Educational reform

Robert J. Samuelson notes that decades of educational reform policies have yielded nothing that works:

Standard theories don’t explain this meager progress. Too few teachers? Not really. From 1970 to 2008, the student population increased 8 percent and the number of teachers rose 61 percent. The student-teacher ratio has fallen sharply, from 27-to-1 in 1955 to 15-to-1 in 2007. Are teachers paid too little? Perhaps, but that’s not obvious. In 2008, the average teacher earned $53,230; two full-time teachers married to each other and making average pay would belong in the richest 20 percent of households (2008 qualifying income: $100,240). Maybe more preschool would help. Yet, the share of 3- and 4-year-olds in preschool has rocketed from 11 percent in 1965 to 53 percent in 2008.

“Reforms” have disappointed for two reasons. First, no one has yet discovered transformative changes in curriculum or pedagogy, especially for inner-city schools, that are (in business lingo) “scalable” — easily transferable to other schools, where they would predictably produce achievement gains. Efforts in New York and the District to raise educational standards involve contentious and precarious school-by-school campaigns to purge “ineffective” teachers and principals. Charter schools might break this pattern, though there are grounds for skepticism. In 2009, the 4,700 charter schools enrolled about 3 percent of students and did not uniformly show achievement gains.

The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail.

Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a “good” college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school “reform” is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out, compared with about 25 percent today) and adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded. That applies more to high schools than to elementary schools, helping explain why early achievement gains evaporate.

Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard and don’t do well. In a 2008 survey of public high school teachers, 21 percent judged student absenteeism a serious problem; 29 percent cited “student apathy.” The goal of expanding “access” — giving more students more years of schooling — tends to lower educational standards. Michael Kirst, an emeritus education professor at Stanford, estimates that 60 percent of incoming community college students and 30 percent of freshmen at four-year colleges need remedial reading and math courses.

Against these realities, school “reform” rhetoric is blissfully evasive. It is often an exercise in extravagant expectations. Even if George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program had been phenomenally successful (it wasn’t), many thousands of children would have been left behind. Now Duncan routinely urges “a great teacher” in every classroom. That would be about 3.7 million “great” teachers — a feat akin to having every college football team composed of all-Americans. With this sort of intellectual rigor, what school “reform” promises is more disillusion.

via Robert J. Samuelson – School reform’s meager results.

There are other reasons:  content-free curriculum, touchy-feely exercises instead of academic instruction, and, above all, teacher-training programs that push progressive educational theory even when it no longer works.  But Samuelson has a good point about motivation.  I’m intrigued by his comment “adolescent culture has strengthened.”  And “adolescent culture,” perpetuated by young people associating mainly with people in their own age group, tends to be anti-school, anti-intellectual, and anti-adult.

Book burning

More reckless fanaticism, this time from a tiny congregation that plans on publicly burning a Koran:

Gen. David Petraeus, head of Multinational Forces in Afghanistan, repeated his warning Tuesday that any plans to burn the Muslim holy book — considered a major offense in the Islamic community — would jeopardize U.S. military efforts.

But Terry Jones, pastor of the 50-member Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., says not even protests and death threats will deter him. He told that he and the church’s members feel strongly about their decision to hold the book burning despite being denied a permit from the fire department.

“We understand the general’s concerns, we are taking those into consideration,” Jones was quoted saying. “We feel it’s maybe the right time for America to stand up. How long are we going to bow down? How long are we going to be controlled by the terrorists, by radical Islam?”

On Tuesday, Petraeus said that even rumors of the possibility the church would hold a Koran-burning touched off protests in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Indonesia.

“Images of the burning of a Koran would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan — and around the world — to inflame public opinion and incite violence,” Petraeus said. “Were the actual burning to take place, the safety of our soldiers and civilians would be put in jeopardy and accomplishment of the mission would be made more difficult.”

via – State Department Calls Plan to Burn Korans ‘Un-American’.

So why do that?  I’m not denying their First Amendment right to do it, just saying that it shows horribly bad judgment. As General Petraeus says, it will only thwart American policies and probably get more of our troops killed. Can anyone doubt that?

Yes, divination books were burned as recorded in Acts, but that is in no way parallel.  That was done by Christian converts as an act of turning away from their earlier involvement with the occult.  Yes, Luther burned the papal bull that was issued against him, but that’s not parallel either.  (Meanwhile, all of Luther’s books were ordered to be burned in the nations loyal to the pope.)

Book burnings in general are totalitarian actions.  Milton said in his great plea for the freedom of the press, Areopagitica, something to the effect that one might just as well burn a man as burn a book.  To do that in this case just to be symbolic and for the very purpose of stirring up people who need to be calmed down is a violation of the love of neighbor.  Not to mention the love of one’s enemy.

Teenagers as fake Christians, almost Christians, and passionate Christians

CNN, of all places, has a helpful followup to our discussions of youth ministry, drawing on some recent books to describe the whole range of teenager belief.  If you are a parent of teenagers or a pastor, you will want to read the whole article:  via Author: More teens becoming ‘fake’ Christians –  A sample:

If you’re the parent of a Christian teenager, Kenda Creasy Dean has this warning:

Your child is following a “mutant” form of Christianity, and you may be responsible.

Dean says more American teenagers are embracing what she calls “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Translation: It’s a watered-down faith that portrays God as a “divine therapist” whose chief goal is to boost people’s self-esteem.

Dean is a minister, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and the author of “Almost Christian,” a new book that argues that many parents and pastors are unwittingly passing on this self-serving strain of Christianity.

She says this “imposter” faith is one reason teenagers abandon churches.

“If this is the God they’re seeing in church, they are right to leave us in the dust,” Dean says. “Churches don’t give them enough to be passionate about.”

And yet, the article also demonstrates the strong faith that many teenagers have:

Anne Havard, an Atlanta teenager, might be considered radical. She’s a teen whose faith appears to be on fire. . . .

Havard says her faith has been nurtured by what Dean, the “Almost Christian” author, would call a significant faith community.

In 2006, Havard lost her father to a rare form of cancer. Then she lost one of her best friends — a young woman in the prime of life — to cancer as well. Her church and her pastor stepped in, she says.

“They called when all the cards stopped,” she says.

When asked how her faith held up after losing her father and friend, Havard didn’t fumble for words like some of the teens in “Almost Christian.”

She says God spoke the most to her when she felt alone — as Jesus must have felt on the cross.

“When Jesus was on the cross crying out, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ Jesus was part of God,” she says. “Then God knows what it means to doubt.

“It’s OK to be in a storm, to be in a doubt,” she says, “because God was there, too.”

California to vote on legalizing marijuana

The November election will be interesting for all kinds of reasons.  Among them is that Californians will vote on legalizing marijuana.  Not just medical marijuana, legalizing the personal possession and growth of the weed.  It also gives cities and counties the local option of taxing and regulating the sales, which would, I gather, permit commercial sales.  And right now, the polls look like the proposal will pass, though it will probably be a close vote.  See  California Marijuana Initiative Lead Narrows, Poll Finds |

Also, if California does legalize the drug, Mexico is likely to follow in the hopes of stopping the bloody drug wars by making the traffic legit.

What do you think about this? If it passes, what do you think will be the effect? (A boost in California tourism? The rest of the country will follow suit? Reefer madness? California will elect movie stars as governor, be unable to balance its budget, and its state government will be oblivious to reality?)

One God or billions of universes?

Physicist Stephen Hawkings says that there is no need of a deity to have created the universe.  Instead, according to this review of his new book, he posits the existence of billions of universes, at least one of which (ours) happens to have the physical laws that would allow for life.

With that background [a survey of the history of physics], Hawking and Mlodinow get to the real meat of their book: the way theories about quantum mechanics and relativity came together to shape our understanding of how our universe (and possibly others) formed out of nothing. Our current best description of the physics of this event, they explain, is the so-called “M-theories,” which predict that there is not a single universe (the one we live in) but a huge number of universes. In other words, not only is the Earth just one of several planets in our solar system and the Milky Way one of billions of galaxies, but our known universe itself is just one among uncounted billions of universes. It’s a startling replay of the Copernican Revolution.

The conclusions that follow are groundbreaking. Of all the possible universes, some must have laws that allow the appearance of life. The fact that we are here already tells us that we are in that corner of the multiverse. In this way, all origin questions are answered by pointing to the huge number of possible universes and saying that some of them have the properties that allow the existence of life, just by chance.

via Review of ‘The Grand Design,’ by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow..

As some of you readers never tire of reminding me, I don’t always grasp what the scientists are saying.  Can anyone explain this multiple universe theory?  Specifically, what is the evidence for it (or is it just a theoretical construct)?  Isn’t it just a way to account for the fine-tuning of the universe for life without having to believe in God?  And isn’t it more rational and a better application of Ockham’s razor (when in doubt, choose the simplest solution) to believe in a Creator?

What’s new?

Did you get anything out of the vocation essay  (below) that you never thought of before?