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Chronological Archive • December 29, 2002 - January 04, 2003
January 03, 2003
The unintended consequences of central educational planning

I've not been healthy enough to say anything profound of an educational nature today, but luckily, Paul Marks had this to say, in a comment on this yesterday over at samizdata. I trust he won't object to me lifting the whole thing and reproducing it here:

The context here was that Dr Tucker was dealing with a study from the University of Arizona that showed an inverse relationship between a rise in the new test scores and performance in SAT tests.

In short as children were put through endless rote learning to get them through the new "high powered tests" so teaching children general problem solving skills ("how to think") went out of the window.

Dr Tucker was using this study (which was undertaken by statists - not libertarians) to show that the conservative reform plan for government schools (lots of factual tests on core subjects and teaching geared to pass the tests) was having unintended consequences.

Another problem was the practice of High Schools encouraging children they thought would fail the tests to drop out - so that the school test average would be higher (and it would get more money under the "market socialist" incentives that the conservatives believed in).

It was much like the old Soviet practice when they wished to reduce the death rate in the hospitals - kick out the people who are going to die.

Dr Tucker's basic point was that a government school system will not work - whether it is the hands of liberals or conservatives.

In other words, as soon as you decide that one particular symptom of the nice world you want should be maximised, then at that exact moment it ceases to be any use as a measurement of niceness or of progress towards niceness.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:54 PM
Category: Sovietisation
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January 02, 2003
Will the collapse of compulsory education also be Soviet?

From the invaluable Michael Peach, further evidence of the Sovietisation of State Education, as experienced by the teachers:

SO, OVERWORKED AND UNDERFUNDED, bullied, blamed and finally, inspected, fast track dismissal could be a blessed release. But, why should I hand an easy victory to knee-jerk, macho management? When I’m not quite so tired, I can hear the seductive voice of that other reality, whispering, “Why take risks? If you don’t try to tell them like it is then they can’t subvert your warnings into recommendations. Play safe and sell them short. Intone the mantra ‘Just say No’. They’ll all switch off and you’ll get your tick in the Great Ofsted Book of Competence”.

This stuff reads like the best of the Soviet dissident literature of the seventies and eighties.

Mike worries that as home-education spreads the System will react with laws to compel attendance for all. I wonder. I don't just hope he's wrong, I actually think he could be wrong also, as I'm sure he hopes he is. There will be an ever more voluble debate, as the number of home-educators grows and as many more parents think about doing it also, and as the home-education support industry gets into its stride. But I can't see any government wanting to stick red-hot pokers into the lives of some of the most intellectually self-confident and mouthy people in the country.

And think of all those Christian home-schoolers. Does anyone fancy making martyrs out of them? Christians love being martyred. And all those hyper-well-educated home-schooled kids themselves, trading conversational grenades with the compulsion freaks? Tabloid TV will love that.

No, I think it just as likely that home-education will do a boil-the-frog job on the state system. By the time the frog gets the danger, too many will be doing the other stuff, and, politically, it will be too late.

Again, the comparison that suggests itself is the USSR, in this case the collapse of the USSR. How many people prophecied how limp, abject and downright peaceful that would be? Not me. I thought that at least some mad (but stylishly dressed) tank commanders would be screaming defiance, and some unreconstructed Stalinoid politbureaucrats would try to stitch together some kind of damn-you-all Stalinoid government. At least as the ship sank, I thought there'd be some bands playing and some officers saluting.

Actually, a few Stalinoids did attempt something like this. It lasted one day. On the Monday Bernard Levin was saying in the Times that it wouldn't last more than about five years. On the Tuesday he wrote another piece saying: I told you so.

Might not the dream of compulsory state education for all wither away like the old USSR did, not with a bang but with hardly a whimper?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:41 PM
Category: Home education
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Lawschool laptops

It's been a regular theme here that the new information technology is making life hard for a lot of the people who run old-technology institutions, such as most schools and universities still are. (The new technology is icing in these places, not the cake of how they are actually run.) First it was Elvis Presley and his many successors, making the world outside the classroom so much more enticing than it used to be. Now, cheap computers are finally making their presence felt in the classroom, because now they are cheap enough for students to own them. (As we all know, a computer you don't own is hardly a computer at all.)

This is from today's New York Times:

In a classroom at American University in Washington on a recent afternoon, the benefits and drawbacks of the new wireless world were on display. From the back row of an amphitheater classroom, more than a dozen laptop screens were visible. As Prof. Jay Mallek lectured graduate students on the finer points of creating and reading an office budget, many students went online to Blackboard.com, a Web site that stores course materials, and grabbed the day's handouts from the ether.

But just as many students were off surfing. A young man looked at sports photos while a woman checked out baby photos that just arrived in her e-mailbox.

The screens provide a silent commentary on the teacher's attention-grabbing skills. The moment he loses the thread, or fumbles with his own laptop to use its calculator, screens flip from classroom business to leisure. Students dash off e-mail notes and send instant messages. A young man who is chewing gum shows an amusing e-mail message to the woman next to him, and then switches over to read the online edition of The Wall Street Journal.

Now me, I'm all for chalk and talk. But my background is political propaganda rather than regular teaching (even though these activities have much in common), and I take a rather contemptuous view of "teachers" who can only command attention by commanding it. Haven't these people ever heard of the ancient art of rhetoric, of getting and keeping the attention of an audience, of explaining to them why they should listen, why the subject matters, or even (whisper) why it is actually rather wonderful?

There are two basic propositions being banged on about here, day after day, in among ruminations about other educational things. One is that treating pupils like condemned criminals is not nice. But the other is: because of the nature of the modern world, treating pupils like condemned criminals doesn't work any more. This story illlustrates the second of these two propositions with great vividness.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:57 PM
Category: Technology
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Freedom and Whisky and Education

I'm still not very well, but I'm well enough to thank David Farrer for the general plug for this blog, and for news about Schoolhouse, a Scotland-based home-education support group.

This from their website:

Schoolhouse Home Education Association (known as "Schoolhouse"), a recognised Scottish charity (No. SCO26965), was founded in 1996 by a group of home educating families who wished to raise public awareness of, and begin to tackle issues surrounding, home education in Scotland. The Association offers support and information on a Scotland-wide basis to those who wish to take personal responsibility for the education of their children; families who have chosen, or are contemplating, home-based education; and those who wish to defend the right of families to educate in accordance with their own philosophy and with due regard to the wishes and feelings of their children.

Reasons for choosing home-based education are many and varied. Some parents educate at home through active choice, whereas for others it is a reluctant decision taken as a direct result of school-related difficulties such as school phobia / anxiety, bullying or special educational needs. Approaches to home-based education are similarly diverse - some families choose a relatively structured model while many favour autonomous learning. Happily, the choice is entirely theirs since the 5-14 curriculum guidelines do not apply to home educators and they are free to choose the approach which best suits the individual child.

That the rise of the internet seems to be happening alongside a rise in interest in home education is anything but coincidence. The former makes the latter so much easier to hear about, and to do.

David says he's going to read this blog every day. As already stated, the weekends may go dry, but I intend to put something up every weekday. In general, I hope David doesn't have cause to change his mind about this blog.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:50 PM
Category: Home education
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January 01, 2003
Please miss I'm not feeling well

I wish I could show you a sick note. Just look for the Beecham's All-in-One adverts. I wish you all a happier new year than I'm having, and hope for a lesson a day for the next few days, but don't assume it. Bring books, and try not to disturb the other education blogs.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:13 PM
Category: This Blog
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December 31, 2002
An army view of British education

A friend of mine is a British army officer. I dined with him the other night and he asked me about this blog and how it was going. Fine I said, and I started to ask him about the army approach to education, by which I meant how the army goes about educating its people. He did eventually give me an excellent and detailed answer to that question, which I hope to tell you all about at a later date, but before that could happen, he dived in with a most interesting spiel about how the army sees education, by which he meant the education system that its recruits come from, while making it very clear that what he was saying wasn't just his own opinion, but was something that army officers as a whole all tend to agree about.

He focused on two particular changes that seem to have been happening in the raising of young men in our society. (1) They tend nowadays to lack "physical robustness", at any rate compared to former times, and (2) they tend to have no understanding of authority, ditto. These were the two big things that he emphasised.

By robustness he meant that young men tend nowadays seem to have no notion of how you can stick at some physical task even though it might be hurting. Pain is not necessarily the same thing as damage, and might actually be a sign of a growth in physical strength, but the latest army recruits didn't seem to get that, and had to be taught about it.

Second - the authority thing - well, that seemed to be related to the fact that the sort of men who now go into the lower ranks of the army have a serious statistical tendency not to have fathers and in general not to have had any history of knuckling under to any disciplined regime.

You can see how these two things are actually pretty closely related. In fact they are but different aspects of the same fact.

My personal interpretation of all this is that nowadays boys aren't having to do anything others tell them to do, but neither are they doing anything much that they want to do. They have a definite tendency, in short, to be doing nothing. But this is not a long posting about what I think, it's a short posting about some of the things that my friend the army officer thinks about British education.

All I really want to add now is to say: Happy New Year. I haven't got around to analysing who is reading this blog, but the comments suggest that some people are, and I want to thank all of you. I repeat my intention to post something here every normal working day, and maybe things also on abnormal non-working days such as today is. Regular visitors can be pretty sure of new stuff if they visit every day or two.

I've just seen the latest Bond movie. Try as I might, I can see no educational angle on this whatsoever, other than to observe how much more amusing a male teenager of the army sort would find it than something like geography lessons. So I'm having fun, and I hope you are too.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:33 PM
Category: Boys will be boys
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December 30, 2002
Muslim homeschooling

Michael Peach, a strong supporter of home education, links to a report that there has been an increase in the number of Muslims in the USA who are choosing to homeschool their children. (Daryl Cobranchi also alludes to a similar story.) Sets alarm bells ringing, doesn't it? Says Mike:

Now just as I don't agree with the state being involved in education I don't agree with religion being involved in it either. Sure, educate about the various religions of the world if you choose to but to base your whole education system on religious principle. .... Sorry, I find it all kind of scary.

I believe in home education and I think parents are responsible for their children's education so should I be for this or against it? I just don't know.

I'm not certain either, but my inclination is to say: let it happen, and worry about any damage it does when it does it and not before. (Incidentally, does Mike also worry about all those homeschooling Christians in the USA?)

I suppose there are two fears about Muslim homeschooling. First, it will result in an irrevocably divided community, divided along religious lines, similar to the divided community we Brits already have in Northern Ireland. Second, it will (maybe) breed (just a tiny few) terrorists.

But look at it this way. If Muslims don't get - or are somehow not allowed to exercise the right to – home education, then they are more than ever likely to insist on having Muslim schools. And what is more likely to be taken over by Wahahbi maniacs? Muslim families or Muslim schools? I'd say Muslim schools. And I'd especially say publicly funded Muslim schools, in which consumers (i.e. parents) can be kept at arm's length and lorded over by the externally-funded producers, the people running the place.

Also, if the only way to get a Muslim education is to send your kids to a Muslim school, that might reinforce the tendency of Muslims to live in separate communities, in order to get into the right school catchment area. But if they are the masters of their own houses, no need for them to move house to get the sort of lives they want for themselves and their children.

None of which is certain. But if you are uncertain, go with freedom.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:03 PM
Category: Home education
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