Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Schools failing the children of the poor, says Rupert Murdoch

Below is a large excerpt from his latest Boyer lecture. It has been accepted for centuries that education is the high-road to advancement for the able children of the poor but far-Leftists hate that. They want everyone ground down to a uniform low level. And they have been doing that in the schools with considerable success. Murdoch is reasserting the more compassionate traditional message of opportunity

As a child, I attended boarding school outside Melbourne. Bucolic and idyllic it wasn't. So I made myself a promise. I swore that I would never become one of those fogeys who goes on and on about how his schooldays were the best days of his life. Today I intend to keep that promise. But I do want to talk about schools. In particular, I would like to talk about why you hear so many business leaders talking about the problems with public education. Far from reminiscing about some glorious and largely mythical past, I want to focus on the challenges we face today - and what they mean for our future.

Let me say at the outset: it is not a pretty picture. The unvarnished truth is that in countries such as Australia, Britain, and particularly the United States, our public education systems are a disgrace. Despite spending more and more money, our children seem to be learning less and less -especially for those who are most vulnerable in our society.

In my view, things will not really improve until we begin setting much higher expectations - for our students, for our teachers, and for our schools. At the very least, we ought to demand as much quality and performance from those who run our schools as we do from those who provide us with our morning cup of coffee. And then we ought to hold these schools accountable when they fail.

In Australia, we pride ourselves on our passion for equality - we have popularised the word "egalitarian". That passion is an attractive part of the Australian personality. But it is getting harder and harder to square Australian pride in equality with the realities of the Australian system of public education.

Like me, most of you probably went to a decent school. Your children will probably do the same. This means that your family will probably thrive no matter what happens, because you are no doubt primed to succeed. But too many children are socialised to fail.

We can argue over whether our better schools are as focused as they should be on mathematics and science. But it is inarguable that our lesser schools are leaving far too many children innumerate, illiterate, and ignorant of our history. These are the people whose future I am most concerned about. For these boys and girls to rise in society - and have a fair go at the opportunities you and I take for granted- a basic education is essential.

The tragedy today is that in many nations like Australia, the people who need a solid education to lift them out of deprived circumstances are the people who are falling further and further behind. That is unacceptable to me. And it should be unacceptable to all of us.

So I will talk about three things. First, I will discuss how the dividing point between the haves and the have-nots is no longer how much money they have. Increasingly, your life chances and your life choices will be defined by your skills and knowledge.

Second, I will talk about why we need to stop making excuses for schools and school systems that are failing the very children they are meant to serve.

Finally, I will talk about the need for corporations to get more involved - especially at the lower school levels. Corporate leaders know better than government officials the skills that people need to get ahead in the 21st century. And businessmen and businesswomen need to take this knowledge and help build school systems that will ensure that all children get at least a basic education.

Let me begin with the growing importance of education in our new economy. At first glance, it might look as though advances in technology are making education less important. After all, thanks to computers and calculators, even people without a good education now have the ability to have their sums done for them by a cheap calculator . to have their faulty spelling corrected by a word processing program . and to have even complex tasks completed for them by a specialised software program.

For example, if you go to a McDonald's or the milk bar the person behind the counter no longer has to calculate the change. The cash register is now a mini-computer and the barcode does the work. In industry, computers and automation have reduced much of the need for calculation and repetitive labour. And, as unions in Europe have been quick to notice, that means many enterprises can be more productive with fewer workers. This in turn is one big reason that so many unions - like the Luddites before them - are so opposed to new technology.

But ultimately, fighting the new and better technology is a fool's errand. History clearly demonstrates that a technology that shows itself to be more productive will win out in the end. The reason is simple. Over the long haul, no one is going to pay more than he has to for something that can be done far more cheaply. Even if an individual businessman or two were willing to forgo such an improvement, in the end they will be forced to adopt the more productive approach just to keep up with their competitors.

That's where a good education comes in. New technology is replacing many tedious tasks. That means that there will be fewer and fewer satisfying jobs for people without skills. In the new economy, the people that companies are craving - and are willing to pay for - are people who add value to their enterprises. That means people with talent and skills and judgment.

Talent and skills and judgment are part of what economists call human capital. Human capital is a broad term. It includes formal skills - for example, a degree in computer science or the ability to speak a foreign language. But human capital is much more than this. It also includes such things as good work habits . the judgment that comes from experience . a sense of creativity . a curiosity about the world ... And the ability to think for oneself. Free societies succeed because the people who have these skills are free to use them to advance themselves, their enterprises, and society.

It's true that some people manage to develop these skills on their own. For the most part, these people are highly driven self-starters. They exist in every society. They are also very rare. For every Steve Jobs who drops out of college and founds a company like Apple . for every Jim Clark who leaves high school and starts up Netscape . for every Peter Allen who drops out and becomes a successful entertainer, there are tens of thousands of others for whom leaving school early means shutting the door forever on opportunity - and permanent condemnation to an underclass.

For most of us, the best path to success is through an education that will allow us to fulfill our potential. That begins by setting high expectations, adhering to real standards, and ensuring that when you do leave school, you leave with the tools that will help you get ahead in life. These tools begin with the basics of any education: the ability to read and write . to add, subtract, multiply and divide ... And to use these basics to acquire other, more advanced skills.

For those who doubt me, the relationship between education and opportunity is most obvious in the pay cheque. As a general rule, the more education you have, the more you are going to earn over your working career. That differential can be very large. Two Australian economists found that for each additional year of education a person has, he can expect about 10 per cent a year in increased income. That's true even after taking into account the lost earnings from starting work later. And though that figure is for Australia, it roughly tracks with similar findings in the United States....

Another way of putting it is this: it's not that the poor are getting poorer. It's that the economic rewards to the skilled are making them much richer. This is clearly understood by the leaders of developing countries. But it seems beyond the comprehension of much of the developed world.

That leads me to my second point: what we ought to do about it. As the world economy grows more competitive, it is will become even more difficult for people without skills to keep up. Billions of people are now entering the global workforce. And a recent study by Goldman Sachs suggested that 70 million people are joining the new global middle class each year. These people are talented . they are confident . and they are increasingly well-educated. That means the competition is getting keener. And unless we stop making excuses for our failures, a good many of our own young people will be left behind and bereft of opportunity.

Most of you are well aware of the public debate about education. And you will be well aware that there is a whole industry of pedagogues devoted to explaining why some schools and some students are failing. Some say classrooms are too large. Others complain that not enough public funding is devoted to this or that program. Still others will tell you that the students who come from certain backgrounds just can1t learn.

The bad schools do not pay for these fundamental failings. Their students pay the price, because they are the victims when our schools fail. And the more people we graduate without basic skills, the more likely Australian society will pay the price in social dysfunction - in welfare, in healthcare, in crime. We must help ourselves by holding schools accountable - and ensuring that they put students on the right track.

As a rule, we spend too much time on avoiding failure. The real answer is to start pursuing success. Developing countries seem to understand this. When I travel to places like India and China, I do not hear people making lame excuses for mediocre schools. Instead of suggesting that their students cannot learn, they set high standards and expect they will be met. And they have crash programs for more and better schools.

The obstacles they have to overcome are as difficult and challenging as any we face here. Recently, for example, American public television ran a special called Chinese Prep - which followed five students through their final year at an elite high school. These students are competing for slots at the top universities in a system based almost entirely on merit. The pressure is intense, and most Australians watching would probably think that the time and effort these boys and girls put into their studies is inhumane.

Now, the high school in this film is elite, and it is far from representative of the schools that most Chinese attend. But the interesting thing about this show is the emphasis on competition, on merit, on doing well on standardised tests. Some of the children who do end up doing well come from very poor backgrounds. The television cameras showed that one of them lived in essentially a hut in the countryside.

But no one makes allowances for them. They compete with the children of high officials. And they succeed. In a sense, the entire school system is taking a lesson from Confucius, who observed sagely, as a sage does: "If I am walking with two other men, each of them will serve as my teacher. I will pick out the good points of the one and imitate them, and the bad points of the other and correct them in myself."

I am not saying that Chinese education is perfect. It certainly is not. But it is clear that in a system where you are expected to perform, there is less slacking off. Maybe that1s because poor people in China know that doing well on tests and getting a good education is the ticket to personal progress. Or maybe they know that the consequences for failure are much more severe than they are in, say, the more comfortable societies that are America and Australia.

My point is this: the children of poor people always have fewer options than the elite. That's true whether you live in Sydney or Shanghai or San Francisco. For these people, a solid education is the one hope for rising in society and levelling the playing field. If we have any real sense of fairness, we owe these children school systems that hold them to high standards.

However tough their schools may be, the world is going to be tougher and less forgiving. That is one reason I have two key criteria for education programs that News Corporation supports: schools must be focused on achievement. And they cannot make excuses for why some students are supposedly poor scholars.

It's amazing the results that you get when you actually expect your students to learn regardless of race, background, or income. In Manhattan, for example, my wife and I have been involved with a local public school called Shuang Wen. Shuang Wen is unique. It is the only public school in America offering a mandated bilingual program in Chinese and English for all students. Two-thirds of its students live below the poverty line. Despite this, Shuang Wen is one of New York's top-ranked schools in terms of performance. It also has the highest daily attendance rate - 98 per cent.

What's the secret? In the morning, its students study in English. Then they stay until 5:30 pm to study Chinese. They come in on weekends too. Not many American children have a school day or school week that goes as long as Shuang Wen. But instead of repelling students, the school is attracting them. African-American parents are clamouring to get their children into this school. They know that the hard work and sacrifice Shuang Wen demands of its students is their children's ticket out of poverty and hopelessness.

Another school we support in New York is the Eagle Academy for Young Men. This is a charter school. Although charters are public schools, charters have more freedom than traditional American public schools. They are also directly accountable to the people who run it. The Eagle Academy for Young Men is boys-only. And it was started up by a group of concerned African-American men who are simply unwilling to allow the next generation of African-American boys to be written off by the country's public schools.

Let me put this in context. The Eagle Academy has a student body of almost all Latino or African-American boys. It also operates in a part of New York City where three out of four young black men drop out before they receive a high school diploma. So failure is all around them. But inside the Eagle Academy doors, they don't talk about failure. The students have long days, often until 6pm. They come in on Saturdays. And they are paired with mentors. It's tough. But the results are impressive.

The fact is, the boys at Eagle Academy are getting the education they would never get from soft-hearted, supposedly well-meaning people who would just make excuses for them. And, like Shuang Wen, the Eagle Academy has a waiting list of parents who are ambitious for their children.

In Australia, our problem is a little different. In America, the children whose futures are being sacrificed tend to be those who are stuck in rotten schools in the inner cities. In Australia, by contrast, the children who suffer the most tend to be those in our rural areas and outer suburbs. But whether urban or rural, no government of any decent society should be effectively writing off whole segments of the population by refusing to confront a failing education bureaucracy.

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Australian Federal education boss pledges transparency of school performance

Rupert has an influential convert already

JULIA Gillard has marked the first anniversary of the Rudd Government by pledging a new era of transparency in Australian schools, allowing parents to compare student performance across the nation. The Acting Prime Minister and Education Minister outlined her goals for a revolution in transparency at a conference in Melbourne today, warning schools that withholding information from parents on national tests and performance in literacy and numeracy was not an option. "We need a revolution in transparency," Ms Gillard said.

"I absolutely reject the proposition that somehow I am smart enough to understand information, and parents and community members are somehow too dumb. "I therefore absolutely reject the idea that rich performance information about schools should be confidential to government and denied to the parents of children in schools and the taxpayers who fund schools."

Accusing unions of running a fear campaign about transparency on funding, she said this approach should be viewed for what it is - the last gasp of those who think education policy in this country is a sterile debate between school systems about who wins and who loses. "Transparency about resources isn't about the politics of envy. Rather, transparency about resources is the tool which will better able us to understand what difference resources make to educational outcomes," she said.

Ms Gillard also said News Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch was making a "hell of a lot of sense" when he described Australia's school system as a disgrace. Mr Murdoch said yesterday that schools and school systems must stop making excuses for failing the children they are meant to serve, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Australian-born Mr Murdoch, now a US citizen, used the fourth of his six Boyer Lectures for the ABC to focus on the state of public education, saying the school system in Australia, along with the US and Britain, is a "disgrace".

"I certainly think Rupert Murdoch is making a hell of a lot of sense," Ms Gillard, who is also federal education minister, told ABC Radio. High-achieving students in Australia were not doing well enough against their counterparts in other countries, she said. There were too many students - overwhelmingly from poor backgrounds - who don't reach minimum standards.

Ms Gillard agreed with Mr Murdoch's suggestion Australian businesses must take an active role in the reform process, saying she would like to see all major corporations enter a relationship with schools.

Ms Gillard is hailing the Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, Joel Klein, who is touring Australia as the example Australian schools should follow. "You have to admire the dedication of someone who deliberately located a school in his education department building so that every bureaucrat every day heard the sound of kid's voices," he said. "And you have to admire the relentless reform dedication of someone who is prepared to say that putting a bright light on a problem is the best way to get it fixed."

In Australia, Ms Gillard said too many students from disadvantaged backgrounds were clustered in a small number of schools, with low expectations and low rates of achievement. "Let's be honest. Current achievement levels are simply not good enough in too many schools," she said. "Australia still performs well in international studies. But we do not achieve as highly as we should or could. Our performance at the higher levels of achievement is static or declining. And our persistent tail of low achievement, associated as it is with socioeconomic disadvantage, is too long." "Our participation and attainment rates at Year 12 have plateaued for the last decade or more at around 75 per cent," she said. "And as a result, a child from a working class family is only half as likely as a child from a high income family to go on to tertiary study. "This level of failure is not acceptable."

She named Cherbourg State School in Queensland, where principal Chris Sarra pioneered his "strong and smart" philosophy of educational leadership and Punchbowl High School in Sydney as examples to follow in Australia.

Ms Gillard said a major government survey of parents' attitudes about the information they want from schools revealed 96.9 per cent of parents in all school systems agreed that important information relating to school activities and performance should be made available to parents. "What this shows is that parents are hungry for information about how they can help their own children to learn better, both at home and at school. And that they understand the importance of information for producing systematic school improvement," she said. "I know that national testing is controversial. And I know that publishing information about student test performance out of context can be misleading."

The Council of Australian Government meets on Saturday to finalise the new National Education Agreement and the new National Partnerships on teacher quality, improving disadvantaged school and literacy and numeracy and the Schools Assistance Bill, that will provide $28 billion to non-government schools over the next four years must also pass the Australian Parliament by the end of the fortnight.

"Together the new agreements and the Bill will mean every jurisdiction will sign up to transparency and accountability for the same measures of achievement, from the readiness to learn of our youngest children to attainment at year 12 and its equivalent. A comprehensive framework of this kind is unprecedented in Australia," she said. "To those who oppose transparency the message is clear. The Rudd Government is absolutely determined to achieve this reform for Australia's children."

Ms Gillard said future reforms may include rewarding accomplished teachers to work in the most difficult schools or "developing an extended or full service school offer, where breakfast clubs and after-school activities combine to offer children from chaotic homes or homes without a focus on achievement, extra learning opportunities and encouragement to pursue their studies in a structured and supportive environment."

"As a nation we have to say we will no longer tolerate an education system that under-achieves," Ms Gillard said. "We will no longer turn a blind eye to results that say in our nation if you are a poor kid you are likely to fail at school."


Jocks as sociologists

An unlikely concept. One would think that any bullsh*t at all passes muster in Sociology. I taught in a sociology school for 12 years and I can warrant that it does

National Collegiate Athletic Association officials have taken pride in the rising rates at which Division I athletes are graduating, and they often credit the association's five-year-old academic eligibility rules as a driving factor. But the rules, which for the first time penalize college teams whose athletes do not make adequate progress toward a degree, were also widely seen as increasing the pressure on institutions and coaches to ensure that they do.

The hope was that this goal would be accomplished through a positive change in the culture - recruiting more academically qualified athletes, perhaps, or putting more emphasis on players' classroom success. But the fear among others was that those gains might be achieved through less noble means - encouraging students to take the academic path of least resistance, or, in the worst case, cheating.

Figuring out whether the recent gains in graduation rates of NCAA athletes have been achieved through good means or bad is next to impossible, as the factors are many and evidence about such things as the academic qualifications of incoming athletes is hard to come by. But USA Today on Wednesday published a special report that provides significant evidence that athletes on many high-profile teams "cluster" in certain majors.

About a third of all football, men's and women's basketball, baseball and softball teams at the 142 colleges examined had at least 25 percent of their juniors and seniors in the same major field of study, and on more than half of those teams - 125 of 235 - at least 40 percent of the upperclassmen were in the same major.

A few examples: Twenty-two, or 58 percent, of the junior and senior football players at the University of Southern California in 2007 majored in sociology, representing one-fifth of all junior and senior sociology majors at USC. Sixteen of 25 junior and senior football players at Vanderbilt University majored in human and organizational development, and 31 of 41 football players at the University of Michigan majored in general studies. (A chart published as part of USA Today's package lists all of the teams that have at least 25 percent of their junior and senior members in a particular major.)

Such clustering, many college sports officials argue, is not in and of itself a problem. Every college has majors that are more and less popular, and they fluctuate over time for a wide range of reasons. Students also tend to make choices about their studies based in part on what their peers are doing, so given the significant amount of time that athletes spend together, it's hardly surprising that teammates would end up in the same majors. And athletes may end up in certain majors more than other students because of their interests (particularly explaining overrepresentation in sports-related fields) or because the time demands of their sports discourage, if not rule out, disciplines that require lots of afternoon labs or the equivalent.

"There's been an exponential growth in how much we demand of student-athletes, by day, week, semester and across the whole calendar year," said Chris Kennedy, deputy director of athletics at Duke University. "There's a sense that coaches want their kids available all the time, and that makes it harder to choose some majors."

But having significant numbers of athletes at a college in a particular major does raise concerns that the NCAA's academic policies, well-intentioned as they are, may be driving athletes - or, worse yet, prompting colleges to push athletes - into majors that are perceived as being easier.

In addition to injecting significant new data into the discussion, which has been raised by several recent controversies involving independent study at Auburn University and the University of Michigan, the USA Today report highlights athletes at several institutions who said they had been "steered" into certain "friendly" majors by academic advisers or coaches intent on keeping the players eligible to compete. "This is what everybody is doing. It's the easiest major," one former athlete recalls being told by an academic adviser from the athletics department.

The idea that big-time college athletes might seek out the academic path of least resistance is hardly a new concept. But what makes the issue of clustering particularly relevant now, for some observers, is that the whole design of the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate system is to increase the stakes on colleges to ensure that athletes stay on track to a degree. The worry has been that by taking away scholarships from teams whose athletes become ineligible to compete or leave college in poor academic standing, the NCAA - in addition to encouraging more emphasis on academic performance - may well have increased the incentives on athletes and colleges to take the easy route.

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