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RECENT THOUGHTS ON EDUCATION

by : JOHN CHUCKMAN
Tuesday February 16, 2010 - 21:16

LEONARD SAX AND MORE ON SEGREGATED EDUCATION AND THE ENTIRE MISDIRECTION OF "PROFESSIONAL EDUCATORS"

RESPONSE TO A CBC RADIO ONE PROGRAM ON THE CURRENT

Your guest, Leonard Sax, only proved how little genuine scholarship and hard thinking often go into discussions of education.

First he told us of research showing the differences in brain development between boys and girls at a young age – actually pretty fatuous research since the difference is a practical reality that any person of moderate observational powers, having passed through public education at any time over the last century or so, took for granted.

When your interviewer remarked that such research would seem to say that segregated classes might then be necessary in general, we got a cotton-mouth response typical of the education establishment, “No, I wouldn’t go that far in making a generalization.”

Of course, the sad truth is much of what passes for scholarship in education is extremely feeble stuff.

I remember when I was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto reading announcements of PhD theses at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. There was always some genuinely comical stuff, virtual parodies of serious scholarship, Monty Python does educational research. Many professors then at U of T actually objected to the University’s granting degrees for OISE because of its poor standards of scholarship.

And I’m afraid this is a general condition. Even at a world-class institution like Harvard, a prominent member of the education faculty expounds a notion of multiple intelligences, a notion having absolutely no science to it. Many public schools in the U.S. actually have posters in classrooms proclaiming the notion of multiple intelligences as though it were education’s equivalent to Maxwell’s Laws on Electromagnetism.

Of course, for years, education faculties quoted the University of Chicago’s Bruno Bettelheim as though he were an authority - that is, until we discovered the famous child psychologist was a fraud and an abuser of children.

There are endless examples of this sort of thing in education, all tending to point to the fundamental truth that teaching is neither a profession, in the sense that there is a basic body of knowledge and standards, nor a science. It is a skill, and the way to hone a skill is to get on with it, not to talk about it.

Ontario’s public education establishment has done nothing but flip-flop decade after decade, going from one half-considered notion to another.

First, tests were important, then they were not so important. First, plenty of homework was vital, then it was not so vital. First, there was zero tolerance for violence, then not really. First, report cards were important means of summing progress, then they were reduced to bland phrases from a computer. First, failure was an important tool, then everyone passed. First, teachers were authority figures, then they were mere facilitators. One could actually write an embarrassingly long list of such complete nonsense.

Any other institution which behaved in such a wildly erratic manner would become the butt of jokes and would fail utterly.

The only difference for our schools is that no one is allowed to say they are failing, but they are, because Canadians are not genuinely competitive in international comparisons, and, in a globilized world, there really is only a world standard for our children’s future opportunities.

One suspects that all this meaningless arm-flapping represents an ongoing effort by “professional educators” to avoid true responsibilities and the hard realities of education, regularly announcing a new notion as a solution, much like still another new elixir from yet another quick-money quack rolling his travelling road show into town.

Fill the classrooms with competent teachers – there are many, but there are also many incompetents protected by their union.

Give them a reasonable curriculum – the current one in Ontario is also right out of Monty Python - and the resources they require, especially libraries and computers.

Then give them the authority they need – authority against the many politically-correct principals and, importantly, against whining, overly-interfering parents.

Stream kids according to their proven abilities, kids having no talent for academics only clog the classrooms and themselves miss alternate forms of education – e.g., shop - that might excite them and give them something of value for their futures.

Open teaching up to all talented and interested people – retired professionals, artists, musicians, businessmen, and others wishing to teach full or part-time – without the need for that most discreditable of all academic documents, a degree from an education faculty which is a guarantees of no hard knowledge or skill or even affection for teaching kids.

Those and a small number of other measures would increase the effectiveness of our schools immensely. As trite as it sounds, we really do need to emphasize basics.


THE TORONTO SCHOOL BOARD’S CHRIS SPENCE PROPOSES AN ALL-BOY SCHOOL

POSTED RESPONSE TO A COLUMN IN TORONTO’S GLOBE AND MAIL

Sorry, but this is a hopeless, go-nowhere idea.

First, Chris Spence, who is a very pleasant man but a truly ineffectual executive, displayed his obsession with boys’ performance - there’s no other word for it than an obsession - for all his years in Hamilton, where his genuine academic achievements were almost non-existent.

Second, every failed school in Chicago – where I grew up and attended a variety of terrible and excellent schools depending on the neighborhood we lived in - was long ago renamed an “academy.” It’s a meaningless gesture, and the schools that were failing are still failing.

Third, this amounts to a back-door approach to the even more meaningless afro-centric school idea. To a great extent, the boys with which this is a concern - that is those dropping out in large numbers - are black Canadians. Something more than a form of segregation is required.

The real problems of these boys could be handled in the existing system, were the School Board to show any genuine thinking or imagination.

Serious research shows that putting failing boys on a treadmill for a vigorous effort in the morning yields maybe three hours of much improved docility and learning. Hyper-active black American boys who could not read actually were able to learn to read doing this.

Something along these lines is one of the real solutions to the problems of failing boys.

Another approach to the same problem would be a soccer league that would see boys spending a little time every morning in a demanding practice.

These approaches must of course also be combined with efficient teaching, using only teachers who have some insight into these problems. A good many of our existing teachers simply would not qualify.


THE RELATIVE IMPORTANCE OF GOOD PARENTS IN BRINGING UP KIDS - RESPONSE TO A DEBATE BETWEEN BRITAIN’S DAVID CAMERON AND POLLY TOYNBEE

POSTED RESPONSE TO A COLUMN BY DANIEL FINKELSTEIN IN THE TIMES

This is an old set of arguments.

In the United States over the last half century, versions of both views have been given time and time again.

What seems intuitively clear is that poverty and poor parenting do not automatically go together.

Indeed, some of the best parents are those who struggle against difficulties to do their best for their kids.

These are people often who are, for one reason or another, trapped in a temporary poverty: they and/or their children will almost certainly rise out of it. There are many cases of this, especially among immigrants without the language or who have lost all their resources in some tumult back home or who have difficulty getting their professional qualifications recognized in their new home.

But what is also clear is that some portion of poverty is owing to the lack of any marketable skills, relatively low intelligence, and perhaps mental disorders of one kind or another. Then, too, there is addiction to drugs, but we might put that down to mental disorder.

There are parents who see their children only as unpleasant burdens, accidents they did not want to happen, types which occur both in the well-off and the poor.

In the case of some wealth, the wealth of the family gets the child through, as do perhaps native gifts. Winston Churchill was a perfect example: his mother was almost completely indifferent to his existence while his father actually disliked him.

But in cases where there is both poverty of resources and an indifferent parent or parents, the die is pretty well cast.

Nothing guarantees having even one good parent, having even one must be regarded as a blessing, the luck of the draw, much the same as having good looks or special talents or being born into wealth.

Nature is utterly indifferent to the inequalities doled out at birth, a reality quite the opposite to the cozy, warm notion of a benevolent God.

And while society needs to do what it can to intervene, the task of completely making up for having terrible parents and no resources is beyond its capacities. In terms of sheer time, let alone resources, it is impossible to make up for all the bad parents in society.

Of course, therein resides the heart of the matter with the David Cameron view: if you just say parents need to love children, you often are blowing hot air and passing the blame for not even trying to help.

We have a whole generation of school teachers, for example, I’m sure in Britain as in North America, who insist parents must be involved, some knowing full well that there are parents who are hopeless, ignorant, and even vile. So their mantra about parents becomes effectively an excuse for not rolling up their sleeves and helping the child.


ON THE ISSUE OF MERIT PAY FOR TEACHERS

POSTED RESPONSE TO A COLUMN BY ERIN ANDERSSEN IN TORONTO’S GLOBE AND MAIL

True merit pay for teachers must cut both ways.

The better teachers should get more than average while the poorer teachers should get less than average.

That is the only intellectually defensible way to do this.

Of course, the truly poor ones – of which there are many – should be let go.

How much chance is there that the teacher’s union - at its heart the cause of most of our educational woes - would support that? None.

As for only paying bonuses, that really is a bribery system. Because the education system is so much larger and complex in the US, it is only natural that bribes would come into being.

After all, American states and cities outbid each other in concessions to keep or receive industries.

In a large American metropolis, typically there are many school boards, ranging from immensely well-financed ones in breathtakingly wealthy suburbs to piteously financed ones in some urban centers (truly rural schools in the US are often terribly poor too).

In a place like Chicago area, there are suburbs with PhDs teaching high school and with facilities comparable to a private quality college. Then there are science labs in some Chicago neighborhoods where the Bunsen burners do not work.

Paying these bribes is just one more mechanism for the well-off to assure themselves all the very best. Poor boards are not able to compete.

It’s just one more form of Social Darwinism in a country which specializes in such arrangements.

Another argument against this idea is a strong one too. The fact is, in Ontario, we have no in authority competent to judge the quality of teachers. Principals are afraid, often rather limp-wristed, and they are just teachers themselves who in many cases sought a way out of the classroom.

Once a graduate lands a permanent job in Ontario, his or her teaching is never examined or assessed. There are no specialist teams competent to do this anyway, as there once were.

Going right up the Ontario hierarchy, we have pretty much nothing but ex-teachers who’ve escaped the classroom. That’s how we get superintendents and even directors with little capacity for management or sound judgment.


A STUDY WHICH SHOWS THOSE WHO DON’T ENJOY READING BY FIFTEEN ARE UNLIKELY TO SUCCEED

POSTED RESPONSE TO AN EDITORIAL IN TORONTO’S GLOBE AND MAIL

Yes, this study result strikes me as quite valid, but I’m afraid it has little to do with our schools.

It’s a bit like saying those with intelligence and some mix of initiative will succeed.

My observations of children who like to read suggest little of it comes from the class room.

Of course, a good class room can further the love and skill further, but the truth is that a good many of our elementary teachers are themselves non-readers (you only have to listen to their conversations) or indeed people who have no idea about how to teach children to read.



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