Sunday, July 05, 2009

It’s the consequences, stupid

President Obama has talked a lot and taken some action on education reform. Careful examination, however, reveals that his sound and fury is virtually all anvil and no hammer, that is, there’s still no effective consequences for failing to reform.

Take the administration’s efforts to expand charter schools, which are public schools less restricted by red tape. Charter schools have improved education by spurring innovation and by putting competitive pressure on traditional public school. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has warned, “States that don’t have charter school laws, or put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools, will jeopardize their application” for $5 billion in discretionary federal funds available to promote better performance and innovation in education. While that sounds good, the reality is that nothing really bad happens to states that ignore Duncan’s call.

If states don’t enact the charter school measures that Duncan wants, no federal education dollars that states already receive is taken away. These states may not get the extra money from Duncan’s discretionary pot, but that’s little consequence compared to taking away, let’s say, federal Title I funds for disadvantaged students that states already receive.

Obama also wants to improve teacher quality in high-poverty schools through the expansion of the Teacher Incentive Fund. The Fund, which is proposed to go from about $100 million in 2009 to nearly $500 million in 2010, would channel federal dollars to support pay-for-performance experiments around the country. Traditional teacher-pay systems base salaries mainly on years of service rather than merit factors. While the president’s efforts to change this ineffective system are praiseworthy, there are no teeth in his proposal.

Teacher Incentive Fund dollars are add-ons for school districts. They offer some financial incentives to change teacher pay systems, but if districts fail to do so then nothing happens to them. Local union contracts that enshrine the old pay rules and protect incompetent teachers would continue to operate. Thus, the Fund will likely have no effect on the 160 bad teachers in Los Angeles and 700 in New York who, according to recent shocking revelations, are being paid by their districts to stay out of the classroom and not teach.

Secretary Duncan has also come out in support of the effort by 46 states to craft a common set of national reading and math standards. Dangling the potential of federal aid, Duncan says, “This is the beginning of a new day for education in our country.” He’s correct that the current patchwork of state standards and testing systems often vary in their level of difficulty, which results in students in some states seeming to be higher achieving when they aren’t.

Even if states agree to national standards that are rigorous, however, what happens if those states and their public education systems fail to live up to them? State school accountability systems have been notoriously lax and the federal No Child Left Behind Act issues penalties only to certain schools and districts. Further, even these penalties are likely to be watered down by the Democrat-controlled Congress as it decides the future of NCLB.

In the marketplace, producers pay an immediate price for producing inferior products through consumer refusal to purchase their goods and services. Failure to heed this market signal usually results in producers going out of business. This all-or-nothing prospect is the greatest incentive available for companies to meet the needs and demands of the consuming public. Because the public education monopoly does not have this incentive – indeed, the stimulus package was crafted mainly to bail out public education and continue the status quo – no immediate systemic change will take place. Only when all education consumers are given the ability to shun the deficient services provided by the public education system will there be real change.

That’s why broad school-choice systems, such as universal voucher programs available to all parents, are so effective. Under these programs parents can pull their children out of public schools and send them to private schools, depriving the public schools of the per-pupil funding attached to each child. By doing so, parents impose real consequences on the government-run schools and the adults that run them. Until President Obama is willing to man up and implement such real consequences, don’t expect much improvement.


British schools bar parents from sports day... to keep out paedophiles

Parents were banned from attending an inter-school sports day to protect pupils from kidnappers and paedophiles. The host school said they could not prevent 'unsavoury' characters from sneaking in.

More than 270 pupils from four local primaries took part in the East Beds School Sports Partnership Athletics Day at Sandy Upper School in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire last week. Youngsters aged seven and eight competed in the long jump, hurdles, sprint, 400 metres and relay races. Their parents, many of whom wanted to take time off work to attend, condemned the ban.

One mother, who did not wish to be named, said: 'They said they just could not estimate how many parents were going to be there, and were worried that they couldn't stop someone who shouldn't be there from being there. But I think it's just health and safety gone mad.' Mother-of-three Emma Collett, 33, of Biggleswade, has a child at St Andrew's Lower School in the town. She said: 'I would have taken time off work to support my child. It would have meant a lot to me. 'I'm all for measures to protect the safety of children but lines must be drawn and common sense must prevail.'

Paul Blunt of the East Bedfordshire School Sports Partnership, which ran the event, said the 'ultimate fear' was that a child could be abducted. He said: 'If we let parents into the school they would have been free to roam the grounds. All unsupervised adults must be kept away from children. 'An unsavoury character could have come in and we just can't put the children in the event or the students at the host school at risk like that. 'The ultimate fear is that a child is hurt or abducted, and we must take all measures possible to prevent that.'

Mr Blunt confirmed he had received a complaint from an irate mother but defended his decision. He added: 'None of the children taking part attend the host school so it would've been really hard to police. 'We did a risk assessment and concluded that we couldn't guarantee the children's safety. 'The number of children involved meant it would have been hard to ensure people were who they claimed to be.'

Local councillor Anita Lewis also backed the decision, saying: 'The safety of the children is paramount. 'It was decided that following a risk assessment we could not adequately supervise up to 100 plus adults on the school site.'

However, Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, said it was 'totally unreasonable' to ban parents from a sports day. 'It's clearly a serious misjudgement. One of the great pleasures of sports day is that their parents can watch them take part,' he said. 'If you followed the thinking of this ban you wouldn't be able to let you child out of the front door.'



Two articles below

Academic fired after unethical manipulation of marks alleged at a major university

This is an old, old problem. Australian universities are merciless to honest academics who expose dumbed-down marking practices. It is designed to suppress whistleblowing by the many others who could do so. I must say I was often tempted to go public over marking practices in my time as an academic at Uni NSW but concluded that I had no hope of cleaning out the Augean stables

A University of Queensland history lecturer has been sacked after telling a class of honours students assessment of their work had been marred by "serious marking violations". Andrew Gentes, who has taught at UQ for the past five years, has also written to the Queensland Ombudsman alleging "unethical manipulation of students' marks" within UQ's School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics.

Dr Gentes told The Courier-Mail yesterday he had intended to finish up at UQ on August 31 but when news of his email to students broke on Wednesday, he was told to leave immediately.

He said the problem arose during the marking moderation process for one of the assignments in his Theory and Method subject. The dual marker, Associate Professor Marion Diamond, increased gradings on eight out of 14 essays Dr Gentes had marked by more than 8 per cent, triggering the need for a third assessment. Dr Gentes said school policy, which required the original and dual markers to confer when there were significant differences before the assignments were referred to a third party, had been ignored.

"The way it's worked out is if you originally got a mark of below 80 per cent by me and you ended up having your paper graded by a third marker, you had a 100 per cent chance of having your mark considerably increased," Dr Gentes said. One student originally given a 55 per cent mark had their grade increased to 67.5, while another was marked up from 71 per cent to 85.

Dr Gentes said in his view it was a "clear attempt to raise the marks of favoured students, at the expense of talented students" and a means of encouraging undeserving students to undertake post-graduate studies lucrative for the university.

Arts Faculty executive dean Richard Fotheringham confirmed Dr Gentes' dismissal. He also confirmed normal procedure was for the dual markers to meet to resolve big disparities and that if a third marker became involved the previous lowest mark was disregarded. "I understood there was an attempted moderation and Dr Gentes refused to meet with the other members of the school involved," Professor Fotheringham said. "We got in Bob Elson as the third marker, who's probably the most distinguished historian we've got . . . he marked all the essays independently, without knowing what the two marks were." [So someone who didn't teach the course knew better than the person who did teach the course what a reasonable mastery of the course material was??]

Dr Gentes said he had elected to "throw caution to the wind" and speak out as he was taking up a post at a university in Japan.


Dithering over research fraud

Universities hate to admit that wrongdoing has happened when one of their academics is accused of fraud or malpractice -- because it reflects on them. All such allegations should be investigated independently under the supervision of a judge

THE Rudd government is considering a specialist independent body to deal with the hardest cases of scientific fraud, according to Innovation, Industry, Science and Research Minister Kim Carr. "We are considering a research integrity advisory board," said Senator Carr, who said he hoped the details could be settled before the next academic year. "We need to establish the legal framework ... and the appropriate legal indemnity for the chair and panel members ... and the specific revisions to the (Australian Code forthe Responsible Conduct of Research) to take into account any new review mechanism. "This is a sensitive issue, but we've attracted broad support for the program. There is general agreement as to the need for further reform."

Although the code was revised as recently as 2007, Senator Carr argues the present ad-hoc system, whereby institutions handle their own complaints, has failed in a small number of intractable cases. David Vaux, a medical researcher who has lobbied Senator Carr and others for reform, said the code made it too easy for an institution to bury an inconvenient complaint. "There's no oversight to ensure theinvestigations are carried out properly," said Professor Vaux, a National Health and Medical Research Council Australia fellow at LaTrobe University. "Australia should catch up with the rest of the world. In most countries in Europe or the US there's an ombudsman who handles issues of research misconduct or there's an office of research integrity."

Glenn Withers, chief executive of Universities Australia, agreed there was a need to deal with "exceptions and anomalies" in complaint handling, and believed Senator Carr intended the new board to have a "very light touch". However, he said the new system could affect the research autonomy of universities. "This government says it is taking the foot of government off universities. To an extent, this is an exception to that principle," Dr Withers said. "We take our autonomy very seriously."

Talks involving UA, the academic union, the Australian Research Council and the NHMRC have backed reform. But it is not yet clear precisely what would trigger an intervention by the board. The ARC's chief executive Margaret Sheil said: "I think you have to let the institutional processes run their course unless there was a scenario where the institution just wasn't acting."

The term serious misconduct normally called to mind the serious outcome for a wrongdoer - dismissal - but it also could point to the serious consequences flowing from dishonest medical research, Professor Sheil said.

Susan Dodds, philosophy professor at the University of Tasmania and an authority on ethics, said there was a lot at stake. "The public credibility of our own work depends on the public believing that researchers do the right thing," she said. She said the twin benefits of a national board would be more consistency in complaint-handling and less risk of conflicts of interest.

Professor Vaux said the new system should extend beyond universities and projects funded by the ARC and the NHMRC to cover published research bankrolled by the private sector or charities. He said he believed Australia had a serious problem with research misconduct. "I've seen things in published journal articles (for example, suspect images of cell lines in life science reports) where I can conceive of no other explanation," he said. Professor Vaux said tasks for a new research integrity body could include data collection, thereby settling the dispute about the extent of research misconduct, as well as keeping internal complaint handling honest by taking appeals.

Robert Graham, president of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes, said the proposed board seemed "a step in the right direction". The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in Sydney, which he directs, had just reviewed its own internal system. "We all worry about (research misconduct). A critical issue is when to refer (a case) outside. From my perspective as director, the sooner you get it outside the better." This was because an institution handling complaints against its own too readily appeared to be like "a fox in the chicken coop," Professor Graham said.


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