Sunday, February 15, 2009

Choosing a prosperous future

The children are our future, goes the hackneyed phrase. It is gag-inducing when issued from the mouths of politicians and celebrities, but its truth can't be denied. Which makes it all the more important that we make strides to improve what is at present a severely inadequate effort to prepare today's students for tomorrow's world. A big step forward would be the advance of educational freedom on two fronts: liberating schools, teachers, and administrators from paralyzing red tape; and liberating parents from constraints on school choice.

Nancy Pelosi received well-deserved criticism for her grotesque attempt to defend the inclusion of birth control promotion in the economic stimulus bill. But Pelosi's tortured observations do point to a truth: It is not enough to bring children into the world. Economic resources are required to care for dependent young people, and the responsibility to provide the intellectual and moral education necessary for engagement of the world is serious.

Focusing on education is not a distraction from the pressing business of economic recovery; it is vital to ensuring it. When asked recently to explain the causes of the stagnation of the American economy, the first response of Paypal co-founder and CEO of Clarion Capital Peter Thiel was telling: "You have an educational system that is very broken."

Public schools absorb a lot of criticism for failing to ensure basic competency in their students, and for spending loads of money not doing it. Yet most administrators and teachers are dedicated to their jobs and sincerely concerned about the welfare of their students. One of the factors hampering success is excessive regulation, a product of a litigious culture and overweening government involvement in education.

To cite but one troubled area, countless hours and dollars are now spent ensuring the "safety" of students by adhering to strict standards concerning everything from classroom supplies to cafeteria furniture. Parents rightly expect due caution to be exercised by those entrusted with the lives of their children every day, but safety regulations enforced on schools exceed what most of us demand in our own homes. All of this distracts from the core mission of the school.

Evidence continues to suggest that private schools educate more efficiently than public ones. Yet the largest private system in the country, Catholic schools, continue to struggle: A New York Times article last month-prompted by the announcement of another raft of school closures in the city-noted that the number of students in Catholic schools is half what it was in the 1960s.

Declining private school enrollment should not be taken as an indication that parents are satisfied with conventional public schools. That demand for alternatives persists is proved by a recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics, showing a 36 percent rise in the number of homeschooled children from 2003 to 2007 (now standing at 1.5 million, almost 3 percent of the school population). Interest in choice within the public arena-for example, charter schools and open enrollment-remains high as well.

Declining private enrollment is more likely due to the fact that families, especially in a downturn, increasingly cannot afford to support two school systems, one through their taxes and another through their tuition. States should promote public school alternatives, fostering competition and greater efficiency. Charter schools could be utilized more liberally. Tax breaks offer incentives for parents to choose private schools and relieve the overall public funding burden. Federal authorities have offered some help this year by permitting income tax deductions for local property taxes. States could follow suit by allowing similar deductions for the purpose of tuition payments or homeschooling expenses.

As states look for ways to balance their budgets, some might bristle at the cost of extending tax breaks or vouchers. Yet it's not clear that the end result would be negative for the state budgets. Tax deductions might be offset by gains reaped by shifting school populations to private alternatives. Competition at the local level might spur public schools to higher efficiency. Significantly, pressure to remove expensive regulation would increase.

More important than this year's budget or next year's deficit is the economic viability of the next century. Without a sound educational system, the prospects dim considerably. It should be clear by now that prosperity depends on both technical expertise and moral integrity. Neither can be achieved without bringing freedom to our schools. In existing schools, staff must be permitted to teach and discipline in a way that cultivates virtue and suppresses vice. Where schools have failed, parents must be encouraged to select more effective options for their children. School reform and school choice are not peripheral to economic recovery and future prosperity. They are essential.


Top British civil servant attacks Leftist education policies

Professor Adrian Smith, one of the Government's top education officials, has launched a devastating attack on Labour schools' policy, suggesting reforms focused on "the masses" at the expense of bright students. In an extraordinary outburst, Prof Smith, the second highest-ranked official at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, said plans for new diploma qualifications to replace A-levels were "slightly schizophrenic". He also said:

*School science lessons had been undermined by "insidious" health and safety legislation

*The Government may have exaggerated the success of a drive to get more teenagers to study science seriously

*Universities "won't touch" a new elite A* grade at A-level for fear of recruiting too many sixth-formers from independent schools

*So-called "golden hellos" to attract teachers would be better spent on higher salaries for staff

Prof Smith also said a refusal to complete a review of student tuition fees could lead to universities going bankrupt.

The comments will come as an embarrassing blow to Gordon Brown who has pledged to prioritise education and training in an attempt to kickstart the economy. It also suggests discord at the heart of the Government as Prof Smith breached official protocol which says civil servants should avoid public statements on policy.

The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills was formed in 2007 when Mr Brown split the old Department for Education and Skills in two. It now shares education responsibilities with the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

Prof Smith, director general of science and innovation, joined the department five months ago following a decade in charge of Queen Mary, University of London. He was giving a speech in central London on the future of science, technology, engineering and mathematics when he made the outspoken attack. The official, who led a Government review of maths education in 2003, highlighted issues which required the Government to "pause" and consider "whether we are thinking them through carefully enough".

It included plans for diplomas, which combine practical training with classroom study, he said. They are initially offered in vocational subjects, such as media and construction, but will be expanded in coming years to cover the traditional academic disciplines of humanities, languages and science. Ministers believe they could replace GCSEs and A-levels altogether. But Prof Smith branded the science diploma as "slightly schizophrenic", claiming it fell between the twin aims of pushing the brightest and aiding weaker students.

In comments quoted in the Times Educational Supplement, he said the Government should focus on "getting GCSEs and A-levels right first". "In core subjects like maths and physics we already have a shortage of qualified teacher cover," he said. "Are we wise in adding different bits of curricular offerings, each of which will require additional teacher input? "Are we thinking in a joined-up way when we plan curriculum developments and new programmes, whether we have the teacher power, planning and recruitment? Might we not be better getting GCSEs and A-levels right first?"

He said an overall increase in the number of teenagers taking A-levels in science looked encouraging. But the official said it could be explained by rises in subjects such as sports science and psychology, claiming those studying "hardcore" science at universities remained static. In a similar vein, he said there were "serious questions" about whether education inspired the most talented pupils. "We have a tension in the education system," he said. "We are educating everybody - the masses - for citizenship, for (mathematical) competences and functionality. "Higher education and the innovation and high tech industries of the future involve those at the end of the spectrum who are capable of achieving and aspiring to more professional levels of mathematics. "There are still serious questions in the system about whether we have really cracked that balance."

On science in schools, he said teachers had toned down experiments for fear of breaching health and safety laws. "If you ask a lot of scientists, chemists and engineers what turned them on in the first place, I am afraid it was things like making bombs," he said. "I think both in terms of funding, in terms of qualified teachers, and the insidious effects of health and safety legislation, we may have done something rather damaging to that fundamental curiosity. We need more explosions in schools."

The comments have been seized upon by Opposition MPs. David Laws, the Liberal Democrat schools spokesman, said: "This is a damning criticism of the Government's education policy. Ministers cannot simply ignore these comments from someone working at such a senior level in their own department. "These comments totally undermine what little faith there was in the new diplomas and there must now be an even greater concern that our education system is failing to stretch the most able children. The fact that such a senior civil servant believes that ministers are exaggerating improvements will shatter confidence in the Government's entire education strategy."

Adam Afriyie, the Conservative shadow science minister, said: "It is extraordinary that such a senior civil servant should launch such a blistering attack on the Government's failure on science. "It is a desperate act of a failing Government if ministers are deliberately exaggerating improvements to hide their failure. We need a robust qualifications system in our schools and a stronger presence for science in government."

Alan Smithers, professor of education at Buckingham University, said: "It is great that someone in his position has finally spoken out."

A DCSF spokesperson said: "The idea in this day and age that education policy should not focus on "the masses" and instead only on an elite minority is out of date and wrong-headed. "We were surprised to read and totally disagree with the comments about diplomas, golden hellos for science teachers and on our reforms to the new A-level, all of which have been widely welcomed."


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