Friday 23 August 2019

Bringing up grades by dumbing down equals failure

The uncomfortable truth is that we do not have the best educated young people in Europe, writes Emer O'Kelly

THEY have problems in some American high schools. Teachers are not permitted to tell the pupils their work leaves a lot to be desired, much less tell them that the standard of their work is rotten and unacceptable. And this is followed through to the examination stage where teachers are not permitted to fail a pupil.

The reason? It will damage their self-esteem. Encouragement must be the buzz-word.

It gets worse. I heard last week from an Irish supervisor of literature theses submitted for a master's degree in a quite reputable American university. One of the students, the holder of a BA, is unable, according to the supervisor, to spell, punctuate, or construct a sentence, much less make a literary case and follow through a literary argument.

But he has been told by the university authorities that he can't refuse the degree to her in case she sues for discrimination: she's black.

So there's been a compromise: the student is being sent on a course in remedial English, provided by the university in question, and her master's degree has been postponed. (A course in remedial English is an educational aid for those who have difficulties with reading and writing.) But the supervisor is still not being allowed to fail her: semi-literate, scholastically incompetent, she not merely managed to get into university and was conferred with a primary degree, she was accepted for a post-graduate degree.

Well, thanks be to St Patrick, St Brigid and St Colmcille, and the heritage of the Island of Saints and Scholars; it could never happen here, not with our rigorous intellectual standards, our purity of heart and our world-famous love of learning, purified in the furnace of starvation, deprivation and cruel domination over 800 years. Sure, aren't we the world's greatest scholars, yearning with an insatiable appetite for truth, beauty, and knowledge, even with not a seat in our pants?

Everyone knows that; it's common knowledge. You know what I mean, the common knowledge that frequently has damn all connection with uncomfortable facts.

But the uncomfortable facts of our education system occasionally have a nasty habit of emerging despite the muffling roar of the cannon of self-satisfaction, self-congratulation and political obfuscation of the feel-good factor of "the best-educated young people in Europe".

It was that paragon of sophistication, integrity, patriotism and scholarly endeavour, one Charles J Haughey, who coined that phrase about Irish school-leavers, at a time when his own large and welcoming pockets were being lined by a bunch of cute hoors bright enough to know who they could buy, but who, by and large, sniggered at people who thought that learning and education were important.

They'd made millions without them, and wasn't that the only thing that mattered? So much for national values, again at a time when Haughey told the nation it was time to tighten its belt, and spending on education came to a standstill.

We didn't then, and we don't now, have the best-educated young people in Europe. At the top of the scale, we have an extraordinarily well-trained mechanistic and scientific elite, most of whom haven't heard of Socrates, have never heard Mozart, and have contempt for books -- all books, from the Bible, through Shakespeare, Joyce, Anne Enright and Cecelia Ahern.

Further down the scale, we have a bunch of people so bewildered by "the system" that they can't play it, so they end up without the high-flying "skills", and without an education that would give them the philosophic base to accept that they're never going to be millionaires, which is what our vulgar role-models tell us is the only thing that matters.

That began back in the Seventies. I'm old enough to remember what was then called "the new curriculum". It's the curriculum under which our children are taught today. I'm not qualified to talk about the scientific end of things: my scientific knowledge begins and ends with H2O, but I'm told by scientific educationists that the system is sadly deficient in that area.

But I do know that the system seems almost to have been designed to ensure illiteracy. There is no logical development of language and how it is written down. Children are taught "instant recognition" of words, rather the same way they learn the instant satisfaction to be got from highly-processed, salted and sugared food.

It's satisfaction without effort, a pappy mess digested without the effort and joy of tasting, analysing and swallowing. Spelling and grammar are hardly taught -- how can they be, when most of the teachers wouldn't recognise a well-constructed, properly spelled, classically syntactical sentence if they saw it?

If the spelling and grammar are barely literate, the children are "encouraged" by being told that the important thing is to express themselves, and they've achieved this.

Don't worry about the spelling, they're told. That can come later.

Except it doesn't come later, and they take their Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate exams without being able to express themselves in plain, legible English. They're not told that there's labour, hard labour, attached to the achievement of anything worthwhile, from the writing of a letter to the writing of a pop song.

To the average 12-year-old, writing a pop song is not a musical or literary achievement, it's a way of becoming famous and rich. Overnight and without blood, sweat, or tears. And it's our education system that has taught children to think that way.

Yet we're still perpetuating the myth that we have the "best-educated young people" in Europe. And how are we doing it? We're doing it by dumbing down our education standards.

The numbers of Leaving Certificate students gaining A and B grades have nearly doubled since 1991. Yet the most recent OECD/PISA study across Europe has found that there has been no detectable improvement in mathematics, English, or science among Irish 15-year-olds between 2000 and 2006. It's called "grade inflation" and is about to be condemned in a study by the Network for Educational Standards.

The study was carried out by Dr Brendan Guilfoyle, a mathematics lecturer at IT Tralee, and his colleague Martin O'Grady, a lecturer in psychology. Their study also shows a dramatic fall in the numbers of students with grades C or D at higher level. Those who performed so comparatively dismally in 1991, could now be confident of a B or even an A in most subjects.

So, in less than a quarter of a century, we've reduced our education standards and requirements by 50 per cent.

And in the previous quarter century, we got on with the process of fulfilling our requirements for international status as to numbers of men and women with third level degrees -- not by improving our second level standards so that more people could aspire to university, but by renaming perfectly adequately performing third-level technical colleges "universities".

Except, in the jargon of today, they don't do what it says on the pack. We're already suffering because of our lack of educational depth. And I suspect we'll suffer more when we're found out internationally. And, as the study from the Network for Educational Standards seems to suggest, that can't be far away.

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