Thursday, May 07, 2009

Proposals Would Transform College Aid

Obama Plan to Expand Federal Control of Lending Includes Creating Entitlement

President Obama's health-care goals may be garnering attention, but his higher-education proposals are no less ambitious. If adopted, they could transform the financial aid landscape for millions of students while expanding federal authority to a degree that even Democrats concede is controversial.

At stake is a plan to expand the Pell Grant program, making it an entitlement akin to Medicare and Social Security. Key to the effort is a consolidation of student lending that would give the U.S. Department of Education a near monopoly over the practice -- a proposal that has mobilized the private loan industry, which lent $55.3 billion to 6.4 million students in the 2007-2008 school year.

Obama outlined his initiatives, which also include incentives for colleges to cut costs and to raise graduation rates, in the fiscal 2010 budget that Congress approved Wednesday, and Democratic leaders said they hope to make them law by October.

The aim is to improve access to post-secondary school for those who need it most: lower-income students for whom college or vocational training can be the decisive factor in their economic future. The president has said he wants the United States to lead the world by 2010 in the proportion of college graduates, a position the country had long held; it now ranks seventh for the 25 to 34 age group. He has also called for every American to attend a post-secondary institution.

Neither goal will be met if students can't afford the cost.

The administration's plans are "the most fundamental rewriting of federal student aid policy in 35 years," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. "These are big changes. They are painted with a broad brush. . . . It's easy for this to be overshadowed by health-care proposals, but for many families, these discussions will be equally important."

Even critics of the plan say the status quo is unsustainable.

Students are amassing debt on a scale that approximates a home mortgage. The economic downturn has meant rising rates for defaults on loans, as well as for students dropping out. Private schools face shrinking endowments, and public universities face state budget cuts.

The tuition crisis has built over many years, however, and until recently Congress did little to address it. The maximum Pell Grant award was frozen at $4,050 from 2003 through 2007. When Democrats came to power, they laid the groundwork for many of the changes on the table, including raising Pell Grants to the current amount of $4,731. They also began to curb federally subsidized private loans.

But Obama would go much further. He wants to terminate the private Federal Family Education Loan program, the primary source of student loans. Advocates say the move is a formality: The government already effectively controls the program by guaranteeing the loans, paying a special allowance to lenders, and in recent months, buying back loans by the billions from struggling firms.

Shifting all lending authority to the government through its Direct Loan program would save $94 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Obama would use that windfall to expand the Pell Grant program, created in 1965 to cover most tuition costs for low-income students.

More here

Socialism, College Style

If you’re baffled by college students’ enthusiastic support for Soviet-lite economic policies, you need to watch several short videos created by members of Young America’s Foundation (YAF). In the videos, YAF members approach their classmates with a petition calling for the redistribution of student GPAs. “It would make it so that all students have an equal opportunity to go to grad school,” University of Oregon YAFer Kenny Crabtree explains. Students with bad grades would therefore be entitled to points earned by straight-A students.

Their classmates are flabbergasted. “Is that, like, a joke or something?” one guy responds. “Why would you take points from people who are higher up and give them to people who didn’t meet the requirements?” another asks George Mason University YAFers. But when asked if he supports Obama’s wealth redistribution schemes, he says “yes.”

Shocking? Not really. As I pointed out in my March 30 column, most college students are economically illiterate. When quizzed by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute about basic concepts, such as supply and demand, the average student’s score was 53 percent. And since most don’t work or pay taxes (only 46 percent of full-time students have jobs), they simply have no idea how capitalism works.

But they do understand grades. Students who study hard get good grades; students who skip class and binge drink every night get bad grades. Some struggle with difficult material, but with enough effort (attending office hours, seeing a tutor) most can maintain a decent GPA. Every sane college student realizes the immorality of “spreading the grades around”—regardless of who benefits.

And it makes their rationales for supporting socialism interesting. “I don’t think people who worked for their grades should have to suffer because someone else slacked off,” one student says. Then how can she believe in wealth redistribution? “Money is different.” Another explains, “Earning money is not the same as earning grades.” O-kay.

Again, this is typical. Day in and day out, professors indoctrinate students with hatred for the greedy “rich”—which, under our tax code, includes a lot of middle-class families just like theirs, who struggle to pay the mortgage and college tuition. They’re taught to believe that people who don’t work are entitled to endless welfare benefits financed by the productive class. But when it comes to redistributing grades they earned, they don’t support it.

There is some hope for the future. As several of my fellow Townhall columnists have pointed out, most people who support Obama’s plan to “spread the wealth around” either don’t pay income taxes or are too rich to care. (And some of Obama’s biggest supporters, including Senators John Kerry and Ted Kennedy, are living off inherited money earned by somebody else.) As soon as these students become productive business owners and professionals, they won’t want the Democrats confiscating money they worked for.

“It’s amazing how students only care about the immorality of socialism when it hurts them,” said George Mason University student Alyssa Cordova. Her classmates were universally opposed to a GPA redistribution plan.

Now, if we could just convince Ted Kennedy and John Kerry that we need to implement a “mansion redistribution plan” or “private jet redistribution plan,” we could abolish Obama-style socialism altogether.


Reduce exam stress: give pupils more tests

The reason British teachers dislike SATs is nothing to do with children - it's because their work is exposed to outside scrutiny. Sats are grade-school exams in Britain

Complete this sentence: a light ray hitting a mirror at an angle is reflected off at the _____ - ____ angle.

Now complete this multiplication: (a) x (b) x (c) = 286, where a, b and c are prime numbers.

Finally, fill in each gap in the following with a different word for “nice”: It was so... of Lauren to invite us all back to her house after the play. She made everyone a really... hot chocolate with some... pink marshmallows floating in it. Patrick said he thought the theatre was ...

Congratulations. You may have just passed your Key Stage 2 standard assessment tests (SATs). For a set of fairly minor exams that children take only once before the end of primary school, and which the Prime Minister yesterday promised to keep, SATs cause an inordinate amount of fuss. That the National Association of Headteachers and the National Union of Teachers have decided to ballot members over boycotting the tests next year says a lot more about the failings of the teachers than it does about the limitations of the exams.

There is no need for a child to be stressed about an exam unless adults make them so. All the pressure put on children comes from teachers and parents. Seven-year-olds should be happily unaware that they are even taking a test at Key Stage 1, particularly as their teachers do the assessment at this stage. Nor is there much need for an 11-year-old to be stressed at Key Stage 2 tests. Revision is a not particularly arduous business of answering practice questions (Will you practice/practise playing the banjo?) for an hour a day, and looking up the answers at the back of the book. Most 11-year-olds simply object to any homework.

The real reason behind the calls for a boycott is that the tests at the age of 11 are the first national ones and the first where results are published; hence they are the first test of teaching quality as well as of individual ability.

Private schools have tests at the end of each term (some at the end of each week) and you do not hear parents squealing about it. If teachers in the state system are “teaching to the test”, and confining their pupils' education to the narrow band of questions in an exam, that is their fault. A good, creative, confident teacher will not do so.

Equally, a good, creative, confident parent will not judge a school purely on its test scores. For every teacher subjecting pupils to formulaic worksheets, there are probably a dozen parents poring over the league tables. The information that these provide is far too narrow, which is a good argument for having many more tests in state schools, not fewer. They would then take on less significance individually, but provide a more rounded picture of progress overall.

An average score from a child's performance throughout the years at primary school, or even individual results every term or year, would give secondary schools far better information than Key Stage 2 results do. Many secondary schools find them so inaccurate that they retest the children anyway.

I wouldn't send a child to a school where the headteacher was boycotting SATs and I hope that most teachers will reject the boycott. Given the load of continuous assessment, and its contiguous jargon, that they are already buried under, straightforward tests that they do not have to assess themselves ought to be the least of their worries.

Look up the reading assessment guidelines for primary children. Each “level” is split into seven “assessment focuses” (AFs): “Using AFs for classroom-based assessment enables a direct link to be made to national curriculum standards in a subject and the primary framework learning objectives. The AFs sit between the national curriculum programmes of study and the level descriptions...”

Clear? So, the heading for the AF3 for reading is: “deduce, infer or interpret information, events or ideas from texts”. And at Level 3 for 7 to 9-year-olds, this is what the teacher has to gauge in each pupil: “straightforward inference based on a single point of reference in the text, eg, ‘he was upset because it says “he was crying”'; responses to text show meaning established at a literal level, eg, “‘walking good' means ‘walking carefully'” or based on personal speculation, eg, a response based on what they personally would be feeling rather than feelings of character in the text”. (Yes, it really does say “walking good”. I'm sorry; I didn't write it.)

This is learning reduced to jargon. No wonder my GP friends say that they always know when a teacher has come through the door because she will be on the verge of tears. This degree of intrusive monitoring, target-setting and assessment is a form of bullying of the teaching profession. It implicitly tells teachers that ministers do not believe they are competent and, in some cases, that is undoubtedly true.

A good teacher would not have to be told that a child should be able to make inferences from a statement, just as good schools do not actually need SATs. But scrapping Key Stage 2 tests would enable some bad schools to continue to fail to monitor their pupils.

And some teachers find themselves cheating. I have seen them monitoring in-school assessments for younger children: in one class, the teacher helped almost every child, because they had no idea that they were supposed actually to do something with the worksheets without any assistance. They sat there bemused until the teacher read out the questions and showed them how to do it, one by one, and then they copied their answers from the cleverest on the table, which was what they had become used to doing in lessons. Then the marks were noted down as theirs.

Key Stage 2 SATs are the first time that a child sits down to national exams, not tests assessed by its teacher. Given the hassle of the self-assessment process for any sensible teacher, and the unreliability of its results for parents, I would have thought the straightforward SAT would come as a relief.


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