Saturday, February 07, 2009

It's time to end busing in Boston

WE MUST end school busing as we have known it. Parents want high-quality schools in their neighborhoods. The mayor's School Assignment Task Force that I co-chaired several years ago held dozens of meetings where parents in every neighborhood said they would prefer to send their children to quality schools near their homes. Some lamented the lack of appropriate facilities in their communities, understanding that it would take time to reestablish a comprehensive network of facilities and programs. All indicated that sending their children across the city diminished their ability to engage with teachers and learning; they preferred more involvement with their children's education.

We can no longer afford to spend $72 million a year to bus children across Boston to schools that are not demonstrably better than schools near their homes. About $32 million will still be required to transport children with special needs. The other $40 million is a vestige of the 1970s court mandate that Boston redress decades of racial discrimination in its schools. Busing students from one neighborhood to another does nothing to change the racial, cultural, and caste demographics of classrooms, while devouring financial resources that could be better spent on teaching and learning. That $40 million would better prepare students for success in college and would support arts, music, technology, and physical education instruction.

The city's demographics have changed. In the 1970s, Boston was largely a "bicultural" city with a "white" majority and a significantly smaller "black" minority. Federal court cases indicated that financial and facility allocations clearly favored the white majority. The current student population is "majority minority." Boston today is a multicultural city as multifaceted Asian, African, Latino, and other immigrant communities contribute to the city's rich diversity. Two-way adversarial dialogue has been replaced by nuanced conversations about how to improve learning for more diverse families than lived in Boston three decades ago. Busing does not address the complexities of strengthening urban education for all our varied residents.

Little positive learning occurs on a bus, and reducing busing can increase the time students can learn in classrooms. Many buses run on routes and schedules that have not been modified in two decades, sending half-empty buses to schools locked into inflexible starting times. As we transition to less bus dependency, the application of Fed-X or UPS delivery strategies could reduce costs and significantly improve scheduling efficiency.

Choices already exist in Boston's schools. About a quarter of Boston's parents still opt out of traditional public schools by sending their children to charter, pilot, parochial, or METCO schools. Many parents voluntarily transport their children to these alternatives. Bus-dependency to achieve school choice is now perceived as less desirable than in the past.

Emotion has drained out of the busing argument. Eighty percent of Boston's residents did not live here during the 1970s. Boston's new melange of residents carries little direct memory of the emotionally charged arguments that drove politics then, and like most 21st-century Americans, Boston's residents look forward, rather than back to that time of civic strife and violence.

Busing undercuts efforts to make Boston more energy-sustainable. Hundreds of diesel buses running twice a day through neighborhoods dramatically increase our carbon footprint. Based on what we learned during the violence reduction successes of the early 1990s, public transportation on expanded routes can also provide safe and secure student transport.

Fewer than 20 percent of Boston's ninth-graders today will graduate from college. As president of the largest New England college educating the next generation of architects, interior designers, landscape architects, and urban planners, I support partnerships with Boston's schools to graduate diverse students. Our colleges are thwarted by the lack of preparedness in Boston's graduates. Colleges need to do more to help public schools, and public schools need more resources to prepare graduates for success. The $40 million a year we now spend on busing, phased in over time as high-quality schools are returned to every neighborhood, would go a long way toward achieving this goal. It is time for the Boston Public Schools to end busing as we have known it.


Eighties flops 'would now easily pass maths A-level': Cameron warns of falling British exam standards

Students who would have failed A-level maths 20 years ago are now being awarded Bs and Cs thanks to `dumbing down' under Labour, David Cameron has claimed. The warning from the Tory leader came as he appointed Carol Vorderman, former co-host of Countdown, as his adviser on how to improve numeracy. He said there was an `apartheid' opening up between independent schools and the best state schools, which offer rigorous tuition and examination, and failing state schools.

Mr Cameron unveiled plans to allow state schools to follow leading independents and ditch GCSEs and A-levels and offer alternatives such as the international GCSE. He said he wanted to see every school become an academy because `revolutionary change' was required to make Britain's schools the best in the world. Basic numeracy, he insisted, was not `nice to have, it's a must-have'.

Improving standards in maths, he said, was crucial to ensure Britain emerged stronger from the recession. But he said it was clear there was a maths 'problem' in Britain and the record on GCSE maths was 'not good enough'. He said: 'Almost half of 16-year-olds taking GCSE are getting less than a Grade C and that is a problem because maths is not only vital for life in terms of the jobs everyone does and the bills we pay and all of that, but maths is also vital for other subjects. 'If you want to do well in economics or do well in science, it is really important. 'Countries with more mathematicians do better and we are sliding down the maths league tables in the world.'

Experts at Durham University had found shown that pupils who would have received a U grade in maths A-level in 1988 received a B/C in 2006. 'Our exams are dumbing down, so we have got some real problems,' Mr Cameron said, adding that many maths teachers did not now even hold a degree in the subject. He also highlighted figures indicating that the poorest children are faring particularly badly at maths. Of pupils who received free school meals, around 60% - 44,368 - received a D or below at GCSE in the subject last year. By comparison, information from parliamentary questions showed that just 3,312 achieved an A or A .

'I think the answer will lie, rather like with reading, where we said you have got to get back to rigorous teaching methods, teaching synthetic phonics, absolutely the vowel sounds and the letters, so you can decode the words,' Mr Cameron said. 'I suspect the same is happening in maths, we are not persevering enough with some of the pure concepts and the pure building blocks of maths and we are dumbing it down and I think that is a terrible mistake.'

Mr Cameron said Miss Vorderman had agreed to examine teaching methods, how to address people's 'fear' of maths, and whether tests have got easier. The TV presented said that in the last ten years, 3.5m children had finished school without a basic maths qualification. 'Maths is critically important to the future of this country but Britain is falling behind the best performing countries,' she said. 'If children are to get the best jobs in the future and Britain is to emerge stronger from the recession we have little choice but to sort maths out now. There are many centres of excellence and many fabulous teachers but help is needed for the children being failed.'

Schools Minister Jim Knight insisted the gap between the poorest and the rest in GCSE achievement was "narrowing year on year". The Government was also introducing specialist maths teachers in every school. 'The latest major international study last year showed that we are leading Europe in maths and have risen 11 places in world league tables since 2003 to 7th place,' Mr Knight said. 'While Labour is rolling out catch-up support for seven year olds at risk of falling behind in maths, David Cameron's policy is to wait until children are 11 and force those who don't make the grade to resit their last year of primary school. 'This is a recipe for chaos and bigger class sizes which has been condemned by teachers and parents and I hope Carol Vorderman's review will reject it too.'


Friday, February 06, 2009

Education, real and unreal

A review of "Real Education," by Charles Murray

Speaking obvious but uncomfortable truths . . . in the history of philosophy, Socrates might come to mind. In contemporary psychiatry, I think of Thomas Szasz. But when it comes to social policy, the name that immediately springs to mind is Charles Murray. Murray's "Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980," published in 1984, revolutionized the way in which social scientists looked at welfare policy by pointing out that those in poverty, including minorities, actually had done better by many standard parameters in the 15 years before enactment of the major Great Society welfare policies than in the 15 years afterward. Many people credit this book for laying the groundwork for the major welfare reforms of the 1990s.

"The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in America," which Murray co-authored with Richard Herrnstein, explored facts about intelligence (facts that, contrary to heated denunciations at the time, were not controversial among experts who studied this area), and what their implications were for optimal social policy. Highly controversial at its publication in 1997, its claims are considered more mainstream a decade later.

Now Murray turns his ability to obvious if uncomfortable truths in education. This is not a book about problems with a government monopoly in primary education; it is not a rant against multiculturalism or political correctness in our nation's educational system; it is not even an assault on the current fad of "maintaining self-esteem" among young students (though this is discussed in passing). Instead it is a call for fundamentally rethinking what does and doesn't work in education, both public and private. It is a call for ending the endearing but false romanticism involved in believing that every child can excel in academics.

Murray begins with a discussion of intelligence, dissecting Howard Gardner's "multiple intelligences," the idea that there are seven, eight, or more "core intelligences," and that people who seem unintelligent according to ordinary measures may actually be as intelligent as others. Murray focuses primarily on logical-mathematical and linguistic intelligence. And he makes two claims that cannot be denied, while at the same time cannot be stated in polite company:

* Level of ability varies.

* Half of all children are below average.

Murray notes (he has mentioned this in earlier works, but it is well worth repeating) that although most of his readers understand that there is wide variability in some of Gardner's other "intelligences" - such as the musical and the bodily-kinesthetic "intelligences" - his readership does not appreciate the wide variability that actually exists in mathematical and linguistic intelligence. While people we know vary widely in their ability to play sports or musical instruments, people we know usually do not vary widely in their mathematical and linguistic abilities. But this is not evidence that mathematical and linguistic abilities vary only slightly. It is evidence that the people we know are a highly filtered subset of society.

For example, the fact that a professor of English feels he didn't do well in math most likely means he "only" got a 600 on the math SAT, while most of his friends in the math department got over 700. But a 600 on the math SAT puts the English professor in the upper third of the country in math skills.

Murray explains in gory detail what it means to be "below average" in intelligence. Here are some examples.

"There were 90 employees in a company last year. This year the number of employees increased by 10%. How many employees are in the company this year?" A) 9, B) 81, C) 99, D)100

This is a basic math question from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), on a test given to nationally representative samples of children in the fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades. It has been used for 35 years by the federal government to track academic progress. Murray notes, "The test is . . . the gold standard for measuring academic achievement" in elementary and secondary education.

Sixty-two percent of eighth-graders got the above math question wrong. If you include those who didn't know the answer but guessed correctly, over 77% of eighth-graders didn't know how to figure out the answer. Twenty-seven percent of these eighth-graders didn't know "how many sides are there to a cube." Forty percent didn't know "what is 4 hundredths written in decimal notation."

Now, we can blame this on poor schools, doing poor teaching. But if academic ability varies (and it does), and half of all students are below average (and they are), approximately half of all students won't be able to answer questions of average difficulty. Those of us who read books about social policy may not have a clear understanding about what a question of "average difficulty" is, since we probably don't know anyone who is below average in mathematical and verbal intelligence, or at least know that person well enough to get a sense of the person's intellectual world. But as anyone who has watched Jay Leno's "Jaywalking" or recent responses from Miss America contestants can affirm, "average difficulty" questions are much easier than most readers of this article anticipate. Objections can be made, as follows.

* The measurement of academic ability is invalid. But Murray notes that "g," the general mental factor measured in IQ tests, accounts for 80-90% of predictable variance in scholastic performance - a conclusion based on more than 11,000 citations of studies on the relationship of IQ scores to educational achievement listed in "Psychological Abstracts."

* We can raise academic ability. But, summarizing a wealth of data accumulated over decades, Murray says, "The most we know how to do with outside interventions is to make children who are well below average a little less below average."

* The schools are so bad that even low-ability students can learn a lot more than they learn now. This view, which is characteristic of libertarians, has a kernel of truth. Some inner-city urban schools are so bad that they are physically dangerous. No learning can occur there. But that's not true of the majority of schools. And while it is true that most public schools are a poor value - they are economically inefficient; they charge far more than is justified for the educational value they provide - that is not the same as saying students can learn a lot more than they do. U.S. mail delivery is inefficient as well. Mail could be delivered faster and more cheaply. But the fact is that virtually all of the mail does get through. Students could be educated faster and more cheaply, but Murray cites extensive data to back up his claim that most below average students in most schools are learning all they can learn. As regards private or charter schools, Murray, a strong advocate for school choice, says that while these alternatives may nurture gifted students, "the evidence does not give reason to expect that private or charter schools produce substantially higher test scores in math and reading among low-ability students who would otherwise go to normal public schools."

He then goes on to discuss two other obvious truths:

* Too many people go to college.

* America's future depends on how we educate the academically gifted.

To gain the benefits of a classic "liberal education," one must be intellectually prepared to read and digest material significantly more challenging than what one is given in high school. So it is not surprising that Murray can cite evidence that no more than 20%, arguably no more than 10%, of students truly benefit from this type of four-year residential college experience. Yet 28% of adults 25 years of age or older have a B.A. Not surprisingly, many drop out of college; many find themselves facing adulthood with no training in vocational skills that really could have helped them make a better life for themselves; and too many people attempt to get a B.A. by means of economically inefficient investments in "easy" courses of no use to them, solely to signal to employers that they have the B.A. employers now use as evidence of persistence and at least a minimal level of intellectual achievement. Murray argues that society would be better off with less emphasis on a B.A. and more standardized certification (not, attention libertarians, licensure) for a wide variety of employment.

As for the intellectually gifted, Murray notes, as an empirical fact and not as a value judgment, that these are the elite who will be running our country in the future. He argues that they are by definition intelligent. We would be better off if we had mechanisms in place that could also make them wise. He argues for improved attention to many things: verbal expression, judgment formation, thinking about virtue and the good, and humility. His arguments are nuanced and not easily summarized, but they quickly give the lie to suggestions that Murray is a 21st-century Social Darwinist.

Murray has written a book about human happiness ("In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government," 1988). He noted there, as the literature supports, that people are happiest when they are challenged by what they do, but not so challenged that they cannot realistically succeed. "Real Education" forcefully argues that we are not merely wasting large amounts of money, we are not merely ignoring the reality of what social science has to teach us about education, we are not merely doing poorly at preparing our children for the future, but we are also making both low-ability and high-ability children unhappy (miserable, inconsolate) by pretending that the former can be force fed intelligence while ignoring the latter's insatiable need for guided knowledge.

People don't need to be intelligent to be happy. But they do need not to be puppets in the plays of social reformers, lab rats in the experiments of the well-intentioned but ignorant educational romantics who have harmed both halves of the bell curve our children inhabit.


It's the children at the bottom of the heap who have been hurt most by turning British education into jargon-laden twaddle

The subversion and disintegration of the education system in the interests of social engineering have now reached a stage well beyond parody. For the past four decades and more, the education establishment has been in the grip of the `all must have prizes' orthodoxy which holds that in the interests of `equality' everyone must be said to achieve equally. Since there can be no losers, there can be no winners - or to put it another way, everyone must be said to be a winner.

From this ludicrous and deeply ideological belief that equality actually means `identicality' has flowed such disasters as the un-teaching of reading. Structured reading schemes which actually teach children to decode the words on the page were discarded on the grounds that some children made faster progress than others - whose self-esteem would thus be destroyed. So they weren't taught to decode words, but taught to guess or memorise words instead. The result has been hundreds of thousands of children who are functionally illiterate - including some, as was reported recently, who actually leave school nevertheless with a clutch of GCSEs.

How could it possibly be, you may well ask, that GCSEs can be awarded to candidates who can't read or write properly? The answer is that, in order to accommodate and conceal the progressive disintegration of education standards under the `all must have prizes' philosophy, the standards of all public examinations - SATs, GCSEs, A-levels and even university degrees - have been progressively lowered so that more students can be said not only to have passed them but to have done so with good grades. Thus the government has been able to boast that standards are rising, whereas in fact they have been going through the floor. It has also been able to shoe-horn record numbers into university, on the grounds that restricting university access to those who are most academically able is `elitist'.

The government's ruthlessly pursued goal has been to bump up the number of young people in university who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. But since it has done nothing to improve the teaching they receive to enable them to function at the academic level once expected by the universities, it has dumbed down the entire examination and university system in order to massage reality into a politically and ideologically expedient fiction. The result of that has been record numbers of students who can't cope and drop out of their university courses, and the dumbing down of degree standards across the board.

One result of all that was that A-levels - the famous `gold standard' examination which once acted as the most efficient gatekeeper to university entrance and the maintenance of the highest academic standards in the world - were devalued so badly that universities were unable to tell which candidates were truly fitted to their courses, since all had scored A grades at A-level. So a new grade was introduced, the A*. But now - guess what?! Top universities are being advised to ignore the A* grade A-level on application forms - to avoid recruiting more pupils from middle-class backgrounds. A report by the Higher Education Minister David Lammy published this week says: `There are concerns that this could disproportionately impact on students from non-traditional backgrounds.'

But `students from non-traditional backgrounds' have been betrayed and abandoned by a political and intellectual elite which, in the interests of abolishing elitism, has systematically destroyed the core idea of a liberal education - the transmission of knowledge - and replaced it by jargon-laden twaddle, psychobabble and outright propaganda.

The very idea of a meritocracy has been replaced by `identicality', and so the ladder that once enabled children to rise out of social disadvantage has been kicked away. The wicked truth is that it is those children at the bottom of the social heap who have lost out the most from all this. Meanwhile, those from the middle-classes are punished more and more as the government progressively blocks up all the escape routes - such as the A* - through which merit and achievement have been ever more desperately and fruitlessly struggling to survive. There are now profound concerns that this whole de-education lunacy could `disproportionately impact' upon the very future and survival of this nation.


Thursday, February 05, 2009

British universities told to ignore apparent merit

The new grade of A* was introduced as a way of detecting high ability. Now there is a fear that it might actually do so. British logic

Top universities are being advised to ignore the new A* grade A-level on application forms – to avoid recruiting more pupils from middle-class backgrounds. Ministers yesterday unveiled plans to conduct a three-year study into teachers' use of the new supergrade when making predictions of pupils' performance. Universities make conditional offers on the basis of predicted grades and other information and there are fears in the Labour party that pupils from 'non-traditional' backgrounds will lose out because they will not be forecast A*s in sufficient numbers.

The Government created the A* to help top universities choose the brightest candidates from the growing numbers winning As. It will be awarded to the first candidates in summer 2010. But a report published by Higher Education Minister David Lammy has said the study will evaluate the accuracy of teachers' predictions against pupils' achievements. Universities are likely to wait for the results of this study, meaning they will ignore the new top grade until at least 2013. Cambridge said it would go further and support a 'prohibition' on schools and colleges predicting the A* in its first few years because the grades will be 'very difficult' to forecast with accuracy.

Top universities are reportedly divided over the A*, with some believing it should never have been introduced amid fears that it will come to be seen as a passport to a university place. Universities are under pressure to widen the social mix of students and reduce the domination of pupils from private schools and good state schools. Some universities may use A*s in conditional offers but the practice is likely to be rare in the early years.

Monday's report acknowledged that universities have raised concerns over whether teachers will be able to predict A* grades with any consistency. It said: 'Such concerns go to the heart of issues of fairness and openness, where an able and talented student can be sifted out of an application process on the basis of inaccurately-predicted grades. 'There are concerns that this could disproportionately impact on students from non-traditional backgrounds.'

Sixth-formers now pass more than a quarter of A-levels at grade A – a sharp rise in the space of a generation. Independent school leaders said it was 'a shame' that leading universities may not consider predicted A* grades for several years. They said bright students will immediately start working towards the grade – awarded to those who achieve 90 per cent of marks – only to find their efforts may not count in the admissions process.

Geoff Parks, director of admissions at Cambridge, said: 'We would agree that in the early years it will be very difficult for anyone to predict A*s with any accuracy and would support a prohibition on schools being allowed to do so. 'This is subtly different, however, from prohibiting universities from asking for A*s in conditional offers.'

Geoff Lucas, secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, representing leading boys' and mixed fee-paying schools, said: 'I believe our schools are able to spot high-fliers and will be able to predict with considerable accuracy. If universities are not going to use predicted A* grades, I think that's a shame. Time will tell. 'The Government accepted the recommendation for the A* and once students know it is there they are going to aim high.'


Jew-Hate at UCLA

A "Gaza and Human Rights" symposium hosted by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)’s Center for Near Eastern Studies instructed attendees on how best to spread anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Americanism. Attendees advocated for many unrelated leftists, from Lenin to Che Guevara, while students were busy texting, Twittering, and checking Facebook.

Moderator Susan Slyomovics, the director of the Center for Near Eastern Studies, offered typical leftist academic condescension. "I have done extensive research on Israel and Palestine. After all, this is not Fox TV. This is UCLA." She must have meant the Fox News Channel, unless she was comparing her research abilities to Homer Simpson.

UCLA history professor Gabriel Piterberg followed. He described an "Israeli onslaught on Gaza Palestinians" and labeled IDF soldiers "war criminals." He alleged the "forced removal of the indigenous people in favor of the settler nation-state," with Palestinians supposedly being the former and Israelis the latter. He cited Karl Marx, referencing popular revolts in China and India and the Algerian struggle against France as examples of the proletariat overthrowing oppressors. Palestinians would rise up next, he predicted. He repeated the debunked charge that Israel has killed Gazans using white phosphorous.

Lisa Hajjar, University of California, Santa Barbara Law and Society Program Chair, was up next. Considering her biases, Hajjar’s eloquence made her the most dangerous speaker. She falsely claimed that "Israel violates the Fourth Geneva Convention." Moreover, like al-Qaeda, the Geneva Conventions don't apply to Palestinians. Neither are nations.

Israel was repeatedly labeled an "occupier" of "occupied territories," the Gaza Strip and West Bank, when the proper terminology is "disputed territories." The fact that Israel left Gaza in 2005 didn’t seem to register either. She conceded, to the audience’s consternation, that, "War is permissible. Not all war is illegal," and later, "Collateral damage alone is not necessarily a war violation." Yet, she went on to state, "Civilians have a right to immunity. Intentionality is key." She repeated the lie that Israel deliberately targets civilians, as well as the white phosphorous falsehood. As she put it, "Israel should only target what’s necessary."

"Denying food and water is inhumane. It’s a war crime" and Israelis, Hajjar added, "are war criminals." She concluded her nonsense about "proportionality" with the bizarre, irrelevant statement: "Dick Cheney is the enemy of all mankind."

Next came Richard Falk, University of California, Santa Barbara Professor of Global and International Studies and 9/11 conspiracy theorist. Falk is the newly created UN "Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories" and was recently denied entry into Israel for his biased and morally repugnant statements. He declared Gaza an "unequal war," as if Hamas’s ineptitude should be treated as the war equivalent of affirmative action. He claimed Hamas initiated the Egyptian-mediated June 2008 cease-fire to avoid cross-border violence. He called the ineffectual cease-fire "a diplomatic initiative that would have ended the conflict." He seemed to think that because Hamas’s attempts to violate the cease-fire failed to murder Israelis, Israel had no retaliation rights.

Falk described Hamas’s daily firing of into Israel as "wrong, imprudent, and immoral," but added that "the rockets did little damage, and were not a significant threat." He alleged "Israeli aggression against a defenseless society," moments after justifying rockets. Falk’s litany culminated with the outlandish statement: "America and Israel are most addicted to reliance on moral superiority. They practice genocidal geopolitics."

UCLA English professor Saree Makdisi, who spoke last, peddled numerous fallacies. He stated that "dropping ordinances is not okay," neglecting to mention that Israel also drops evacuation warnings in order to save civilian lives. He declared Gaza a "child prison" and said that, "the goal of Israel is to deliberately starve children." Makdisi later thundered, "If you want to stop rockets into Israel, Israel must end the occupation!"

Audience questions demonstrated a complete and utter disinterest in Gaza. "Democracy Now," the "Leninist Workers Revolutionary United Party," Dennis Kucinich, and even Kitty Dukakis were mentioned. Ludicrous ramblings included the statements, "Iran needs nukes to protect itself against America and Israel," and "Israel has violated norms of civilized behavior. Palestinian resistance is the non-violent alternative."

I then calmly asked my question. "When are any of you going to ask Palestinians to take personal responsibility for their own corruption and failures, and admit they’re entirely responsible for their own miserable lot in life by choosing suicide bombings and terror over protecting their own children?"

Lisa Hajjar replied that it's pointless to argue about "who started it." "Occupation was the issue. Oppressed people must fight oppressors." I interrupted her by asking, "What about suicide bombings?"

Forgetting the event was being filmed, Hajjar lost her cool and retorted, "If you think I favor suicide bombings, then that Zionist hat on your head is screwed on way too tight!" I replied that my hat was a Fedora, not a Chasidic hat. An "educated" woman would know the difference, although her lack of knowledge about hats was secondary to her bigoted statement. I told her "Your comment was out of line, bigoted and racist."

She acknowledged such comments hurt "her cause" from a public relations standpoint, employing the same tacit language used to describe suicide bombings as "not helpful." She backed down, apologizing twice, yet reiterating that everything else she had said was justified.

The final incredulous moment came when Makdisi, asked to condemn Iran for supplying Hamas with weapons, claimed, "Hamas is a political group. I have no idea where they get their weapons."

This symposium sent a pair of clear message: Hamas and the Palestinians are identical. The academics involved absolved them both while blaming Israel alone. They neither distinguished self-defense from murder, nor disavowed murder. No mention was made of Israel’s right to exist.

Luckily, the students on hand appeared to be more indoctrinated by Blackberry video games than the apologists for terrorism on the podium. Then again, those games also involve blowing stuff up.


Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Kids learn: Homeschooling

Really. They do. Even, maybe especially, when you're not trying to "teach" them. I just heard my seven-year-old tell my ten-year-old "we need to max out our chao's running stats." I'm not sure what that means -- it's a video game thing -- but I'm sure he knows what it means. They're both smart kids, and if they don't understand something, they either ask or they research it themselves. Right now, that video game happens to be their obsession, and they're burning up YouTube's stock of tutorial videos on how to beat it (while starting to talk about making some videos of their own about it -- they both got cameras for Christmas).

We've been homeschooling Liam (seven) for a year now. Daniel (ten) just decided to take the plunge (we've always encouraged the idea, but he had to make the decision on his own -- he really liked the "social" aspects of "public" school until the down sides became burdensome).

I started the homeschooling thing with the idea that I needed a very specific curriculum. I made Liam miserable for several months with daily worksheet assignments and such to build the "portfolio" and flesh out the logs required by our state's laws. I'm still doing battle with those record-keeping requirements, but over time we've shifted toward, and are now in the process of fully adopting, the "unschooling" approach.

I just procured a copy of Mary Griffith's The Unschooling Handbook, and it's already proving enormously useful in terms of helping me get over the panic aspect of not having a set-in-stone plan for each day.

I haven't given up "goals" and "lessons" entirely. I throw random math problems (mostly multiplication right now, but I'm looking forward to geometry -- Daniel just got a book full of skateboard ramp blueprints and is awaiting improved weather to build his first one) at them throughout the day. I purposely insert unusual words in our conversation so that we can discuss their meanings. When we decide to watch a movie, I try to find something with real historical content or a hook worth discussing in terms of some subject area. I'm also setting up some mechanisms for keeping track of what they're into online (the obsessions change -- sometimes daily, sometimes weekly) so that I can plug it into the paperwork, and expand on it offline. Within the next month or so, I expect that they'll both be blogging regularly as well.

Thing is, they're both already at or above "grade level" (as defined by the state standards) in all subjects. The curriculum approach wasn't helping them advance, and in some areas it was holding them back and boring them. The point isn't to get them ready for standardized tests, it's to get them ready for life.

They read like fiends -- when they find something they're interested in to read about. Their vocabularies are constantly expanding because when they don't understand a word it gets discussed (Tamara and I spent 20 minutes discussing the variants of "dedicated" and "dedication" with Liam the other night after he got independently interested in the difference between "dedicated server" and "this book is dedicated to ...").

Math's a little harder to work in at this point, but the "I'm trying to do this, how do I?" situations come, and when they do we show them the concepts instead of just giving them the answers. They can both add, subtract and multiply, we're starting to work on division, they've got a fair handle on fractions, and Daniel's doing some elementary algebra. Tamara and I are looking forward to having to refresh ourselves on geometry to keep up with them just for the next year or so ... and frankly I expect them to leap ahead of me and require outside help in the not too distant future (I've forgotten most of trig and never took calculus).

Science is easy. Not only do we work everyday situations into science lessons (bathtub displacement and volume! Why does a lightbulb glow -- which kind of lightbulb? We did incandescant vs. fluorescent yesterday), but they've got constant questions of their own that turn into "lessons" learned, and they inherited the space obsession from both sides. We watched the first half of Apollo 13 last night, pausing frequently for discussion; second half tonight; then it will be on to The Right Stuff and From the Earth to the Moon, hopefully with a segue into politics and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress resulting).

And, of course, social studies is a snap. They've already had more community involvement than most adults. They've attended state and national political conventions. They've marched in numerous protests. They've canvassed for ballot issues and for their parents as candidates. On the non-political side, we make a practice of helping them buttonhole hapless victims to discuss "what do you do" with them. That will probably turn into a series of "cultural journalism" video projects in the future.

The hardest part of this whole schooling thing is staying the hell out of their way so they don't run me down.


British schools `are killing off the library', claims author

Schools are killing off children's love of books by turning libraries into literature- free 'learning resource centres', an award-winning author has claimed. They are replacing books with computers and so becoming mere 'creches' instead of places of education and excitement, said Frank Cottrell Boyce. He makes the claims in an open letter to the MP Alan Milburn, who is leading a Government drive on social mobility.

Cottrell Boyce, who won the Carnegie Medal for children's writing for his book Millions, writes: 'When I visit many schools, I see a big, fat, glaring, expensive anti-reading and pleasure signal. 'It stands where the library used to stand and it's called the learning resource centre.'

He believes reading for pleasure is central to improving the life chances of pupils from all backgrounds, and therefore raising social mobility. He points out that almost all children these days have access to computers. But far fewer 'have access to books in any meaningful way at home'. The letter is published in an email newsletter from Teachit, a website for English teachers.


Grammar revival?

What a lot of scatterbrained nonsense we read in the comment from Australia below! There is no ambiguity about the Latin-derived rules which govern written English. Why can't kids in primary and secondary schools simply be taught those rules? That's what's going to be most useful to them. Leave the airy-fairy stuff for specialist university courses

Australia is distinctive among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries for its long tail of students who are unable to process - much less understand - the texts of which English brags. And problems of access are not confined to students in low socioeconomic enclaves. Even middle-class parents find it increasingly difficult to help their children produce successful assignments in a discipline so different from the one they studied. And, so, grammar is back; hauled out of retirement to help, no, to party.

When people think "grammar", they mostly think traditional grammar. But this is a tool kit - or dance card, perhaps - for a simpler discipline. It's good on parts of speech, on subject-verb agreement and on rules, all of which are routinely broken by published authors. It has nothing whatsoever to say about newspaper headlines, Aboriginal English, the hilarious play of malapropisms in Kath and Kim or the incomprehensible genius of Vicky Pollard in her "Yeah, but, no but, yeah but". And almost anything interesting in contemporary discourse is ungrammatical in the traditional sense: it begins the wrong way, with conjunctions, splits infinitives. As far as literature is concerned, grammar has never connected well with textual matters such as focalisation, voicing, structure and plotting. A very limited repertoire.

There are other grammars available. One is functional grammar. It makes real connections with the preoccupations of English: with texts, contexts, meaning making. But it too has an image problem. First of all, it's hard: technically demanding, linguistically ambitious. Some might say the dance moves are too difficult for the informal partygoer.

Those calling for a return to grammar are not talking about a new grammar but the old version, tarted up perhaps, but largely unreconstructed. Traditional grammar is simply not up to the job and, for now, functional grammar is out of favour. Any grammar that is going to work has a big challenge on its hands. Can we develop a grammar adequate to an ambitious curriculum, akin to the television program So You Think You Can Dance?

Four parameters come to mind. First, there is the matter of stretch. Any grammatical tool kit for exploring the features of complex texts requires flexibility. The authors of the Initial Advice Paper on the national English curriculum are unequivocal on the need to engage with complex texts. They are requiring that teachers develop systematic understandings about "the structures, interpretation and the effects of certain features in multimodal texts". This means picture books, websites, graphic novels and films, as well as traditional literature such as the novel. It requires a grammar that encompasses study of a wide range of textual choices and their combined effects on meaning, a real stretch.

Second, there is the matter of discipline in the study of language. The notion of "deep knowledge" has become a familiar adage in discussions about school learning. But what does this mean for knowledge about language at text, sentence and word levels? This is the remit of the national curriculum: systematic and explicit teaching about language as a system. There is work to be done if kindergarten teachers are to share understandings about language with primary and secondary English teachers. This task takes us well beyond the comforting mediocrity of "grammar at the point of need", a rigorous routine of new moves for alldancers.

Third, there is the matter of improved performance: making knowledge accountable to those we teach, especially students without start-up cultural capital. Any study of grammar must enable students to read and write more effectively. The national curriculum advice is clear on the need to inter-relate learning about and learning to use language. There is much we don't yet know. Recent research undertaken by education academic at the University of Hull, Richard Andrews, and his colleagues in Britain reveals that assumed links between knowledge about grammar and improved writing remain unproven. The jury is still out about whether grammar helps students with literacy. Such research is crucial if we are to improve the literacy performances of students.

Fourth, there is the matter of potential: seeing the possibilities in our students' communicative practices. If we accept, as Michael Halliday, emeritus professor of linguistics at the University of Sydney, has suggested, that language is "a resource for making meanings", then our grammars must become attuned not just to problems but also to (often surprising) developments in students' uses of language. This orientation is alert to the promise in a first draft, to a deconstructive cartoon, the subversion in an impromptu class performance. Our young people are doing such clever things in their out-of-school literacy practices. Any grammar that is going to lead development in new routines has to follow as well as lead in these new dances. Are we up to it? Do we think we can dance?


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Brightest British children 'failed by state school teachers who fear promoting elitism'

Bright children in state schools are being failed by teachers who refuse to give them extra help for fear of promoting "elitism", a Government-backed report has found. A significant number of schools have failed to enter their most talented pupils in an official programme designed to push the very best children, it concluded.

Labour's so-called Gifted and Talented scheme - launched in 1999 - was set up amid concerns that middle-class parents were abandoning the state sector for private schools. It was designed to answer critics' claims that bright children struggle in the comprehensive system because they are dragged down by classmates. Under the scheme, covering all pupils under 19, primary and secondary schools are asked to nominate the best pupils for extra support to make sure they fulfilled their potential. This was originally defined as the top five per cent of pupils but has since been changed to ten per cent. Those nominated are provided with after-school classes and weekend tuition in order to ensure they are sufficiently challenged.

But a study by ACL Consulting, commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, found fundamental opposition to the scheme among schools. The findings suggest that many pupils may have been held back from achieving their potential as a result of a reluctance on the part of teachers to give them the opportunities the Government intended for them.

The report come just days after figures published by the Conservatives showed one-in-seven pupils named among the brightest failed to get five good GCSEs at 16. "Many schools were initially unwilling to provide... details of their pupils who were within the 'top five per cent'," said the report. "Although this resistance was gradually eroded over time, there was doubtless still a substantial core of schools unwilling to play their role in the process."

The Conservatives said the findings showed that Labour policies to get the best out of the brightest children in state schools were failing "It's vital that the brightest children are properly stretched," said Nick Gibb, shadow schools minister: "Ministers told us that the gifted and talented programme would ensure that this happens but the evidence suggests it isn't working."

Nick Seaton, the chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, said: "The Government is clearly failing the brightest pupils. "When you have teachers who for ideological reasons are unwilling to put forward the brightest youngsters for special treatment, it's obvious that a scheme like this can't do anything but fail. "Research shows that many thousands of children who are shown to be very bright by their key stage two tests do not go on to achieve the top A-Levels they should do. The reason is that they are simply not stretched between 11 and 16. All this is bound to lead to a decline in our capability as a nation and will damage us economically."

ACL Consulting is a consultancy group which works for public sector organisations involved in education, training and economic development. Warwick University initially won the contract to run the Government's Gifted and Talented Scheme, set up to nurture the ability of England's most able children. The contract came to an end in 2007 and the scheme is now run by an education charity called CfBT.

In the latest report, consultants tracked the impact of the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth, established by Warwick in 2002 to spearhead the scheme. It said 4.75m pounds was spent on the academy every year by the Government - the "same amount of money as a 1,100 pupil secondary school would receive annually". The unit received around 2m more in donations by the final year of its contact. But the study said it failed to establish itself "as the key point of reference" for schools promoting the needs of talented children. "It is interesting to speculate on the cause of this unwillingness," it said. "If it is because of a misunderstanding of the place of special support for gifted and talented young people - perhaps a confusion of 'elitism' with 'special needs' - then that is arguably not NAGTY's fault, however it would then indicate an important development need that many schools and their senior managers should look to address." The report added that the academy offered little for youngsters who had great potential, but were performing below what they were capable of.

Ministers no longer set a quota of five per cent of pupils to take part in the scheme. But they do recommend that as many as 10 per cent of "gifted" pupils - usually defined as the elite in terms of academic subjects - and 10 per cent of the most "talented" with potential in other areas, such as sport or the arts, are given extra help.

The report concluded that the NAGTY had done much to raise the national profile of education for gifted and talented pupils but said its legacy was "thin, and value for money therefore limited". Margaret Morrissey, of the campaign group Parents Out Loud, said: "Parents tell me that they are very concerned the brightest children do not get enough attention and subsequently go backwards in ability. "Many brighter children are also used by teachers to help the less able pupils, and in some are even being used to take the lessons themselves. "The only minority group the Government is interested in helping are the underachievers. They don't ever give the brightest kids the help they need. "The best pupils then get bored and switch off. And if an 11-year-old switches off, they don't come back. You've lost them and they will be mediocre for the rest of their school lives."

A DCSF spokesman said: "This is an evaluation of a historic institution which no longer exists - the Gifted and Talented programme has progressed significantly. The National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth was designed only for the top 5 percent of learners aged 11-19. Since September 2007, the new Young Gifted and Talented Learner Academy (YG&T) has been available for all learners identified as gifted and talented by their schools and colleges. "Schools are resoundingly on board. Our latest data shows that 95 percent of secondary schools and 78 percent of primary schools are identifying over 800,000 gifted and talented pupils. "This is not elitism. It is about ensuring that all learners receive the challenge and support they need to reach their potential."


Voucher scheme for Scottish schools howled down

A radical proposal to overhaul Scotland's education system and give disadvantaged youngsters priority access to top independent schools was unveiled yesterday. Reform Scotland, an independent think tank that believes parents should have more choice in their children's school, claims Scottish government statistics show almost half of second year pupils are not able to read and write to the expected standard. It wants to stimulate more competition between schools to improve standards.

It is proposing an "entitlement" scheme whereby parents would be given a credit equivalent to the cost of educating their child in their local authority area. They could use this at any school where a place was available. If a private school charged more than the entitlement, parents could not "top up" the difference. However, children who receive free school meals - a key indicator of disadvantage - would be given a supplement from central government, on top of their entitlement. This would give children in some local authority areas, such as Shetland, an entitlement to an education of at least 10,000 pounds.

Geoff Mawdsley, director of Reform Scotland and one of the authors of the Parent Power report, said the scheme should not necessitate any additional cost for mainstream pupils. However, he admitted that the think tank had not assessed how much extra cash would be needed from Holyrood to provide for the deprived children. He said the new system would "extend opportunity and promote social mobility" and warned that, without it, "countless numbers of children ... will be failed by an education system that does not meet their needs." The group wants to pilot its scheme with deprived youngsters and then extend it further. This willwould mean that, initially, the disadvantaged pupils willwould be given priority over mainstream pupils.

According to the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), such children have lower exam results and are more likely to drop out or truant. Reform Scotland claims that, despite the cash invested in state schools, they are "failing those who need them most." The OECD, in its 2007 Programme for International Student Assessment, found that countries where schools compete for pupils have better results.

The report drew criticism from teachers' leaders who accused the group of failing to understand the education system. Jim Docherty, acting general secretary of the Secondary School Teachers Association, said the plans were "drivel from beginning to end. This idea has been floating around for years", he said. "It betrays a total, utter, complete lack of understanding of how the public education system operates. It is nothing more than the Thatcherite `parents should have the right to choose' writ large." He said the vast majority of schools were at capacity so the proposals would not work - and the idea that some schools were better than others was "completely erroneous" anyway.

Ken Cunningham, general secretary of the School Leaders Scotland union said an entitlement scheme was "hugely complex" and would be very difficult to implement. He also said that there were numerous underlying issues which determined whether children succeeded or not, rather than simply the school they attended.

However, Liz Smith, Scottish Conservative schools spokeswoman and former private school teacher, said the proposals were "giving families much more freedom of choice on which school to send their children to". "They are talking about a radically different approach from what exists just now," she said. "It praises some of the aspects of the state sector but to get rid of the monolithic state they are trying to build in much more flexibility."

The report also suggests that local authorities could relinquish the power to run some schools, making them independent. And it wants to give local authorities complete control over pay and conditions for teachers, effectively ending plea-bargaining. Mr Docherty said such a scheme would result in 32 disputes every year, as opposed to one. Mr Cunningham also dismissed the idea, warning: "Anyone who tries to muck around with the pay and conditions within that frame in Scotland does not understand workforce planning."

A Scottish Government spokesman said the administration agreed with Reform Scotland that recent steady progress had to be accelerated, which was why it was working on the Curriculum for Excellence. He added: "While we remain unconvinced regarding some of the more radical elements of their proposals, Reform Scotland's report is thought-provoking and we welcome all contributions that promote real debate on the best way to ensure every school becomes a good school."


Monday, February 02, 2009

British charter schools under attack

They are called "academies" in Britain to make them sound grander than they really are

ONE of the inventors of the government's city academies has warned their success is being jeopardised by the "creeping return" of council control. The academies were designed under Tony Blair to close failing inner-city schools and replace them with institutions that are independent of meddling local politicians and run instead by outside sponsors. However, Sir Cyril Taylor, former chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, warned that, since Gordon Brown came to power, councils have been allowed to reassert their influence over the staffing, admissions and finances of academies. The government aims to open 400. "The whole point is to give them independence," said Taylor in advance of his new book to be published by Routledge on February 10. "Now the programme risks drifting from the core mission with too much control being exercised by local authorities - no doubt in my mind about that."

Ed Balls, the schools secretary, restated his commitment to academies last week. This has failed to allay concerns. Taylor said the initiative should remain focused on failing schools - sponsors should not be given the easier option of taking over well-performing schools, and troubled private schools should not be allowed to become academies as an escape route from bankruptcy. This weekend the schools minister, Jim Knight, said the government would consider such approaches in areas where there was demand for more school places.

Taylor was ousted from chairmanship of the trust in a board-room coup in 2007 after angering colleagues with abrasive comments about incompetent teachers. He returns to the theme in his new book, A Good School for Every Child. Taylor writes that there are more than 13,000 incompetent teachers, adding: "Procedures to move on ineffective teachers or staff in English schools are absurdly complicated, time-consuming and frustrating."

Taylor is seen as the co-founder of academies along with Lord Adonis, the Blairite former schools minister moved to the transport department last year by Brown. Taylor, 73, last week described Adonis's departure as "an absolute tragedy". He added: "The turnover of staff since has been absolutely appalling. A lot of the officials they have now, you don't even know if they believe in the initiative." Taylor argues that academies have proved their worth by improving grades 50% faster than the national average. This, he says, has happened despite them having twice as many pupils on free school meals.

Academies have long been controversial. Labour back-benchers and unions oppose their control by sponsors who include companies, a duke, charities, church groups, private schools and universities. Last month, official data showed improvements made by some academies had slipped back. Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, has declared an academy in Carlisle as failing after an emergency inspection sparked by pupil violence, a teachers' revolt and parental protests.

Alasdair Smith, secretary of the Anti Academies Alliance, said: "If what Taylor is saying was true, I'd be delighted. My worry is it isn't true enough. In some cases, they are being left with no alternative but to turn to councils as the businesses they wanted are getting cold feet." Michael Gove, the shadow schools secretary, said: "Sir Cyril is absolutely right to point out how academy freedom has been eroded."

The schools department said: "We are not changing the academy model. The local authority role has not changed and will not change."


Australia: Exodus to private schools continues in Queensland

Tracking the decay of discipline in government schools

PARENTS deserted Queensland's state schools last year, with independent primary schools growing at a much higher rate than government schools. Catholic primary schools also experienced massive growth compared to their state counterparts. The surprising figures were released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics this week in its "Schools, Preliminary Australia" 2008 report. It showed state primary schools, which had 308,698 students in 2007, attracted only 73 more students in 2008. Meanwhile, independent primary schools grew their ranks from 48,035 in 2007 to 50,577 in 2008.

Government high schools fared better, with growth rates only eight and five times higher in the independent and Catholic sectors respectively.

The figures also confirm the government is having trouble retaining staff, with full-time teaching staff growth rates dipping just below 0 per cent, while non-government schools grew 4 per cent.

Independent Schools Queensland executive director Dr John Roulston said choosing a school was "a very considered decision these days", with many parents settling on the independent sector for its academic excellence, sense of community and variety, including Christian, Muslim, Montessori, Steiner and grammar schools.

Queensland Catholic Education Commission executive director Mike Byrne said parents and students were continuing to choose Catholic schools for their Christian values, emphasis on pastoral care, academic excellence and strong family partnerships.

Non-government Queensland schools also had one of the highest rates of students staying on to Year 12 in the nation, according to a Productivity Commission report released yesterday.

Education Minister Rod Welford said enrolments continued to grow at state schools, which this year enrolled more than 480,000 children - about 65 per cent of Queensland's students. "School subject options ranging from academic to vocational education offered by state schools are equivalent to, or exceed those offered at many private schools," he said. "State school enrolments continue to increase."


Sunday, February 01, 2009

"Muslim schools performed best overall" in Britain

I believe it. Why? One word: Discipline

Pupils in England's religious state schools scored significantly better examination results at seven, 11 and 16 than those in community schools, figures show. On average, 85 per cent of children at Anglican, Roman Catholic, Jewish and Muslim schools left primary school with a decent grasp of the basics - compared to 79 per cent elsewhere. Muslim schools performed best overall, although they constitute only a fraction of the country's 7,000 faith schools.

Critics claim that higher scores are achieved because faith schools use admissions policies to cream off middle-class pupils. Last year, the Catholic Church reported a surge in late baptisms as parents attempted to boost their children's chances of getting into the much sought-after schools. And a recent report by the Runnymede Trust - a multi-cultural think-tank - said they should be stripped of their power to select along religious lines to prevent distortion.

But faith leaders insist schools do well because of their religious ethos and a focus on traditional discipline and teaching methods. Oona Stannard, director of the Catholic Education Service, said: "Our success comes from fulfilling our mission, which is so much more than what Ofsted or the Government says a school must do. When I was a teacher, I remembered that I was not just seeing a child, but was seeing God in that child, and that creates expectations in teachers. "We are charged with developing the whole child."

Faith schools currently make up a third of all state-funded schools in England. Some 4,657 are Anglican, 2,053 are Roman Catholic and 82 belong to other Christian denominations. Another 36 schools are Jewish, eight Muslim, two Sikh and one is Hindu. Most use religion - often gauged by attendance at weekly worship or references from local faith leaders - as a tiebreaker when over-subscribed.

An analysis of GCSE results from 2007 reveals pupils in these schools make more progress at every stage of the education system. Some 51 per cent of pupils in Church of England schools and 52 per cent in Catholic schools gained five or more good GCSEs, including the subjects of English and maths. Scores increased to 63 per cent in Muslim schools but soared to 77 per cent in Jewish secondaries. By comparison, only 43 per cent of pupils made the grade in England's non-religious schools last year.

Faith schools also outperformed the rest based on the Government's favoured "value-added" measure, which compares performance at 16 to results when pupils started secondary school at 11. Scores are also weighted to take account of the number of pupils speaking English and second language and those on free meals - ensuring schools with large numbers of middle-class children do not gain unfair advantage. On this measure, Muslim pupils made the most progress, followed by those at Jewish schools, other Christian schools, Catholic schools and Anglican schools. Again they outstripped secular schools.

It suggests that claims faith schools are dominated by children from rich backgrounds may be exaggerated. Last month, a report by the schools adjudicator found that two-thirds of schools controlling their own entrance policies - most of which are faith schools - failed to follow the code on admissions. A large number were found to have asked for extra information from applicants, prompting critics to accuse them of seeking to discover parents' incomes and marital statuses in order to "cream off" middle-class pupils who tend to do better academically.


Late entry to school unwise

Comment from Australia

Every fad has its use-by date, and it seems the middle-class phenomenon of holding children back from starting school may be on the wane. As the latest batch of kindy kids poured through the gates this week, research has been challenging the popular view that delaying entry into school is a recipe for success. The theory was that starting school at an older age would give your child, especially if he is a boy, a leg-up on his peers. The author Steve Biddulph was one of its most effective advocates, claiming in his 1997 bestseller Raising Boys that boys feel "inadequate" if they go to school before the age of six. He sparked a decade-long arms race of age one-upmanship as parents tried to ensure their child was the most co-ordinated, most confident student in the class.

Forget that the cut-off date for school entry in NSW requires a child turn five before July 31. Parents started enrolling their six-year-olds in kindy, even if they had been ready to go to school for a year, with an 18-month-age span in classrooms increasingly common. But the results are in, and it turns out being older is not a panacea for a boy's ills after all. Researchers at the Michigan State University and the University of Illinois have found holding children back is a waste of time. All the parental angst was for nothing.

Any initial advantage older children had over younger classmates in the first few months "declines sharply in subsequent years" and soon disappears, found the study of more than 40,000 American students, to be published this year in the Journal Of Human Resources. "Rather than providing a boost to children's human capital development, delayed entry simply postpones learning and is likely not worth the long-term costs," wrote the authors, Todd Elder and Darren Lubotsky.

In the US, where the practice of holding children back is called "red-shirting", another study of 9000 children, published in the journal Pediatrics, found children who started school later had more behavioural problems than younger students, especially at adolescence.

One of the more ridiculous reasons given for holding a child back in kindergarten is that he will be able to drink legally 12 years later during HSC celebrations. In fact, this may turn out to be a ticking time bomb, as the Biddulph effect moves into high school. More students in year 12 will be 18, of legal drinking age, for longer than ever.

Trying to "cram adults into a schoolchild's routine" is going to be challenge for schools, says a Willoughby mother of three, Janelle. It is the 18-month age gap between children in the same class that can cause problems, all the way through school, she says. So unless parents have a good reason to hold back a child, they should be required to observe the cut-off date. "The school system has created this problem. If the date were set in concrete there would be no problem … I don't think it should be up to the parents. It puts pressure on parents on both sides of the fence to defend their position." She bucked the trend by sending her February-born son to school "early" and never wasted a moment worrying. The now 13-year-old has thrived in every way, but Janelle has endured sceptical questions from other parents. "They don't have any valid reason, apart from saying, 'I don't want him to be the youngest one.' Well, why not? There is nothing to be gained by holding them back, so why do it? Someone has to be the youngest in the class."

Peer pressure among parents is a powerful influence, says Professor Bob Perry, of the Murray School of Education at Charles Sturt University. He knows people who have held children back simply "because they couldn't stand the pressure from other parents". It is primarily a "white, middle-class" phenomenon because many parents can't afford an extra year of child care before school. Perry also has observed that any differences in aptitude at kindergarten due to age differences soon dissipate. "There are plenty of examples of 4½-year-olds who do very well and six-year-olds who don't. Age is not the central issue … It is how they fit into the system - their social and emotional maturity."

Being old for your class can even be a disadvantage. It can shatter a child's confidence when his younger classmates overtake him. "Knowing you're the king pin but that you're only that because you're older can't be all that good for self-esteem."

An age gap may in fact benefit younger students, with the Michigan study finding they score better test results when they have older classmates. Paradoxically, the study also found younger students more likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities.

In the end, each parent should make the decision they feel is best for their child, and then they have to make it work, says Perry. But the pressure on parents to make that decision has been so intense for the past decade, the question can haunt them for years. One North Shore mother of two, Nicole, has agonised over her decision to send her now 14-year-old son to school before he turned five. His January birthday was a comfortable six months before the July 31 cut-off date, but every year she worried he would suffer from being younger than his peers. It wasn't until this week, as he entered year 9, a popular, confident adolescent, that she was convinced she had done the right thing.

"I always regretted not holding him back. But you're only unsure of yourself because of the situation other parents have created. We've done the right thing. We've sent our age appropriate child to school but [parents who delay school entry] have made a rod for our back." It took nine years but she has stopped worrying. "Seeing him now with his peers I am much more comfortable … He's happy, so I'm happy."

There is never any shortage of worries for parents, but maybe now we can all move on from the school starting age obsession.