[OT] Mediocre Britain

Timothy Miller gandalf at doctorTimothyMiller.com
Sun Aug 28 15:07:41 EDT 2011

On Aug 28, 2011, at 9:46 AM, Richmond Mathewson wrote:

> http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14683133
> doesn't frankly surprise me; after all "Being British" is all about dumbing
> down things to the lowest common denominator; education, over-regulation (after all, if 5% of the population are morons the government must screw up everybody's life by regulating things to protect the morons from themselves: maybe the morons should be told "you are morons, get off your fat, supplementary-benefit-fed bottoms and start getting your brains working).
> Contrary to all the urban legends, schools are not actually getting worse.

Contrary to urban legend, public education is not deteriorating.

During the imaginary "good old days," students were usually segregated by race, class, income, or address. Students who were not learning successfully were generally kept out of public view. Expectations for such students were low. Unsuccessful students often dropped out of school when they were still relatively young. Truancy laws were not strictly enforced in downscale and nonwhite neighborhoods, nor were child labor laws.

For as long as public education has existed, there have been large numbers of sixth graders who read at the second grade level. And so on...

In recent years, students are mixed in the same schools, often the same classrooms, with little regard for race, class, income, address, motivation or ability. Students supported by very little "social capital" sit desk-by-desk with students who enjoy a great deal of social capital.

Meanwhile, social and political sentiment has turned against grouping students in classrooms (not to mention schools) according to ability. 

Students who would have dropped out of school (often younger than the official age of sixteen) in decades past often share the same classrooms with bright and highly motivated students.

In many cities around the US (and presumably the UK) affluent families who live in economically and ethnically mixed school districts send their relatively skilled and motivated students to private schools. This increases the concentration of unskilled and unmotivated students in public schools.

Unskilled and unmotivated students in private schools are generally not welcomed and tolerated. They end up back in public schools. This also increases the concentration of unmotivated and unskilled students in public schools.

As Richard suggests, these changes have occurred largely because of changes in government regulation. Good idea or bad? Over-regulation? That's highly debatable.

I know of a prominent grade 8 to 12 charter school, renowned to be "very effective." It's not allowed to "discriminate," but those with access to inside information know that unmotivated and unsuccessful students are informally pressured by teachers, staff, and students to return to public school.

I also know of prominent K to & charter schools located in poor neighborhoods, renowned to be "very effective." It's well known that these schools differentially attract stable families who value education.

Much research indicates that students learn best when grouped by ability, not age. Teachers teach most effectively when their students are grouped by ability. School teachers know this very well, from first-hand experience. Students of similar ability have the opportunity to enjoy participation in a "community of learners." This probably enhances morale for all involved, including the "slow learners."

Few public school classrooms these days can be described as a "community of learners." This includes community colleges and downscale state colleges.

However, grouping students by ability rather than age also causes problems. Most voters in the US and UK oppose it, because it seems "discriminatory," and they fear it would make the "education gap" worse instead of better. Some parents -- also some educators, politicians and social scientists, believe that a less skilled student will become more skilled if he shares a classroom with a more skilled student. This reflects the current obsession with "good schools." Poor parents hope that their children will perform better if they are able to attend "good schools." As far as I can tell, little evidence supports this supposition.

It's pretty clear that if students were grouped by ability in public schools, in the U.S. or U.K., the most skilled classrooms, relative to age, would look predominantly white (and Asian) and upper-middle-class.

Various haphazard mechanisms sometimes group students by ability to some degree. "Advanced placement" courses in high school. A few children are obliged to repeat a grade or allowed to "skip a grade."

In the U.S, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, students were grouped by ability rather than age. Various problems occurred. Older and less able students felt discouraged and humiliated. Younger and more able students were bullied and deprived of the opportunity to associate with their age-mates. Grouping students by age instead of ability was a big-deal educational reform, in its time.

Personally, I favor a cautious return to grouping students by ability. Obviously, students with different abilities or motivations would progress at different rates. This is called "differential education" or "differential instruction."


There are some fundamental philosophical contradictions between "meritocracy" and "fairness." Society -- in the US, UK and elsewhere -- is not prepared to deal with these difficult issues and generally chooses to ignore the problem.

Have a nice day,

Tim Miller

> I have just been looking at a series of letters written to my younger son from his erstwhile school mates at his school in Fife, Scotland; filled with basic spelling errors and grammar problems (these kids were 11 at the time); most of them being monoglot English speakers, a few spoke Fife-Scots at home. My sons, who have  English and Bulgarian as mother tongues, and are both fluent in German, don't make those sort of spelling errors in any of their 3 dominant languages.
> If sschool kids cannot spell in their school language how on earth can one expect them to get their programming syntax right, let alone the odd nested FOR . . . NEXT loop?
> My younger son starts at Salem on the 10th; as the highest scholarship holder:
> http://www.salem-net.de/
> I wonder why I'm not sending him to school in Britain?
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