Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Education is not one-size-fits-all

Kevin Drum recounts a tale of a specific charter school that has had excellent results. He unwittingly makes a good argument for school choice:
In a nutshell, this story explains pretty well why I like charter schools [snip] So I say: fine. If there are some parents who want their kids to go to schools like this, let ‘em....

It makes sense to try out different kinds of schools for different kinds of kids and different kinds of neighborhoods. With a few obvious caveats, I’m all for it. But let’s not pretend that any particular one of these charters is necessarily the model for everyone else on the basis of 18 cherry-picked graduates. It ain’t so.

Well, given that he was marginally quoting someone else’s strawman, I’ll let his aside about pretending that any one of these is “necessarily the model for everyone else”. As far as I can tell, most libertarians and most advocates of vouchers don’t think that there’s a one-size-fits-all model.

And Kevin Drum, from these comments, doesn’t seem to think that there’s a one-size-fits-all model. But the education bureaucracy seems to want to put everyone into a one-size-fits-all model.

Most reasonable collectivists I know are honestly more concerned with making education work than making it uniform. To some extent, they view things as charter schools as laboratories to test new educational methods, which can then be integrated into “regular” public schools. But they forget that there’s an enormous entrenched bureaucracy that is adamantly opposed to doing anything outside of what is best for the unions.

I agree with Kevin Drum that it makes sense to try out different kinds of schools for different kinds of kids and different kinds of neighborhoods. But where I suspect we disagree is in the assumption that the educational bureaucracy will EVER allow charter schools to do this in any meaningful way. They have too much stake in controlling the debate, and charter schools allow the debate to slip out of their grasp.

The only way to fix education is to offer real choice. Allow parents the ability to make the choice where to send their kids on a real widespread basis, not limited by geography or a tiny number of charter schools with far too many applicants for slots. And the only realistic way that I can see to achieve real choice, given the landscape as it currently sits, is through vouchers.

Education is not one-size-fits-all. We need to stop pretending that we can make it so*.


Privatize universities

Sir Roy Anderson, Rector of Imperial College London, said the top UK universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, should be freed from state control and allowed to charge students more than the current £3,145 capped fees, and to attract more international students to boost their income.

Why stop there? Before 1919, all UK universities were independent. They should be again. Britain has four universities in the world's top ten, but the league tables are dominated by America's independent universities like Harvard, Yale, CalTech, Chicago, MIT and Columbia. And while we are slipping, America's colleges are rising. They are taking the best brains, and the best students, and are pulling in more cash to fund their teaching and their research. Thirty US universities have endowment funds of over £1bn. Only Oxford and Cambridge come close, but Harvard has five times more cash in the bank than either of them.

But that's how the US system works. The real cost of a university education is not £3,145. It's more like £40,000. And some US universities do indeed charge that amount of money. But they use their endowment funds to make sure that bright students who can't afford fees on that scale are given scholarships so they can get the education anyway. Students are admitted on merit, but supported according to their needs.

As Professor Terence Kealey, head of the (largely) independent Buckingham University, says in an Adam Smith Institute Briefing, that is what should happen in the UK. Instead of subsidizing universities, we should subsidize needy students, so that anyone who is capable of doing well at university has the opportunity to go. I would tell Sir Roy and his colleagues to charge whatever they like – £40,000 if that it what their product actually costs – provided that they make sure no needy student is turned away. Yes, some of the money that is currently doled out to the universities by the Higher Education Funding Councils could be used for those scholarships. Otherwise, the universities will have to go out and raise the money for scholarship funds themselves.


Many pupils 'would be better off learning woodwork than being forced into university'

Half of all teenagers are failed by a school system which forces them to pursue academic studies, a landmark report says today. Hundreds of thousands of youngsters better suited to practical work leave with poor qualifications because their skills go unrecognised. Woodwork, metalwork and home economics have all but disappeared while geography field-work and science experiments are in decline, the six-year investigation concludes.

The Oxford-based Nuffield Review, the most comprehensive study of secondary education in 50 years, found those who are better suited to 'learning by doing' are simply not catered for. Instead, a culture of testing has brought about a narrow focus on written exams at GCSE and A-level. This has consigned a generation of pupils to an 'impoverished' education.

In a damning indictment, the study said school attainment remained 'low' despite unprecedented investment in education. The Government's school diplomas covering 14 industry areas do little to improve matters, because they put greater emphasis on 'learning about the world of work' than on practical learning, the review warns. It says the entire system needs to be overhauled because it has suffered years of tinkering and piecemeal changes. Universities now have so little confidence in A-levels that 45 are setting their own admissions tests to help them distinguish between the most able candidates.

Professor Richard Pring, who led the review team of academics from Oxford, London's Institute of Education and Cardiff University, said concern about the achievement of young people was 'not new'. 'That bottom half is still a cause for concern,' he said. 'So many young people leave school inadequately prepared for further study or training.' He pointed out that around half of 16-year-olds fail to achieve five good GCSEs, including English and maths - the Government's yardstick of secondary school achievement. Around one in ten ended up classified as 'Neets' - not in education, employment or training. 'A lot of those have been told they are failures for about ten years,' Professor Pring said.

A generation ago, hands-on lessons were 'very much part of the learning experience at school', he said. But the introduction of the national curriculum in 1988 had hastened the 'demise' of practical learning. 'We now have a rather narrow view of success in learning,' he said. 'A great many young people achieve quite a lot in other areas which are equally valid and don't get recognised.' Many might benefit-from practical training in crafts, engineering, hairdressing, mechanics and catering. Apprenticeships should also be promoted more widely as an alternative to university, he added. His review concludes: 'There is not the progress which one might expect from so much effort and investment.

'The review believed that a tradition of learning based on practical engagement has been lost in schools, reflected in the near demise of woodwork, metalwork and home economics, in the decline of field-work in geography, in less experimental approaches to science (caused partly by assessment almost exclusively through written examination), and in the decline of work-based learning and employer-related apprenticeships.

Sixth-formers face extra tests on top of A-levels to get into 45 universities, today's review reveals. These include aptitude tests for medicine and law, and thinking skills tests and SATs. 'The growth of independent entrance tests by universities needs to be curbed,' the review says. It suggests bolstering national qualifications so that universities do not need to resort to other tests to identify the brightest students.

Schools should teach moral values to educate pupils for life as well as work. They should encourage youngsters to take responsibility for themselves, treat others with respect and care for the environment. Academics on the review team had seen youngsters 'transformed' in schools which promote justice and respect.

The review said teachers should also foster intellectual virtues, encouraging children to be open to evidence, argument and criticism.


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