Saturday, July 25, 2009

Naval Academy Professor Challenges School's Push for Diversity

Of the 1,230 plebes who took the oath of office at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis this week, 435 were members of minority groups. It's the most racially diverse class in the academy's 164-year history. Academy leaders say it is a top priority to build a student body that reflects the racial makeup of the Navy and the nation. The service academy has almost twice as many black, Hispanic and Asian midshipmen as it did a decade ago. Much of the increase has occurred in the past two years, with a blitz of 1,000 outreach and recruitment events across the country.

But during the past two weeks, a faculty member has stirred debate by suggesting that the school's quest for diversity comes at a price. Bruce Fleming, a tenured English professor, said in a June 14 opinion piece in the Capital newspaper of Annapolis that the academy operates a two-tiered admission system that makes it substantially easier for minority applicants to get in. Academy leaders strenuously deny Fleming's assertion. Fleming served on the academy's admissions board several years ago.

The debate, fanned on talk radio and blogs, comes as the Naval Academy and many other colleges and universities are striving to build diversity without resorting to quotas or formulas that might be found unconstitutional. A 2003 Supreme Court decision upheld diversity as a goal but encouraged universities to consider applicants as individuals, a philosophy embraced by the Naval Academy and much of the higher education community.

Fleming says the increase in minority enrollment at the academy has brought in students with lower grades and SAT scores who need more remedial classes and are less capable of the scholarship for which the academy is known. "First of all, we're dumbing down the Naval Academy," Fleming said in an interview. "Second of all, we're dumbing down the officer corps."

Academy leaders say the school has diversified with no loss of scholarship. Incoming freshmen of every race ranked near the top of their senior class in grade-point average and test scores, according to academy records. The academy admitted fewer than 10 percent of the African Americans and Hispanics who applied for admission to the Class of 2013 and a similar share of whites.

This class we inducted yesterday may be the most talented overall that we have ever brought into the Naval Academy," said William Miller, academic dean and provost of the academy. "We have increased the standards, rather than dumbing them down."

Fleming's broadside has lit up military blogs and message boards and prompted inquiries from the academy's governing board about the integrity of the admissions process. The professor has spoken on Laura Ingraham's conservative radio talk show and fielded a steady stream of e-mails from students, most of whom are spending the summer on ships and bases in far-flung locales.

"I think that diversity is a good thing," Erick Meckle, a third-year midshipman, said in an e-mail to The Washington Post from Europe. "However, if the selection process for applicants is based solely on skin color rather than raw talents, then of course it's not fair."

Fleming said he was moved to raise the issue when he saw the dramatic rise in minority first-year students, or plebes, this summer. Fleming served on the academy's admissions board seven years ago and said he participated in a process that blatantly favored minority applicants. To win the admissions board's approval at that time, he said, a white applicant had to present SAT section scores higher than 600 (out of 800); a transcript of A's and B's; and a strong background of leadership in sports and student life, reflected in a four-digit score called the whole-person multiplier. Black and Hispanic students were routinely admitted with SAT scores in the 500s; with B's and C's; and lower whole-person multipliers, he said.

Miller said Fleming's account is "not the way the admissions board works," although he would not speak about "how it worked seven years ago." Admissions Dean Bruce Latta said admissions is "a single process," with every applicant considered as an individual. A star student from a low-income community might get credit for overcoming adversity. "It's a whole-person assessment on every person," Latta said.

Anthony Principi, a former secretary of veterans affairs who is chairman of the academy oversight group known as the Board of Visitors, said he inquired about the constitutionality of the admissions process after reading Fleming's comments. "I think it would survive a constitutional challenge," he said.

Fleming said some academy admission data support his claim. The share of plebes who scored less than 600 on the SAT math test was 22 percent this year, up from 12 percent in the Class of 2008. The number of freshmen coming from the academy's one-year preparatory program, designed for remedial studies, was 244 this year, the highest figure in at least 10 years. The data are not classified by race.

On the other hand, 76 percent of the Class of 2013 came from the top fifth of their high school classes [but which high schools? Being top of a mostly black high school could mean very little], about the same proportion as a decade ago.


Education is increasingly a road to nowhere in socialist Britain

"Any luck?" I ask my daughter, as she returns from her latest foray into town. Her glum face gives the answer. She is leaving school today and, in October, will be going to university – Oxford, if she gets the grades she needs. In a perfect world, she would get a summer job, earn some money, then go travelling for a few weeks. But not much about the world is perfect these days. That low-paid summer job is proving far more elusive than a place at university.

In the recession-hit Cotswolds, where she lives, the temporary jobs in shops and pubs and cafés are just not there, or have already been taken, probably by someone from Warsaw or Tallinn. She touts around her neatly typed CV, littered with As and A*s, but nobody wants to know. "Sorry, luv. Perhaps at Christmas..."

Friends with children in a similar position have the same story to tell. The son of a friend in Wimbledon is typical. After weeks of rejection, he thought he had finally got lucky when he spotted a vacancy in a Vietnamese restaurant. "I'm sorry, we only recruit Vietnamese." "But I thought that was illegal," he stammered, drawing on his A-level politics and economics. "It's how we do things here," came the reply.

Even at the All England Club, where skilled labour is needed to pour Pimm's into a glass without spilling it, 20 per cent fewer catering staff were recruited this year. Not even the Andy Murray magic can generate jobs in the depths of a recession. If the Scot couldn't play tennis, he would probably be out of work himself.

Youth unemployment is at its highest for 16 years, rising to 726,000 in the three months to the end of May, a quarterly increase of 95,000, according to figures released yesterday. Earlier this month it was reported that, among 16 to 24 year-olds, the Murray generation, the number of Neets in the UK is about to pass a million for the first time. Neets – and it is a term we are going to hear a lot more – is government jargon for young people "not in education, employment or training". The forgotten underclass.

A MILLION? It is a terrifying statistic, when you think about it. That is an awful lot of wasted, stunted, frustration-filled lives. It is hard not to link it to another statistic unveiled this week – that the UK has the worst record of violent crime of any country in the EU. Perhaps David Cameron's talk of a broken society is not so exaggerated after all.

If the plight of children leaving school at 16 without a GCSE to their name is grim, the plight of those like my daughter, armed to the teeth with GCSEs but unable to find the most menial work, is equally depressing – if not more so.

All through their childhoods, they have been sold the same dream – by their parents, by their teachers, by the government. That, if they buckle down at school and take their studies seriously, it will be worth their while in the long run. That their hard work will be rewarded with a place at university and a well-paid job.

The dream may not be in tatters, but it has frayed so badly around the edges that it is not surprising so many young people have become cynical and disaffected. Life is not always fair: we imbibe that lesson in our mother's milk. But if reasonable expectations are consistently and savagely disappointed, why bother to try to better yourself at school and university?

Education, education, education, said Tony Blair. Perhaps he should have said unemployment, unemployment, unemployment. Data from the Higher Education Standards Authority released this week indicates that, of those who graduated last summer, eight per cent were still out of work six months later.

The ones with vocational degrees such as medicine are all right. The poor lambs who thought reading history or philosophy or computer sciences would boost their career prospects have had a rude awakening. They are just itching to get their feet under a desk, any desk, so they can pay off those five-figure student loans, but they are having to wait. And wait. And wait.

Young people have time on their side, of course, and with the recession affecting all sections of society, unemployed graduates are no more deserving of sympathy than carmakers or engineers who have been made redundant in their early 50s. But the souring of young dreams, particularly when those dreams are rooted in legitimate aspirations and backed up by hard work, is particularly corrosive. It jeopardises all our futures. Without the optimism of youth, what hope is there of building a stronger economy or a fairer society?

There is not going to be much youthful optimism on view this summer; in fact, school-leavers will be caught between a rock and a hard place. Jobs are in such short supply that they are applying for university in record numbers; but with only a small increase in the number of places available, an estimated 60,000 teenagers will be turned away from university in September and, in most cases, have to join the dole queue.

Even the lucky ones who get university places are caught in an economic vice of frightening rigidity. Student grants and loans are going to be frozen next year, while tuition fees rise. To make ends meet, the students are going to have to grub around for part-time jobs, which will be in short supply or, in Vietnamese restaurants, zero per cent supply, to paraphrase the Prime Minister.

As summer turns to autumn, the students who have managed to avoid swine flu will find themselves riddled with financial insecurity and self-doubt. What are they doing at university in the first place? Where is it all leading? Will that degree be worth anything in the outside world?

Then, next spring in all likelihood, the final indignity. The first general election at which they can vote. Their first chance to have a say at the ballot box about the sort of Britain they want to live in. But why bother to vote? The sins of New Labour are just part of an age-old malaise: politicians promising a better education for all, then dashing the hopes they have so recklessly raised.

If the young took to the streets, as they have in Iran, their anger might be a harbinger of better times ahead. As it is, they seem, in all too many cases, to have succumbed to disillusion and apathy.

Yesterday afternoon, I was walking along the canal in Oxford when I saw a couple of young men perched on top of a bridge, moodily throwing stones into the water. Their faces were pale and sullen and they scowled at me as I approached. There was a trail of lager cans and cigarette ends beside them.

Town or gown? Town, I would have said, without hesitation, 12 months ago. They had the anger of the long-term unemployed about them. They were not throwing stones into the water for fun: they were throwing them to let off steam. Then I overheard one of them talking about Euripides. So not town, gown. Students at a world-famous university. The top of the educational tree.

And if life at the top of the tree is that bad, what chance for those clinging to the lower branches?


Revolutionary idea: New policies should be pretested to see how well they actually work

Not that it would matter much in education. Destructive policies (like the enmity to phonics) are clung to even AFTER we know that they are failures

Schools, courts and police forces need a revolution in evidence-based thinking to prevent taxpayers’ money being wasted on unworkable schemes, according to a leading scientist.

Professor Jonathan Shepherd, a surgeon and criminologist, says that the education and criminal justice systems fail to deliver the best results because policies are not researched properly.

All of the public services need to develop a research culture similar to that in medicine, where treatments must be tested for effectiveness and value before they are adopted.

Policing tactics, teaching techniques and sentencing would benefit from a the same kind of rigorous assessment, but are rarely subject to scientific analysis, he told The Times.

Professor Shepherd, of Cardiff University, is calling for more investment in public sector research and advocates a partnership between practitioners and universities so that policy ideas can be put to the test. The looming squeeze on public spending made sound research even more critical to ensure scarce funding is directed towards proven policies.

“All these choices about spending should be based on evidence, rather than relying on opinion and fashion,” he said. “We need to acknowledge in these straitened times that applied science is a national need.”

His approach has won support from senior scientists and MPs, including Sir David King, the Government’s former chief scientific adviser, Phil Willis, the chairman of the Commons Science Select Committee, and Sir Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust. Sir David said: “I’m very supportive. My entire experience of Whitehall could be described as a struggle to try to get an evidence base into policymaking. We have a knowledge base in our universities but no real commitment to push it into public policymaking and delivery.”

Sir Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, agreed but said there were often practical difficulties. “I’m all for having as much evidence-based policy as possible,” he said. “That is something the whole Professional Skills for Government agenda is geared towards.Part of the problem is when you think about the kind of evidence you need about policies, it’s hard to get.” Professor Shepherd, a maxillofacial surgeon, has pioneered the use of health research to reduce crime, for instance, demonstrating that toughened pub glasses lead to fewer injuries because they do not break into sharp pieces if a fight breaks out.

His team has also used accident and emergency admissions data to map violence hotspots in Cardiff and inform targeted policing. Last year he won the Stockholm Prize, the equivalent of a Nobel prize in criminology. He is now campaigning for other public services to learn similar lessons about the value of research and evidence.

“There’s a huge contrast between health and the other public services in the amount of evidence there is as to what works and what doesn’t,” he said. “We need to ask, what’s the evidence that what this teacher is doing in this primary school is the most effective option and the most cost-effective?”

While hospitals routinely abandon ineffective treatments, such as prophylactic removal of wisdom teeth, he said that this rarely happened in other public services. “I don’t see a similar history of evidence-based disinvestment in the other public services,” Professor Shepherd said. “It’s hard to think of a police intervention that’s been abandoned for this reason.”

A further problem is that academics who investigate education or crime rarely work as teachers or police officers, which creates barriers between research and practice. “When you become a lecturer in a department of education, that’s the day you stop teaching,” he said. “Contrast that with health. If you’re a lecturer in a department of surgery or a dental school, you keep practising. The huge advantage is you have your feet on the ground. Your clinical practice informs your research and research informs your practice.

“I want to see practitioner academics and chief superintendents with a PhD. It’s time for universities to invade the criminal justice and education systems. Innovation stems from practitioners asking ‘Can we do better?’ — and then doing the research.”

Professor Shepherd is calling for a public services research board, which would establish funding mechanisms for research into the public services and oversee training of practitioneracademics. He has presented his ideas to Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, and Adam Afriyie, his Tory shadow.

Mr Willis, whose committee will publish a report on the Government’s use of policy next week, said Professor Shepherd’s ideas were particularly important given the parlous state of the public finances. “Over the next ten years, if things are going to be pared to the bone it’s going to be crucial to base policy on evidence,” he said.


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