Saturday, December 18, 2010

Real Academic Accountability Requires Real Choices

With fresh data showing that students in the United States are falling further behind their international peers, a commitment to universal parental choice at all levels of government is needed now more than ever. Without putting too fine a point on it, our nation’s sustained competitiveness and long-term economic survival hang in the balance.

According to the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) — released to considerable hand-wringing in Washington, D.C. last week — America’s reading scores have slipped by four points over the last nine years. Our fifteen-year-old students now trail their counterparts in Shanghai by 56 points — with even larger gaps existing in science (73 points) and mathematics (113 points).

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called these disappointing results a “wake-up call,” adding that “I think we have to invest in reform, not in the status quo.”

He’s right. But Duncan’s boss — President Barack Obama — has made it clear that he categorically rejects the one reform that America has yet to try. And not only does Obama oppose expanding parental choice, last year he shut down Washington D.C.’s limited, means-tested program — a decision that prompted USA Today to rethink its previous position on this important issue.

“By federal measures, students at 12,978 U.S. schools are failing to improve adequately — 13% of the total,” USA Today wrote last May. “Giving them another option, by vouchers or by other means, provides an escape route and pressures public schools to improve.”

American politicians have tried to fix our nation’s chronic academic woes with more taxpayer money — but those efforts have failed.

“Adjusted for inflation, per-pupil spending increased 42 percent between 1989 and 2007, from $7,911 to $11,233 per pupil,” a recent Rockefeller Institute study noted. And thanks to Obama’s bureaucratic bailouts, the recent recession hasn’t slowed this explosive growth. According to the U.S. Department of Education, a record $1.1 trillion was spent on education funding during the 2009-10 school year.

Politicians have also tried adding new layers of bureaucracy — including funding federally-administered education grants beginning in 1965 and creating the 5,000-employee U.S. Department of Education in 1980 to “promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness.”

While these efforts have similarly failed to accomplish their objectives, they have succeeded in extending the reach of the federal government far beyond its intended scope — forcing taxpayers to pick up a whopping $1.4 trillion (and counting) tab.

In 1990-91, the federal share of total K-12 spending in the United States was just 5.7 percent. That total has nearly doubled over the intervening two decades to 10.5 percent.

Part of this ever-expanding taxpayer obligation includes new “accountability” measures like President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law. Yet instead of erasing the “soft bigotry of low expectations” — and improving test scores — these costly exams have merely created another set of numbers to be manipulated and another layer of bureaucracy to be subsidized.

In their latest attempt at satisfying increasingly impatient parents, politicians have turned to “Choice in Name Only,” or choice within the government-run system. A handful of municipalities – but no states – have also passed limited, means-tested choice programs.

Unfortunately, these efforts have been halfhearted at best — and the limited availability of options has also limited the constituencies needed to protect them from bureaucratic poaching. During the last school year only 62,000 students nationwide were given academic scholarships. Meanwhile, 1.4 million students attended charter schools. To put those numbers in perspective, 57 million students are currently enrolled in public schools.

Why should we try universal choice? Because to be perfectly blunt we’ve tried everything else — and nothing has worked. Also, aside from the perpetual demonization of choice by those who have a vested financial interest in preserving our nation’s failed status quo — why shouldn’t we try it?

Needless to say the stakes are high. For example, a recent study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Stanford University researchers found that if America could boost its average PISA scores by 25 points over the next 20 years, it would result in $41 trillion worth of economic benefits for the generation of Americans born in 2010.

That’s the sort of rising tide that lifts all ships — and could lift this nation to its former glory assuming our leaders summon the courage to try something new. Let’s hope they hurry, because the world clearly isn’t waiting.


Democrats diverging from teachers' unions

Government employee unions have long been one of the Democratic Party's most loyal and dedicated constituencies. For years, Democratic politicians have supported public employee unions' agenda of increased government spending, leading to more government jobs and thus, more potential union members.

For teachers unions - among the most politically powerful government unions - such support has paid off as Democrats have helped them resist popular school reform efforts that could threaten the government school monopoly, including school choice and charter schools.

That was a great deal for the unions and their political allies but a dead weight on everybody else, as taxpayers funded a continually expanding government sector while a growing number parents saw their children stuck in underperforming schools. Cracks finally are starting to show in that alliance - and they may get wider in the near future.

It is perhaps no coincidence that some of the nation's boldest education reformers have been Democrats. From outgoing D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (who was a Democrat before he reregistered Republican and is now an Independent) mayors in Democrat-controlled cities are the ones who have faced the most dire conditions in the schools they were elected to oversee.

Both Mr. Fenty and Mr. Bloomberg saw the need for drastic action - thus their appointment and strong support for their respective school chancellors, Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein, both of whom pursued an aggressive reform agenda.

Now Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, also a Democrat (and with a teachers union background, to boot) has joined the pro-reform chorus. In a speech last week, he denounced his city's teachers union, United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), as "one unwavering roadblock to reform." He said, "At every step of the way, when Los Angeles was coming together to effect real change in our public schools, UTLA was there to fight against the change and slow the pace of reform."

UTLA boss A.J. Duffy angrily dismissed Mr. Villaraigosa's remarks. "Pointing fingers and laying blame does not help improve our schools," he said. Yet pointing fingers at those responsible for the dire state of public schools is what is needed.

Mr. Duffy's reaction, while unfortunate, is not surprising. For he and other government union bosses to change course, the incentive structure under which the UTLA - and government employee unions in general - operate needs to change.

As the late president of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker, so honestly put it, "When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that's when I'll start representing the interests of schoolchildren." Until they do, Mr. Villaraigosa's call on UTLA leaders to drop their opposition to his administration's reform efforts and join him in making Los Angeles' public schools better is likely to continue falling on deaf ears.


Subsidizing education makes it more expensive

A very unscientific Google search for ‘government education grants’ yields over 4,000,000 hits. There are all manner of scholarships, grants, and loans available for every conceivable category of person, with the possible exception of politically conservative religious white heterosexual males. There is no room on college campuses for hate-filled superstitious racist homophobes.

Not unless they are hate-filled Islamofascist racist homophobes, that is. They apparently go to the front of the Financial Aid line at University. But I digress.

Federal, state, and local governments subsidize higher education with billions of our taxpayer dollars every year. And every year, costs go up. Tuition, textbooks, housing, parking fees . . . you name it. The rate of increase far exceeds the rate of inflation.


But it does not exceed what the market will bear.
When Uncle Sam opened the floodgates to government-backed student loans without parent income restrictions in 1992, colleges welcomed the news with open arms. The sudden injection of millions of additional aid dollars only furthered tuition increases.

When the government made it exceptionally easy for students to borrow massive amounts of money, the colleges followed the lead by increasing their tuition rates. This combination led to record-level borrowing. (Source:

The price is what the market will bear. That is the reason why textbooks that cost perhaps $25 each to publish will fetch upwards of $300 at checkout. And the main reason why higher education costs have skyrocketed over the past 50 years is because – you guessed it – the government subsidizes much of it. There are other contributing factors, but by far the biggest reason why tuition costs have skyrocketed is because everyone (well, everyone outside government) knows that no matter how ridiculously high costs soar, there will be some government subsidy to pay for most or all of it. Favored populations who qualify for these subsidies take for granted that the subsidies will be available semester after semester, year after year. Expectation leads to entitlement, and when a deeply ingrained sense of entitlement is combined with radical leftist pedagogy, you have a timebomb on your hands. This is what is happening in Great Britain, right now.
The once-great British university system has been slowly degenerating thanks to the progressive socialist agenda since the 1960s.

State interference affects the daily attitudes of students and professors. After the Education Act of 1962, University education was subsidized entirely by the taxpayer (or “free,” as the left like to call it) until 1997, when minimal tuition fees were introduced for students — fees that were eventually expanded to allow institutions to charge up to £3,290 in 2006.

So-called “free,” or at least cheap, university education has led to an attitude of apathy and confusion as to what the institution of a university is for. The traditional understanding of a university as an institution of learning has been replaced by the view that university is a place where one has an “experience” or discovers oneself.

With little or no cost to the student, the university attracts many people who would not normally go, but who choose it because it offers a fun way to spend a few years and come away with a qualification at the end. Although there are a number of students who wish to learn, train, and come away with a good degree, the spirit of apathy toward education at even some of the best universities is overwhelming.

Over time, student life has focused more on drink, drugs, and casual sex (assisted by state funded “safe-sex” schemes) than on lectures. Less time in the library and more time in the Student Union bar means more opportunities to be roped into left-wing-controlled “activism,” whether it is fair-trade, animal rights, eco-extremism, or plain old Marxism and anti-Americanism. As I write, news is filtering through that this week’s Stockholm bomber graduated from a British University, just like the “Christmas Day bomber,” Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab. One does not have to look far to see where their anti-Western attitudes may have been formed.

The current university system also allows for lazy lecturing. (Source: Britain’s Left Are Panicking, by Adam Shaw in American Thinker)

The solution to the soaring costs associated with higher education is less government subsidization, thus reducing the amount the market will bear. Other added benefits include more studious students, better teachers, and degrees that actually mean something.


Friday, December 17, 2010

In Defense of the Liberal Arts

Hmmmm.... Although I am an avid consumer of high culture myself -- from Thucydides to Chaucer, from Bach to Stravinsky -- I have always found it hard to defend such pursuits as anything more than personal amusements.

And I ended up practising what I preached. In my freshman year at university, I got the highest mark awarded in the poetry paper that formed part of the final examination for Introductory English literature. And there were around 1,000 students in that course.

So my emotional home is undoubtedly in the Humanities. Yet I did not persevere with that line of study. My major field of study became psychology -- which I saw (rather wrongly) as having some utility rather than being mere amusement.

But maybe my personal love of Humanities pursuits blinds me to its having utility too. So I think maybe there is something in what Victor Davis Hanson says below

One point Hanson might have made is that novels from past centuries can widen one's perspective. The world revealed to one when reading (say) Jane Austen is a very different one to the world today and an awareness of that could well help us to see present arrangements in a broader perspective. It might help us to take less for granted.

And there is one Humanities pursuit that I have never been apologetic about: The study of Latin. Learning Latin grammar is perhaps the best pathway to an understanding of how sentences work and is therefore a major help in learning how to write clear English. -- JR

The liberal arts face a perfect storm. The economy is struggling with obscenely high unemployment and is mired in massive federal and state deficits. Budget-cutting won't spare education.

The public is already angry over fraud, waste and incompetence in our schools and universities. And in these tough times, taxpayers rightly question everything about traditional education -- from teacher unions and faculty tenure to the secrecy of university admissions policies and which courses really need to be taught.

Opportunistic private trade schools have sprouted in every community, offering online certification in practical skills without the frills and costs of so-called liberal arts "electives."

In response to these challenges, the therapeutic academic Left proved often incapable of defending the traditional liberal arts. After three decades of defining the study of literature and history as too often a melodrama of race, class and gender oppression, it managed to turn off much of the college audience and the general reading public. And cheek by jowl, the utilitarian Right succeeded in reclassifying business and finance not just as undergraduate university majors, but also core elements in general education requirements.

In such a climate, it is natural that once again we are hearing talk of cutting the "non-essentials" in our colleges such as Latin, Renaissance history, Shakespeare, Plato, Rembrandt and Chopin. Why do we cling to the arts and humanities in a high-tech world in which we have instant recall at our fingertips through a Google search and such studies do not guarantee sure 21st-century careers?

But the liberal arts train students to write, think and argue inductively, while drawing upon evidence from a shared body of knowledge. Without that foundation, it is harder to make -- or demand from others -- logical, informed decisions about managing our supercharged society as it speeds on by.

Citizens -- shocked and awed by technological change -- become overwhelmed by the Internet, cable news, talk radio, video games and popular culture of the moment. Without links to our past heritage, we in ignorance begin to think our own modern challenges -- the war in Afghanistan, gay marriage, cloning or massive deficits -- are unique and don't raise issues comparable to those dealt with and solved in the past.

And without citizens broadly informed by humanities, we descend into a pyramidal society. A tiny technocratic elite on top crafts everything from cell phones and search engines to foreign policy and economic strategy. A growing mass below lacks understanding of the present complexity and the basic skills to question what they are told.

During the 1960s and 1970s, committed liberals thought we could short-circuit the process of liberal education by creating advocacy classes with the suffix "studies." Black studies, Chicano studies, community studies, environmental studies, leisure studies, peace studies, woman's studies and hundreds more were designed to turn out more socially responsible youths. Instead, universities too often graduated zealous advocates who lacked the broadly educated means to achieve their predetermined politicized ends.

On the other hand, pragmatists argued that our future CEOs needed to learn spread sheets at 20 rather than why Homer's Achilles does not receive the honors he deserved, or how civilization was lost in fifth-century Rome and 1930s Germany. Yet Latin or a course in rhetoric might better teach a would-be captain of industry how to dazzle his audience than a class in Microsoft PowerPoint.

The more instantaneous our technology, the more we are losing the ability to communicate with it. Twitter and text-messaging result in an economy of expression, not in clarity or beauty. Millions are becoming premodern -- communicating in electronic grunts that substitute for the ability to express themselves effectively and with dignity. Indeed, by inventing new abbreviations and linguistic shortcuts, we are losing a shared written language altogether, much like the fragmentation of Latin as the Roman Empire imploded into tribal provinces. No wonder the public is drawn to stories like "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Chronicles of Narnia" in which characters speak beautifully and believe in age-old values that transcend themselves.

Life is not just acquisition and consumption. Engaging English prose uplifts the spirit in a way Twittering cannot. The latest anti-Christ video shown at the National Portrait Gallery by the Smithsonian will fade when the Delphic Charioteer or Michelangelo's David does not. Appreciation of the history of great art and music fortifies the soul, and recognizes beauty that does not fade with the passing fad.

America has lots of problems. A population immersed in and informed by literature, history, art and music is not one of them.


Many students don't feel safe in school

As bullying, violence and other assaults have crept out of the District and into the suburbs, many students feel much less safe at school than their parents think.-Greg Whitesell/Examiner file
Barely half of students said they felt safe when they walked into Col. Zadok Magruder High School last year.

Magruder is not a chronically underperforming D.C. public school, but a Montgomery County high school where more than 97 percent of its senior class graduated last year, students showed up with a 94.6 percent attendance rate, and every student met state graduation requirements.

Just 55 percent of last year's Magruder students agreed with the statement "I feel safe in school" in a survey administered by the county's public school system SEmD a much lower number than the 71.2 percent of Magruder parents who agreed that "My child feels safe at school." Only 20 percent of students believe their belongings are safe at school and more than 60 percent agreed that "bullying is a problem."

Bullying, violence and other assaults have crept out of the District and now persist in the suburbs. Last week, a social studies teacher at Centreville High School in Fairfax was arrested for taking "indecent liberties" with a 16-year-old female student in 2007 and 2008. In Prince George's County, a student stabbed another at Northwestern High School during a fight Tuesday.

And in Montgomery, students feel much less safe than their parents think. At least one in four students at 31 public middle and high schools in Montgomery did not agree with the statement "I feel safe in school" on the survey, up from 24 schools in 2009. About 77 percent of high school students said they felt safe at school, while 92 percent of parents believed their children felt safe. Almost half of students deemed bullying a problem, while less than 30 percent of parents said the same.

"I spent a day in the lunch period talking to students about getting an adult on board if there was any safety issue going on. But most of the kids ... didn't know me well enough to open up to this old lady," says Patty Winters, chairwoman of the safety committee for Magruder's Parent-Teacher-Student Association.

Winters said she has focused on a campaign against drunken driving in which a grim reaper dresses up and deems students "dead." But little is done regarding the 34 fights, three weapons incidents and 20 "attacks" that Magruder reported last year -- and those aren't the highest numbers in the district. Northwood topped with 45 attacks; Kennedy with 50 fights; and Gaithersburg with seven weapons incidents.

In Fairfax, there were 133 weapons incidents and 429 offenses against students in the public middle and high schools last year.

Jim McLain, security coordinator for the Fairfax school system, pointed to the roughly 170,000 students in the district: "You're talking about a pretty large town, and in spite of best efforts, things are just going to happen."

In a survey by Fairfax's government and school board, 50.8 percent of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-grade students said they had been bullied in the past year. Nearly 20 percent said someone had attacked them with the intention of seriously hurting them, and 88 percent said they had been threatened with a weapon.

Prince George's County declined to provide data, but its security issues, along with those of the District, are well-known. When Prince George's stepped up its attention to bullying, reports shot up from 77 in 2008-2009 to 347 incidents of bullying last year.

In D.C., interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson had to oust the private operator of Dunbar Senior High School after observing lax security. At most D.C. public high schools, security issues have declined in the past two years, but remain high. This school year, 51 students have been suspended for bringing weapons like knives, BB guns and box cutters to school.


Rioting UK students are misguided

Peter Saunders

Thousands of student radicals and hangers-on smashed up London last week, desecrating the Cenotaph (Britain’s national memorial to the war dead) and besieging the heir to the throne in his car. Like toddlers throwing a tantrum, they were complaining about a decision to make them pay for their own degrees.

Cameron’s Coalition is freeing universities to set their own fees for home students up to an annual maximum of £9,000 ($14,350 – considerably higher than the $8,859 maximum charged in Australia).

As in Australia, British students will pay nothing up front, but will repay their debt after they graduate. Repayments will be phased according to income, starting when earnings reach £21,000 pa ($33,500, roughly comparable to the $36,185 income threshold here). Students from poor backgrounds will get the first two years of their studies free.

Parliament last week confirmed these changes. Labour voted against, despite having instigated the inquiry that came up with the proposals, and the junior partners in the Coalition, the Liberal Democrats, split down the middle (their candidates had all pledged before the election to oppose any fee increases). Student leaders vowed to continue their campaign, but Cameron says the increases (from a current maximum of £3,000 [$4,780]) are necessary if universities are to be funded adequately.

With some justification, students point out that their parents’ generation got their university education for nothing. But they forget that higher education has mushroomed in the last 30 years. The United Kingdom now has 115 universities, and 44% of under-30s attend one. You can have a ‘free’ system, or a mass system, but no country can afford both.

Despite their red flags and Socialist Worker banners, the student radicals want their studies funded by other people whose lifetime earnings will be lower than their own. They favour the continuation of a system that redistributes income from people who haven’t gone to university, to people like themselves, who have.

Students say higher fees will deter people from going to university. Nobody knows if this is true (the introduction of fees by the Blair government had no impact on university applications). But even if it turns out to be true, it would be no bad thing if people started to think more carefully about whether university is right for them, and what courses they should do when they get there.

Currently, many graduates end up in jobs that do not require a degree, and there is no evidence that employers are crying out for more art historians, sociologists, or media studies experts (despite politicians claiming the country needs more graduates so it can compete in the global economy). As Andrew Norton of the CIS has been explaining for some years, the absence of a market in higher education has meant that many youngsters have made ill-informed decisions from which they have not benefited.

Hopefully, the introduction of full-cost fees will also shake up the universities. With the exception of Britain’s only private university (Buckingham), the other 114 teach for only about half the year. The other half is reserved for lengthy vacations so staff can carry out ‘research.’ This contributes to high tuition costs. The students who trashed London should reflect on the fact that fees are going up so their lecturers can continue to enjoy pampered careers.

Of course we need our best universities to do research. But this does not require every lecturer in every university to be given half the year off to produce skip-loads of third-rate publications. Most of what passes for ‘research’ in our ‘universities’ nowadays is of little value, and most lecturers would be better employed teaching for longer.

As the weaker institutions look for ways to reduce their costs and lower their tuition fees to attract customers away from their more prestigious competitors, they will have to use their labour more efficiently. This means their staff should have to teach more and write less. If that happens, it’s a win-win outcome.

The above is a press release from the Centre for Independent Studies, dated December 17. Enquiries to Snail mail: PO Box 92, St Leonards, NSW, Australia 1590.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Education: Investment Versus Spending

Thousands protested in London last week against a proposal to reduce subsidies to education. The plan, part of the austerity measures by David Cameron’s Conservative government, would raise the cap on university tuition from roughly £3,000 to £9,000, or from about $4,700 to $14,000. The measure passed by a small margin.

Under the new law the maximum tuition a British student attending Cambridge or Oxford would have to pay beginning in 2012 would be about $14,000. By comparison an American student attending Harvard today pays over $35,000 in tuition. (Having recently put a son in college, I can tell you that figure is fairly representative of selective liberal-arts colleges in the United States.)

Human Capital

This is my 25th year as a college professor, but I’m still idealistic about what a college education represents. I’m disappointed when a student, particularly a good one, is motivated to study because she wants to get a good-paying job after graduation. Of course, having a regular income is important for happiness, but as one of my respected colleagues once said to me, “A liberal-arts education gives you something to think about when you’re not working.” Indeed, I try to tell my students, especially the freshmen and sophomores, that they should try as much as possible to study and do things in college that are highly impractical because most of them will have to spend the rest of their lives being very practical. (A friend of mine recently told me of a Stanford MBA who said the most valuable course he took in college was art history.)

At the same time, I recognize that the market for skilled labor, like the market for anything else, is a matter of supply and demand. The choice of whether to major in chemical engineering or Renaissance literature or economics has to take into account not only what you love to do and are good at (these typically overlap), but also what you are willing or not willing to give up to do those things.

As the great Austrian economist, Ludwig von Mises, often pointed out: “There is only one efficacious way toward a rise in real wage rates and an improvement of the standard of living of the wage earners: to increase the per-head quota of capital invested.”

So investing in capital, in this case human capital, is essential to promote one’s material well-being. But, as Mises well knew, the capital invested has to be appropriate to the particular circumstances of time and place.

Appropriate Investment

There are many horror stories of where it wasn’t. Jane Jacobs relates how, for example, in the early 1960s the Rockefeller family tried to build a factory in India to produce “intrauterine loops” for birth control. There were at least two things wrong with the project, however.

First, as Julian Simon tirelessly argued, human intelligence is the “ultimate resource” and the fountainhead material progress. Thus instead of investing in birth control, it might have been better if the Rockefellers had bolstered their investments in things that boost the production of food, housing, and medicine.

Second, and Jacobs’s main point, the Rockefellers tried to build this factory in a rural area. Their intent was to create jobs and alleviate poverty outside the large cities. However, in the countryside such things as the proper tools, electrical and other infrastructure, and the knowhow to repair equipment were hard to find. Many small things went wrong because they lacked the local knowledge of the communities they were trying to help. Eventually, after trying for a year and spending a lot of money, they moved the factory to a large city, where it was up and running in six weeks.

As a largely a private humanitarian venture (although it had the blessing of the Nehru government), it had something that a government program usually doesn’t: a relatively hard budget constraint. Even though the benefactors were Rockefellers, competition for scarce investment capital meant there was a bottom line. Without it, there is no telling how long the factory would have languished in the Indian countryside.

Inappropriate Human Capital

So, returning to our subject, when is investment in education “inappropriate”? Well, one might say when it moves some to acts of violence against the innocent. (I understand, however, most of those protesters in London were less violent.)

But State subsidies, even those that use taxes to cover the difference between tuition and the expense of running a university, are not really investments at all. They are expenditures. And what guides political spending on education or housing or just about anything else is usually expediency. Politicians consider rate of return on investment when making spending decisions about as often as they consider moral principles: rarely.

Some could argue that from an economic point of view, subsidizing education is not as disruptive to the market process as, say, monetary manipulation or price controls. But on this point a recent story from the New York Times caught my eye – “China’s Army of Graduates Struggles for Jobs”:

In 1998, when Jiang Zemin, then the president, announced plans to bolster higher education, Chinese universities and colleges produced 830,000 graduates a year. Last May, that number was more than six million and rising.

Many Chinese parents did make financial sacrifices for their children’s education, so universities are not entirely state subsidized. But was the education appropriate to market demand? There have been unintended consequences:

It is a remarkable achievement, yet for a government fixated on stability such figures are also a cause for concern. The economy, despite its robust growth, does not generate enough good professional jobs to absorb the influx of highly educated young adults.

Graduates migrate to Beijing looking for opportunities that match their aspirations but are increasingly disappointed. Ironically, workers with traditional skills have been doing better:

Between 2003 and 2009, the average starting salary for migrant laborers grew by nearly 80 percent; during the same period, starting pay for college graduates stayed the same, although their wages actually decreased if inflation is taken into account.

Like all other goods, the demand curve for education slopes downward. Artificially lowering the price – in China, the United Kingdom, or the United States – is bound to create an excess demand for a university education now and surpluses of increasingly disappointed graduates in the years ahead. If the violence in London (as well as in some parts of California where students were also protesting tuition hikes) is an indicator, the future is not bright.


Results down to strong discipline and school trips, says head of top British primary school

The head teacher of the top primary school in England today warned against “hot-housing” pupils to pass exams. Pauline Gordon, acting head of Manuden primary in Bishop's Stortford, Essex, said repeatedly drilling children to inflate test results was counterproductive. She suggested pupils learned better with a varied curriculum, a large number of school trips and strong discipline.

The school, which has fewer than 100 children, was the only primary in the country to ensure all pupils exceeded the standard expected for their age group. All 11-year-olds reached the level pupils are supposed to meet in the first few years of secondary education in both English and maths, it was disclosed.

Mrs Gordon, who has led Manuden primary since September, insisted the school’s high results were down to a varied curriculum rather than “teaching to the test”. "I don't believe in hot-housing children for the tests," she said. "Teachers have very high expectations of the children, and we offer a very wide and varied curriculum, we spend lots of time on school visits."

Only 13 pupils sat exams at the small primary this summer and figures showed no children had high levels of special educational needs. All pupils reached Level 5 - one above the standard expected for their age - in English and maths.

This year's 10 and 11-year-olds were "particularly able", Mrs Gordon said, "which does make a difference". "The majority of children are fairly confident, and take it (the tests) in their stride," she said. "We have very strong expectations of how they should behave, and if we feel a child can do more we will tell them."

Starks Field primary in Enfield, north London, was officially the worst performing school as no pupils reached Level 4 in English and maths. A third of children at the school have special needs and more than seven per cent of lesson time was lost in the last academic year due to pupil absence.

Achilleas Georgiou, deputy leader of Enfield council, said the results did not reflect the quality of the school. "As the only children in the school taking Sats were 13 children that had joined the school just five months earlier, their league table position is a false one and does not reflect the quality of teaching in the school, which has been praised by Ofsted," he said.


The British version of Head Start hasn't worked either

More than £25 billion spent on early education under Labour has failed to improve children’s language and numeracy, according to a landmark study published today.

A raft of reforms introduced by the last Government – including a new curriculum for pre-school children and a generation of Sure Start centres – have had no impact on five-year-olds’ understanding of the basics.

An analysis of more than 117,000 children over an eight year period showed pupils’ early reading and picture recognition ability had actually declined slightly in the last decade.

The report by Durham University suggested that failure to develop key skills at a young age could hold children back throughout compulsory education and in later life. It suggests that the primary focus of Labour’s education policy since 1997 – boosting standards in the early years – has failed to deliver tangible improvements.

The findings will raise serious question marks over the last Government's flagship reforms designed to give the youngest children a better start. It includes the opening of some 3,500 Sure Start centres set up to deliver early education, childcare, health advice and family support in deprived communities.

Researchers said it suggested that the poorest families were still not getting enough help. It follows claims from David Cameron that the “sharp-elbowed middle-classes” often made better use of Sure Start than people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Dr Christine Merrell, primary director of Durham’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, which led the research, said: “Given the resources put into early years’ initiatives, we expected to see a rise in literacy and numeracy scores in schools, so it’s disappointing that there’s been no improvement.

“Our findings reinforce the concern that the poorest families in our society are not accessing the full range of educational opportunities and resources designed to help them. “Sure Start and other early years’ initiatives have valuable aims but we must evaluate what works and doesn’t work in a rigorous and scientific way.”

A Government source said: “Another study highlights Labour’s record of failing the poor. We will ensure that Sure Start is targeted at those who need it most."

The findings represent the latest in a series of bitter blows to the last Government’s education record. Primary school league tables being published later today are expected to show as many as one-in-10 English schools are failing to hit official benchmarks in the three-Rs. And a major international study last week found standards in secondary schools had plummeted below nations such as Poland and Estonia in recent years.

In the latest report, academics analysed the results of independent tests sat by children in 472 state primaries between 2001 and 2008. The simple 20-minute assessment – taken six weeks into the first full year of school – covered early reading, including identifying upper and lower case letters, multiple choice word recognition and reading simple sentences.

Numeracy exercises tested children’s understanding of the difference between “biggest” and “smallest”, counting four objects and simple addition and subtraction. The test, which was sat by around 15,000 children each year, also covered picture and shape identification.

An analysis of results showed a “statistically significant decrease” in children’s reading and shape recognition over eight years and a corresponding rise in maths results. However, in both cases academics insisted differences were small and not “educationally significant”.

The report, published in the Oxford Review of Education, said a range of “major initiatives… had been implemented on a wide scale during the years preceding and during the time investigated in this study”.

Academics admitted the analysis failed to cover children's personal, social or emotional development but concluded that "one might expect that these initiatives would have resulted in measurable changes”.

According to Government data, Labour spent £25bn in early years and childcare services between 1997 and 2009. Annual spending on Sure Start alone topped £1bn last year, providing access to services for more than 2.4m children and their families.

In 2003, Labour also introduced the Early Years Foundation Stage – a “nappy curriculum” for children to follow up to the age of five – and all three and four-year-olds have been given access to 15 hours a week of free childcare.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: "We recognise that while Sure Start has had a positive impact on many families, there is much more work to be done to better reach those most in need.

"Sure Start is at the heart of our vision for early intervention - that’s why we are reforming it so that children’s centres focus more on reaching the most vulnerable, and use approaches that are backed by evidence."

FL: School Board Shooting

This is the full video of yesterday's shooting and the routine discussion which led up to the shooting. It's 6:11 long with actual shots fired starting just before the 6:00 mark.

Thank God the shooter, Clayton Allen Duke, 56, was a lousy shot.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Some Alaskan Parents Fined if Kids Skip School

I'm guessing that this mostly concerns Eskimos. The pressure to "modernize" native populations is always considerable. I think they should be left alone

School districts in western Alaska have found a new way to crack down on truancy -- or rather, an old way: They're getting police to enforce a years-old state law that lets them fine parents whose children skip school. Court records show some parents are being fined hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars, if their children miss too many school days.

State law says children between the ages of 7 and 16 have to be in school or their parents can be fined up to $500 for every five unexcused absences. But not all school districts are making sure the law is enforced. Anchorage Superintendent Carol Comeau, for instance, can't recall her district pursuing a truancy violation in court in at least a decade.

In rural Alaska -- in regions such as Unalakleet, Kotzebue and Bethel -- districts are turning to the truancy law as a way to get kids back in classrooms. "It's not to get people into court. It's to get kids in school," said Sgt. Duane Stone, a supervisor for the trooper post in Kotzebue.

In all three regions, a series of warnings and meetings with parents generally come first, and courts allow the families to reduce or avoid the fees simply by improving attendance. Villages stretching from Kotzebue Sound east to Kobuk, the Northwest Arctic Borough School District may be the latest where parents are being fined.

Attendance counselor Michelle Woods, a former police detective, said she's been trying to ticket parents in communities outside Kotzebue since she was hired four years ago. At first, some schools officials worried they wouldn't have support from local school boards. The feeling was that troopers and courts are too busy fielding felonies, she said.

This year things are beginning to change, with troopers issuing truancy citations under the blessing of the district attorney's office, she said. "No attorney needs to be assigned. It's just like a speeding ticket," she said.

The first parent fined among the village schools in her region was the former village public safety officer, who was charged $100 last month, Woods said. "In my tenure here, at least in four years, we've never before had this kind of support from entities and law enforcement," Woods said.

Court also have fined parents in the Unalakleet-based Bering Strait School District more than $24,000 in truancy cases involving 49 children last year, said Carl White, a special assistant to the superintendent.


Religious schools are still leading the way as they dominate British league tables

Faith schools have increased their dominance in the ­primary league tables. Two thirds of the 50 best ­performing institutions were Church of England, Roman Catholic or Jewish. This comes despite the fact that faith schools account for only one in every three schools. Nearly every 11-year-old pupil in a faith school was a whole academic year ahead of the ­Government’s target level.

The head teacher of the country’s top-performing faith school, St Wilfrid’s Catholic primary, Sheffield, attributed its success to ‘religious conviction’.

The results will reignite the debate on admissions policies. Schools minister Nick Gibb said yesterday that more work had to be done to ensure all schools ‘fulfill their potential’.

Yesterday faith school leaders called on him to learn from their good example. Barbara Jarrett, head teacher of St Wilfrid’s, which ranked third overall in the tables, said: ‘It’s all about shared values. We expect our children to be respectful, care for each other, be committed and hard working. Our values reflect the values of our church.

‘And we encourage children to have a love of learning and a belief in their own ability to do well. Too many people in this country are not prepared to put in the effort to achieve. We don’t want our children to be among them. ‘There is a real crisis in our education system today, we call on the Government to learn ­lessons from faith schools.’

But critics of faith schools said their growing stranglehold is the result of a selective admissions process which secures more middle-class pupils. Paul Pettinger of campaign group the Accord Coalition, said the schools tended to attract aspirational parents who tend to have high-achieving children. He said: ‘It is because they have control over admissions. They attract more middle-class and aspirational pupils. ‘As a result performance is improved. And it is an upwards spiral because good results attract more aspirational ­parents and better teachers. ‘Nearby local community schools are undermined.’

Critics also say the schools register high performance because they allow middle class parents to ‘pew jump’ – discovering religion to enhance applications.

Last year the number of faith schools in the top 50 was just under two thirds. Of yesterday’s top 50, the proportion had risen to almost exactly two-thirds – with 33 schools making the grade.


The 1,000 primary schools failing Britain's children: 11-year-olds leave unable to read or write

One in four 11-year-olds leaves primary school without a proper grasp of the 3Rs, according to detailed Government data released yesterday. The league tables show that 112,600 pupils failed to reach the minimum standard in English and maths.

These children will start their secondary education unable to understand a simple piece of prose, write extended sentences using commas, recite the ten times table or add, subtract, multiply and divide in their heads.

And the shocking results mean more than 1,000 schools face being turned into academies or even closed because, under tough guidelines introduced by the Coalition, they would be judged to have failed their pupils.

The bleak picture was exposed by school-by-school data from 11,500 ­primaries published by the Department of Education yesterday.

The bad news was compounded by a teacher boycott of the SATs tests used to compile the tables, which left the parents of more than 100,000 pupils unable to assess the standard of their children’s education.

This year’s figures show that 73.5 per cent of 11-year-olds showed they had a grasp of the basics in maths and ­English at level four, the Government’s target for a typical child of their age. It is a marginal improvement on the 72 per cent of a year earlier, but remains a damning reflection of Labour’s education legacy, which failed to make an impact despite a ­doubling of spending during their years in power.

Education Secretary Michael Gove, in his recent White Paper, set new rules for failing schools. Under the guidelines, head teachers must ensure at least 60 per cent of 11-year-olds reach the target level in English and maths. Sub-standard schools will be closed and reopened as academies or merged with successful primaries. Those that do not meet the 60 per cent target will get a reprieve only if they can satisfy ‘pupil progression’ measures charting improvement between the ages of seven and 11.

Although the rules will not be effective until next year, the Government is already in discussion with the worst offenders.

The 2010 tables show that at almost 350 schools, more than half of pupils fell short of the expected standards. And just 280 schools ensured that all their pupils finished primary education with a decent grasp of English and maths.

The best-performing primary is Manuden, in Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire. The most improved was the Pilgrim School, in Rochester, Kent, which has produced the fastest improvement in results in the past three years.

At the bottom of the table is Starks Field Primary in Enfield, North London, where no pupils received an acceptable standard of English or maths.

The tables also showed that half of all children who qualify for free school meals do not leave primary with a grasp of the 3Rs.

Schools Minister Nick Gibb said the poorly performing schools had been ‘failed’. He said: ‘It is unacceptable that after seven years of primary school these children are not at the standard in English and maths that they need to flourish at secondary school. ‘It’s why we are putting such an emphasis on improving pupils’ reading ability in the first years of primary school, with a focus on phonics.’

But Russell Hobby, of head teachers’ union the NAHT, said: ‘League tables confuse, conceal and disparage school performance. They say nothing about the quality of teaching and downplay the fantastic work of many schools in the most challenging circumstances. League tables paint a hugely misleading picture.’


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What if the tests are wrong?

A very sad story below. Even sadder is the fact that the teacher writing it has a Master's degree and yet still does not know the difference between an adjective and an adverb (as in "wrong" versus "wrongly"). And "me included" is also a bit rough. The reflexive "myself included" would be the formal usage

In today’s climate of high stakes testing, I haven’t heard too many people talking about the tests themselves. For example, who is making these tests, and what are some problems we’re having with them here at the ground level?

I’ll tell you some concerns I have. As dire as some of them may seem, there is a silver lining.

Last year, an essay question on the STAR test asked something like this, “What is the biggest thing you would change if you were given the key to your city?” The problem a lot of students had with this question, aside from being really bad at writing, was they didn’t have any idea what having a key to a city meant? They didn’t have the cultural capital, language proficiency, or life experience to know what that expression meant. So this prompt immediately relegated a large group of students to failure because they didn’t understand what the question was asking of them.

Detractors might say something like, “Well, that’s ridiculous. Those kids obviously aren’t even attempting to learn. How can they not know what a key to a city is? They have never had an interest in their own education.” Once again, it seems that society’s perceptions at large, and even those of the test makers, assumes these kids are a lot smarter than they are.

Let me put it this way. When the Chilean miners were being rescued, I showed my students some of CNN’s footage from my computer. Guess what? Over half of the students had no idea who the Chilean miners were. We sometimes forget how young and inexperienced these students are. We assume everyone has 900 channels, but you have to remember, many of these kids can’t afford cable. Hardly any of them have computers at home, and even less that have one hooked up to a printer that has ink. Internet? Forget about it.

We forget that while corporations and the rich are becoming more technologically advanced, the poor are lagging very far behind.

Now, I’m not arguing for dumbing-down test questions to their level, so to speak. Just because some of them spell their names wrong doesn’t mean our assessments should assess nothing more than getting the date right. I like the idea of thinking about what you would change in your city; I think that is a good writing prompt, I just think you need to make sure low-income students, ELL students, and students who can’t afford computers, the internet, or own a television that is simply plugged into a wall, understand the idioms and expressions you’re using.

Last month, at my school, we gave the same assessments in every high school. So every 9th grader in my English classes took the same assessment for House on Mango Street as every other 9th grader in the other two high schools in my city. Now I’m not even going to go into the fact that some teachers didn’t even teach that book, or that some classes don’t even have teachers yet (yes, still going on today on December 8th at my school). I’m just going to talk about the fact that after we assessed them, and uploaded their scores into the District database, a group of English teachers in my department got together to assess how they did on certain questions. What we found was a bit depressing. In our opinion, 8 of the questions were wrong. Either they were worded wrong, there was more than one answer, the answer given was wrong, there was a better answer- you get the picture. Now, on a test with less than 30 questions, how can we possibly assess anything if 8 of them are wrong?

So who is making these tests? Well, in our case, the tests were thought up by actual teachers at multiple sites, along with some district officials. Teachers (me included) took the tests beforehand and gave feedback as to which ones were wrong or needed work. The problem there was many of us differ about what is wrong with the tests and what needs to be reworded. Yet still, the finished product was still a test with many flaws.

What that tells me is that we need a greater focus in this profession about writing test questions, prompts, and we need to examine whether questions are really assessing what we want them to.

Here’s the kicker. They also need to be age appropriate and culturally sensitive.

So with all the things it takes to write a good prompt, or design a decent test, I just don’t think we have enough experts out there who are good at this.

Here’s a quick, but pathetic anecdote. A friend of mine got a job working for the education company in charge of monitoring my high school when we were taken over by NCLB. He was hired because of his business background, and his background in sales. He told me that at one point HE was helping write assessments- a man with absolutely no background in education. We both laughed about it. Then I went to work and put my head in my hands.

I am skeptical about every single assessment I give out, whether it’s a STAR test for NCLB or a District Assessment. I have serious reservations about what exactly we are assessing, and I am worried about how this will reflect on students and teachers.

I am all for increased teacher evaluation and accountability. But it is things like this that hurt our fight to show evaluations can work. How can you evaluate a teacher on a 28-question test when 8 of them are wrong? Instead of the class average being a 70%, it is now a 60%. If you compare that with how your students did last year in 8th grade, all that’s going to show is that in 9th grade (when they had YOU as a teacher), their scores dropped from Proficient to Basic. And five years from now, when we have REAL evaluations, those kinds of mistakes in the assessment itself will be forgotten, they’ll just see how large chunks of kids lost headway under your watch.

Okay, here’s the good news.

As far as I can see, even though a lot of these assessments are horrendous, they are pretty consistent. That is, they are consistently horrible, they always have many, many mistakes, so we can just hope all of the tests we are giving have a quarter of the questions wrong. In the end, the smartest kids still score the highest, and the struggling learners still struggle. These irregularities are not completely destroying our assessments of these kids. The danger is when the little problems result in bigger classifications- going from Proficient to Basic. That is a huge jump, even if it might only be a few points.

So our next big assessment is coming up. I just took the proposed exam and scored around a 78%, or a C+. I have a Master’s Degree. But that’s okay, because all the tests the students have been taking every year are this messed up, so hopefully it won’t reflect on what I’m teaching them.


Academic achievement ignored in Boston

But jocks highly praised. Why? One guess: The overwhelming whiteness of academic high achievers

Today, The Boston Globe published the latest in a long series of special “All-Scholastics” 14-page (12x22-inch) supplements on good local high school athletes from a variety of sports. These celebrations are produced three times a year (42 pages) with lots of pictures and little bios and lists of all-stars from the Boston area.

Again this Fall, there was no room for any mention by The Boston Globe of any noteworthy academic achievement by local students at the high school level. Christiane Henrich of Marblehead HS, in Marblehead, Massachusetts, wrote a 7,360-word Emerson-prize-winning history research paper on the quality (good for the day) of U.S. Civil War medicine. It was published in the only journal in the world for the academic papers of secondary students...No room in The Boston Globe for that to be mentioned. She is now at Stanford and doesn’t mind, but I mind about all the Boston-area students who are fed a constant diet of praise for athletic achievement by their peers and at the same time are starved of any and all news of the academic achievements of their peers.

In fact, over the years I have published a good number of exemplary history papers by high school students from the Boston area and they did not and do not get mentioned in The Boston Globe, nor do the academic achievements of our high school students in foreign languages (e.g. National Latin Exam, etc.), AP subject tests in Calculus, Chemistry, European history or in any other field, receive any notice from the Globe.

International competitions reveal that we are below average in Reading, Math and Science. Perhaps we should just explain that we don’t care about that stuff as much as we do about swimming, soccer, cross-country, football, golf, field hockey, and volleyball, because achievement by our high school students in those efforts are what we really like to pay attention to, (not that academic stuff), at least when it comes to The Boston Globe.

The Boston Globe (and its subscribers) are, in this way, sending a constant stream of clear messages (42 pages at a time in supplements, not to mention regular daily columns on HS sports) that in Boston (The Athens of America) what we care about is kids doing well in sports. If they do well in academics we don’t think that is worth mentioning. Sick, sad, and self-destructive, but there we are.


Don't touch pupils' fingers, British music teachers are told

Music teachers are being told not to touch the fingers of pupils learning to play instruments. The Musicians' Union has produced a video telling teachers: "It isn't necessary to touch children in order to demonstrate: there's always a better way."

But the video has provoked a storm of protest from teachers and campaigners who attacked the guidance as "madness" and said the video – which features a man teaching a child the violin – as a "grossly caricatured version of teacher-pupil contact".

The video, called "Inappropriate Demonstration", shows a lesson in which a pupil fails to play the right notes. The teacher first explains the technique by placing a hand on the pupil's shoulder and holding his fingers in the right position on the violin. He then explains it a second time by demonstrating on his own violin the correct position. The pupil then immediately plays the correct notes.

A voice-over on the video says: "When you're teaching instruments, there are times when you need to demonstrate particular techniques. "In the past, this has often been done by touching students, but this can make students feel uncomfortable and leave teachers open to accusations of inappropriate behaviour." The narrator adds: "You should never need to touch a student for demonstration. Use your creativity to find other equally effective ways to demonstrate."

The union said the video, produced with the NSPCC, MusicLeader (a charity-funded organisation to help music leaders) and the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, was aimed at helping music teachers "gain a better understanding of their child protection responsibilities and avoid situations that could lead to accusations of misconduct".

But teachers criticised the video and the "no-touching" policy. One music teacher, writing on the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music's online forum under the name "Banjogirl", said: "It's all madness. I can't help touching children occasionally. "It's bringing children up to think that there is something dirty about touch and to be suspicious of other people."

Seer Green, another music teacher, said the union and the NSPCC had "missed the point". "What is most important in all this is common sense. Building a good working relationship between teacher, pupil and parent is essential. "A sense of trust needs to be built up and then when any issues around 'touch' arise, they can be handled sensibly and with the minimum of fuss."

Henry Fagg, from The Tutor Pages, an independent educational services company based in North West London, said the video depicted "a grossly caricatured version of teacher-pupil contact.

He said the "no-touching" policy was "hysterical" and interfered with day-to-day music teaching. "It also fails to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate touch, and hence the real issue of child abuse is completely ignored."

Josie Middleton, of the Manifesto Club which campaigns against excessive regulation, said: "The video is absurd. Teachers need to be able to straighten backs, reposition fingers, or shake out stiff hands. "The assumption of this video is that all touch is potentially suspicious. This turns normal behaviour into something very seedy, and encourages decent people to be anxious all the time. "It also blurs the boundary between abusive touch, and caring or instructive touch – and makes it harder to distinguish genuine abuse."

Diane Widdison, spokesman for the union, said: "It's a difficult area but we are here to protect children and to protect our members' careers. "When allegations are made against music teachers they are suspended immediately while an investigation is carried out and their careers are damaged or ruined even if they are declared innocent."

In one recent case the parents of a child learning the guitar complained that the teacher had touched their child's finger to pluck a guitar string.

"A lot of children don't like to be touched by adults," she added. "You don't need to touch children to teach them how to play an instrument. We live in a culture where children know their rights and touching can be misinterpreted."


Monday, December 13, 2010

Teachers unions often resist school reforms

The Obama administration could not have set the stage for a better demonstration of the power and priorities of Wisconsin's teachers unions. With its Race to the Top competition, the federal government dangled the prospect of a share of $4.35 billion for those states ready to enact reforms, especially related to improving teacher and principal performance.

Eyes on that prize, states launched plans tying teacher pay and promotions to student achievement, giving state officials more control over local schools and overhauling data tracking and assessment systems. Then the game got tricky: Teachers unions had to be on board.

In the end, only 11 states and the District of Columbia ended up with money from the program this year. Wisconsin got nothing.

The Wisconsin Education Association Council had helped kill or watered down critical parts of the state's proposal, with the president of the teachers union attaching a letter to the application that one participant described as "grudging." In the end, only 12% of the union's local leaders endorsed a plan that might have brought in more than $250 million in school funding to Wisconsin.

Perhaps the state is better off, as some educators contend in criticizing the priorities and the strings attached to the federal dollars. But the episode shows that when it comes to assessing and improving teacher quality, the most powerful voice in Wisconsin - and perhaps the biggest obstacle - could be the teachers union.

"The teachers union, they can be very effective in these reforms if they're willing to sit at the table and be fair about it," said state Rep. Brett Davis (R-Oregon), former chair of the Assembly's education committee. "But, up to now, they've controlled all the cards and there's no reason for them not to do anything they want."

On top of being one of the state's most dominant political forces, with an ability to influence legislation and elections, Wisconsin's teachers unions have a direct effect on teacher quality through the role they play in local contract negotiations and representation of teachers targeted for improvement or dismissal.

By adhering to pay schedules that fail to distinguish between low- and high-performing teachers, protecting ineffective teachers from dismissal and fighting for work rules that provide more benefits for their members than for children, teachers unions stand in the way of improving the profession, critics argue.

For example, then-Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent William Andrekopoulos complained only last year that the district's teachers union leaders had not allowed their members to vote on a proposal that would have used federal stimulus dollars to extend the school day and provide extra professional development for teachers. Research suggests that, if done well, adding instructional time can benefit low-income and other students who have fewer learning opportunities outside school.

Some reform progress

Across the country, teachers unions have taken leadership roles on such reform projects as tying teacher bonuses to student test score results and revamping teacher evaluations.

On Thursday, the National Education Association announced it would form a 21-member commission to study the teaching profession and make recommendations on the union's role in promoting teacher effectiveness and advancing the profession. WEAC is an affiliate to that national union.

"I think reform is most likely to be embraced when teachers have trust in their union leaders and when union leaders have faith in district officials," said Richard Kahlenberg, an education policy expert at the liberal Century Foundation.

Wisconsin's unions largely have not been open to change, however. Dal Lawrence, the former longtime president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers and current member of the Teachers Union Reform Network, called the state's teachers union one of the most "retrograde" in the country, along with New York's. "In Wisconsin, they think they invented labor-management relations in the 1920s and they don't want to hear about anything new since then," he said.

WEAC President Mary Bell challenged the notion that her organization hasn't been willing to innovate, pointing to efforts in districts such as Green Bay, where the union has worked with the superintendent on reforming professional development, and to a statewide licensure overhaul that more closely targets teachers' professional development to their needs.

WEAC - which represents teachers in all but 18 of the state's 425 school districts and counts about 98,000 members - also has advocated for higher pay for teachers in hard-to-staff schools or subject areas and providing bonuses for teachers who earn certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, she said. Such efforts would have been considered anathema in the past to teachers unions, originally formed in the image of factory-floor labor organizations to protect a largely female membership against arbitrary pay and dismissal practices.


British student fee 'savings' will fund windmills in Africa

The cause of the major political story of last week – the row over tuition fees, students rioting and all – was, as we all know, “public spending cuts”. But how much money does the Government actually hope to save on tuition fees? If the immediate problem is our massive state deficit, it seems odd that the Government should risk such unpopularity, not for any immediate saving, but in the hope that it will get the money back over the next 30 years, as students can afford to repay it.

In the short term, the Government’s own projection as to how much it will save is that the funding of university tuition will be cut by £2.9 billion by 2014. As it happens, £2.9 billion is the sum ring-fenced, by the same public spending review, to be given to developing countries to help them fight global warming with windmills and solar panels. It is also slightly less than the £3 billion by which our public debt is rising every week. These much-vaunted “cuts” are not all we are led to believe.


Australia: Appalling medical school teaching

Even something as basic as anatomy stumps medical students -- but you can be sure that they are well up on "cultural sensitivity" and the like

Anatomy teaching has been cut back so much that medical students have been unable to identify important body parts. In some cases, students who volunteered for a catch-up crash course in anatomy could not answer when asked to identify specific anatomical structures, such as major blood vessels, in partially dissected human specimens. In a few cases, students responded with fictitious names of body parts that did not exist.

The seven-week course in full-body dissection, run earlier this year at the University of Sydney, proved wildly popular with the students who completed it -- and had a dramatic effect on their anatomical knowledge. The students were tested again halfway through and at the conclusion of the course, and both times the 29 students achieved almost perfect scores.

The findings, by a team led by George Ramsey-Stewart, professor of surgical anatomy at the University of Sydney, promise to rekindle controversy over the scaling back of anatomy tuition nationwide.

Detailing the results in today's edition of the Medical Journal of Australia, Professor Ramsey-Stewart called for a standard national curriculum for anatomy -- something resisted by most medical school deans -- that included dissection. He also called for "barrier" assessments, requiring students to gain a pass mark before being able to progress in their degree course.

Structures some students failed to identify correctly included the abdominal aorta -- the biggest artery in the abdomen -- and the sciatic nerve, the longest and widest nerve in humans that runs from the lower back into the leg.

Professor Ramsey-Stewart said while it would be wrong to make too much of the students' poor results in the first tests, it was nevertheless "of concern" that one-quarter of all the answers given by the students betrayed worrying gaps in their knowledge. "It's a problem for most universities . . . I hear from my anatomical and surgical colleagues that it's across the board," he said.

However, he said the students involved were too advanced in their course to have benefited from curriculum changes introduced by the University of Sydney in 2007, when anatomy teaching hours were trebled.

Doctor and researcher Steven Craig, who in March published a study that found teaching hours for anatomy varied from as few as 56 hours in one medical school to 560 hours -- said improvements in anatomy teaching to date were mostly "a patch-up job". "These sorts of (voluntary dissection) courses are fantastic -- for the students who get to do them," Dr Craig said. "But if they can only accept 30 of the 250 students (it needs expanding)."

Australian Medical Students Association president Robert Marshall rejected the call for a national curriculum, and said such studies ignored the fact that much anatomy tuition was incorporated into other activities.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Unlearning the Lessons Being Taught

Islamists aren't the only threat to speech critical of Islam. Many European states, for example, have criminalized speech acts through legally enforced "political correctness" embodied in "hate speech" laws. In America, where it still remains (more or less) legal to think and speak, the assault on free expression is being waged on a different front, our universities. The target? The minds of America's youth.

Far from being bastions of free thought and critical inquiry, our universities, through speech codes, security fees, and other tactics, begin the "political correctness" indoctrination process early, teaching young Americans what they may and may not say (READ: think). Naturally, included in the realm of the verboten is expression deemed critical of Islam.

One Philadelphia organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights In Education (FIRE), an organization dedicated to protecting individual rights on America's campuses, is fighting back and has handled a few cases that will be of particular interest to our readers:

Student group slapped with "security fee" for Wilders event:

In October of 2009, the student organization, Temple University Purpose (TUP), sponsored an event with Dutch politician, Geert Wilders, who currently faces prosecution for "hate speech" in the Netherlands. Several weeks later, the group received charges for an additional "security fee" for the event. Charging extra security fees for a controversial event because of a potential hostile reaction from the audience has been deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court because it financially burdens speech. Citing this precedent and through dogged persistence, the FIRE succeeded in having the fee withdrawn.

College Republicans investigated for fake flag "desecration" at anti-terrorism event:

In 2007, San Francisco State University's College Republicans were subjected to disciplinary action for stepping on mock Hezbollah and Hamas flags as part of an anti-terrorism event. With help from the FIRE, the witch-hunt was ended and students escaped punishment. Later, with the assistance of the FIRE's Speech Codes Litigation Project and the Alliance Defense Fund, the College Republicans delivered a little disciplinary action of their own, raising and winning a constitutional challenge to the university's speech code.

"Portraits of Terror" art exhibit censored:

In 2006, then Penn State student, Joshua Stulman's exhibit "Portraits of Terror" was pulled by the university just three days before its opening. According to FIRE President, Greg Lukianoff, the exhibit was censored "twice: first because administrators didn't like what it had to say, and later out of fear that violence would ensue if his artwork were shown on campus." The FIRE has helped raise awareness of the incident through writing and a short documentary. Is there anyone out there with the courage to show this exhibit?

Through cases like those enumerated above related to expression concerning Islam, and through countless others directed more generally at protecting individual liberty on our campuses, the FIRE is helping students to unlearn some dangerous lessons they are being taught at our colleges and universities about the scope of individual liberty. To paraphrase Judge Learned Hand, liberty lies in the hearts and minds of men and women; if it dies there, no laws can save it. Those at the FIRE understand this proposition and are fighting to keep liberty alive in one of the places it counts the most.


How can it be right that an 11-year-old boy can call me a f****** cow - and there's not a thing I can do?

Letter to Britain's education boss from a British teacher

Dear Mr Gove,

When I heard the proposals for your latest White Paper, even a cynical, hard-bitten old teacher like me gave a feeble cheer because I thought finally here was one educational reform I could really applaud. I am referring to your plan to revive languages in the English Baccalaureate.

I am biased of course; as a languages teacher, my enthusiasm for my subject allowed me to hope that it might go some way to redressing the past decade's shocking decline in language teaching. That was the inevitable consequence of the batty decision to make languages non-compulsory. Any fool could have predicted the result.

The decline is by no means restricted to languages. Last week, a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that one in five British 15-year-olds failed to meet its minimum requirements in maths and reading.

Britain fell from 17th to 25th for reading and from 24th to 28th for maths in the study of 65 developed nations - our pupils are now behind those from Estonia, Lichtenstein and Slovenia. Education here is described as 'stagnant at best'.

But then, as I pondered your language reforms, the awful truth hit home: I would have to carry on teaching pupils who don't want to learn a language. You might say that I can't have it both ways; that I can't think it right that all pupils should have the opportunity to learn a language, but then also dread having to teach the difficult or less than able ones. But I am dreading it.

At present my GCSE classes are a haven of calm. I teach lovely pupils who are bright and who choose to do a language and actually see the point of it. This is a stark contrast to the situation further down the school.

Let me give you an example of what it's like to teach children in the bottom set at Key Stage 3 level (those aged between 11 and 14) at a bog-standard comprehensive school, not in some inner-city hellhole, but in one of the leafier suburbs of a town in the Midlands.

Last month, an 11-year-old boy walked late into my class and proceeded to disrupt it so badly that I could not teach. He threw pencils at his classmates, called out when I asked him not to, refused to work and disrupted all the other pupils until finally I had to have him removed from the classroom because he called me a 'f****** cow'. His actions were totally unprovoked by anything I had said or done - he said it because he knew he could get away with it.

His punishment? He had two days off school - a so-called ' exclusion' - because that's the only sanction we have. And now he's back in my classroom, doing the same all over again. Did I get an apology? No chance. Did his parents telephone me to say sorry? Of course not. Why?

Because I'm a teacher. And it's OK to treat us like that. After all, they pay their taxes don't they? They practically employ me.

Do you know the worst thing, Mr Gove? I was not shocked to be sworn at by an 11-year-old boy. It's not shocking because it happens frequently in my school.

And there is absolutely nothing I, nor my headteacher, nor even you, Mr Gove, can do about it. Because you and those who came before you have taken away any sanctions we once had. Because those children and their parents have all the rights and none of the responsibilities. Because an 11-year-old can swear at me, but if I tried to physically remove him from my room against his will, I would be accused of assault and suspended. How can you think that is right?

A colleague in the English department has also had problems with a girl in his class. She refuses point-blank to do any work and her father refuses to allow her to do detentions. Well, you might reasonably say, he signed an agreement to abide by the school rules when his daughter came to us as an 11-yearold in Year 7, so why not just tell him to take her somewhere else? The truth is we can't.

We're not allowed to kick out pupils, even if their parents won't support us. We will have to put up with her behaviour and her smug, you-can't-touch-me attitude until she leaves.

The girl has now been withdrawn from my colleague's class, not because he finally managed to get rid of her but because she accused him of assault. He didn't touch her, of course, and he is a fantastic, caring teacher with 20 years' experience. It's because the girl's father has kicked up such a fuss that it's the easiest option. A tacit admission that we can do nothing about her and her behaviour. Can you imagine the frustration and anger that arouses in us?

As a mother myself, that father's attitude appals me. If, when they were younger, my own children had been rude to any adult, let alone a teacher, I would have been mortified. I would have telephoned the school or gone there in person to apologise and my child would have been punished. I would not have cared about excuses such as not 'getting on' with the teacher or 'not liking' a particular subject. I wouldn't have cared because life and learning are not always easy or fun.

And that is the problem. Over the years teachers have been bombarded with new initiatives and brilliant ideas from people who, in all likelihood, have not faced a classroom full of children for years.

Today we must all produce 'outstanding lessons', as the jargon has it. Teachers must be entertaining and the pupils must be constantly challenged and stimulated. Forgive me for thinking, Mr Gove, that as a teacher with years of experience, I should be allowed to have the occasional lesson which is not brilliant or fantastic or fun, but just an hour when the pupils listen to me and accept that I might have something of worth to impart to them.

Instead, all my lessons have to be 'child-centred' and I must remember at all times that 'every child matters'. At the beginning of each year I am given lists of information about my pupils. These indicate whether they are Children in Care, Gifted and Talented, have Special Educational Needs, are entitled to Free School Meals or, worst of all, have Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties (EBD).

We get plenty of those and we know exactly what to expect from them. The children with EBD will be the ones who disrupt lessons, who refuse to do their homework, who talk while the teacher is talking, who will not turn up for detentions, who will swear at teachers, who will basically make life as difficult as they can. And you can bet your bottom dollar their parents are a pain, too.

And what do I do with these lists? I am supposed to put them in my register and plan my lessons accordingly. I am supposed to be aware that every child learns in a different way and at a different pace. I am supposed to produce different resources or objectives for each child so that I can prove that I am a good teacher.

Can you imagine the work and stress that that causes? Because some other Secretary of State thought that 'inclusion' - the notion that all pupils should be taught together - is a good idea.

Never mind the poor teacher who has to cope single-handedly with a class that might contain a boy who has a reading age below six alongside a gifted pupil. You wonder why pupils become disruptive?

And don't be deceived by those teachers who insist that they have no problems with children. Rubbish. They are frightened to admit that they have problems because that would mean not that they need more sanctions to control these difficult kids but that they are bad teachers, producing 'boring' lessons. And God forbid a teacher should be 'boring'.

The trendy propaganda is that engaging lessons will make your pupils want to learn, even if it's bottom set French last thing on a Friday afternoon. I would love to see you teach such a class just once, Mr Gove, let alone face the little darlings week in week out. And with no sanctions to help you. And a senior leadership team whose hands are tied too.

Oh, and remember that if you phone the parents to say that their child is behaving badly, they will deny it or prefer to believe that you are to blame.

Don't get me wrong, Mr Gove, the vast majority of pupils I teach are great. They have supportive parents who are keen for them to do well and expect them to behave with respect. But it only takes a couple of children whose parents are not supportive and who think it is OK to abuse teachers to ruin a class.

Don't think, either, that I don't work hard. Even though I've been teaching a long time, I listen patiently to all the new initiatives and I do my best to keep up with them. I really do. I work two or three hours on Saturdays and a couple of hours each evening, planning lessons that I hope will be stimulating and interesting. But I am getting so tired of it because it doesn't matter how hard I work.

I can't deal with a class containing pupils with such a wide ability range, and who have all the other problems that I'm supposed to know about.

I can't deal with a class of nine EBD children who hate French and therefore me. And whose parents probably say they don't need to learn a language because they're never going to use it anyway.

Am I old-fashioned in thinking that in the classroom I deserve some respect just because I am an adult? That I deserve to be listened to just because I'm a teacher?

Because of that brilliant idea a decade ago to make the subject noncompulsory, languages inevitably became less and less popular because, the truth is, they are difficult. You actually have to learn stuff and remember it. Why go to all that trouble when you can do food technology, drama, dance, PE or travel and tourism NVQ and get a higher grade with far less effort?

Education is supposed to produce rounded students who have an open, healthily enquiring view of the world. Instead we are producing pupils who have no thirst for knowledge, no interest in other cultures and no inclination to study just for the sheer pleasure of it.

They are learning that they do not need to work hard - they just need to sit back and be entertained. They will be fed information in bite-size chunks that don't require too much uncomfortable chewing or swallowing. The refrain I hear more often than any other is: 'I don't get it.' Too many pupils won't even try to get it. They would far rather give up and blame the teacher for making it too hard or too boring.

I doubt I will be able to continue working until I'm 60, Mr Gove, if you get your way because I don't have the energy it requires even now to control a class of 11-yearolds who can't concentrate, can't spell and can't see the point of anything which doesn't entertain them. What a sad state of affairs that is.


Banish Mickey Mouse from the republic of learning

Social inclusion is a worthy goal but it must not come at the cost of academic standards, says Christopher Pearson, commenting from Australia

In the 1930s, about 5 per cent of Australians went to university. By the late 80s, the figure had risen to about 25 per cent. If the Gillard government's targets are met, 40 per cent of today's primary school students will attend a university.

Glyn Davis, vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne and this year's Boyer lecturer, says this is a good thing. "All Australians, whatever their means, should feel encouraged to participate. Only when citizenship is available to all who seek [membership of the global republic of learning] will we realise the potential of this republic of learning."

You don't get to be vice-chancellor of a great seat of learning without a combination of intellectual ability and guile. It cannot have escaped Davis's notice that the expansionary policies he is so fulsomely endorsing will compromise what remain of the academic standards in the sandstone universities, let alone their besser-brick competitors. The most charitable gloss that can be put on the version of his fourth Boyer Lecture published in Inquirer last Saturday is that he's being diplomatic about something he must privately deplore and is powerless to stop. (As an aside, no doubt he hopes that Melbourne's new generalist first degrees will sandbag it, to some extent, against a rising tide).

But it can be argued that Davis and Julia Gillard are setting the bar too high. If a degree is good enough for 40 per cent of the population, why not extend the privilege to all as a citizen's birthright? Surely Labor's commitment to equity and social justice demands no less.

Inadvertently, Davis makes the case. "For younger adults, the lack of university or a higher-level vocational qualification doubles their chance of unemployment. Less education is statistically linked to lower income, a higher chance of poor physical or mental health, less involvement in community or civic life and, for men, a lesser chance of getting and staying married. Missing out on education flows through to every part of life."

When it's put like that, the question arises: what is so special about the lucky 40 per cent? Why should their incomes and life chances be boosted at the expense of everyone else? We can be confident that the proportion of people with high IQs hasn't magically increased to keep pace with the percentage of people admitted to tertiary education since the 30s. Rather, statistics tell us that most of the 40 per cent heading off to university will be of no more than average ability, just like most of the excluded 60 per cent. The inescapable conclusion is that the process of choosing winners and losers will be outrageously arbitrary.

In stressing the desirability of social inclusiveness in the undergraduate population, Davis gets into a rhetorical bind. "People expect university entry to be based strictly on merit. Elitism - at least elitism based on something other than intellectual ability - is untenable. If Australia is to be a meritocracy, drawing in students from all walks of life is essential."

As readers who are growing long in the tooth will recall, referring to people "from all walks of life" was a post-war social workers' cant term for alluding to the poor, which strikes an odd note in our brave new world. So does appearing to sanction intellectual elitism, especially when the policy you're advocating has precisely the reverse intention and guaranteed outcome.

If Davis were being frank with us, he'd have to admit that the 40 per cent inclusion principle was so arbitrary that a university entry scheme decided on the basis of students' hair colour, the month in which they were born or indeed their parents' income or postcode would make just as much sense.

In Australia we've already reached the stage where all you need to get into arts courses at Deakin's Warrnambool campus or La Trobe's Albury is a tertiary entrance rank score of 50. Such courses are not even attracting the top 40 per cent of school-leavers, so we can expect a further systematic dumbing-down of tertiary standards in the future to which Davis beckons us.

In his first Boyer Lecture, introducing the theme of "the republic of learning", Davis spoke of the way in which "a handful of humanists in the time of Erasmus has grown to more than 150 million higher education students and staff worldwide". This is as callow and shameless a conjuring exercise as I've seen in a long time. It calls to mind Julian Barnes's line about expecting the past to suck up to a triumphalist view of the present. No one apprised of the achievements of Renaissance scholarship could expect to be taken seriously when suggesting they could be conflated with what these days passes for tertiary education. I think that over the holidays Davis should read Erasmus's In Praise of Folly.

As a longstanding advocate of meritocracy, I'm all in favour of policies that open up tertiary education to able people from backgrounds of disadvantage. If, in the process, some middle-class dullards with a misplaced sense of entitlement are excluded, that's fine by me. The professional classes have no automatic right to entrench themselves to the third and fourth generation.

What I object to is lowering academic standards and debasing the currency in the name of social inclusion. Davis's reassurance that "the republic of learning, once the preserve of an elite, is on the road to democracy" just won't do. It should go without saying that it's demeaning to working-class people to assume that the only way most of them can get a tertiary education is by offering them Mickey Mouse courses.

Then again, considering that education services for foreign students now amount to such a large source of national income, the debauch of academic standards is a very short-sighted approach. Apart from the weather and proximity to home, in 10 years why would the most talented Chinese or Indian students pay good money to study here? Perhaps, in the future, leadership in the tertiary sector in Australia will come from private universities that see the competitive advantage in setting the highest standards and refusing to compromise on them.