Saturday, April 03, 2010

Teachers Unions: Don't Work Too Hard!

Jaime Escalante -- the math teacher who became famous for teaching even the poorest kids calculus in a failing Los Angeles school -- died this week at age 78. His story shows not just what can be accomplished by great teachers, but also what damage unions can do.

Escalante got national attention when 14 out of 15 of his students at a low-ranking Los Angeles school passed the Advanced Placement Calculus exam. By 1987, 73 students from the school passed the AP calculus exam -- more than all but six other schools in the country. After a movie about his success, called "Stand and Deliver", was released in 1988, Escalante became an icon for showing that even the most disadvantaged kids could learn complex subjects if given the right instruction.

I would think that any reasonable education system would reward Mr. Escalante. But this is a unionized public school we're talking about. As Reason Magazine reported several years ago:

One assistant principal threatened to have him dismissed, on the grounds that he was coming in too early (a janitor had complained), keeping students too late, and raising funds without permission.

Can you imagine if a private school operated like that? Sadly, the story gets worse.

After Stand and Deliver was released, Escalante became an overnight celebrity... This attention aroused feelings of jealousy. In his last few years at Garfield, Escalante even received threats and hate mail. In 1990 he lost the math department chairmanship, the position that had enabled him to [teach students from 9th grade on, so that they would have adequate preparation once they got to his calculus class.]

But Escalante kept teaching, sometimes with classes of 50 students or more.

Calculus grew so popular at Garfield that classes grew beyond the 35-student limit set by the union contract. Some had more than 50 students. Escalante would have preferred to keep the classes below the limit had he been able to do so without either denying calculus to willing students or using teachers who were not up to his high standards. Neither was possible, and the teachers union complained about Garfield's class sizes. Rather than compromise, Escalante moved on.

School officials were unapologetic. One official said: "We were doing fine before Mr. Escalante left, and we're doing fine after." The result? Over the next five years, the number of students at the school passing AP calculus tests plummeted from 85 a year to just 11.

It is impossible to record all the innovations that unions have destroyed. But unions are clearly one reason that even though America spends more money on education than other countries, American students score near the bottom on international tests.


British children in crowded classes

This is just the usual teacher nonsense. Good teachers can easily handle much larger classes than what teacher unions push for. There is a case for small classes among the very young but not otherwise

Children are still being taught in “hideously overcrowded” classrooms after 13 years of Labour, according to teachers. Some pupils are being asked to share classes with 35 other children in a move that threatens to undermine education standards, it was claimed. The National Union of Teachers said “reducing class sizes” should be the number one priority for any incoming Government.

In 1997, ministers pledged to cut classes for five- to seven-year-olds. Under current legislation, schools are banned from teaching infants – Key Stage 1 pupils – in lessons of more than 30.

Speaking at the union’s annual conference, Christine Blower, NUT general secretary, said it was hoped that cuts to classes for the very youngest pupils would filter through to older year groups. But she said many children were stuck in lessons of “34, 35, or 36”.

“There are still classes that are hideously overcrowded,” she said. “We cannot say [ministers] have not fulfilled their pledge on Key Stage 1 classes, but that was never enough and the aspiration that this would simply roll on through has not happened.”

Almost six in 10 NUT members responding to a union survey said that reducing class sizes should be the top priority for the Government – irrespective of the outcome of the general election. Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary, said that cuts to school budgets in some areas meant primary school classes were being merged.

He cited one school in Gloucestershire that had been forced to put children in a lesson of 36. “Pupil numbers have been falling so they have had to combine two smaller classes into a class of 36 because they have not got the money,” he said. “Clearly that damages the education of those children.”

The union has already launched a campaign demanding that the average class size is cut to 20 by the end of the decade.

Figures last month showed at least 210 state primary school teachers were regularly leading lessons of at least 41 children last year. In addition, around one-in-eight pupils in England were in classes of more than 30, it was revealed.

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: "Over the last 10 years we have massively increased the number of adults teaching children. “Over 98 per cent of infant classes are under the statutory limit and the average size is 26.2.

“We expect local authorities and schools to take their legal responsibility to limit class sizes very seriously. There can be no excuses for any infant class that is unlawfully over the legal limit.”


Helicopter parents not doing enough to let children fail

Comment from Australia

THE belief that regular praise will improve the self-esteem of students has backfired, with educators urging over-anxious parents to let their children fail so they can learn from their mistakes.

Parents were also doing too much for their children who were becoming less resilient and unable to cope with failure. Some were even too scared to put up their hand in class and risk giving the wrong answer.

As new research shows that members of Generation Y are entering the workforce with an inflated sense of their abilities, principals are warning "helicopter parents" against putting too much pressure on children to be successful, which could discourage them from risking failure.

Rod Kefford, the headmaster of Barker College, has warned: "We are creating a generation of very fearful learners and the quality of our intellectual life will suffer as a result."

Today's students are let down lightly by teachers and wrapped in cotton wool by some parents. But in the 1960s, it was not uncommon for teachers to tell students bluntly that they had given a wrong answer. "Then someone invented the concept of self-esteem," Dr Kefford said. "In some ways it has been the most damaging educational concept that has ever been conceived.

"We couldn't do anything that would upset or harm the self-esteem of students, which was very fragile, we were led to believe … That is when we stopped our proper work in the character formation in young people. If we are serious about building resilience, we have to let them fail. It is only through our failings in the learning process that we learn anything." He said schools needed to give children the confidence to risk failure to encourage more creative thinking.

"[Through] this fear we have of ever allowing them to fail, we are selling them short as human beings and as future adults," he said. One of the first empirical studies on generational differences in work values shows Generation Y or the "millennials" (born between 1982 and 1999) are entering the workforce overconfident and with a sense of entitlement. The research, led by Jean Twenge at San Diego State University and published in the Journal of Management, shows this generation wants money and the status of a prestigious job without putting in long hours. When they do not get the marks they expect at university or rise quickly enough in their jobs, they turn into quitters.

"More and more students are reaching university not knowing how to do things for themselves. Parents think they are helping young people by doing things for them but they are actually making them less independent," Professor Twenge said.

"It is now common for parents and teachers to tell children, 'you are special' and 'you can be anything you want to be'." While such comments are meant to encourage students and raise their self-esteem, experts say they can inflate students' egos.

"Feeling special often means the expectation of special treatment," she said. "Your parents might think you're special but the rest of the world might not. This can be a difficult adjustment."


Friday, April 02, 2010

Is our children learning?

Excerpt from a very pessimistic REVIEW of "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education" by Diane Ravitch. Review by Peter Wood. The reviewer seems to ignore that kids DID once learn more than they do today.

I graduated in the late '50s from a small and undistinguished Australian country school with a knowledge of Latin grammar, German Lieder and a nodding acquaintance with poets from Homer through Chaucer, through Tennyson to G.M. Hopkins. I also learnt enough physics to see how transparently false Al Gore's global warming scare was. My son graduated from a good private school recently knowing virtually nothing of that. But he is now working on his Ph.D. in mathematics so it is not a shortage of ability that left him so uneducated.

Most children take education seriously when they see that it has some urgency in the larger culture. In America today, no one feels particularly abashed by not knowing stuff. “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” asks the popular Fox TV show. “So what if I’m not?” is the implied answer. It is OK for adults not to know the difference between the Battle of Bunker Hill and the Battle of the Bulge. We know that’s just “book knowledge” and could Google it if we really needed to find out.

Mark Bauerlein struck this chord in The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (2008), but he may have been too generous to generations past. America has a long tradition of adult dumbness, or at least numbness to the kinds of knowledge that don’t bear directly on earning a buck. “History is more or less bunk,” Henry Ford told the Chicago Tribune in 1916.

Our whole land-grant university system is laid on the foundations of a Civil War congressman, Justin Morrill of Vermont, who saw no need to teach the liberal arts. America’s most distinctive contribution to philosophy is the get-to-the-bottom-line school called pragmatism. Huck Finn was not alone when he reflected on the prospect of being “sivilized” by Aunt Sally and chose instead to “light out for the territory.”

If we chose to throw ourselves wholeheartedly into schooling, America might well do a much better job of it—but that is a highly unlikely choice for Americans to make. As a people, we are just not that interested in the tedious work of learning or teaching things that don’t appear to have direct application. We expect from schools more in the way of affirmation of popular conceits than the slow building up of knowledge.

A great many Americans actually want schools that promote faddish ideologies, though, of course, dressed up as cutting-edge insights. Right now, one of the most popular teaching videos in the country is a crudely anti-capitalist, pro-sustainability video, The Story of Stuff. We want schools that promote equality, which has come to mean mingling as much as possible the talented with the untalented and the enthusiastic with the bored. We want diversity. We want creativity. But we have never been of a single mind whether we actually want education.

Ravitch offers some terrific chapters on school-reform efforts in New York City and San Diego. These alone make the book worth reading, for they dispel forever the idea that well-meaning businessmen with all the institutional freedom and funding they could dream of can actually make much of a dent in America’s educational lassitude.

Ravitch’s critique of NCLB mostly hits home, too. President George W. Bush won support for his signature program by decoupling “standards” from content. States were required to test students frequently and report their progress, but individual states were free to establish their own standards. This became an invitation to aim low: you can’t miss when you are shooting at the ground. Schools also quickly figured out that the way to deal with a regime of testing was to establish their own counter-regime of “teach to the test.”

Hence, as Ravitch and many before her have pointed out, schools across the country sacrificed a balanced curriculum and thoughtful pedagogy to concentrate on teaching students how to score well on multiple-choice exams in reading and math. Ravitch is especially deadly on the rank impossibility that NCLB supporters had to profess: that by 2014 all students in all schools will be “proficient in reading and mathematics.” Or else what?

Ravitch remains, as she has always been, a good advocate of her ideas. She is least convincing, however, in her newfound defense of teachers’ unions and her turnabout on charter schools, which she now sees as draining away the more talented and motivated students from public schools. They may well do that. But I don’t see a compelling case that the students should sacrifice their only opportunity to get a halfway decent education just to advance the cause of classroom equality with kids who don’t care, kids who lack ability, and kids who haven’t been able to surmount the disorganized homes and culturally impoverished backgrounds that life has dealt them. We do indeed need to help these kids, but a one-size-fits-all public-school system hardly seems the answer.

“Accountability” has been the watchword of a reform movement centered on the not implausible idea that at the root of school ineptitude are many teachers, principals, and other administrators who do poor work year in and year out without ever facing significant professional consequences. They are protected by unions, by bureaucratic inertia, and by a school culture that fosters intellectual laziness.

The accountability movement attempts to rescue schools from this miasma by rewarding teachers whose students excel and punishing those whose students don’t. Ravitch’s most dramatic reversal is her change of heart on accountability, which she now sees as essentially a business concept misapplied to schooling. Students are not products to be quality-controlled, and teaching cannot be stuffed into accountability formulas without destroying the fabric of education.

There is certainly something to this. The widget-factory approach of some accountability-inspired reformers is deeply unappealing. Moreover, schooling really is a distinctive human activity with its own logic. Conflating it with other institutions inevitably leads to confusion. But the accountability mavens with whom Ravitch now parts company do have some powerful points of their own.

Our schools are chockfull of teachers who, as graduates of ed schools, possess thin knowledge of the subjects they teach, are hostile to the civilization they are supposed to transmit, and are steeped in the nonsense of progressive pedagogy. It was bad enough when this meant teachers earnestly believed children are natural-born dynamos of intellectual inquiry. These days it means something even worse: that teachers should be eagerly promoting race and gender politics and the claptrap of leftist “social justice.” If accountability is a deadening doctrine in one sense, it is in the eyes of many Americans a way to constrain teachers from doing still worse. Ravitch is silent on this score.

Ravitch at several points smiles on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as the one great exception in an era of educational incompetence. In the 1990s, Massachusetts developed and implemented school curriculum frameworks that were far and away the most rigorous in the country and that vaulted the state to the top of national standards.

I’ll immodestly own that I played a small part in writing those frameworks. But it is more to my point that Massachusetts now has a governor elected with the support of the teachers’ unions who is doing everything he can to compromise and eliminate that reform. At some level, Americans just can’t stand to have excellent schools; when we get too close to having them, we come up with an excuse for undoing them. As Kipling reminds us, “The burnt fool’s bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the fire.”

It is not that we want to relax into a state of complete natural ignorance. We just value some things more than we value schooling. The reformers are to be honored for wanting to change the equation in favor of more people knowing more important stuff. Many of the reformers, as Ravitch shows, have blind spots. All of them underestimate the difficulty. Ravitch herself, I suspect, still does. But she has made a useful reality-based contribution to the conversation.

My own view is that America will never be as good at schooling as some other nations that are more profoundly attached to learning for its own sake and have the benefit of being proud rather than ashamed of their cultural inheritance. We would do better for ourselves if we chose to emphasize a little more the thrill of outstanding intellectual ability and a little less the solace of multiculturalism and leveling equality.

We do breed a certain kind of exceptional student in our public schools—usually one who is ill at ease with the school itself and has by an early age diverged into lonely or geeky individualism. Our future scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs, and culture creators typically shape themselves against what the schools have to offer. I suspect we could do better by them—but then, we might have to give up some of that utopian dream in which all students can be proficient, and everybody gets to dance.


The profit motive has a place in the classroom

If businesses can help more children to learn we should let them make money – and hire and fire teachers

During a particularly fractious debate about schools reform, a Gordon person once said to a Tony person: “Delivering an education isn’t like delivering a pizza, you know.” “Ah no, it’s not,” replied the Tony person, sagely, “but it might be rather like making one.”

Actually, education isn’t remotely like either making or delivering a pizza. You could go so far as to say that education has got nothing to do with pizzas at all. The exchange does, all the same, contain two insights into education policy, one about the past, the other about the future.

What a tragedy that two intelligent people could have such a stupid conversation in public. This is the standard of argument you get when the two principals, for whom the pizza warriors were agents, are having an altogether more fundamental fight — a fight for control.

I was thinking of the pizzas during Tony Blair’s deft critique of the Tories at Trimdon Labour Club. It was a clever speech; whoever writes his stuff these days is a lot better than the last guy. But to hear Mr Blair heap praise on Gordon Brown was deeply frustrating for anyone who wishes their party well. As Mr Blair left the stage in Sedgefield, it was impossible not to recall the moment he shared an ice cream with Mr Brown during the 2005 campaign and wonder how much more might have been done, if only the pair of them had managed to make their extraordinary, and complementary, talents point in the same direction.

They might have averted the charge that their progress was bought at too great a price. They might have had a leaner State that bought more services and ran fewer. They might have built a system in which improvement was organic and therefore much more recession-proofed. The three sorriest examples are education, education, education.

There might, by now, have been many different types of school, catering for pupils with different aptitudes. The lines between public, private and voluntary sector would mean less. Private money and expertise would be common in state schools. Federations and school chains would be the norm. New schools would have sprung up, established and run by entrepreunerial teachers. Schools would all be independent entities, with the right to hire, fire and vary pay. They would use data to track their progress, like the pioneering Michelle Rhee in Washington DC.

There is some evidence of all of these things. The Prime Minister endorsed most of them in a speech on education two weeks ago. But it is far, far too late. It is the 59th minute of the 11th hour of a day in which your protaganists have been disrupting a conference saying that reforming schools is the equivalent of setting up a pizza parlour.

What the long scream between Brown and Blair has left undone, it will fall to the Conseratives to complete. Schools reform may yet become this generation’s utilities privatisation. Opposed all the way by the Labour party, selling the utilities — transport apart — worked. Nobody now wants to go back in time. Parties sometimes need to be taught a lesson by their opponents. If the Tories manage a revolution in schools, this attempt to change their party brand would be the tribute that Tory vice has paid to Labour virtue.

There is a serious risk that it might not happen, for the reason contained in the pizza row. We are unconcerned when wicked pen-pushers make a dirty profit from supplying our children with writing implements. But woe betide any company that offers to teach kids to read while turning a profit. I know, I know. Pens are not books and being able to write is not the same as learning to read. But we already permit companies such as EdisonLearning to manage schools. VT Group makes a living training school staff. Serco makes a healthy return managing the facilities. All of this is profit that comes out of the public grant.

And yet, if a company wins a contract in which it promises, on pain of no payment, to teach children to read, the politicians — Tory as well as Labour — think that a principle of scholarly detachment is being breached. But is there really any vital violation if, in return for the gift of literacy, a company gains a capped profit, just like a utility? Electricity companies keep the lights on, partly because keeping the lights on is what they do and partly because a regulator is checking up on them. As long as the standards demanded are clear and rigorously policed, the existence of profit is not the difference between good and evil.

It might, though, be the difference between present and absent. There is not an infinite supply of public-spirited parents, teacher buyouts and philanthropic capital. Charities that run schools cannot be expected to stump up the capital, and it is obvious that the supply of public money has dried up. It is only if a firm can expect a profit that it can be told to provide the start-up capital itself.

Even if enough providers can be found, there could be serious trouble ahead with the workforce. If you don’t do Easter or if you decide to cancel it, try to catch the proceedings of the teacher union conferences, which may be playing on an obscure cable channel. Some of the leaders are ready to add their weight to the industrial militancy of Unite and the RMT. The cocktail of cuts to existing budgets and encouragement of competition could easily lead to a serious breakdown of communication between a Conservative government and the teaching unions.

There will be a lot at stake for the Labour party in these circumstances. The quality of education at the bottom of the pile needs new schools, new teachers, new ways of working, underpinned by strong government — audit, inspection and a tough failure regime. The paradox of market reforms to the public sector is that they create a new, but extensive, role for the State. It is to be hoped that the Conservatives don’t think the Big Society (answers on a postcard) can step in here.

If the Conservatives do fail, the cause of public service reform on the Left will dwindle. It is hard for people with a partisan leaning to wish success on their oppponents. It’s harder still when you know you ought to have done this yourself. It’s yet harder again to know you might have finished by now if you’d only been capable of avoiding those silly arguments about delivering pizzas, which you knew, even then, were a surrogate for a much bigger dispute that would go on and on and on, until both of them were gone.


"Nothing can be done" about sexual abuse in British grade school

An education authority took two years to investigate claims that a six-year-old girl had been sexually abused by classmates, it was alleged yesterday.

The girl, who claimed that she was being stripped and abused on a daily basis by up to 23 tormentors aged between 6 and 10, has since been moved to another school. No action has been taken against the other children involved.

Keith Towler, the children's commissioner for Wales, described the delay as a "shocking failure" and said: "The bottom line is the family will never know what happened to their child."

The claims were made by the girl’s mother, who told BBC Wales that she found out that her daughter was being abused from the mother of another child who was also being bullied. She said: "I said. 'It's OK, you can tell mammy' and then it all started to come out. Her eyes were like marbles of fire.

"She was telling me things I think every mother dreads to hear from their daughter. It was horrendous what she'd gone through. Every day she was being stripped. She was being physically and sexually abused every day and every day she cried out for help and nobody ever came."

The mother said that the school was sympathetic but claimed that the bullies' ages and a lack of evidence meant that no action could be taken. The mother added: "They said the children couldn't be suspended. Because they had sexually abused my daughter and they were only six years old, they were victims themselves and wouldn't be suspended."

No details of the school or the education authority have been revealed to protect the girl's identity, however it is understood to be in South Wales.

It was only when the girl was moved to another school and her mother began legal action against the local education authority, which cannot be named, that the serious case review was ordered. The review claimed that it was "very difficult to establish the extent, degree and involvement of specific children" and that they were all "under the age of criminal responsibility". The inquiry recommended changes to anti-bullying policies and the way incidents were recorded.

Mr Towler said: "Clearly there are issues with the serious case review system and there is consensus the current serious case review arrangements are not working effectively. "The Welsh government has heard those calls for change and is responding." He said that the Assembly had set up two bodies to improve procedures.

Mr Towler added: "The establishment of the Welsh Safeguarding Forum aims to ensure that safeguarding is achieved at a national, regional and local level. "This forum’s work is critical in ensuring the system is strengthened and that joint working is improved to safeguard our children. "This forum and the advisory group must address the ineffective system which will result in change in practice.

"We cannot find ourselves in the same position again where the system is failing some of our most vulnerable children. "Clearly there are issues with the serious case review system and there is consensus that the current serious case review arrangements are not working effectively.

"The Welsh government has heard those calls for change and is responding. I will not yet be undertaking a review but instead will be working with practitioners and other relevant officials on two groups which the deputy minister for social services has convened.

Neelam Bhardwaja, president of the Association of Directors for Social Services in Wales, said: "If there are these number of children involved, it begs the question where did that behaviour arise from? Why are these children behaving in this way and are they from abusive situations themselves, which they need protecting from?"

A Welsh Assembly government spokesman said that it took "its roles and responsibilities around the safeguarding of children very seriously". [Utter bulldust!]


Thursday, April 01, 2010

Academic says Scotland's schools are producing a generation of illiterate scientists

Scottish secondary schools are producing a generation of illiterate scientists unable to write clearly and accurately about their subject, according to a senior academic at the University of Glasgow. In an article for the journal of the Queen’s English Society – which champions the proper use of the English language – Emeritus Professor of Marine Biology Geoff Moore said both undergraduate and postgraduate papers were strewn with inaccurate punctuation, grammatical errors, and fundamental confusion between terms such as ‘proscribe’ and ‘prescribe’, and ‘affect’ and ‘effect’.

After marking papers at the University of Glasgow and London University for 36 years, Professor Moore said the problem lay in secondary schools – and he expects the poor standards to get worse. He wrote: “We must anticipate that more and more British secondary-school teachers – the contemporaries of those graduates we have encountered – will not have acquired a sufficient grounding in the English language in order to teach proper grammar, spelling and punctuation to their pupils effectively.”

Speaking to the Sunday Herald, Professor Moore said that some students’ written English made him “throw my hands up in horror”. He traced this back to the move away from writing essays in the teaching of science in schools.

“A lot of assessment is done by multiple choice, ticking boxes, one-word answers, and students don’t get the experience of writing essays as they did in the old days,” he said. “Coupled with the fact that they don’t get things corrected accurately by their teachers. You sometimes wonder if they even read a book any more.”

In science accurate English is an essential, but a dying art, Professor Moore believes. “It is a question of precision,” he said. “You have to be able to express yourself exactly. If you’re using the wrong word in the wrong context – there is a great deal of difference between a prescribed and a proscribed drug. It’s important that people learn to express themselves correctly.”

In response to Professor Moore’s criticisms, the biggest teaching union for secondary teachers in Scotland, the SSTA and the national body for science teachers, the Association for Science Education, agreed with many points.

SSTA general secretary Ann Ballinger said while she did not expect pupils or teachers to use the Queen’s English perfectly she admitted that multiple choice examinations had affected the standard of written English. “It does cause difficulties,” she said. “It is less easy to use language if you are not using it regularly. There certainly is an issue here. It reduces the amount of time and effort spent on the language. Clearly that is a problem.”

Steuart Cuthbert, ASE’s Scottish field officer, said that in his classroom experience, science teachers were discouraged from correcting the grammar and English of pupils. “Although I firmly believe that every teacher should be maintaining standards across the board, there was a thought in the mind of many people that my job was to teach chemistry or physics and have nothing to do with how that was expressed,” he said.

Mr Cuthbert offered hope for Professor Moore, however. The incoming shake-up of the schools – the Curriculum for Excellence – will make literacy and numeracy the responsibility of every teacher, regardless of subject. Mr Cuthbert said: “There is a sea change in attitude. We are now teachers of children rather than teachers of subject ... Because of the current developments this sort of criticism should be minimised in future.”


Take parents of unruly pupils to court, British schools told

The latest ruse to dodge responsibility for discipline

Schools are being told to take parents to court for failing to control their children as part of a new crackdown on bad behaviour.

Headteachers should make greater use of “parenting orders” to force mothers and fathers of the worst offenders to take more responsibility for their children, the Government said.

The civil court order requires them to attend counselling sessions and parenting classes – and can also set out strict rules on how families should deal with sons and daughters. This includes making sure children do not stay up late, ensuring they cannot get access to alcohol at home, getting them to school on time and making sure uniform rules are followed. Breach of the order can lead to prosecution and a £1,000 fine.

A report by Sir Alan Steer, former headteacher and the Government’s top advisor on behaviour, warned of a “lack of understanding” about the orders in schools. New guidance issued to heads will say that parents failing to play their part in keeping children under control “need to know that the issuing of a parenting order is a possible action by the school”.

Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, said: “For heads to have the power to take court action against parents whose children continue to behave badly, disrupt lessons and impact on other pupils is a vital step in the right direction.”

Parents are already being asked to sign Home School Agreements – non-legal contracts setting out minimum standards of behaviour, attendance, uniform and homework – before the start of term. They are expected to sign them every 12 months. Most schools already have agreements but under new legislation it will be a legal requirement on every state primary and secondariy to issue them. Sir Alan’s report suggested that schools should apply for parenting orders when families repeatedly fail to abide by rules set out on the agreements.

Speaking at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers annual conference on Wednesday, Mr Balls said: “I want to see more schools using parenting orders when Home School Agreements fail. It is time for parents to be held accountable for their child’s behaviour.”

Parenting orders have been available to schools and local councils for six years, but only 2,000 have been issued for truancy and none have been handed out for behaviour. Mr Balls said heads had “not felt sufficiently confident legally that the courts would support them if they were apply for a parenting order for behaviour”, but insisted that new guidance handed to schools would improve their awareness of the process.

The comments come after research by the ATL found that a quarter of teachers had been forced to deal with a violent pupil in the current academic year. Many teachers blamed parents for failing to act as good “role models” for their children. More than a third of staff also said they had faced abuse from mothers and fathers themselves, often after attempting to discipline their child.

One teacher from a state primary in Essex said: “I have had a threat to my life from a parent because I told a child to complete their homework during part of their ‘golden time’. “It was threatened that they and their family would kill me when I came to or from school.”

A female secondary school teacher said: “I have been trapped in an office by a father and older brother of a student who were angry that he'd had his gold trainers confiscated until the end of the day.”


Lunatic Leftism in Australian schools

Any intelligent teacher tries to get the kids on side but discipline is needed too

TEACHERS trying to restore order in their classrooms are being asked to ditch tough disciplinary measures for such tactics as standing on a green spot or pointing to a message on a wall.

Traditional methods for dealing with disruptive children, such as detention and loud reprimands, are being cast aside in favour of merely "hinting" at bad behaviour. The techniques are part of an Education Department program being tested at more than 100 state schools in disadvantaged areas.

Some of the methods, criticised by a family group as "pie in the sky", urge teachers to give up "power" and become "agents" of their students.

Strategies to improve class behaviour include involving students in deciding rules and discussing with them the impact of their misbehaviour.

But Australian Family Association spokesman John Morrissey, a part-time teacher, said the program sounded like a throwback to the 1970s. "A lot of this is pie in the sky stuff," he said. "If you don't have a tight ship being run at school, and some backup from home, it is very hard to achieve discipline."

Liberal education spokesman Martin Dixon said improving academic standards shouldn't mean turning classroom practice on its head.

But the scheme's facilitator, La Trobe University's Prof Ramon Lewis, said it was all about using gentle hints rather than being aggressive with unruly students. "You identify ways of letting kids know that someone's rights are being ignored without necessarily forcing them to do anything about it," he said. "So, basically, it's a skill of hinting. That can be a sign on the wall you can point to. "One teacher has got a green dot on the floor on which he actually stands to indicate that right now someone is not doing the right thing."

Prof Lewis, who has been researching classroom management for decades and has written several books, said discipline still had a place.

Some of his techniques are being used at north suburban schools, under an Education Department initiative called Achievement Improvement Zones, in a bid to lift literacy and numeracy levels and improve teachers' practices.

Acting Education Minister Maxine Morand said trials did not replace traditional classroom discipline. "Principals and teachers at Victorian government schools already have the power and autonomy to deal with students behaving inappropriately," she said.

An Education Department spokesman said Prof Lewis had more than 20 years' experience in training teachers in how to use positive reinforcement techniques to encourage good behaviour.

Broadmeadows Valley Primary School principal Andy Jones said Prof Lewis's program had been well received and had good results. "A lot of what he does is quite out there," he said. Prof Lewis's methods were also backed by youth psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg and Parents Victoria, which said fresh ideas were needed to deal with difficult children.


Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The self-inflated Juan Cole

As I have noted before, Cole is as thick as a brick

University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole is desperate for you to know that he is eminently qualified to speak publicly on the Middle East. He is, we are told in the opening paragraph of his recent response to the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg,

[a] Middle East expert who lived in the Muslim world for nearly 10 years, travels widely there, speaks the languages, writes history from archives and manuscripts and follows current affairs ...

But from this triumphalist beginning, the story takes a tragic turn: In spite of these qualifications (which you, dear reader, almost certainly do not share), Cole "found that none of [his] experience counted for much when [he] entered the public arena in the United States."

It's not that he's thin-skinned or the like; no, it's that his experience in the real world "is like being a professional baseball player ready for the World Series" who is "kidnapped" and taken not to Yankee Stadium, but to a "secret fight club," where he must take on a "giant James Bond villain." Even when he protests to his kidnappers, "I bat .400," he's made to fight "for insulting our great aunt."

However bizarre the images of Cole's imagination, he is not lacking in self-regard. Baseball fans know that batting .400 is a difficult feat: The last man to accomplish it was Ted Williams back in 1941. Among the game's best hitters who have fallen short of this mark: Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson, Derek Jeter, and Albert Pujols.

But if Cole's self-image is accurate, then why does he strike out so often when he attacks his critics?

In his response to Goldberg, Cole attempts to smear Middle East scholar Martin Kramer (who has penned devastating critiques of Cole): "He has a relationship with the so-called "Middle East Forum," which runs the McCarthyite "Campus Watch," and which was part of a scheme to have me cyber-stalked and massively spammed."

At no time has any project of the Middle East Forum taken part in anything remotely resembling the actions described in these baseless assertions. I challenge Juan Cole to produce evidence that Campus Watch or the Middle East Forum have, at any time, been part of a "scheme" to have him or anyone else "cyber-stalked and massively spammed." Such charges are self-serving conspiracy-mongering with no basis in truth.

As for Cole's other charges: How is the Middle East Forum, an IRS-approved 501 (c)(3) not-for-profit organization, the "so-called Middle East Forum"? This is the organization's legal name. If this is an attempt at sarcasm, it's lame.

In labeling Campus Watch "McCarthyite," Cole resorts to the most hackneyed cliché in the left's repertoire. (In fact, he made the same charge against us just last month -- we corrected it here.) As we have written countless times, we critique professors of Middle East studies; we do not silence them. How could we? We do not possess, and do not seek, governmental powers to issue subpoenas or silence critics.

Cole's accusations against Campus Watch fit his pattern of responding to criticism by engaging in conspiracy-theory-mongering and ad hominem attacks. To explain his failure in 2006 to land a chair at Yale University, he blamed a "concerted press campaign by neoconservatives," who used Cole's frequently intemperate writings on his blog, Informed Comment, to paint him as a radical. Cole dredges up this episode again in his response to Goldberg when he attacks Michael Oren, a Middle East studies scholar who is now Israel's ambassador to the U.S., who, Cole says, "weighed in against my receiving an appointment" to Yale.

Yet as CW contributor David White documented in his article "Juan Cole and Yale," Yale's decision was "based on an assessment of Cole's scholarly work," which several senior scholars "deemed insufficient." As a Yale political scientist told White, "At the end of the day, it wasn't his blog; it was his scholarly work. And that's why he was denied the position."

We challenge Cole to prove his latest charges against Campus Watch. Surely the self-declared Ted Williams of his discipline can hit this ball out of the park.


Mr Ordinary is the perfect role model for boys and not celebrities who set a bad example, warn British teachers

Their humdrum lives may lack the glamour of a footballer or TV star. But teachers say ‘the ordinary working man’ should once again be held up as an example to young boys being led astray by today’s celebrity-obsessed culture.

They warned that traditional working-class virtues are being undermined by the trend to celebrate drunkenness and excessive spending. Rather than badly behaved footballers and reality TV stars, it is hard-working and responsible fathers who are the ‘real superstars’, according to a teaching union.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers warned that a generation of white working-class boys was growing up believing life on an ordinary wage had little meaning or purpose.

Children are losing sight of old-fashioned values such as taking pride in a job, paying their own way and looking after a family. At its conference in Manchester, the union demanded a campaign to raise the profile of community role models and ‘the ordinary working man’.

The call comes after research showed that white workingclass boys do worse at school than any other group. Teacher Ian Bonner, of ATL’s Cheshire branch, said: ‘It’s almost as if you are a nobody if you don’t earn millions. ‘If anything, the lives of the well-paid footballers demonstrate that vast wages and poor examples generally go together.’

He said celebrities were often hailed as role models even if they had committed crimes such as possessing drugs or hitting photographers.

‘The ordinary honest working man can be a good role model and is an essential member of a society that needs to function well,’ he said. ‘Getting up, going to work, doing a good job, looking after your family, if you have one, not being a drunkard, living within your means, not running up debts you can’t pay, looking after your house or flat, are all part of the role that needs to be presented as important.’

ATL members backed his call for the union to ‘publicise the contribution made to society by men who support and care for their families in a positive and responsible manner’.

Mr Bonner said: ‘It is hard work bringing up children to be responsible and well-behaved, caring and considerate, generous and just good. ‘These are the real superstars in our society and without them this society would go belly-up within months.’

These unsung heroes are ‘far more essential to the life of our nation than those who get paid millions for kicking a ball around or who have found instant stardom on a talent show’, he said.

Suitable role models needed to be promoted for white working-class boys so they can see that ‘life can have as much, if not more, meaning and purpose without lots of expensive possessions’. ‘They will see that raising children to be good members of society is harder than jetting around the world and being in the papers,’ he said.

Mr Bonner told the conference working-class boys were ‘not motivated to learn because they see the education provided for them as irrelevant’. ‘They do not see it as relevant because they do not see people in society who came from their background making the news in a positive manner,’ he added.


Australian student doctors not learning anatomy

This is incredible. Anatomy is utterly basic

MEDICAL students at some universities are receiving minimal training in anatomy, undergoing as little as 56 hours in a five-year course - 10 times less than their counterparts at other institutions.

A comparison of anatomy tuition at 19 medical schools found enormous variations in teaching time, ranging from 85 up to 560 hours across some six-year courses, and as low as 56 hours among five-year degree programs - even though four-year courses managed to offer at least 75 hours.

The research - triggered by recent controversies over newly graduated doctors' shrinking anatomical knowledge - also found most staff who taught anatomy were not senior doctors, but instead non-clinical staff who included physiotherapists and even other medical students.

Further, more than half of Australia's medical schools did not set a minimum level of achievement for their students in anatomy and did not separately mark it. Several universities admitted this meant students could do "very poorly" in their anatomy studies, but could still progress and graduate if they did well in other disciplines.

The study's lead author, Steven Craig, a recent medical graduate, said he could recall fellow students not bothering to revise anatomy in the lead-up to barrier exams that would decide whether they continued in their course, knowing that poor knowledge of the topic would not jeopardise their place on the program.

"We believe consideration should be given to developing undergraduate learning goals or guidelines for anatomical teaching," the authors wrote in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery.

"A standardised national curriculum and perhaps even a standardised national examination to assess anatomical knowledge prior to graduation may be needed to ensure all graduates attain at least some minimum acceptable knowledge base in gross anatomy."

The findings mark the first attempt to gauge how much anatomy tuition Australia's medical schools are providing, after The Australian in 2006 reported growing concern among senior clinicians and academics that many medical schools had cut anatomy teaching to potentially unsafe levels to make way for other topics. Some experts have attacked the priority given to non-medical topics such as communication, ethics and cultural sensitivity.

The medical colleges for surgeons, anaesthetists and pathologists, which train specialist doctors and oversee standards, said the findings vindicated their longstanding concerns and called for all medical schools to properly assess students' knowledge of anatomy and other basic sciences.

John Quinn, executive director of surgical affairs for the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, said "a large variation" in anatomical knowledge was already apparent among recently graduated doctors.

Those with poor understanding of anatomy ordered more tests, including X-rays and CT scans that exposed patients to potentially harmful radiation, when these might not be necessary. "I think it would be reasonable to have a national minimum standard of teaching (anatomy)," Dr Quinn said.

Ross Roberts-Thomson, president of the Australian Medical Students Association, said no student should be able to graduate without being tested on essential topics such as anatomy.

But he rejected calls for a national curriculum or exam, and said students at medical schools that delivered less formal anatomy tuition might be learning in other contexts not captured by the figures. "If you are learning about heart attacks, you learn about the anatomy of the heart during that assessment," Mr Roberts-Thomson said.

Jim Angus, president of Medical Deans Australia and New Zealand, said he was concerned at the claim some students appeared to believe anatomy could be safely left out of exam revision. "Game-playing should not occur - I don't like the sound of that at all," Professor Angus said. However, he rejected the call for national standards.


Smart young student sues over forbidden study

Smart kids are rarely well-catered for by "equality"-oriented educators

Colin Carlson is a sophomore at the University of Connecticut working on a bachelor's with a double major in ecology and evolutionary biology. So it made some sense that he signed up for a class on the flora and fauna of South Africa. (Watch out for the gogga, bokkie.) The university refused to allow it and Colin's gatvol over it.

He's halfway through university and complains: "They're upsetting the framework of one of my majors." And they are. It's either this year or next and it's unlikely they will allow Colin to take the course next year either. It isn't that there is no space on the course. The issue is that it requires field work in South Africa over the summer and the school won't let Colin go. Almost any other student on campus is allowed to go, provided they are not on probation and have at least a "C" average. Colin is not on probation and has a 3.9 GPA, which is bascially an "A+" average. The school says it is because he is 13-years-old.

Colin says that is age discrimination and is suing.

Colin started taking university classes when he was 9 even though he only finished the Stanford University Online High School until the advanced age of 11. That was when he enrolled at UConn full-time. He taught himself to read when he was 2 and had finished and was deep into the Harry Potter series by the age of 4.

Colin's mother, Jessica Offir, has offered to sign any legal documents needed to remove all legal responsibility from the university, if they allow Colin to take the course. She has even offered to fly there with her son as an escort, at her own expense.

Colin is upset because the course was critical for his particular interests and said that his ban from the class has forced him to change plans for his thesis. He does have a trip to South Africa planned anyway, wieth a National Science Foundation-funded research group.

The university says it is because they are concerned about his safety. Ah, that desire to Nanny others and protect them from themself.

Colin didn't want to sue, but says he was offered no choice. "When people are drawing lines in the sand, you're going to have to cross them. I'm not going back."

I am a bit disappointed with UConn myself. They seemed amazingly flexible as an institution in the past, they allowed me to design my own major. There were only four or five of us on campus allowed to do this, but we determined the course of our studies provided we had a professor acting as our mentor. My mentor taught sociology with an emphasis on criminology and eventually became a libertarian—which pleased me as you might expect.

The reality is that "adolescents" are far more capable than we ever give them credit for. This was well outlined in The Case Against Adolescence. As I see it, adults treat adolescents as if they are children and then can't understand why they are frustrated, angry and moody. Ninety percent of the time problems can be solved with a simple explanation. Ah, but parents don't explain. Why? Because they can't. Too often parents lay down arbitrary, inconsistent rules and when their teen asks them, "Why?" they can't give a rational answer. So the resort to the answer of the bully: "Because I said so."

Instead of using such times to teach reason and logic, too many parents try to teach blind obedience to authority and respect for the ability to use force. I have more confidence in the teens than I do in the adults of this country. Why? Simple: the adults have already proven they are incompetent and capable of screwing things up.

So I applaud Colin for pursuing his dream and his education and applaud him for standing up for himself in the face of UConn's policy. If want teens to act like adults we have to stop treating them like children.


Delaware, Tennessee win “Race to the Top” funding

In an effort to improve America's public schools, the Obama administration has dangled the ultimate carrot -- money. More than $4 billion of stimulus package money was offered through the U.S. Education Department's "Race to the Top'" grant program.

Delaware and Tennessee are the first states awarded millions for schools. Of 41 states that applied, only two -- Delaware and Tennessee -- got a passing grade today. They will receive $600 million total, while the other 39 states will get nothing for now.

"This is about systemic reform really driving change at a state-level and these two states did a spectacular job of that," said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

The final number came as a surprise to many -- the Education Department originally suggested that as many as 10 of the original 41 applicants could ultimately win.

States were judged on their past success at education reform, as well as their plans to embrace common academic standards, improve teacher quality, create educational data systems, and turn around their lowest-performing schools.

The two winners will receive amounts close to their initial requests. Delaware will receive roughly $100 million and Tennessee $500 million.

Union Support a Contributing Factor

Both Delaware and Tennessee agreed to tie teacher's evaluations to student performance and implement reforms in every school district statewide. Crucially, they also got nearly full support from the teacher's unions.

Experts believed Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana all had strong -- if not stronger -- applications, but what they lacked was the nearly unanimous support from local unions and school districts obtained by Delaware and Tennessee.

"I think this is a win for the unions. What it shows is they have veto power over state application. If they don't sign on, their states are unlikely to get funding," said Michael Petrilli, vice president for National Programs and Policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

But Duncan said this afternoon that local support was just one of many factors considered in the applications.

"This is a 500-point competition. We looked for the strongest applications overall. Buy-in was a piece of the application. It was by no means the determining factor," Duncan told reporters on a conference call.

More here

British School pupils ‘being used as political footballs’, says Association of Teachers and Lecturers

Schoolchildren are being turned into “political footballs” by MPs, according to a teachers’ leader. They are increasingly made to feel like failures at an early age if they struggle to hit pre-conceived Government targets, said Lesley Ward, president of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. She told the union’s annual conference that meddling by politicians meant children failed to enjoy school as much as previous generations.

The comments come just weeks after inspectors found that Labour’s £4.5 billion school reforms were failing to improve standards in the three-Rs because schools had been “overwhelmed” by red tape. Ofsted found that progress in English and maths has been “too slow” over the last four years as state schools struggled under the weight of new initiatives and teaching materials introduced as part of the National Strategies programme.

In a speech to the union’s annual conference in Manchester, Mrs Ward said: "I don't think I would like to be a school child at the moment. “I don't think I would like to be a statistic. I don't think I would like to be told, at a very early age, what level I should be at, or that I am not at the right level and despite doing my best I am failing somehow. "I don't think I would like to feel guilty for being poorly during Sats week if my absence brought the school's score down. I don't think I would enjoy being a political football."

Mrs Ward, a primary school teacher from Doncaster, said education policy had become stuck, with the same issues being debated now as they were 40 years ago. "I am on to my 15th Secretary of State for Education and my 29th Minister for Education,” she said. “I have lived through, endured, survived, call it what you like, 54 pieces of education legislation since I started teaching. One more and it would be one for each year of my life."

The union, which represents 160,000 school staff, called for the abolition of Ofsted and league tables and a more trust in “teachers’ professional judgment”.


Monday, March 29, 2010

The entitlement mentality in academia

Brian Leiter is incensed. Mr. Leiter — famous primarily for his website containing comparative rankings of philosophy programs, as well as his blog, which covers job-related news in academic philosophy — has recently learned that King's College, London (KCL) is facing budget problems and must cut back on staff. In order to assess the extent of layoffs, the school will require every faculty member to interview for their current position.

Leiter has kept his readers updated on the situation through his blog, and linked to The Times Higher Education's coverage of the event — which, in an article titled "'Draconian' measure: King's to cut 205 jobs," emphasizes how the cutbacks will affect the humanities and focuses on the reaction this has set off among academics:
A proposal on "restructuring" in the School of Arts and Humanities, where 22 jobs are at risk, tells staff that "all academic roles … will be declared at risk of redundancy."

Selection of the redundancies "will be done through an assessment based on the performance of each role holder," it adds.

A group of 26 academics from nearby University College London have written to the head of the school, Jan Palmowski, warning that such a "savage reduction of staff numbers" would mean that the best candidates in the humanities will "shun the institution."

Only in academia — or in government — could the reduction of just over two hundred jobs from among thousands (and in this economic climate!) be considered "draconian" and "savage" in an unqualified sense. The reaction of these academics betrays the degree to which an entitlement mentality has permeated institutions of higher education.

No one enjoys it when resources are mismanaged, time and money are wasted, and an organization must face tough decisions on how to clean up after its past mistakes. Sometimes these corrections include firing staff members, some of whom may have been hard-working and dedicated employees. However, while personnel changes caused by financial problems are often tragic, the alternatives — pretending that no such problems exist, for example — are much worse.

Unsustainable activities cannot continue forever, for the simple reason that they are wasteful by definition and must eventually either collapse or become a drag on the rest of society (e.g., through tax- or inflation-funded transfers of wealth). Those companies and institutions not on the public dole do not have the second option: profit and loss mechanisms ensure that all organizations which weigh down the rest of society are dissolved, reformed, sold to more capable owners, reorganized, etc.

However, this is not the case with universities and colleges, most of which are entirely state owned and the majority of which receive sizeable benefits supplied by the public. Administrators at these institutions enjoy the privilege of negotiating political solutions for their financial problems, which amounts to bypassing the need to please consumers first and foremost. Yet this comes at a cost: if you earn your living not by voluntary exchange but through entitlement, it is impossible to run an organization on sound financial principles.

During the good times, few notice the tension between economic reality and university policy. There is enough money to go around, and schools routinely enlarge their scope of activity by hiring promising young scholars and expanding the number of programs they offer. But when recessions hit and everyone is forced to rein in his spending, academics desire to retain their right not to be affected by the rest of the world's concerns. They ride the boom but refuse to feel the bust.

Even the reorganization of one school such as KCL — in this case, the reduction of a small percentage of its faculty — can send academics across the world into a fury. Brian Leiter comments on the situation:
KCL Philosophy is a remarkably consistent unit in terms of strength, so it is an insult that any member of staff should have to re-apply for his or her job. Indeed, we can go much further: it is an insult and an outrage that any professional hired with an expectation of permanent employment absent gross dereliction of duties should have to re-apply for his or her job.

Terms like "insult" and "outrage" imply that the morality of a matter is clear and needs little or no explanation. Yet it is not apparent why KCL's reorganization is such a case.

Granted, KCL has broken promises it made to its professors, who were "hired with an expectation of permanent employment." However, there are many situations in which breaking a promise — while undesirable — is nevertheless necessary in order to avoid an even worse state of affairs. When an institution makes grand promises of a prosperous future, it should be obvious that the fulfillment of such claims is simply not within its control. Who is KCL to decide that it will remain prosperous regardless of a change in the economic climate?

It's not outrageous to fall short of a promise you never should have made; on the contrary, to make questionable commitments is unwise and blameworthy in itself. Consider an industry that has experienced its own crisis in recent years: real-estate–management firms boasted record high profits in 2005, with promises of ever-greater expansion in the future. During 2007 I worked in a massive, new complex with offices, retail space, and residential areas that had been planned at the height of real-estate mania. It was built on the expectation of steady increases in real-estate prices, but to this day only a fraction of its condos and offices have been sold or leased. The project remains a massive failure.

The firm that executed the project, their investors, their clients, and their employees were all deceived: in reality, the real-estate boom was a sham, and the project, which seemed like a sure bet, never had a chance. And so the consequences for their foolishness had to be met. Promises could not be kept; painful cutbacks and reorganization were needed to survive. Many were disappointed.

Strangely enough, I have never seen any outraged letters to the editor about asset managers losing their jobs. Everyone recognizes that there was simply too much real-estate–related activity at the time, pushing too many, often ill-conceived projects. Most also realize that to continue the illusion can only delay the recovery and readjustment to normality. If there are too many workers in real estate, some of them need to find productive work in other fields.

The same principles must apply to higher education no less than they do to real estate, whether we choose to recognize this or not. The only difference — and the reason busts appear to go easy on universities — lies in the political connectedness of most schools. When times are tough, the taxpayers are expected to eat the lion's share of costs (since university professors after all are "hired with an expectation of permanent employment").

More here

British High School exam results being 'inflated', says examiner

School exam results are being driven up by “grade inflation”, a leading examiner has admitted. Tim Oates, head of research at Cambridge Assessment, said that exam boards had bowed to political pressure by making questions more accessible for students and giving schools guidance about the way tests were marked.

He suggested that changes to GCSEs and A-levels could be leading to a rise in the number of students gaining the top grades. Last year, some 17 per cent of students scored three A grades at A-level, compared with only seven per cent in the mid-90s.

Mr Oates said publicly admitting the possibility of "subtle drift" in standards sounded like a "Ratner moment" for exam boards - a reference to Gerald Ratner whose infamous gaffe about the quality of his jewellery wiped an estimated £500m from the value of his company.

But he said it would be "profoundly dysfunctional" for examiners not to critically assess the reasons for rising results.

Writing in an article published by Cambridge Assessment, he said: “Giving the benefit of the doubt to pupils… can result in subtle grade inflation.

“Constantly enhancing the ‘accessibility’ of questions, the transparency of mark schemes and the precision of guidance can ease up the numbers gaining the highest grades.

“Changing the content to be more accessible to a wider audience than the previous educational elite can in turn move the content standards away from the precise requirements of elite higher education.”

The comments were made in an article designed to kick start a debate on why the number of top grades rises year-on-year.

Results published last summer showed the number of A-level papers graded A to E increased for the 27th year in a row.

More than a quarter of entries in England, Wales and Northern Ireland was awarded an A grade – double the number 20 years ago.

Critics have claimed that examinations have been “dumbed down” to make them easier to pass.

Mr Oates said exam boards – independent organisations with contracts to run GCSEs and A-levels – were under political pressure to make tests more accessible to students. This included moving to "modular" courses, which are broken up into bite-sized chunks that students can re-take to boost overall grades.

“Increasing access, updating content, switching to modular [tests] – and being as transparent as possible over mark schemes, grade criteria and guidance – have all been fervent pre-occupations of policy makers and the education establishment,” he said. “Awarding bodies have delivered on that agenda.”


British classroom anarchy, killers in school uniform and how a generation is being betrayed

Note for U.S. readers: The writer below uses the old British convention of referring to "public" schools when he means private schools. Government schools are "State" schools

The murder of 15-year-old Sofyen Belamouadden is an especially shocking gang crime because it was carried out in the midst of Victoria station, by [black] boys apparently wearing school blazers.

It is tragically easy to imagine the horrors of life in the sort of classrooms the murderers come from. We have grown accustomed to the existence of feral children - violent, amoral, unteachable and later unemployable - in many parts of Britain.

It is easy to identify their immediate victims, fellow teenagers who are bullied and occasionally killed. But beyond these, a much larger host pays the price: millions of children who want to equip themselves to lead decent lives. Indiscipline and violence are viruses, which infect all those around them. In classrooms up and down the land, they make it impossible for many teachers to teach and their pupils to be educated.

For every young gangster, there are 20 or 30 more children who, amid chronic disruption, are robbed of the opportunity to gain skills which alone can offer them a future beyond stacking supermarket shelves.

The sanction of exclusion exists, and is imposed in extreme cases. But in thousands of schools, in the name of 'social justice' and 'fairness', every teacher is expected to handle their quota of 'difficult' children. They are obliged to conduct classes in which the presence of disruptive boys and girls is taken for granted.

If teachers lose their tempers or fail to handle such pupils, this is deemed a symptom of professional failure. Such an approach is shockingly wrong. The interests of law-abiding, biddable children are daily damaged on a massive scale, to protect the supposed rights of the lawless minority.

Last week, I received a lengthy letter from a secondary school teacher, attesting to this state of affairs. It was anonymous, because identification would mean dismissal. 'Blending is a key feature of the state sector,' he writes. 'Pupils who cannot, and will not, behave appropriately are blended in with the other children. They call it inclusion. 'Teachers are expected to have their fair share of unmanageable louts and those who struggle to cope are labelled as poor teachers.

'This is manifestly unfair, because class teachers have no powers whatsoever to deal with the louts. They can only call for assistance, which is considered to indicate an inability to manage behaviour. You can predict levels of poor behaviour by looking at the academic results of a school.'

The Labour Government has miserably failed to raise state educational standards. It has spent hundreds of millions of pounds to create a massive edifice of supervision and bureaucracy. Far from supporting the teaching process, this sustains a reign of terror among school heads who must meet relentless, meaningless targets.

Worse, the educational establishment is fundamentally resistant to imposed discipline or sanctions against unruly children. It trains young teachers to suppose that anti-social behaviour is self-correcting, a view shared by no sensible parent.

I disliked school, as most of us do, and indeed was a badly behaved child. But I realise how vastly privileged was my private education, and that of my children. Fees bought excellent teaching. Much more important, we learned things because we were constrained within a rigorous framework of discipline. If we erred, we were punished. Serious excess meant expulsion - the sack - which is recognised in every middle-class household as a disgrace.

The real privilege of attending a public school is not to 'learn to talk posh' or even to enjoy lavish facilities. It is to acquire habits of self-discipline without which it is impossible for a human being to achieve anything in life, or even to relate to other people. One is taught that it is impossible to indulge every immediate impulse, and often necessary to do things one does not wish.

Of course some state schools and new academies foster this culture, and each year turn out thousands of well-behaved as well as educated adolescents. But they are a minority.

Many, if not most, are trapped in an endless struggle to avoid succumbing to mob rule. It is a miracle that they manage to teach their pupils anything at all.

I quote again from my teacher correspondent's bitter letter: 'My experiences have shown me that state education is being run by people who do not believe in discipline. They believe that unruly pupils will eventually reform themselves. They refuse to adopt rigorous policies.

'They have moved the definition of what constitutes "good" teaching. A lesson cannot be graded as "good" by Ofsted unless ALL the pupils in the class make good progress. If a single pupil misbehaves or refuses to work, the teacher is penalised.

'None of this makes for good teaching. Teachers become so obsessed with ticking all the boxes on the Ofsted checklist that they forget about the content.'

Most parents understand all this, and know what needs to be done. Only the Labour Party and the education establishment reject the obvious message.

We shall continue to fail in our efforts to match the new generation of, for instance, young Singaporeans until children willing to learn and obey rules are segregated from those who are not.

Call this, if you like, a quarantine process. We take it for granted that people suffering an infectious disease are set apart from the healthy for as long as doctors recommend.

In state schools, there is a sort of madness about the systemic rejection of such precautions. Month after month and year after year, a child or group of children is permitted to wreck the learning process for scores or hundreds of others.

Of course it is true that some of the wreckers deserve compassion - for the misery of their home lives, broken families or deprived circumstances. Those of us who live comfortable existences untouched by squalor, crime or violence know how fortunate we are. But the majority also has its rights.

In education as so much else, the Labour Government has ruthlessly subordinated the vital interests of most of the British people to the supposed welfare of minorities, some of them criminal.

The murder at Victoria station should serve as an alarm call, not merely about teenage violence, but about its consequences for much of our schools population. Until uncontrollable and unteachable children are separated from the rest, state education will continue to fail

It is hard to overstate the importance of what is at stake. Unless our state schools can produce much larger numbers of educated and disciplined pupils than they do today, not only will the individuals suffer, but this country will be unable to compete through the 21st century.

We live in an era dominated by technology and science. Yet science classes have become a privilege available overwhelmingly to fee-paying pupils.

In most state schools, basic skills to make possible such learning are lacking among teachers and pupils. Universities complain that many students waste their first year mastering essay-writing and other core techniques indispensable to fulfil degree courses, and which should be acquired before A-level.

If further evidence was needed of the insane social engineering conducted by those running Britain's education system, it came yesterday from Professor Steve Smith, President of Universities UK. he called for more university places to be given to students from poorer backgrounds, heedless of their inferior A-level grades. This supremely foolish man is demanding a further lowering of standards, in recognition of the ghastly failure of state schools.

The murder at Victoria station should serve as an alarm call, not merely about teenage violence, but about its consequences for much of our schools population. Until uncontrollable and unteachable children are separated from the rest, state education will continue to fail.

Unless teachers have power to command the attention of their classes, they cannot instill the learning for which schools exist.

Feral children merit pity, because their futures are bleak even if they escape likely years caged in cells. But much more sympathy is owed to millions of honest and ambitious teenagers who are today forced to share the cost of the gangsters' animality.


Sunday, March 28, 2010

“No Child” stalls reading scores nationwide

The nation’s students are mired at a basic level of reading in fourth and eighth grades, their achievement in recent years largely stagnant, according to a federal report yesterday that suggests a dwindling academic payoff from the landmark No Child Left Behind law.

The report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, showed that fourth-grade reading scores stalled after the law took effect in 2002, rose modestly in 2007, then stalled again in 2009. Eighth-grade scores showed a slight uptick since 2007 — 1 point on a scale of 500 — but no gain over the seven-year span when President George W. Bush’s program for school reform was in high gear.

Only in Kentucky did reading scores rise significantly in both grades from 2007 to 2009.

For the third straight time, Massachusetts fourth- and eighth-graders received the nation’s highest reading scores. Fourth-graders scored an average of 234 on the 2009 test, compared with the national average of 220. Eighth-graders averaged 274, tied for first with five other states and above the 262 national average.

Governor Deval Patrick touted the results at an afternoon press conference. “This is a wonderful, wonderful reflection of all the hard work that has been done in classrooms and schools all across the Commonwealth,’’ Patrick said.

Patrick and Secretary of Education Paul Reville said that, despite the results, they remained concerned about a persistent achievement gap between students of color and white students and poor students and their peers from wealthier families.

No Child Left Behind, which Bush signed in 2002, aimed to spur a revolution in reading. The government spent billions of dollars to improve instruction and required schools to monitor student progress every year toward an ambitious goal of eliminating achievement gaps.

Yet an authoritative series of federal tests has found only isolated gains — notably including the District of Columbia’s long-troubled public schools — but no great leaps for the nation.

“We’ve had a real focus on reading, and we’re stuck,’’ said Susan Pimentel, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the tests. The report, she said, “points to an issue, and we’ve got to as practitioners figure what’s going on. I think students aren’t reading enough. And I think they aren’t reading enough of the good stuff. That’s true in grade 4, and that’s true in grade 8, on up.’’

Last fall, the government reported sluggish gains in math in a companion series of federal tests. Taken together, the reading and math results are likely to be seized on by would-be reformers as evidence that a new approach should be taken. But what that should be remains an open question.

“Today’s results once again show that the achievement of American students isn’t growing fast enough,’’ Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. “The reading scores demonstrate that students aren’t making the progress necessary to compete in the global economy. We shouldn’t be satisfied with these results. By this and many other measures, our students aren’t on a path to graduate high school ready to succeed in college and the workplace.’’

President Obama wants to raise standards and give educators more freedom to innovate, without abolishing the premise of No Child Left Behind that students should be tested every year and schools held accountable for failure. Teachers unions, critical of Obama’s plan, say educators should be given far more funding and other help to lift the performance of struggling students. Talks are underway in Congress on a rewrite of the law.

Nationally, the public average for fourth-grade reading scores remained 220 on the 500-point scale. D.C. test scores have been trending upward for some time, but achievement in the city’s schools remains far below the high marks of the surrounding suburbs. D.C. scores showed a surge to 202 last year from 197 in 2007. Virginia’s score was unchanged at 227. The national average for eighth-grade reading scores is 262.

D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee attributed some of the District’s recent gains to the creation of a two-hour “literacy block’’ in all elementary schools. That amounts to two hours every school day of uninterrupted focus on reading.


Winds of Change in the Windy City’s School System

Chicago witnessed one small victory for urban school reform and parental choice yesterday as the Illinois State Senate voted 33-20 to approve a pilot voucher program for low-income Chicago students currently attending the city’s worst performing schools. The School Choice Act, sponsored by Democrat James Meeks, provides children in Kindergarten through 8th grade state-funded vouchers to attend a private or parochial school in the city. Senator Meeks testified to the voucher program’s importance in providing low-income students a way out of the underperforming Chicago public schools.

“‘By passing this bill, we’ll give 22,000 kids an opportunity to have a choice on whether or not they’ll continue in their failing school or go to another non-public school within the city of Chicago. Just as we came up with and passed charter schools to help children, now is an opportunity to pass this bill so we can help more children escape the dismal realities of Chicago’s public schools,’ Meeks said.”

The Senate bill requires that the voucher amount be equal either to the average spending per public school student or equal to an enrolled student’s private school tuition costs, which ever is lower. Illinois currently spends an average $6,119 per public school student; but since the current average elementary parochial school only costs $3,234, the average per-pupil voucher amount will likely be lower than average per-pupil expenditure in public schools. If the bill is passed by the Illinois House, K-8 students currently attending a school ranked in the lowest 10 percent of the Chicago School District schools could receive vouchers for the 2011-12 school year, with enrolled students’ academic progress monitored for the following three years of the pilot program. If the voucher system is a success, Meeks hopes the program will expand to allow low-income students across the state a chance to escape failing schools and experience the socioeconomic opportunities afforded by a quality education.

Despite the voucher program’s apparent savings to taxpayers and assistance for low-income students, the Chicago Teachers’ Union was ready with routine complaints that the program will drain resources and talent from the city’s public schools. A union spokesperson stated that, “It will endanger schools that are already struggling.” However, allowing students and families to choose among public and private schools has the potential to actually assist public education. Empirical studies have demonstrated that there is academic improvement within public schools as a result of the competitive pressure placed on those systems by school choice programs.

If vouchers become a reality in Chicago, they will provide tens of thousands of families the opportunity to escape the underperforming public schools and pursue an educational path that best suits their needs.


One facet of a totalitarian state

The facets that define a totalitarian state are often hard to discern; there is always the risk of pushing the argument too far, evoking unsuitable analogies with the fascist governments of the last century. Nevertheless, a spade is spade, and this story of the persecution of a German family point to a dangerous state of affairs.

After the police came knocking, dragging their children off to school, Uwe and Hannalore Romeike and their three children applied for, and were thankfully granted, asylum in the US. Their crime? Educating their children in their home, rather than at school. Judge Lawrence O. Burman, a federal immigration judge in Tennessee, determined that they had a reasonable fear of persecution for their beliefs if they returned. He described the German Government’s actions as “repellent to everything we believe as Americans”.

Germany is not alone. In Sweden, a coalition led by a so-called Liberal party is getting tough on homeschooling, with the proposed introduction of a bill that would only allow home education under extraordinary circumstances. It would also allow the imposition of criminal sanctions on those parents that refused to supplicate to the will of the state.

And in the UK, the government is ignoring the Schools Select Committee in its call to make the registration of home-educated children voluntary. The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) defends its position as follows: “we cannot understand the logic of making it voluntary”. I can help them answer their confusion: because these children are not owned by the state.

There is much talk of how under Obama the US is becoming a socialist dystopia. Sure, things are bad and getting worse, but as the asylum offered to the German home educators illustrates, they still have a fair way to fall before they hit the strictures on freedom infesting the Old World.