Education: by John Hart November 24, 2008

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As in so many other fields, Liberal policy regarding public education is determined not by solid research but by misguided political correctness. Cases in point:

Class Size

Everyone “knows” that reducing the size of classes will improve student achievement. It goes without saying that with more individual attention, a student’s marks must improve. Only thing is that it isn’t true. In the late 1950’s there was a great effort to demonstrate this linkage but study after study, at various grade levels, showed “no significant difference” (which is a statistician’s way of saying that the whole idea is a crock.)

Recently, the McGuinty Liberals in Ontario set a limit on class size. It mandated that no class in Ontario’s public schools should exceed 20 pupils. Immediately, split classes showed up all over the province. Before, if you had 35 kids in a grade, they studied together. After the legislation was passed, if you had two classes of 30 studying under two teachers at two grade levels, you now had to split them into two classes of 20 (one for each grade level) and a split class of 10 at one grade level and 10 at the other. The next teacher you meet, ask her how much is achieved in a split grade and how easy it is to teach.

The expense, of course, was half as much again. In the first instance, you needed only two teachers to teach 60 students. After the law was passed you needed three. Cost of option 2 is one and a half times that of option 1.

Once again, however, union appeasement won out, not only over common sense, but also over empirical research.

Afrocentric Schools

Until the 1950’s the education of blacks in the U.S. was pretty pathetic. Those of us over 70 can remember when the first black athletes broke into the big leagues. Jackie Robinson, as I recall, was the first in major league baseball. You will also recall, when they were interviewed, how difficult it was, at times, to follow what they were saying. These were individuals out of either the deep south or the ghetto.

Among educators, at the time, it was conventional wisdom that school achievement was related solely to innate ability. Either a kid had it or he didn’t. And if he didn’t, there wasn’t much you could do about it. As evidence of this they could show you the OSR file of an underachiever in Grade 10 and you would note that he had also been an underachiever in Grade 9, Grade 8, Grade 7 and so on right down to Grade 1. What better proof then of what the psychologists were saying that achievement relates to ability and ability is innate. And if black kids were doing more poorly than whites, it was simply because the black kids were not as intelligent as white kids.

My wife and I were missionaries in Angola in the late 1950’s and we had a son who was more native than the natives. He spent his early years wandering the thousand acres of the Mission, getting into mischief and picking up chiggers in his feet. Everyone on the Mission knew him and kept an eye out for him and he probably spoke as much Portuguese and Umbundu as he did English. His name was Ray. They called him Reizinho (little king) and he lived up to it. He was six years old when we got home and we put him into Grade 1 where he regaled the teachers and his fellow students in “show and tell” with snake skins and other stuff we had brought back with us and with long stories about Africa, some of which were even true. He couldn’t sit still and at the end of the year he failed.

The Principal, Mr. Bates, was brought up on the conventional wisdom of the time. He told us that if a kid didn’t show that he had it by Grade 1, then you could pretty well write him off. After all, didn’t he learn at teachers’ college that achievement was related to ability and ability was innate?

Then came along an American sociologist – a Dr. Coleman who didn’t believe it. He thought that the underachievement had as much to do with nurture as it did with nature. He took some black kids from the ghetto, divided them in two groups at random, bussed one of the groups to suburban schools and left the other group where they were.

The results were astounding. Those left in the ghetto did as poorly as they had always done but the ones sent to the suburban schools did almost as well as their white classmates. The die was cast. Governments took up the cudgels and set up bussing programs that, in the years following, remade the blacks of America.

Now, here in Toronto, we have some starry eyed (and muddle headed) Liberals wanting to set up an “Afro-centric” school where the black kids can learn black history and can be presented with black role models as if their history and role models were something distinct from general history and role models. Talk of racism! This is racism in spades. In fact, due to Coleman’s study and to those who implemented its recommendations, they have produced role models that anyone would be proud of. And look who they have in government: Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, and now, Barack Obama.

Liberalism gone mad!

Fortunately, it seems that black parents in Toronto are not buying it. The last I heard was that they were having a tough time finding enough students who would agree to be re-ghettoized.

By the way, the boy they wrote off in Grade 1 ended up as an Ontario Scholar in high school and went on to take an honours degree in microbiology and biochemistry where he graduated with a B+ average.

Education for a Citizen Living in a Democracy

In 1832, the British Parliament passed the Reform Act which, among other things, broadened the franchise to all property owners. At the time, William Wilberforce, the author of the Bill was heard to remark “Now we must educate our masters” however, since that time, very little has been done to educate the common man that he might cast an intelligent vote. One would think that society would recognize certain core learnings that every citizen would have to master before being permitted to graduate from high school. At the very least these should include:

1. sufficient literacy to be able to get along in society.
2. sufficient arithmetic and mathematics to be able to get along in society
3. the rudiments of biology, physics and chemistry
4. some idea of the health sciences including reproduction and sex
5. the foundations of our democratic system in Great Britain and Greece
6. the history of the world and, in particular, the English speaking world
7. a good grounding in the economic theory upon which our society is founded
8. an understanding of our own political system
9. some English literature
10. a smattering of French perhaps

Unfortunately, requirements 5 to 8 are sorely lacking today. In my day, English was the only compulsory subject in all five years of high school and, stressed though it was, it did very little to prepare me for life in a democratic society. Its importance seems to have been inherited from the English Public Schools where it had recently taken over from Latin and Greek. Many is the story of the British general who read his Homer (in the original Greek) as he awaited his marching orders. He was a “generalist” and this illustration, somehow, demonstrated the value of a “generalist” education. When I complained to my father about the ridiculousness of having to learn Latin in this modern day and age, he brought out the “generalist” argument and tried to convince me that the study of the Classics would prepare me for anything just like it had done for him. My father always beat me at the Readers Digest “Increase Your Word Power.” He argued that it was his knowledge of the Classics that allowed him to beat me until, one time, I tested him on the roots of the words. His Greek roots turned out to be Latin. His Latin roots turned out to be Frisian etc until he finally gave up and had to admit that he did better that I did because he had been reading thirty years longer than I had.

I’m afraid that, by now,“generalist” education has been debunked once and for all but what have we done to replace it? Lets face it, in this modern world we all must specialize in something or other and, as we make our way from elementary school to high school to university, an increasingly greater portion of our education should be directed to this end, however, not only do we have to specialize to find our niche in society but we also have to learn enough from 5 to 8 above to allow us to cast an intelligent vote.

These are the studies that should be compulsory in a democratic society and, until they are, we will be led by demagogues spouting political correctness as policy and following every fad that comes along.

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