All must have prizes


It’s not even a new phenomenon and can’t be sheeted home specifically to Obama and Brown.  In 2003, the headline in America was  States Cut Test Standards to Avoid Sanctions.

The same thing happened over our way last year:

The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance – Britain’s biggest exam board – said it lowered grade boundaries in science tests to make papers less demanding than previous years.

According to the Times Educational Supplement, they failed to come to an agreement over the mark needed to get a C – officially a good pass – in science. One of AQA’s rival exam boards awarded C grades in one paper to pupils getting just 20 per cent of questions correct.

On August 7 – just two weeks before results were published – Ofqual wrote to the AQA ordering them to reduce its own grade boundaries to “bring it into line” with other boards.

And now, in the States again, the same story is occurring with the new “exit tests” adopted by 24 states.  Here are some excerpts from the article:

*  Twenty-four states now use at least some part of the exams for federal accountability under the No Child Left Behind law, up from just two states in 2002.

*  In 2008, state officials in Alabama, Arizona and Washington delayed the start of the exit exam requirement and lowered standards after seeing that many students, including a disproportionate number of minorities, would fail the tests.

*  Many states have faced lawsuits over the proposed requirements amid accusations that the tests are unfair to students with disabilities, non-native speakers of English and students attending schools with fewer educational resources.

*  Critics of Arkansas’s system say it fails to show true math proficiency because students have only to score 24 out of 100 to pass the test and those who fail will be granted two additional chances to take the test. After that, they can take a computerized tutorial that is followed by a test.

*  That same year state education officials in Alabama approved an emergency rule allowing students to graduate if they passed just three sections of the exit test, rather than all five, as long as two were math and reading.

*  The exams are not cheap. Education officials in Pennsylvania estimate it will cost $176 million to develop and administer the tests and model curriculum through 2014-15, and about $31 million to administer each year after that.

Does it matter all that much if children are dumbed down?  Well judge by the dumbing down of medical education, i.e. the doctors who are going to treat you in your old age:

The new Medical Education Standards Board, half of whose 24 members are intended to be lay members, will be the single body overseeing curriculums, standards, and the registration of all medical trainees. It will report direct to the secretary of state, whose responsibility for service provision and training will be a clear conflict of interest.

One interesting snippet was that doctors who fail in one set of exams, instead of being drummed out, are transferred across to another sector where they run a better chance of passing.  No child left behind, all must have prizes.

Why the dumbing down?

A whole host of factors:

Part of the reason is that neither our schools nor our students spend very much time at it. The National Education Commission on Time and Learning found that most American students spend less than half their day actually studying academic subjects.

The commission’s two-year study found that American students spent only about 41 percent of the school day on basic academics. Their schedules jammed with course work in self-esteem, personal safety, AIDS education, family life, consumer training, driver’s ed, holistic health, and gym, the typical American high school student spends only 1,460 hours on subjects like math, science, and history during their four years in high schools.

Meanwhile, their counterparts in Japan will spend 3,170 hours on basic subjects, students in France will spend 3,280 on academics, while students in Germany will spend 3,528 hours studying such subjects – nearly three times the hours devoted in American schools.

Disaffection with learning is a major factor:

In Beyond the Classroom (1996), Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University, reports that “an extraordinarily high percentage” of high-school students are now “alienated and disengaged” from education.

Two decades ago, he observes, the average high-school classroom would have three or four disaffected students. But today, “nearly half of the students are uninterested.  Across the country…students’ commitment to school is at an all-time low”.

According to Steinberg, [Steinberg, Laurence, et. al. Beyond the Classroom: Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need to Do. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.], student anti-intellectualism is a problem with “with enormous implications and profound potential consequences.”

It is “potentially more harmful to the future well-being of American society” than any of the other problems now grabbing the headlines.”

Paul Trout, in Student Anti-Intellectualism and the Dumbing Down of the University, 1996, puts it this way:

Sad to say, the problem of anti-intellectual students is … the result not only of misguided educational policies and practices K through 16, but of vast social and cultural forces well beyond the classroom.

These forces include family dysfunction and divorce, disengaged and permissive parenting, peer pressure to regard education derisively, youth-culture activities that militate against serious and sustained intellectual engagement, a widespread deligitimation of reading and print culture, and, an ambient popular culture that glorifies triviality, coarseness and mindlessness.

How is it possible to overhaul the entire system–from popular culture and family life to the educational establishment–simultaneously?

Research and Pedagogy

So, even if we throw all the factors above into the stew we find ourselves in, it still doesn’t go deeply enough into the root causes.  For some of these, you need to get into educational methods and teacher training – the nuts and bolts of pedagogy and research.

Having been involved in this field for more decades than I’m admitting, the following rings quite true.  The quotes below come from Stone, J. E. & Clements, A. (1998), Research and innovation: Let the buyer beware, in Robert R. Spillane & Paul Regnier (Eds.), The superintendent of the future (pp.59-97), Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen Publishers, via J. E. Stone and Andrea Clements, East Tennessee State University:

Which research and which innovations, however, often depends less on the quality of the findings than on the channel through which the research comes to the school’s attention. School personnel are frequently exposed to “the latest” research at workshops, professional meetings, and in-service training.

Typically, the teachers, administrators, and board members who attend these meetings have a limited understanding of research and/or of the findings pertaining to the innovation in question. More often than not, presenters and programs for such meetings are selected not because their ideas are well grounded but because they have a stimulating presentation.

In addition, audience interest is often spurred by a regulatory mandate or incentive funding, not a burning desire for improved student achievement.

Other pragmatic considerations play a role as well. For example, attractiveness to students, teachers, parents, and other school system stakeholders can weigh heavily in research selections.

So can public relations.

The desire of school leaders and board members to demonstrate “progressive leadership” often plays a contributory role. In short, the selection of research-based programs and innovations brought back from workshops and meetings may be substantially influenced by considerations other than evidence of effectiveness.

The dominance of learner-centered pedagogy is in no small part an accident of history. Progressivism–a social and philosophical offshoot of romantic naturalism–predominated in American intellectual circles in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. These were the years during which universal public education came to be public policy as well as the formative years of many teacher-training institutions.

Accepted teaching practices of that day were often harsh and punitive; thus progressive methods were a welcome alternative. The premier teacher-training institution of the early twentieth century was Teacher’s College, Columbia University (Cremin, 1964). Its graduates led the development of other such programs around the country.

Even today, the educational methodologies that prevail in the public education community are those that agree with the philosophic leanings of the Teacher’s College faculty of the early 1900s (Hirsch, 1996).

Dewey, in particular, wrote at length about the harm done by teacher insistence on externally defined aims (Dewey, 1916/1963). Viewed from the progressive/learner-centered perspective, research that seeks to demonstrate a teaching methodology’s ability to produce a preconceived learning outcome is inherently faulty and inconsistent with the proper aims of schooling.

Despite public repudiation in the 1950s, Dewey’s view remains the foundation of today’s cutting-edge innovations. It has spawned a remarkable array of educational terms and concepts, and they have been widely propagated by agencies and organizations such as the U.S. Office of Education, the state departments of education, teacher-training programs, accrediting agencies, professional and academic societies, and the like.

Given facts open to selective use and interpretation, educators frequently rely on knowledge that is equivocal or that may be contradicted by other evidence. Recognizing this condition, Anderson, Reder, and Simon (1995) offer the following caution:

Learner-centered teachers consider outcomes to be governed by factors outside teacher control, thus the quality of teaching cannot be judged by results. Also, teachers find that learner-centered approaches are flexible and can be blended with existing practice without inconvenience and disruption.

Factors of this sort make the task of adopting learner-centered practices simpler than, for example, implementing Direct Instruction–a methodology requiring more than the usual day or two of in-service training.

[N]ew “theories” of education are introduced into schools every day (without labeling them as experiments) on the basis of their philosophical or common sense plausibility but without genuine empirical support.

Studies on the history of research and research methods come to various disquietening conclusions:

Educational innovations that are consistent with popular educational doctrines are often supported by such research. The controversial but widely used whole-language reading instruction, for example, goes unquestioned by most educators because it fits hand-in-glove with learner-centered pedagogy.

It is supported primarily by favorable opinion among like-minded educators, not demonstrated experimental results.

A type of research that seems to produce empirical facts from opinion is a group-interaction process called the Delphi method (Eason, 1992; Strauss & Zeigler, 1975). However, instead of creating the appearance of empirically grounded fact from multiple reports of opinion (as does pseudoresearch), the * Delphi method creates facts about opinion.

Rand corporation is credited with developing the Delphi technique as a means of distilling a consensus of expert opinion. Sackman (1974) has summarized its primary shortcomings. The expert status of panelists is not scientifically verifiable and neither is the assumption that group opinion is superior to individual opinion.

So it was a win-win for the administrators who could demonstrate busy-ness, producing happy students plus results measured against constructed norms, for teachers because they were not being measured against external standards, for students because nothing was too taxing but unfortunately, as can be seen in the first half of this post, like all social-constructionist theory, it is not founded on reality and is ultimately unsustainable.

The great tragedy is that there are now dumbed down parents everywhere who don’t know they are but go along with the dumbing down of their kids because they are unaware of it.  They are led to believe that there are fundamental, examinable standards which have always been even though they’re demonstrably not, particularly when schools set their own standards.

Look at it from the point of view of a young teacher at an in-service course.  Someone considerably older, shown great reverence by the senior staff, gives a dazzling Powerpoint presentation and punches each easy to understand concept home with verve.  The young teacher is not going to question that because he/she has not the background from which to question it, particularly if it tunes in with his/her own prejudices in general.

Thus the thing self-actualizes.

Accident or no accident?

The same old political question arises whether it is the economic malaise, the judicial and policing system or education.  Is it the result of:

1.  Cumulative cascading incompetence over time;

2.  Irresponsibility;

3.  A deliberate ploy?

Mullins has been over-quoted and yet this was an interesting aside about the origins of the current educational malaise, sort of a Genesis of the Daleks in a way:

One of the most far-reaching consequences of the General Education Board’s political philosophy was achieved with a mere six million dollar grant to Columbia University in 1917, to set up the ”progressive” Lincoln School.

From this school descended the national network of progressive educators and social scientists, whose pernicious influence closely paralleled the goals of the Communist Party, another favorite recipient of the Rockefeller millions.

From its outset, the Lincoln School was described frankly as a revolutionary school for the primary and secondary schools of the entire United States. It immediately discarded all theories of education which were based on formal and well-established disciplines, that is, the McGuffey Reader type of education which worked by teaching such subjects as Latin and algebra, thus teaching children to think logically about problems.

Rockefeller biographer Jules Abel hails the Lincoln School as ”a beacon light in progressive education ”.

The General Education Board funded the Lincoln School in midtown Manhattan and in 1920 built a new school near Teachers College. In 1926 Teachers College received massive endowment funding to run the Lincoln School.

Wundtian psychology and Rockefeller money were thus combined in an institution whose goal “was the construction of new curricula and the development of new methods.” Textbooks were created; standard teaching practices revised, and a course of study organized on the principles developed at Teachers College by Thorndike and Dewey.

More than a thousand educators visited this fully fledged prototype school during year 1923-1924. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., sent four of his five sons to study at the Lincoln School, with results that were predictable had he read the works of Thorndike and Dewey.

The longer version of the history of the Lincoln School is here.

For quite understandable reasons, not least that practice tends to follow precedent and the precedent here is that continuing “educational” research results in budgets and the folding stuff and is therefore win-win in the eyes of the funders.  When those funders are the Rockefellers and other Venetians, then the die is cast.

The error is compounded, teacher training institutions employ only those who comply with the consensus view, they teach the new teachers who teach the children who grow up and expect that the same thing will be taught again and so it goes on.

Politically, these teachers impart the same philosophy over and over, a blanket saturation but more than that – there is strong pressure by both government and proponents of fads, to comply:

Look no further than British Columbia’a freaky secular K-12 gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgendered mandatory sex indoctrination with no opt out clause for parents or studenst..get this..even on religious grounds!!!!!!!

The operative word here is not so much the all-inclusive tolerance itself but the compulsion to undergo it.  Education has, since the 1880s, coincided with the rise of labour, a hotbed of new ideas, constant fads and educators of a particular leaning.

An example is Nina Franklin whom the Socialist Party calls right wing but which her activity shows her to be anything but.  She is the head honcho in NUT and thus the same thing goes round and comes round in cycles.  Her replacement will be of a similar ilk.

Their conclusion over this whole post?  Conspiracy theory and probably racism and sexism as well.

My conclusion

If we look at both ends of the time tunnel – we are reaping the result of generations of progressively more dumbing down and one need only look at the genesis of the current malaise in the early 1900s to understand the process and the reasons behind it.  It’s quite followable and demonstrable.

The tragedy is that almost no one will be allowed to see the sentiments in this article except in isolated pockets across academia.  The general public will never know of these things because preventive measures ensure that that will be so.

And thus the process continues, reproducing itself generation by generation.


Well yes there is.  There are so many educational methods over the centuries, from the time of Socrates and there was a thing called the Liberal ArtsWiki has a nice summary.  One of the principles in many disciplines is that there do exist absolutes and that is a total no-no in education these days, where everything must be viewed as negotiable and relative.

The essential problem with absolutes is that they open the door to theology and that must be killed off by any means, mustn’t it?

10 comments for “All must have prizes

  1. January 12, 2010 at 10:25

    Nice photo. Spot the bullies on the school bus 🙂

  2. January 12, 2010 at 10:27

    Oops. used email address rather than name in previous comment (a dopy accident, not a lame attempt to hide my identity)

  3. January 12, 2010 at 11:17

    All is understood.

  4. January 12, 2010 at 13:18

    This is very much better than my piece on a similar theme. Have added a link.

  5. dearieme
    January 12, 2010 at 13:56

    Ah yes, Blair on the bus. The foresight of Dr Johnson was acute: “the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master”.

  6. January 12, 2010 at 14:37

    Mrs Rigby – it’s simply different to yours.

    Dearieme – Johnson can be relied upon in most situations. Blair with the young girl and Brown on his own.

  7. MadPiper
    January 12, 2010 at 15:08

    My wife worked in the local elementary schools supporting students with sub-capable minds/bodies. Happily, they too, graduated with all the others at the appointed time. Nothing like cheapening a piece of paper that took 12 years to acquire.

  8. January 12, 2010 at 17:44

    Dewey was more concerned about social programming than education.

    “You can’t make Socialists out of individualists – children who know how to think for themselves spoil the harmony of the collective society which is coming, where everyone is interdependent.”
    -John Dewey

  9. Gareth
    January 12, 2010 at 21:04

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