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For citizens and friends of the USA: an important article in Education Week

I had an email alert from Education Week just now and it is important enough to pass on. Read Backers Say Chicago Project Not ‘Radical’.

The Chicago Annenberg Challenge, chaired from 1995 to 1999 by Barack Obama, is being portrayed by John McCain’s campaign as an attempt to push radicalism on schools.

The project undertaken in Chicago as part of a high-profile national initiative reflected, however, mainstream thinking among education reformers. The Annenberg Foundation’s $49.2 million grant in the city focused on three priorities: encouraging collaboration among teachers and better professional development; reducing the isolation between schools and between schools and their communities; and reducing school size to improve learning.

The other eight urban projects that received money from the foundation under the Annenberg Challenge initiative, launched in 1993 by the philanthropist Walter H. Annenberg, pursued similar aims…

Last week, the campaign of Sen. McCain, the Republican nominee, posted a Web ad asserting that “Ayers and Obama ran a radical education foundation together” that distributed more than $100 million to “ideological allies.”

Mr. Ayers and Ms. Hallett, who was then the executive director of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, led a citywide group called the Chicago School Reform Collaborative that met frequently throughout 1994 to write a proposal to secure Annenberg funding.

“They are taking what was a very positive civic undertaking to improve public schools and characterizing it as something it was not at all,” Ms. Hallett said of the bloggers, commentators, and TV and radio hosts who for months have been discussing Sen. Obama’s association with Mr. Ayers. (“Ayers Controversy First Smoldered, Now Flares Bright,” Oct. 15, 2008.)

Critics have focused not just on Mr. Ayers’ involvement in violent opposition to the Vietnam War, but also on what they see as his espousal of a radical “social justice” approach to education…

The context for the Chicago proposal to the Annenberg Foundation was the 1988 decentralization of the city’s public schools by the Republican-controlled Illinois legislature, a response to frustration over years of teachers’ strikes, low achievement, and bureaucratic failure. Among other changes, the law set up “local school councils” at all district schools and gave the panels, which included community representatives, the power to hire principals…

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Posted by on October 16, 2008 in America, culture wars, current affairs, education, Teachers Who Change Lives, teaching, USA

 

One and a half cheers for Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard

PM aims to teach unions a lesson – National – smh.com.au reports, among other matters on which I have no competence to comment:

KEVIN RUDD and Julia Gillard turned up the heat on the education unions yesterday with the Prime Minister telling them it was time to move into the 21st century.

But as Mr Rudd and his deputy began the hard sell of tough new measures to improve school standards, the trade unions continued to flex their muscles behind the scenes over a number of policy measures.

The Australian Education Union organised a briefing for about 40 members of caucus and staff over the school announcement in which future commonwealth funding for the states would depend on them adopting greater transparency and accountability measures for the schools system.

There is, however, more concern among the backbench over the earlier announcement this week of a trial program in which parents of truant children would have their welfare docked for up to three months…

The AEU has been hostile to Mr Rudd’s new funding conditions for schools. From next year, public and private schools would have to publicly disclose performance information.

Schools which continued to underperform after receiving additional funding of up to $500,000 a year would be expected to sack the principal or teachers, and even close or merge with another school.

Mr Rudd urged the unions and states to embrace the measures. There would be a significant boost to funding in return for agreement but the Government no longer intended to write “blank cheques”.

The Opposition leader Brendan Nelson introduced similar laws in 2004 as a condition of the last four-year funding agreement he introduced as education minister but was largely ignored by the states and unions.

“Mr Rudd has the power now to withhold money from states that have not complied with this and and the challenge for him is will he do so?” he said.

One and a half cheers for at least being serious about education, and no cheers at all for Brendan Nelson whose chest merkin (a pubic wig, for those who don’t know) ill becomes him.

But I believe Kevin and Julia should actually listen to the education unions because they just might be right this time. I have no faith at all in the bureaucratic thrust of the K&J scheme, just as a very short time ago I railed about Looking to America, but not like Julie Bishop. I suspect that K&J will create a situation where schools will be issuing report cards that bear a strong resemblance to steel production figures in China during The Great Leap Forward or in the USSR under Stalin — inventive rather than strictly factual. Why? Because money will be at stake. Even if that fear is absurd — and it may well be — I can’t help thinking that the whole scenario will subtract even more from the time that is given to actual teaching.

I am of course a back number, but I am writing from the heart — I will let you judge if it is also from the head — as one who after all recently discovered that I have been, on occasions, an actual “teacher who changes lives.” Furthermore, my approach to such issues as literacy seems to have been endorsed recently when my English/ESL blog was peer-reviewed and placed in the top 100 language blogs on the Net. That does not make me infallible, but it does make me feel my instincts about what K&J are up to may have some substance. And I am not alone. I am writing also primarily as a secondary (and occasionally tertiary) English teacher who began the game forty-two years ago. I have seen a few Education Revolutions in my time.

I endorse Don Brown of Narrabeen in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

As a former “recalcitrant” (“Rudd’s school revolution”, August 28) member of what Peter Hartcher has called a “huddling collectivist mediocrity” (“Pugilistic PM has picked a classy fight”) I wish to make a few things clear to the Prime Minister, whose election I, and many other similar recalcitrants, worked hard to bring about.

Years ago, the State Government introduced the principle that parents could elect to send their children to any public school they wished if space was available after the enrolment of local students. There was some relatively insignificant movement at the primary level. At the secondary level the most common reasons for parents not to choose the local high school were the availability of a specific subject in another high school or a decision to enrol in a private school.

Schools began a vigorous campaign to publicise their offerings, campaigns in which the media showed little interest despite some impressive performances, particularly during the participation and equity program of the federal Labor government in the 1980s.

The print media, and particularly the broadsheet media, continued to contrast the “elite” private schools with the public schools supposedly being run on Soviet lines by the above mentioned collective. The main story was the continuing drift to private schools because the public schools were “values free”. What nonsense.

Research by the Greens MP John Kaye showed that the greatest factor behind the drift was the allocation of public funding to private schools.

I would love the space to document all the flaws in Kevin Rudd’s proposal but two points will suffice. On the demand that schools provide more information, the fact is that schools have information on hand and communicate it to parents in various ways, including newsletters, parent-teacher nights and open days. Those parents who are interested can always seek an appointment with the principal or a specific teacher. In most cases this request would be welcomed.

Secondly, having taught in schools that were difficult to staff because of socio-economic disadvantage, I am very proud of their record in raising the aspirations of many students. I can cite dozens of students who were the first in their family to gain a qualification such as the School Certificate, HSC or a university degree.

These teachers are paid no more than teachers in privileged areas and frequently must travel great distances from their homes. Students owe a great debt to those teachers whose dedication and concern for their welfare made such a difference.

I also endorse Alan Young, even if while I agree in principle with his first point I think a lot of thought has to go into how it works.

Kevin Rudd’s proposal to link teacher pay to performance is long overdue, opposed only by those who would argue that what teachers do is in some way incapable of description, unlike the work of dentists, doctors, lawyers, plumbers and the rest of the workforce.

He is on more contestable grounds, however, when he proposes to link funding to results as though disadvantaged and advantaged schools operate on similar planets. Dire consequences are implied for those who don’t measure up.Some school environments have a clientele who will do well regardless of the dunces that teach them. Others will struggle despite the Messianic proclivities of staff.

Allan Young Retired principal, Strathfield

I even more strongly endorse this letter:

Never in 32 years as a professional educator have I felt so abandoned. If there is a problem in a school, Kevin Rudd says sack the principal and the teachers. He does not say give them adequate resources and smaller class sizes. He does not say provide support to deal with a broad range of challenging students. He does not say that if teachers need more skills, he will provide the funds.

Why won’t he and the rest of the politicians forget the populist claptrap and provide appropriate funding? Why won’t he work with us and not against us? If he and the others don’t, the standard of education must, as a result of their policies, decline.

Patrick FitzGerald Deputy principal, Young High School

Listen up, Kevin and Julia, lest your Education Revolution morphs into Education Reaction.

I am a back number, as I said, but I know there are those out there still — or about to be out there — who have the capacity and will to deliver the best to our present and future students. No matter what I may have said about or to The Rabbit at times, I am confident he is a fine English teacher with a great future; his love for the subject is unquestioned, and the progress he is making professionally is very pleasing to this old stager. Similarly, I am sure Thomas will deliver in spades in the future. And that’s just two I know about… Aluminium, too, in another sphere — and sometimes battling in a rather strange environment — knows what good English teaching is and what students need. My visit to The Mine the day before yesterday — I ran M’s pics by the Head of Art and Photography there — revealed a first-rate band of English teachers hard at work.

You may note this entry — and some other recent ones on this subject — are tagged “right wing politics.” Sadly, it is not inappropriate…

NOTE

…in a classic Freudian typo I posted this first as “One and a half cheers for Kevin Rudd and Julia Bishop”! What was I thinking?

 

Gillard speaking for parents, children | The Australian

Justine Ferrari has there commented on the news rather than reporting — not itself a criticism, as the item is so classified:

JULIA Gillard is one of only two education ministers in the nation without children, and she is the only one speaking out for parents.

Every parent has the right to know their child’s school is as good as the one down the road.

If a school fails to meet a minimum standard of quality, principals should be held accountable, teachers should be removed, the school should close. Every child deserves no less.

At present in Australia, there is no way of guaranteeing to parents that their local school is doing all it should.

Accountability is virtually non-existent and choosing schools, as Gillard said in The Australian last week, is based on guesswork, rumour and crossing your fingers.

The Rudd Government is staring down state governments and teachers’ unions afraid of being held accountable.

In doing so, it is holding true to the Labor tradition that the disadvantaged are lifted up in society through education.

Gillard and Kevin Rudd are unequivocal in their aim: every child in Australia, no matter where they live, how much money their parents earn, or what language they speak, is entitled to a good education.

Every child is entitled to leave school able to read and write, to be given the opportunity to achieve the best they can at school and afterwards. Every school has a responsibility to give children that opportunity.

It’s that simple.

I do question the last sentence. I still feel there are issues here one could drive a truck through. For example, if School A is an academically selective school which fails, however, to achieve 100% Bands 5 and 6 in Advanced English in the HSC, while School B, a comprehensive with all its potential top students creamed off into selective or specialist schools and serving a “difficult” clientele, gets 5% Bands 5 and 6 in Advanced English in the HSC, which school is “underachieving”? We know which one looks best, but that’s not the same thing at all. It could be little short of miraculous that School B has any Advanced English students in Bands 5 or 6, while the selective school’s performance may actually be rather poor, given its starting point. I hasten to add that A and B are totally hypothetical, but they do illustrate a difficulty. Tie funding to such imponderables and a whole can of worms is opened.

In the same issue of The Australian Kevin Donnelly is comparatively happy. I always worry when Kevin is happy, particularly when, in trumpeting The Australian’s leadership on educational issues, he manages to add one or more of his personal hobby-horses into the equation.

There are a number of caveats. As discovered by the then Howard government when it sought to introduce A to E reporting, defend choice in education and get rid of post-modern gobbledegook in the curriculum, there are many opposed to reform.

The Australian Education Union, recalcitrant state governments and pressure groups such as the NSW Public Education Alliance are committed to the status quo. Rudd’s comment, “I know some will resist these changes”, is an understatement, and it will take political will to achieve change.

Holding schools accountable, while a worthy policy, is only fair if they are given the autonomy and flexibility to get on with the job. Allowing schools to hire and fire staff is a good start – it is also vital that schools are not overwhelmed with intrusive and time-consuming bureaucratic red tape.

Making school performance public is good in theory; the real test involves what is measured and how it is reported.

I’ve been there on the hobby-horses before, as some of you know: just search Donnelly here, for starters, or on Floating Life 04/06 ~ 11/07. But I am retired now, so I’m not bothering. Furthermore, though what we mean by it may differ, I do agree with that last sentence: “Making school performance public is good in theory; the real test involves what is measured and how it is reported.”

Supplement

Kevin Rudd’s education speech 27 August 2008.

 

Only sorry I couldn’t help more…

I have had a number of emails lately via English/ESL. I will share the gist, because I find this both heartwarming and admirable, but I am leaving out many details for privacy reasons.

The first email was a request for help.

My daughter is in year 12 at [a south-western Sydney school]. She has recently sat her trial HSC. She received her marks for English paper 1 and was very disappointed. […] is in English Advanced…

My daughter is a high achiever and wants to continue her studies into Uni studying medicine… I looked at her paper … and i can see where her mistakes are.. and i believe there is room for improvement.

I noticed on your site the HSC workshop 2 on imaginative journeys and also creative writing. I was wondering if those workshops were available out side of the school you teach & if so how much are they, also how much do you charge for tutoring. Or is it possible we can work something out online that can help her improve her arguments and overall writing… I have tried to explain answering the HSC English paper to her but i do not think that i am helping her as she knows that i myself did not finish high school.

I want to help […] gain her dream of being a Doctor.

When she gets into Uni she will be the first of my family ever to have gone on to such a high degree or in fact the first to ever go to Uni. I am a single mum of 4 and will try to find the funds necessary.

I look forward to hearing from you and would like to thank you for your time and any help you can give […] to improve her writing.

I explained that for a number of reasons I could not help much — being constrained by the fact I am on a pension and am thus limited in what extra I may earn being just one. I also pointed out that any materials on English/ESL are free to use.

Without telling the correspondent I forwarded the letter to The Rabbit, who may have been able to help as he does tutor in an area much closer to her than I am. However, The Rabbit is fully booked until after the HSC. (Perhaps, though, he knows someone else who could help?)

There were some follow-up mails which I won’t place here. My reason for posting the one above, though, is that I really admire this woman. These are the kinds of people who give heart to teachers in what are so often depicted as “hopeless” areas. Additionally, what a mighty job those teachers are doing.

Tangentially related 😉

Finding your voice… on Bruce’s blog.

 

Measuring the quality of education not as simple as it seems – Letters – Opinion

Measuring the quality of education not as simple as it seems writes Greg Whitby, Executive director of schools, Catholic diocese of Parramatta. How true that is! Mind you I wonder a little at his opening paragraph, though I can see why he has done it. Can’t help wondering who the UNprofessional educators might be though… Perhaps “teachers” is enough?

Professional educators would welcome Julia Gillard’s assertion that teaching excellence should be identified and rewarded, and that high standards be expected of all students (“Tell-all report cards to compare schools“, August 12). We all want better schools.

However, the strategies for improving education require careful scrutiny. Comprehensive and valid data is a necessary basis for any improvement strategy. However, great care must be taken in interpreting and applying this data if it is expected to guide the educational agenda and determine resource levels.

A test-driven curriculum would undoubtedly distort educational programs; and general comparisons of schools, not based on a thorough understanding of the complexities of learning and teaching, would simply mislead and distract the public.

Even comparisons of schools in similar environments, and with similar problems, may not be helpful unless based on a deeply informed understanding of the specific context, culture and rate of improvement of the schools concerned.

When governments around the world have adopted quick and simple solutions to complex educational problems, they have usually got it wrong and seem determined to continue doing so.

It would be so much easier if schools were factories, created to produce easily measured, standardised products. But they are not. They are full of vibrant, growing, learning human beings, each with individual needs, styles, natural abilities and background experiences.

We have known for well over two decades now that the key to improving students’ learning is a combination of good teachers using relevant methods. We would be better served by helping teachers to continuously improve the effectiveness of their teaching, rather than focusing on narrow measures of some aspects of student achievement that don’t show the whole picture.

The world of learning is delightfully complex. We need to be careful we do not confine learning to a simplistic mindset of measurements and comparisons in our endeavour for a better education system.

We do seem fated to chase the phantom again; the new government is not much better than the Howard government in its pursuit of the measurable — whatever can be crunched in a computer is the limit of reality, it seems.

Look, people; I’m retired. Fatalistically, I will just let them go on their preset course reinventing the wheel. At the end of some period — five, ten years — they will wake up to discover that little has changed and certainly not much has improved.

I have said my piece before.

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2008 in Australia, Australia and Australian, education, exams and assessment, future schooling, Kevin Rudd, teaching

 

Sense, nonsense, speculation and invective

Always a lot of the last three around, not so much of the first — though there are times all four can coexist. Such seems to be the case with Paul Keating’s interview on last night’s 7.30 Report, which I did not see as I was watching the movie I tell you about in the next entry. The occasion of the interview was the launch of Unfinished Business: Paul Keating’s interrupted revolution by David Love, a book I wouldn’t mind reading. Keating, it appears, was in fine form.

KERRY OBRIEN: What, so Kevin Rudd does talk to you? Have you come in from the cold because Labor in opposition didn’t seem to know how to treat you, did they?
PAUL KEATING: The great pity for the post-me Labor Party is they gave — as this book today, the cause of our interview says — they gifted to Howard and Costello a two per cent inflation rate, a four per cent growth rate, a three per cent productivity rate, which they said thank you and stuck in their pockets. So now the Labor Party has come round to reality. You now have to deal with real things.
KERRY OBRIEN: How do you critique the first eight months of the Rudd Government?
PAUL KEATING: Um, solid. Solid but cautious. I think if there’s any problem the Government has it is that. When I say a problem I don’t any it’s a problem necessarily but it is to not have an over arching narrative in place. You know, I always talked about the internationalisation of the economy, the opening of the product financial and labour markets, the flexibility of the kind we have with all of our financial institutions, the exchange rate, wages. All of the Cabinet understood that, the message was always the same. We call that the narrative…

KERRY OBRIEN: Kevin Rudd has been painted as micro manager. Now whatever you and Bob Hawke were accused of as prime ministers I don’t think micro manager was one of them. Can a Prime Minister afford to engage in the small detail in running Government? In the end do you have to invest trust and significant autonomy in your ministerial colleagues?
PAUL KEATING: Absolutely. You can’t micro manage a thing like the Commonwealth…

Not entirely nonsense, that.

Pretty close to nonsense is Miranda Devine today psychoanalysing Liberal Party leaders (or leadership aspirants) in terms of sibling rivalry. It isn’t the worst thing she has ever written, and is quite innocuous comparatively speaking, I suppose.  I should add I was #3 in our family…

Everyone’s favourite topic has surfaced again as the annual Great HSC Sacrifice of Youth approaches: The futile 13 years: lid lifted on HSC. Anna Patty starts with a suitably sensationalist hook after that shock horror headine:

MOST students can complete 13 years of school without having to demonstrate basic literacy and numeracy skills, says a leading educational assessment expert.

The chief executive officer for the Australian Council for Educational Research, Geoff Masters, says minimum standards of reading, writing and maths should be met by all students before they are awarded an HSC or equivalent qualification.

In his address to the council’s annual research conference in Brisbane next week, Professor Masters will raise concerns about Australia’s failure to ensure all students have reached basic standards when they finish school…

There is, Anna, a great difference between “demonstrating” something in accordance with some universal bureaucratic benchmark and actually being able to do that something. It strikes me as sheer hyperbole, and quite misleading, to suggest the most — what: 90%? 51%? — students get through to the end of high school without “basic literacy and numeracy skills.” In fact these days the poor mites are tested and measured to death through their thirteen years of schooling, much more so than my cohort was fifty years ago. We just had an Intermediate in Year 9, mostly internal and none of it “objective” or “standardised”, and a Leaving in Year 11. (I speak of course of NSW there.) No basic skills tests in Year 3, Year 6, Year 7, Year 8 and Year 10 in our day.

The article goes on to quote OECD figures showing “13 per cent of Australians aged 15 were below the standard at which students were considered to be at risk of not having the basic skills.” Let’s just take that at face value for the moment: I think you will agree that 13% is by no definition “most students.” Whether that figure is disgusting, or simply a reflection of what might be expected in the real world, and what it actually means, I have gone into before. Check the literacy tag in the side bar, and for a systematic discussion see an essay from 1998: Literacy on Ninglun’s Specials. Honestly, there’s not much new under the sun in this area; take it from one who has been around the education business for over four decades, whose familiarity with the issues through family connection and reading goes back more than a century.

It may be that Geoff Masters has something reasonable to say, but that seems to have been filtered somewhat in the Herald story.

Finally, I should mention that one of my favourite books on English Studies is the mock-critical collection The Pooh Perplex by Frederick Crews.

The essays:

  • Paradoxical Persona: The Hierarchy of Heroism in Winnie-the-Pooh (Harvey C. Windrow)
  • A Bourgeois Writer’s Proletarian Fables (Martin Tempralis)
  • The Theory and Practice of Bardic Verse: Notations on the Hums of Pooh (P.R. Honeycomb)
  • Poisoned Paradise: The Underside of Pooh (Myron Masterson)
  • O Felix Culpa! The Sacramental Meaning of Winnie-the-Pooh (C.J.L. Culpepper, D.Litt,, Oxon)
  • Winnie and the Cultural Stream (Murphy A. Sweat)
  • A la recherche du Pooh perdu (Woodbine Meadowlark)
  • A Complete Analsis of Winnie-the-Pooh (Duns C. Penwiper)
  • Another Book to Cross Off Your List (Simon Lacerous)
  • The Style of Pooh: Sources, Analogues, and Influences (Benjamin Thumb)
  • A.A. Milne’s Honey-Balloon-Pit-Gun-Tail-Bathtubcomplex (Karl Anschauung, M.D.)
  • Prolegomena to Any Future Study of Winnie-the-Pooh (Smedley Force)

As Danny Yee says in the review from which I took that summary, The Pooh Perplex is very old (1964 — just in time to delight me during my Honours English year at Sydney University) but has had a 2001 sequel Postmodern Pooh. I couldn’t help thinking of Crews when I read Darwin to the Rescue: A group of scholars thinks evolutionary science can reinvigorate literary studies via A&L Daily about a week ago.

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Posted by on August 7, 2008 in Australia, Australia and Australian, awful warnings, book reviews, education, English studies, exams and assessment, literacy, literary theory/criticism, politics, reading, teaching, weirdness

 

Maralyn Parker at Mascot Public School

The Daily Telegraph today gives the NSW state school system some much needed positive publicity. Mind you, Maralyn Parker often says sensible things.

Why more kids are now at public schools

The Daily Telegraph’s education writer MARALYN PARKER was principal-for-a-day at Mascot Public School. Here’s what she found in the classrooms…

Mascot is a thriving public school almost under the flight path near Sydney airport. It is a shining example of all that is great about NSW public schools and why enrolments in public schools across Sydney are increasing. There are now 228 public schools and 159 private schools in the area bounded by the Sydney CBD through to Port Hacking, including the eastern suburbs and Mascot. It is unique in that there are so many private schools concentrated in the area.

After decades of private school growth, Sydney families began turning back to public schools about four years ago. In 2004, 84,789 children were enrolled in Sydney’s public schools. In 2008, there are 87,908.  One of the many reasons for the turn, according to Sydney regional director Phil Lambert, is the myriad connections public schools have with their local communities.

Such a connection sparked what can only be called a magic public school moment, about half an hour into my Mascot principal-ship. Having already greeted and chatted to many parents, about the tenth who stopped us as Ms McKeown showed me around the school was Ruhal Ahmed. He is also general secretary of the Bangladesh Association of Australia.  The association uses the school premises on the weekend to hold classes for Arabic and Islamic studies. Mr Ahmed wanted to tell the principal that he could easily move the classes around to accommodate the Maori Christian Church services, which are also being held there on weekends. As the weather was getting colder, Mr Ahmed said, he was happy to share the warm inside rooms with the church.

I had an instant vision of Mascot primary Maori children singing their four-part harmony Christian hymns in a room next to Mascot primary Muslim children reciting the Koran in Arabic ; and everyone thinking that it was all just normal. Only in an Australian public school. No need for inter-faith days or cultural exchange days for children at this school. Most children enrolled in Mascot are actually from a Greek background.

Others are from Turkish, Islander, Bangladeshi and Aboriginal cultures…

I would love to tell you about each class I visited and each teacher I spoke to. I have to say I was stunned by the standards being reached by Mascot PS children. I tried to read a book, Reading Makes you Feel Good to some kinder children and they ended up reading it to me. I noticed among the stories written by Year 1 children one including the word laughable; spelt correctly.

Reluctantly I left my school for the day. Ms McKeown had told me, “I don’t go home any day thinking I have finished. There is always something more I wanted to do.”

By then I knew exactly what she meant.

That is what gets lost when politicians and talk-back hosts and academic critics with bees in their bonnets, axes to grind, or knickers in a twist get into the act. Remember this column. It could be replicated from many other state schools…

I saw Mascot, and around ten other schools in this area, for myself fifteen years ago when engaged in a research project on reading; it, and the others, mightily impressed me with what they were doing and the sheer dedication and intelligence they brought to their tasks. (I allude to that project in my essay on literacy.) It seems that what I saw then has been quietly going forward despite all the flak shot up by the pollies and commentators.


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