Friday, September 22, 2006


One of my favorite correspondents on the www.education-consumers.com listserv is from Great Britain. Here's Tom Burkhard's open letter to the Fordham Foundation, whose influential ed newsletter, the Gadfly, recently called for the United States to develop national K-12 learning standards. I have been ranting against statewide standards for more than a decade, and the recent trial balloons about morphing statewide standards into nationwide standards just makes me feel itchier and itchier. He explains why very well:


I am greatly saddened by the Gadfly's commitment to national standards.

Twenty years ago, Britain's National Curriculum was initiated with wide support across the political spectrum, and the intention of the Conservative Government was virtually identical to the concerns of the Fordham Foundation.

The result has been complete disaster. Politicians have proved no match for professional educators.

The process by which the NC was originally perverted was chronicled by journalist Melanie Phillips in "All Must Have Prizes" (1996). Since she wrote it, things have gone from bad to worse. Employers and professors agree that there has been a precipitous drop in standards.

At the University of East Anglia History Department, where I completed my first degree in 1993, Prof John Charmley is on record as saying that the first year of the degree course is now spent covering material which was taught at A-level during my time. That's how fast standards have fallen.

The fraudulent nature of our ever-increasing exam results was exposed by Prof Peter Tymm of Durham University -- and even the Government's own Office of National Statistics.

The Conservative Government's approach to reform was very much like that of the Fordham Foundation: a mix of school choice measures and imposition of standards. Choice can't work when freedom is constrained by a set curriculum--not even if producer interests fail to pervert standards. And it is sheer moonshine to pretent that you can prevent that perversion when you are dealing with a profession in which there is an unusual degree of consensus behind NEA orthodoxy.

What you end up with is a situation where every school has to reproduce a state-approved design -- say rather like all car makers were free to compete, only they all had to produce a car designed like a Trabant.

You will never attract talented teachers to the profession under such conditions--and that is why so many of Britain's schools are collapsing in utter anarchy. Teachers pretend to teach, and students pretend to study: the inevitable result of the Soviet thinking behind a National Curriculum.

As a case in point: the consensus behind "evidence-based" reading pedagogy in the U.S. is totally misguided. The American obsession with phonemic awareness is based upon a complete misreading of the evidence: in fact, teaching phonemic awareness is so simple that it barely deserves mention.

In the U.K., one of our saving graces is that Scotland is free from Whitehall control, and the new synthetic phonics methodology which has evolved there has proved vastly superior to the so-called "evidence-based" methods advocated by the National Reading Panel (and indeed our own "experts" in London).

Indeed, their recommendations are all based upon a whole-language concept of what reading is; in "The Knowledge Deficit", Don Hirsch shows how the obsession with teaching formal 'reading comprehension' skills (there is almost no sound evidence for this practice) is actually leading to a decline in reading scores.

Whereas in Scotland, local initiative has produced the West Dunbartonshire Literacy Initiative, where (in Scotland's second-poorest local authority) reading failure has been all but wiped out. The Centre for Policy Studies in London will be publishing my booklet on this remarkable intervention in mid-October.

In education, Federal involvement has been a disaster. Title 1??? -- an international joke, albeit one copied in Britain with our 'Surestart' program. If state standards haven't worked, why will national standards be any different?

It is depressing to see such an ill-considered position taken by the Fordham Foundation.

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