Sunday, November 12, 2006

Public schools: Spending money in all the wrong places

In school reform, the chasm between establishment advice and what the data show keeps on growing. In exchange for a "Performance Promise," voters approved a $20 million bond issue for Jefferson County Public Schools to be used on projects that, according to the District's web site, "have been proven to increase student achievement - smaller classes, classroom coaches, staff development, extended learning and individualized attention."

But contrary to Jeffco's claims, reducing teacher workloads does not improve student achievement. Between 1950 and 1994, the pupil-teacher ratio in American schools fell by 35%. Student achievement deteriorated. The achievement decline is not explained by changes in family structure, poverty, special education, or increasing numbers of immigrants. Some studies suggest that class size reductions may result in small achievement gains in special situations. In general, however, the more thorough the study, the more likely it is to find that class size reductions produce no gains in student achievement.

Project STAR, which followed Tennessee kindergartners assigned to classes of different sizes through high school, is often cited as proof that small classes raise achievement. A re-analysis of the data by Princeton professor Alan Krueger suggests that any class size effect was limited to kindergarten and first grade. Unfortunately, the quality of the underlying data is suspect. More than 50% of the children in the initial kindergarten classes had dropped out of the experiment by the end of the first 4 years. Project Star also did not control for variations in teacher quality. With the exception of Professor Krueger, no outsider has been allowed to examine the project data.

Teacher quality, not class size, is what school districts should improve. Especially teacher quality defined in terms of increases in student performance, rather than by years of teacher education or experience. In one large city school district, good teachers have raised student performance by 1.5 grade equivalents in a single academic year. (Bad teachers got only .5 of a grade equivalent.) At this performance level, 5 excellent teachers in a row would erase the standard performance level difference between children from high and low-income families: excellence in teaching can overcome less fortunate family circumstances.

Jefferson County Public School officials would say that the Performance Promise addressed teacher quality by funding staff development. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the kind of training endorsed by Schools of Education, public school districts, and teachers' unions, does anything to improve student achievement. According to the Jefferson County Public Schools web site, staff development courses include such gems as "Making Sense of Algebra, Grades K-2? and "Gender Equity in the Mathematics Classroom 4-8." Given that second graders ought to be mastering their multiplication tables, and that gender studies have never helped anyone master fractions or decimal equivalents, Jeffco money would be better spent on bonuses to teachers with high verbal abilities and deep knowledge of the academic subject they teach. These attributes, not certification, master's degrees, or continuing education in education, best predict individual teacher productivity. The best predictors of teacher productivity are good communication skills and strong subject matter knowledge.

Another thing that improves student achievement is school choice. Independent, private and charter schools are less likely to hire certified teachers than the public school system and more likely to hire teachers from high quality colleges and universities who are first of all knowledgeable in the subjects they teach. They may work them harder, reward the good teachers, and get rid of the bad. They pay salaries that reflect market conditions. Because public schools appear to respond to surprisingly small competitive threats by raising student achievement, public schools in districts pressured by traditional forms of school choice-open enrollment policies, private and charter schools-have higher student achievement. According to Harvard professor Caroline M. Hoxby, "if all schools in the United States experienced high levels of the traditional forms of choice, school productivity [as measured by student achievement] might be as much as 28 percent higher than it is today."

Jefferson County Public School officials say that they are facing budget cuts of $17 to $20 million. In true dot com style, they anticipated revenues from the Performance Promise in their operating budget. The student achievement failure requires immediate cuts of $3.5 million. Taking advantage of the budget cuts as an excuse to limit competition, school officials say they are considering limiting or suspending new charter school applications. That this may lower student achievement is just too bad. "Tough budgets, call for tough measures," they say. The teachers, and their union, will do just fine. A 2002 story in The Rocky Mountain News reports that in the next school year the Jefferson County Public Schools expect $11.3 million in new revenues from the state, Amendment 23, and an enrollment decline. Projected new costs, which far outstrip the revenues, include $3.4 million for utility costs and $1 million for a new school. The rest, $26.5 million, is for cost of living increases, staff "experience" increases, and employee benefits.



Teaching is fast becoming an all-female profession with women outnumbering men in the classroom as much as 13 to one, dramatic new figures revealed today. The number of male teachers has plummeted to an all-time low, threatening a classroom discipline crisis as a generation of boys misses out on authority role models. In parts of the country worst-hit by the male recruitment slump, fewer than 10 per cent of primary teachers are men. In Reading, just 38 primary teachers are male compared with 478 women.

But the decline has been particularly marked in secondary schools, fuelling fears of rising misbehaviour among disaffected teenage boys whose lives lack male authority figures. Analysts believe male teachers are "fast becoming an endangered species" as salaries rise more quickly for other graduate jobs, especially high-flying City roles which traditionally attract men. There are also fears men are being scared away by the fear of false child abuse allegations while others are thought to be put off by the absence of male companionship in primary schools.

It means that in the space of a generation, the proportion of secondary school male teachers has dropped from 55 per cent to 41 per cent. Across all state schools, just a quarter of teachers are men. The shortage is most severe in the commuter belt surrounding London where soaring house prices and high cost of living renders teaching merely the 'second income' for many couples, according to an analysis conducted for the relaunch issue of the Times Educational Supplement. Local authority areas with the fewest male teachers include Reading, Sutton, Windsor and Maidenhead, Surrey, Wokingham, Richmond-upon-Thames, Harrow, Camden and Bracknell Forest.

Teachers are said to be 'mostly women whose husbands or partners have good jobs'. The highest concentrations of male teachers are found in lower-cost areas such as Cornwall, Devon, Norfolk, North East Lincolnshire and Hull.

The findings sparked calls last night for urgent measures to make teaching more attractive, especially in the South East. The imposition this September of 3,000 pounds-a-year top-up fees on university courses is thought to have particularly deterred male applicants. Multi-million pound Government advertising campaigns aimed at tempting more men into teaching are thought to have mainly benefited fee-paying schools, where salaries tend to be higher, it emerged.

Experts are concerned the lack of male role models in the classroom could have serious implications for boys' performance in exams. It is thought to be one of the key reasons why boys now lag behind girls in every major school examination. Analysts from the research firm Education Data Surveys said the trend warranted national debate. Professor John Howson, EDS director and visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University, said: "We've all known it's been like this in primaries. When you add in all the classroom assistants, the dinner ladies and the office staff, probably only about one per cent of the primary workforce in somewhere like Reading is male. "We've rather accepted it. But do we want secondary schools to go the same way?" Since men are more likely to become heads and deputies, who are registered as teachers but often do not have active teaching duties, the number of male teachers actually in the classroom is even smaller.

Professor Howson continued: "In the classroom, the division is even more stark. It is perfectly possible for a child to go through their whole education and be taught entirely by women. That may not necessarily be a bad thing, but it is an issue that society has to have a debate about. "Clearly some schools where all the teachers are women are functioning very well but there may be groups, particularly the older age group of pupils, for whom having some more male role models around would be helpful in making them better operating schools."

The Training and Development Agency, the teacher training body, said male teachers were "important". A spokeswoman said: "Different people bring different qualities to the classroom. It is important that children are exposed to a teaching force which is representative of society." But the agency is concerned men still have "misconceptions" about teaching such as the likely salaries they can earn. Professor Howson said a senior teacher leading a large secondary school department could command more than 50,000 pounds-a-year in London, and 46,000 outside.


Education failure: Kids don't know even the basics

Jokes about softening of education standards would be funnier if they weren't so true, writes Shelley Gare from Australia

A Tasmanian reader writes to a newspaper column, describing what happened when her husband tried to hire a car at Sydney airport. Given his credit card and driver's licence, the clerk punched several computer keys fruitlessly before asking helplessly: "Is Tasmania in New Zealand?" A university lecturer discovers that of the 33 students in her class, not one has heard of Chairman Mao. What's more, they get irritated when she expresses astonishment. "How would we know that unless we'd studied Chinese history?" they demand of her.

The lack of general knowledge among so many of us is now so mind-bogglingly obvious that it has become part of the culture to swap funny stories. But this is an ignorance that has been learned. And too many of us stood by and let it happen. The crisis is not confined to Australia. When British playwright Alan Bennett was rehearsing his young actors for his recent play The History Boys, about a government grammar school in the 1980s, he told journalist James Button he discovered they had no idea who the poets A.E. Housman and W.H. Auden were. Later, he realised one of the actors didn't know what a plural was.

The trouble, as always with airheads, is that we don't take their nonsense seriously at first and then it's too late. Who would have believed 20 years ago, that one day we might seriously debate whether correct spelling really mattered? Our thinking processes have been addled by postmodernism, with its insistence that nothing is better than anything else.

What the Right and its belief in the free market have done to our value systems in the past 30 years, insisting money is the be-all and end-all, the Left merrily - or, playfully, as the postmodern crowd may prefer to say - has done with knowledge, learning and education at the same time. Our value and belief systems have been turned upside down.

The circuitous theories of French philosophers Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes arrived on our shores in the '70s and '80s to be widely misunderstood and misinterpreted. Soon they were being applied in even more half-baked form to teacher education and then to teaching in schools. The effect on young brains has been roughly the same as what would happen to an assembly line of Rolls-Royces if you poured glue into all the door locks. Two generations of experimented-upon young Australians have emerged unable to read, write and think with the skill and clarity they should have been able to assume would be theirs.

Too often, under the postmodern influence, schooling has turned into a hatchery for baby airheads unable to think for themselves or communicate clearly. But as journalist and editor Luke Slattery has questioned in an essay on the all-encompassing belief in postmodernism and its theory: "How did a minor tradition within continental philosophy come to dominate, to the point where it would brook no dissent, in both teaching and research in the English-speaking humanities?"

Whatever the original worth and intention of the movement, postmodernism, with its insistence that there are no such things as objective truths, knowledge or values, gave licence to far too many to take the easy way out. A host of behaviours that generations had taken for granted as being normal and/or necessary - from swotting up French verbs, to slogging at understanding a poem, to receiving grades, to being ticked off for being lazy or careless - were suddenly on a verboten list because they interfered with our creativity, originality, freedom, happiness and rights. And particularly our self-esteem.

Funnily enough, the behaviours newly banned are the ones that also require rigour, resources and a sense of reality, all of which, in our new airheaded world, have become more and more difficult to find and muster. How convenient is that?

American academic Susan Ostrov Weisser, a professor of English, points out in an essay on college classroom culture, published in US journal Academe, that the study of literature increasingly comes down not to expertise and knowledge but to feeling. Instead of a student and teacher discussing, perhaps, the biographical, historical and social contexts in which Charlotte Bronte wrote, and researching the evidence, they talk about how the student reacts to the novel, what it personally does or does not mean to them. "No one can then agree or disagree with you because it's all about you," Weisser says.

Glyn Davis, vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, remarked recently that the term postmodernism is on its way to meaninglessness. Maybe, but postmodernism flushed through the system in the '80s and nothing will be quite the same again. People say political correctness is finished. That's not true either. Postmodernism and political correctness don't have to be in our faces any more: they are embedded in our culture.

An English professor recalls wistfully when his field was regarded as a discipline. Now, he says, just the word discipline is frowned on because it sounds too, well, disciplinarian. Disciplines have disappeared into a kind of "cultural stir-fry" so that department letterheads can list a range of studies. An English department probably won't be called English any more either, but some amalgam that makes you ponder just which bit of it would signal that if you drilled down in that spot, you might be lucky enough to find a palely loitering Keats.

There have been several attack dogs on the traditional notions of learning. Deconstructionism seeks to reveal the concepts and influences (patriarchal, racial, elitist) that may have led to the creation of a work so that less attention is paid to the piece - its effect, its beauty, its sweep, its passion, its ability to take us out of our own world - than to who created it and why. I've done my best with deconstructionism and, every time, I keep thinking that call-girl Mandy Rice-Davies said it better in 1963. Told that Lord Astor denied her allegations about sex at his racy house parties at his country estate, Cliveden, she defended herself cogently: "He would, wouldn't he."

Meanwhile, constructivism argues that learning is a journey and that education has to be done in the context of the student's experience, with the teacher a "co-explorer". Everything must relate back to the student. Everything must be relevant, a word that here has all the charm of a vice. The real message: don't aspire, think small. Let the child's existing knowledge be the yardstick of everything he or she is to be taught in future; and then, to top it off, like a monstrous shiny artificial cherry on a cake of fake cream and off-the-shelf sponge, let children be the judge of their own progress and let them be measured by their own ability.

Such theory is behind the much vaunted outcomes-based education that now flourishes in Australia and other "new" countries such as Canada, New Zealand, the US and South Africa. Not that it flourishes in France. There has been no deconstructionist or constructivist pawing over of the French school system. You can be sure that Jean-Louis in Lyons is getting his daily dose of maths, grammar and all the other basics. Trust the French to realise that postmodernism and all the other theories were never supposed to be taken so seriously that you'd apply them to your precious children.

Kevin Donnelly, a former secondary school teacher of English and history in Melbourne, who started his own company, Education Strategies, writes frequently on the iniquities of the modern education system. He escaped his working-class Broadmeadows background through education and says he'd still be there if he'd been subjected to going on a personally relevant journey at school. He was actively involved in the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association for 10 years but was appalled by the moves that brought in continuous assessment where, before, a child's marks had mostly been determined by a final exam. For him, the change was always going to favour kids in comfortable backgrounds who had parents who "could pay for a tutor or even do the kids' work themselves". Kids from poorer homes with less well-educated parents suffered.

In the mid-'80s, Donnelly saw what he believed was "the Left taking the 'long march' through the institutions", referring to a conscious effort on the part of people who were politically active on the Left to change society by changing the institutions of society, especially in education. Left, for Donnelly, in thiscontext, means not the Left of social concern, compassion and humanism but the radical, social-engineering Left. Reading, that skill that allows a human being to operate as a member of a civilised, democratic society, withequal ability to question and, even better, to imagine, became the first casualty.

Cognitive scientist Max Coltheart left Australia in 1969. By the time he returned, two decades later, the public education system had been turned on its head, the traditional methods of schooling that had worked for centuries had been virtually outlawed except in a band of select and selective schools, and university entrants were so ill-prepared it was not unusual for them to have to take courses in how to spell and write before they could start to study and prepare essays. He discovered that trainee teachers knew little about how to teach reading, writing and spelling. At first, he thought it was an aberration; then he realised that it had hardly been on their curriculum.

Worse, the educationists in charge, Coltheart says, were preaching something called the whole-word method, and that learning to read was the same as learning to speak. It came instinctively to children, they argued, and all teachers had to do was aid and abet the process, providing what they called a "reading rich" environment. There was no need to teach the alphabet or explore letter-sound relationships. It was a kind of natural magic, like little children unconsciously picking up foreign languages. Coltheart asks now in exasperation: "If everyone can learn to read naturally, why is most of the world illiterate? Learning to read is artificial. We have to be taught."

By April 2004, he had had enough. He and 20 other distinguished academics, researchers, psychologists, linguists and educators wrote to then federal minister for education Brendan Nelson stressing their concerns about the way reading was typically being taught in Australian schools: "The ability to read is a complex learned skill, which requires specific teaching." The education establishment retaliated, digging into a grab-bag of statistics that claimed to prove Australia has among the most literate children in the world, quoting results from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development program for international student assessment. But as The Australian Financial Review columnist Peter Ruehl pointed out acerbically, "PISA tends to be one of those New Age life skills tests, where students are not corrected for faulty grammar, spelling and punctuation. What are you going to do? On your job application at Merrill Lynch, write: 'Look how good I done on the PISA test'?"

Spelling, of course, is not supposed to matter any more, which is stiff cheese for those of us who can spell and who see in it the same sense of security that comes with, say, knowing that cars drive on roads, not pavements. Now, correct spelling is seen as something put on only for special occasions, like people wearing hats and gloves in the '50s. A NSW secondary school teacher, Ryszard Linkiewicz, wrote a piece in August 2005 for The Daily Telegraph: "The brutal fact is that the standards have been lowered to such an extent that children who, in former times, would have been regarded as sub-normal are now regarded as well within normal range. No longer are students penalised for errors in spelling and grammar. Any response, no matter how incoherent or insouciant, must get a mark." (Linkiewicz's piece proves that there are many teachers, usually older ones educated in more formal times, who are worried about what's happening, but there are penalties for speaking out and so most don't.)

Education was once felt to be a kind of "moral transaction" between parents and children. Educating by the late medieval period was supposed to be one of the duties of human beings. But what we're seeing now feels like a full-frontal attack on the notion of education. In 1979, American critic Christopher Lasch wrote in his book The Culture of Narcissism, "In the name of egalitarianism, they preserve the most insidious form of elitism, which in one guise or another holds the masses incapable of intellectual exertion."

At least the letter from Coltheart and his colleagues to Nelson helped towards the national inquiry into teaching literacy. The education minister announced its findings on December 8, 2005, and recommended the use of a phonics-based teaching method for reading. As Coltheart pointed out on an ABC Life Matters program in late August 2005, the phonics method where children are taught to associate sounds with letters has been working very well since 1570.

The people who now steer education often use the phrase rote learning disparagingly in articles and commentary when they're talking about the past. There is much hoo-ha, for instance, about why students should be looking at Shakespeare not through his language but via the messages he sends about race, gender and so on. In an opinion piece for a Sydney newspaper, Melina Marchetta, a teacher and the author of Looking for Alibrandi, wrote that when students have "meaningful debate on issues of inequity based on race, class and gender", they are acquiring valuable skills "of comprehension, evaluation and synthesis in order to participate meaningfully in an increasingly complex world".

The Sisters of Mercy who took me through Othello and The Merchant of Venice back in the '60s could never have expressed it quite like that. But while we studied and appreciated Shakespeare in the traditional way, for his language and vision and plotting, we too considered the place of Othello the Moor in a white society, Portia, a woman, playing lawyer and the depiction of Shylock, the Jewish money-lender. If the nuns at a not particularly prominent convent school in Perth were broadminded enough to discuss such issues in 1968, I think we can be assured that the present crop of teachers did not invent this particular wheel.

The truth is that too much of today's debates is airheaded tosh that covers up the fact kids are not getting the teaching and acquiring the knowledge they deserve. Worse, Donnelly believes that what we have seen so far is only the beginning, especially now that the teachers going through training grew up in this theory-driven system. He says, "At least now I think it's beginning to change because it's out there in the public arena." In the meantime, if you'd like your child to get a good education, there's always France.



For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

The NEA and similar unions worldwide believe that children should be thoroughly indoctrinated with Green/Left, feminist/homosexual ideology but the "3 R's" are something that kids should just be allowed to "discover"

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