the biggest losers as self-interested academics and politicians tinker with the curriculum

Fake history being taught in the schools.  Bruce Pascoe is just a fantasist

Chris Mitchell

Two stories last week show why education journalism informed by the interests of students rather than the self-interest of politicians or teachers is critical.

A story on Wednesday highlighted again the poor performance of Australian school students in international testing. It came in the middle of a heated media debate about Bruce Pascoe's book "Dark Emu", now being studied in schools despite its contentious thesis and disputes about the author's aboriginality.

Senior members of all three tribes Pascoe claims he is descended from deny he is in any way linked to them. Several Aboriginal leaders reject the book's descriptions of an Aboriginal farm
culture and villages of up to 1000 people in stone huts before white settlement

The Saturday Paper's Rick Morton countered with an unnamed Aboriginal source last Saturday week defending Pascoe and his claims.

It's a great media stoush but surely the book's claims and Pascoe's identity need to be resolved for it to be suitable for school geography lessons. The academic left regularly cites cultural appropriation to de-platform authors, so Pascoe certainly needed Aboriginal identity to ensure the success of a book that has already sold 100,000 copies.

Yet a detailed 5500-word genealogical study by Perth writer Jan Campbell with 75 original documents suggests Pascoe's ancestors are English. A fact check by a professional genealogist is available on the website Australian History — Truth Matters. I have no problem with reconsidering Aboriginal life before European settlement. Much modern imagery about that life is based on our understanding of desert tribes rather than, for example, the Brewarrina, NSW, tribes who used fish traps or northern saltwater people with abundant sources of food.

Pascoe's work has not sprung from an intellectual vacuum. The Conversation website in June 2018 traced the many books that have reconsidered pre-settlement agricultural lifestyles going back to the work of Barbara York Main and W.K. Hancock in the 1970s, Eric Rolls in the 80s and Tim Flannery's The Future Eaters in 1994.

Particularly influential was Bill Grammage's The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia in 2012. This paper reported in May that Pascoe admits he borrowed heavily from Rupert Gerritsen's 2008 book Australia and the Origins of Agriculture. Gerritsen's brother Rolf, a professor of indigenous policy studies at Charles Darwin University, says "90 per cent of Bruce's book is taken from my brother's work". Rupert, convicted over an attempted terrorist bombing in Perth in 1972, died in 2013 without academic success.

Aboriginal women Josephine Cashman and Jacinta Price raised crucial cultural issues when they spoke on the Bolt Report in separate interviews about the eurocentricity of Pascoe's claims. Both women are proud of their hunter gatherer ancestry and dislike attempts to paint their forebears as farmers in the European mould. As Price said last Wednesday, if any of Pascoe's theories were true they would be referenced in some of the thousands of Dreaming stories that have kept Aboriginal people safely on this land since long before agriculture in Europe.

This is a perfectly legitimate field of academic and media dis-cussion but why teach it as fact to schoolchildren? It sounds like curriculum activism to me. The release last week of the latest round of PISA tests comparing results from students in 79 countries in reading, maths and science showed Australia had slipped again. As usual the educational left reduced the results to grumbles about government funding, teacher pay and class sizes. Labor tried to maintain the fiction the Coalition has cut education spending, when it is up tens of billions in real terms over a decade.

The real problems are the curriculum, the teachers, the students and their parents. The introduction of national requirements for teachers to report on indigenous, sustainability and Asian engagement criteria across the national curriculum has only worsened problems of curriculum clutter.

Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson has shown another way with his support for direct instruction. His Hope Vale school on Cape York shows what can be achieved by committed teachers, even in an underprivileged area where many parents cannot read or write and where English may not be the first language. Here teachers stand in front of class and drill spelling, sentence construction and times tables into children so that this knowledge has what education academic Kevin Donnelly calls "automaticity".

Children are made to pronounce syllables and sound out words as they begin to read. The whole language reading method is rejected in favour of the phonics approach that has worked since reading started. Modern ideas of child-centred learning have no place here. The teacher is unambiguously in charge.

National education correspondent Rebecca Urban made a similar point last Wednesday. She quoted OECD education director Andreas Schleicher praising an English school "vilified for being the strictest in England". After visiting Michaela Community School in northwest London Schleicher said positive discipline and direct instruction were "creating happy and confident pupils with outstanding outcomes".

How many modern city homes are like those of Hope Vale if we are honest? How many middle-dass capital city parents use an iPad loaded with cartoons as a child minder rather than read to their kids before bed time? How many children ever see their own parents reading a book?

Teachers complain that too many students come to school exhausted after too much time on devices. Pasi Stahlberg, Finnish professor of education at the University of NSW, wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald last Thursday that even Finland, the poster child of educational standards, was slipping in PISA rankings because young Finns were spending too much time on devices and getting too little sleep.

On the role of teacher training, Sydney University vice-chancellor Michael Spence gave the game away in 2012 saying on ABC Q&A, "(we know) that nobody is ready as a professional at the point at which they leave university ... so a pro-fession has to take a certain amount of responsibility for on-the-job training. (Our responsibility) is about teaching critical thinking." This is unlike the teachers colleges of the past that turned out teachers equipped to stand in front of 30 children.

The government should consider reversing the changes of Keating era education minister John Dawkins in 1987 and recreate the binary system of colleges of advanced education, including teachers colleges, outside the university sector. This paper at the time predicted the change would harm teaching and it has.

Governments should ensure we no longer accept teachers with ATARs below 50, and in some cases as low as 20, if we want to emulate the education culture that makes students thrive in Singapore and Shanghai. Most of all education bureaucrats wanting to drive political change — such as the way we think of Aboriginal life before colonisation — need to be purged.

We need equality of opportunity rather than the left's equality of outcomes. Educators who think Google and a calculator make traditional education obsolete need to get out of the way.

From "The Australian" of December 9, 2019

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