Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Too much of a “good thing”

Even if the "stimulus" package doesn't seem to be doing much to stimulate the economy, it is certainly stimulating many potential recipients of government money to start lining up at the trough. All you need is something that sounds like a "good thing" and the ability to sell the idea.

A perennial "good thing" is education. So it is not surprising that leaders of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities have come out with an assertion that "the U.S. should set a goal of college degrees for at least 55 percent of its young adults by 2025."

Nothing is easier in politics than setting some arbitrary goal— preferably based on numbers— and go after it, in utter disregard of the costs or the repercussions. That is how we got into the housing boom and bust, by mindlessly pursuing ever-higher statistics of home ownership. The same political game can be played by making ever higher miles per gallon the goal for automobiles, ever more "open space," ever more— you name it.

Sometimes these open-ended political crusades can be given some semblance of rationality by referring to other countries that have bigger numbers in whatever is the goal du jour.

The representatives of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities point to the fact that, in countries like Canada, Korea and Japan, "more than 50 percent of young adults hold college degrees" while only 41 percent do in the United States.

No reason is given why one of these numbers is better than another. Apparently the implicit assumption is that education is a "good thing" that it is always better to have more of. But, if that is the case, why 55 percent rather than 75 percent, 95 percent or 100 percent?

Even food is not a "good thing" categorically, without limit. We can't live without it but, beyond some point, it causes obesity and shortens our lives.

A certain amount of education is undoubtedly very beneficial for some people but, at some point, enough is enough, even for geniuses. For each individual, depending on that individual's interests and dedication as well as ability, the time comes to leave the classroom and go out into the real world.

It is not just dummies who reach the point when it makes sense for them to "drop out" of education. Michael Dell of Dell computers and Bill Gates of Microsoft both dropped out of college, and neither of them seems to be doing badly.

Given the composition of the population as it is— which is always what we have to start with— what evidence is there that too few or too many are going to college?

As someone who spent years teaching at colleges and universities for students who ranked in the country's top 10 percent, I nevertheless encountered many students whose interest in intellectual matters was less than overwhelming, to put it charitably.

Many were bright enough but often gave the impression that they would rather be somewhere else, doing something else. Some of their teachers also thought that they should be somewhere else, doing something else.

During my first semester of teaching, my grading standards caused most students like that to transfer out by the second semester. Teaching the other students during the second semester was a sheer joy and I continued to get letters from them over the years, even after I had moved on to other institutions. In other words, the departure of the dead wood made the class better.

Far weightier evidence than anecdotal personal experiences, however, are the statistics on how many students actually graduate. The American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think-tank, has recently published statistics on what percent of a given college's students manage to graduate in the course of six years.

There are colleges where at least four-fifths of the students graduate in that time and other colleges where at least four-fifths of the students fail to graduate in that time.

Considering the enormous costs of maintaining a student in college— whether that cost is paid by parents, the taxpayers, or the students themselves— an open-ended call for "more" seems like too many other open-ended commitments that have run up record national debts without any corresponding benefits.


Tenure and Academic Freedom

College campuses display a striking uniformity of thought.

All over the country, colleges and universities are feeling the financial crunch: Endowments are down, students can't afford to pay tuition, and some state legislatures are even trimming higher-education budgets. Unfortunately, thanks to the recent ruling of a judge in Colorado, some college administrators have just lost one way to keep their costs under control.

In 2003, the board of trustees of the Metropolitan College of Denver -- a public school in Colorado -- changed the school's handbook to make it easier to lay off tenured faculty in case of financial exigency. Under the current system at Metro College and elsewhere, some professors who have been at an institution for a period of about seven years are eligible for a job for life. They can technically be fired for gross misbehavior or incompetence. But once they've been granted tenure, a university is generally stuck with these teachers. And paying the salaries of tenured professors can add up, especially when a professor may no longer be teaching many classes either because of laziness or lack of student interest in his or her field.

In response to the handbook change, five Metro College professors sued. They claimed that the terms of their employment had been significantly altered. The state district court ruled in favor of the trustees. That decision was appealed -- with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) filing an amicus brief -- and in 2007 a state appeals court ordered a new trial. In its brief, the AAUP argued that "depriving the tenured faculty of a preference in retention places the tenured faculty at greater risk of being singled out" because of an administrator's or trustee's dislike for his teaching or research, or for positions taken on public issues.

The results of that new trial came down earlier this month. Rather than simply deciding that the change in the handbook altered what was a "vested right" of the professors, Denver District Judge Norman D. Haglund ruled that "the public interest is advanced more by tenure systems that favor academic freedom over tenure systems that favor flexibility in hiring or firing." He also noted that "by its very nature, tenure promotes a system in which academic freedom is protected."

Talk about judicial overreach. But does tenure, as the judge argues, actually protect academic freedom?

In the AAUP's 1915 Declaration of Principles, progressive educator John Dewey wrote that "if education is the cornerstone of the structure of society and progress in scientific knowledge is essential to civilization, few things can be more important than to enhance the dignity of the scholar's profession." That dignity, Dewey explained, was to be enhanced by tenure. To protect academics from arbitrary dismissal, as well as to attract smart people to the profession, schools offered a certain amount of job security.

But higher education has changed a lot in the past hundred years. And while there is no doubt that schools like Metro College serve a useful function -- teaching vocational skills and offering remedial classes to students who have failed to get a decent K-12 education -- its faculty is not exactly in the business of passing on knowledge essential to civilization. Some of the courses taught this year by the professors who sued include American Baseball History and Business Statistics. The school even offers a nutrition major. These are all fields of study that have fairly definitive answers. Faculty members don't really need the freedom to ask controversial questions in discussing them.

But what about those teachers who are pursuing higher truths? Has tenure really protected their ability to question and research freely? For the most part, no.

The truth is that tenure has served as an instrument of conformity since tenure votes are often glorified popularity contests. The fact that university professors donated to President Obama's campaign over John McCain's by a margin of eight to one is only the tip of the iceberg. Those professors who want tenure and disagree with the prevailing trends in their field -- or the political fashions outside of it -- know that they must keep their mouths shut for at least the first seven years of their careers.

Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield once famously advised a conservative colleague to wait until he had tenure and only then to "hoist the Jolly Roger." But few professors are getting around to hoisting the Jolly Roger at all. Either they don't have a viewpoint that is different from their colleagues, or they've decided that if they are going to remain at one place for several decades, they'd rather just get along.

Is tenure to blame for the unanimity of thinking in American universities? It's hard to tell. But shouldn't the burden of proof be on the people who want jobs for life?


Australia: Queensland teachers can fail literacy, numeracy test

Talk about the blind leading the blind! It's bad enough that some kids go right through primary school without learning to read and write but having teachers that bad is really the end of the road. It shows how desperate the government is to find people willing to stand up in front of an undisciplined mob day after day

Graduate teachers will be allowed to repeatedly fail a new test of their literacy and numeracy skills and still be let loose in Queensland classrooms. The State Government will not cap the number of times the test can be taken and will register graduates as teachers as long as they eventually pass. The landmark new test, recommended by education expert Geoff Masters, is being introduced to improve the low standards of Queensland students.

Premier Anna Bligh said it was fair to allow graduates to sit the test repeatedly because they may be sick [Sheet! No matter how sick I am I can still spell!] or have other excuses for their poor showing. "I don't anticipate there would be any limit on the number of times someone can sit, as long as they can ultimately meet the standard," Ms Bligh said. "I think we understand that there are sometimes reasons why people don't do well in tests. They might know the information but might not be well that day. "You would still want to give them the opportunity to demonstrate that, but it wouldn't be the same test."

The Government is yet to figure out what would constitute a pass mark for the tests [It will undoubtedly be low], which will judge proficiency in literacy, numeracy and science. However, a trial will be conducted next year before the official introduction of testing for primary school teaching graduates at the end of 2011 at the earliest. Tests for high-school teaching graduates will be introduced at a later date.

Current teachers will avoid the tests but those transferring from interstate will have to sit the exam before they can practise in Queensland. The Queensland College of Teachers will be responsible for developing and administering the tests.

In his report, Professor Masters found there had been an "absolute decline" in literacy and numeracy between 2004 and 2007. Meanwhile, teachers are ramping up their campaign for higher pay, with a vote today likely to call for further industrial action. The Government has offered teachers a 12.5 per cent pay increase over three years. However, the union has insisted the amount was unacceptable. [The government should fire the lot of them and bring in local retired people to teach. They would know a lot more than the current crop of teachers]


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