Saturday, May 24, 2008

Foolish charitable initiative

Bill Gates and Eli Broad didn't become billionaires by tinkering around with hopeless old models. Gates got rich selling the world new computer software it needed and wanted, while Broad's KB Homes provided better, cheaper houses. Unfortunately, offering something new and better isn't Broad and Gates's strategy for their joint education-reform effort. While these titans of industry might be consummate business winners, a forum sponsored by their $60 million Strong American Schools initiative last Wednesday made clear that when it comes to education, they're backing a tired, big-government loser.

Strong American Schools seeks to get education high on the presidential campaign agenda and push for "American education standards," "effective teachers in every classroom," and "more time and support for learning."

So what does $60 million get you when you're trying to put education on the national political map? So far, not much. Education has been almost invisible in the presidential race. During the panel discussion, ED in '08 chairman Roy Romer, a former governor of Colorado and superintendent of Los Angeles schools, argued that issues like the faltering economy and national security are hogging all the air time.

Romer is right about other issues eclipsing education and freezing out ED in '08's priorities, but there's more to it. The minor tweaks and empty rhetoric ED in '08 offers up - I mean, who isn't for effective teachers? - are as inspiring as bologna on Wonderbread . . . without mustard. Worse, the national standards Romer and most of the other panelists suggested sound like a more intrusive No Child Left Behind Act, the one education issue that has gotten significant campaign attention - because people loathe it.

"Hillary Clinton's most reliable applause line is about ending the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind education program," Bloomberg News recently reported. Barack Obama, for his part, wouldn't scrap NCLB, but would replace its test-driven accountability with multiple, non-threatening measures. Finally, while John McCain supports NCLB, his campaign website focuses on moving power from government to parents.

"[A] public education should be defined as one in which our public support for a child's education follows that child into the school the parent chooses," McCain's education statement declares. The Arizona senator might be onto something, but you'd have probably never guessed it if you had listened to the ED in '08 panel. I say "probably" because amidst all the panel's former and present government officials sat Mike Feinberg, co-founder of the wildly successful Knowledge is Power Program schools. Feinberg paid lip service to better standards from above but emphasized power from below, explaining that KIPP already has the effective teachers, longer school days, and culture of success the other panelists merely talked about because its schools are independent and parents choose them. KIPP succeeds because it isn't controlled by politics.

Feinberg's fellow panelists, unfortunately, didn't get his message - one a lot like McCain's - and continued to obsess over moving authority further up government ladders and crafting classic political strategies such as "consensus building" and "leadership." They just didn't see, or refused to acknowledge, that the key to transforming education is autonomous, parent-chosen schools.

Ironically, the countries the panelists are most afraid will pass us by have clearly gotten the memo about free markets. China and India have explosive economies because they've torn down stultifying economic controls. In education, the ascendant South Koreans consume more private schooling than the people of any other industrialized nation. Even parents in the world's poorest slums know the score. Ongoing work by British researcher James Tooley in impoverished places like Ga, Ghana, and Hyderabad, India, find poor parents turning in droves to for-profit private schools in order to move their kids ahead.

And the message isn't just being heard abroad. States are also getting it. Indeed, on the same day the Ed in '08 panelists got together to chat about their favorite top-down policy proposals, Georgia became the sixth state to offer tax credits for donations to private scholarship funds. All told, 14 states and the District of Columbia offer tax credit or voucher programs, and the vast majority allow charter schools.

School choice - really, just plain freedom - is where the future's at, and if Gates and Broad want to replicate in education the success they've had in business, they'd better change their product fast.


An Academic Bill of Rights in Australia?

By Rafe Champion

The Australian Liberal Students' Federation and the Young Liberals have unleashed an attack on leftwing political bias in university teaching. The problem is real but the proposed remedy may not be effective, beyond lifting awareness of the problem. An alternative is proposed. Taking a cue from the US Students for Academic Freedom organisation, the Federation and the Young Liberals are pushing for an Academic Bill of Rights to promote changes to curricula, hiring of staff without regard to political affiliations, remedies for students who believe that they are being marked down for political incorrectness, etc.

Certainly there is cause for concern about the level of bias in course contents and the attitudes of many teachers towards conservative and non-left liberal ideas. Symptoms of the problem include:

* The dozen or score of economically illiterate books purporting to critique economic rationality, one of them edited by a man who is widely regarded as the leading public intellectual in the land.

* A collection of papers, workshopped through the Academy of the Social Sciences, that emerged rather like a set of anti-Liberal Party political pamphlets.

* Widespread incomprehension of the ideas of Hayek and classical liberalism. So the then leader of the opposition (now the Prime Minister) could launch a public attack on a crude caricature of Hayek without arousing widespread hoots of mirth or gasps of horror from opponents and supporters respectively.

The point is that nobody can consider themselves broadly educated at present without the same grasp of Hayek's ideas (in outline, not in detail) that we expect people with tertiary education to have on things like Darwinian evolution; Mendelian genetics; or the way that the Copernican revolution and Einstein advanced physics.

Similarly everyone in the relevant fields should be familiar with the work of Jacques Barzun on education and cultural studies, Ren, Wellek on literary studies, Karl B_hler and Ian D Suttie on language studies, psychology and psychoanalysis, Bill Hutt on industrial relations, Peter Bauer on third world development, Stanislav Andresky on the methods of the social sciences, Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian school of economics.

The push for the Bill of Rights will generate a great deal of angst without any guarantee of achieving either the Bill or the desired improvements, even if the bureaucratic systems are put in place to support it. Top down intervention is most likely to generate resistance and resentment, to politicise and personalise the problems in a divisive manner.

A non-bureaucratic, "bottom up" alternative is proposed. At the very least this could run in parallel to the proposed Liberal initiative and it should enlist the support of people of good will of all political persuasions. Investigation and discussion should proceed on two fronts; one is the question of course contents, the other is the broad issue of what tertiary education is supposed to achieve.

Taking the second issue first. A recent Unleashed article 'Back to school' (2 May 08) revealed, yet again, a great deal of disappointment and dismay over the university experience for many students. The simple fact of the matter is that Australia followed the US experience, learning nothing from it, despite the clear warning in Barzun's 1968 book on The American University. The sector expanded too rapidly for the process of education to keep up: that is, the discovery of the disciplines and rewards of serious, though not pedantic, teaching, learning and scholarship. But that is a topic for another day.

On course contents, there is a need for a data base on what is being taught, a survey of course outlines and reading lists to identify courses that are not providing students with an introduction to the best thinkers and ideas in the field. This should lead to suggestions for improvements. This may be done in a manner that is contentious and divisive, but it should be possible to proceed in way that is illuminating and educational in its own right. The aim is to recruit the spirit of cooperative scholarship, using a base of evidence to advance the cause of learning and scholarship. There is no need to deny university teachers their own interests, their points of view and their politics. The question is how the courses stack up when they are examined in a climate of civil and robust debate.

The Liberal initiative has been smeared as an attempt to restrict freedom of speech. On the evidence in hand, it is no such thing. It is better described as a long overdue reaction to the radicalisation of the campuses in the aftermath of the Vietnam debate in the 1960s and 1970s.

The task of investigation, reporting and suggestions for improvements can start in a modest way, wherever people with time and energy are prepared to start the process. There was a small beginning a couple of decades ago, with a survey of courses in politics at the 21 universities at the time. It was very hard to find any reference to Hayek and his work. What is the situation today, how much has changed in two decades?

The process needs to be sustained and it needs to generate debate on campus and beyond, wherever there are people with an interest in the life of the mind, in education, in ideas, in maintaining good order in "the house of intellect" (as Barzun called it).


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