August 21, 2006

Revolution? Again??

Here we go again.
I couldn't help thinking of Doug's recent post when I read this article in the British Guardian. Isn't a similar dynamic of fear-mongering at work?
GCSE exams in English and maths are to be made harder as part of a major government crackdown on schools that are failing to teach basic educational skills.

Jim Knight, the Schools Minister, has introduced the tough new measures in one of the biggest shake-ups of the exam system in a decade.

'Every single young person must have a good grasp of the basics,' Knight told The Observer. 'We are changing the way we measure performance and toughening up the English and maths GCSEs to ensure that young people master the three Rs.'


Just look at the emotive words in these first few lines: "crackdown", implying toughness, direct action, promising results, perhaps also implying safety (from what?) with its associations with crime and the police (at least in British newspaperese);
"failing", again fear-arousing, but where's the evidence? All we get, later in the article, is
There has been a growing clamour in recent years from education experts and businesses against what they see as the poor standard of literacy and maths skills of many school-leavers.

and this
In a report to be released tomorrow, the Confederation of British Industry will warn of widespread levels of dissatisfaction among employers.

The article presents some serious concerns:
While the present system allows pupils to get a pass in English or maths without mastering such skills as long as an overall points total is reached, that will no longer be the case.

However, it fails to present any kind of real historical context. When I read this, for instance,
In the future, employers will have a guarantee of the quality of the school-leavers they are taking on. A good pass will mean that young people are equipped with the basics.
and this
In today's Observer, the philosopher and educationist Baroness Warnock issues a scathing critique of the government's education policies for having left many school-leavers 'unable to write intelligibly, read critically or think analytically'. She predicted that one result would be that the country could soon find itself without any world-class universities.
I wonder, haven't such "basic standards" ALWAYS been a concern of employers and employers' associations like the CBI? And what about all the present systems and standards? Weren't they introduced precisely in response to precisely these kinds of concerns and "clamours"? We seem to see the same kinds of "scathing critiques" every few years. And here's another scream for "back to basics". If the PREVIOUS rounds of "back to basics" (and how many have we had now?) didn't work didn't work, and obviously they didn't otherwise we wouldn't be having the PRESENT screaming for "back to basics", why should the next one be any different? Some will say, Ah, that's because all these "back to basics" are sabotaged by the bleeding-heart liberals who dominate our teacher-education system!

And finally, the article ends with...? Not a quote from a teacher or educator, but another politician! One from the "other" party, the Tories. That's called "balance", don't you see, O best beloved?
Students now spend so much time concentrating on exams that their basic education is suffering, said David Willetts, the Tories' education spokesman.

To add to all the fun, there is the ongoing dispute about the validity of the GCSE exam results themselves:
The move has been announced before Thursday's publication of this year's GCSE results, which are expected to show a further sharp rise in the number of pupils achieving an overall 'benchmark' pass.
A leading private school's headteacher yesterday called for a national inquiry to review the future of the British examination system, warning that public confidence in GCSEs and A-levels had sunk to an all-time low. Anthony Seldon, head of Wellington College in Berkshire, urged the government to set up a royal commission to review the system in order to avert a looming "national crisis". The historian and author - a biographer of Tony Blair - was speaking on the first day of a two-day conference at Wellington College, attended by heads and senior staff from the state and private sectors, to debate whether GCSEs and A-levels had "reached the end of the road". He warned: "At the end of the day, you can't discriminate between so many As and the intellectually gifted from the well-drilled."

Ooh! Biographer of Tony Blair, eh? Well, no better way to stamp these words with vailidity. I'm convinced already. And here's more on the debate.

Aside: there's an interesting ad on that page of the Guardian Education section. Check it out.

And just in case that doesn't get you rofl, here's an extra tidbit. The whole debate, at least as presented in the media, is so completely politicized, trying to get the grains of truth out of such articles is like how I imagine it was for readers of Pravda in Communist Soviet Union.

On a (slightly) more serious note, the best analysis of this debate, between the business-thinkers and the teachers/educators, was in a short essay by Neil Postman in Conscientious Objections. I'll try and dig out the essay title. What I recall from it was that Postman was saying these two groups of people speak different languages, and yet they share many similar concerns, if only they could talk (and listen) to each other. He picked out the good and weak points on both sides. The business people have a point, about accountability and the importance of achieving desired objectives, but also they are blind to certain pedagogical realities, and tend to think that it's all a pretty straightforward matter of cutting costs and creating a more efficient business model: if your employees are not doing the job you hired them to, either ensure they are properly trained or get rid of them and hire new (properly trained) ones. Short, and well worth reading, as it's the only attempt I've seen to bridge the gap between the two groups, and indeed the only that seems to understand the ways of thinking of both sides, AND the importance of having these two ways of thinking talk to and understand each other.

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