Monday, August 17, 2009

American higher education is sliding lower and lower

You may have heard about Trina Thompson. Unable to find work, she's suing her alma mater, Monroe College, to recover $70,000 in tuition. The Thompson case may not turn out to be the precedent-setter that some theorize, because Monroe makes unusually bold promises to students about post-college success. But the sad truth is this: Practically all colleges are failing their students nowadays, and in most cases at far greater expense than Monroe failed Thompson.

Historically, criticism of education in America has targeted grade-school and secondary education. Indeed, perhaps the best thing about the K-12 is that in these polarized times, it is the great uniter: Maligned by liberals and conservatives, Christians and Jews, Red Sox fans and Yankee fans, and just about everyone else in the grand American cultural stew. Still, we take pride in the notion that when young adults get the chance to get through college, the doors of opportunity truly swing open. Our colleges and universities, we've been told again and again, are the envy of the world.

To the contrary, one might say that the philosophical rot that has long blighted primary education has now slowly and surely been admitted to college. This was inevitable. Today's typical college freshman is a product of the watered-down, "self-esteem-building" curriculum that emerged in the late 1960s and held sway over U.S. scholastic policy by the mid-'90s.

According to the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress, over 20% of those churned out by America's high schools are functional illiterates. Meanwhile, American students placed behind 16 of 30 nations in scientific literacy on a major international comparison, and behind 23 of 30 in math. What would make these subpar students suddenly able to handle the rigors of a demanding college regimen?

Though colleges aren't quite as overt in protecting students' feelings as K-12 schools, the same dynamic is visible in a wide array of "enlightened" policies, beginning with admissions criteria. We live in a "college is for everyone" world. Rather than drawing any bright shining lines between those who are ready for college and those who aren't, universities widely offer remedial courses to incoming students.

About 1 million freshmen per year - that's a third of all freshmen - need such crash courses, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Because some of these students never catch up, higher-level coursework often must be dumbed down.

Further, the very definition of what constitutes "a good education" has flexed from a set of time-honored expectations to the more accommodating paradigm known as "student-directed learning." Loath to force ill-prepared students to stretch by mandating a core sequence in math and science, most colleges permit them to concentrate in their major subjects and fluffy electives.

A 2004 study of 50 major colleges and universities found that half failed to require students to take a suite of core courses in such basic subject areas as math, science and economics - and a quarter required just one such core course or none at all.

Meanwhile, grades keep rising. Grade inflation is no news flash, but the magnitude of the problem startles. An exhaustive analysis by a former Duke University professor early this year showed that average GPAs at state-run colleges rose steadily over the past half-century and have now hit 3.0. The trendline is even more pronounced at private colleges; some elite schools boast collective GPAs approaching 4 - which is straight A's.

And yet - the final irony - none of these concessions is enough to ensure the successful completion of a four-year degree program. The dropout rate at U.S. colleges is a jaw-dropping 46%. Among free-world nations, only Mexico fares worse. It's time to stop kidding ourselves about the lower and lower quality of the higher education our young men and women are apt to receive.


Under Leftist rule, British high School students have become twice as smart (on paper)

Pupils with three A grades double under Labour. What does BritGov hope to gain by devaluing the qualifications they issue?

This week’s A-level results are set to bring a new row over grade inflation with a doubling in the proportion of pupils winning three straight A grades since Labour came to power. Research by the Commons library shows that in 1997, 14,065 candidates – 6.1% of the total – scored three As. Last year the total hit 31,100 – 12.1% of those who sat the exam. The proportion winning at least one A is expected to edge up for the 27th successive year when results are announced on Thursday, pushing the percentage winning three As over twice the figure for 1997.

Michael Gove, the shadow schools secretary, said: “The massive growth in candidates getting three As suggests standards are not being policed as rigorously as in the past.” He plans to overhaul GCSEs and A-levels by making papers more difficult and giving universities a role in setting them. He would also exclude vocational exams from academic league tables and give more points in tables to hard subjects such as physics than to softer ones such as media studies.

Evidence of A-level devaluation also comes in a new analysis by Professor Alan Smithers of Buckingham University. He has compared results with those from the international baccalaureate (IB), an alternative to A-level studied at 196 British schools. In 1993 the pass rates of both were about the same, but a gap of 20% has since opened up, with A-level passes nearing 100%. “IB passes have fluctuated from 70%-80%, as you would expect if standards were being maintained,” Smithers said. “We are fooling ourselves if we believe these A-level rises mean education is getting better.”

Vernon Coaker, the schools minister, said: “The increased numbers of students with top marks should be a cause of celebration. There has been no dumbing down.”

At least 20,000 candidates are expected to be have no place after clearing, which starts on Thursday. A scheme to help those with better grades than predicted is set to flop because of lack of places. Such candidates can upgrade their university if they find a space. It was intended to help bright candidates from disadvantaged families whose grades are most likely to be underpredicted.

John Dunford, of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “If such students are frustrated in their search for a place at top universities, the conclusion must be that institutions are not committed to helping them.” [It's not that the government failed to fund places for all qualified students??]


British education agencies are not raising standards, says think-tank

The salary of the chief inspector at Ofsted has risen by 70 per cent since 2002 and overall staffing costs at the school inspectorate have increased by more than a third. A report, which calls for the abolition of two thirds of the government agencies that deal with education, claims that more than a billion pounds has been spent on the taxpayer-funded quangos with little evidence that they have raised standards in schools.

The Centre for Policy Studies urges reform of the main organisations, including Ofsted, the General Teaching Council and the School Food Trust.

David Laws, the schools spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: “At a time when public finances are being squeezed, we must ask if these quangos are necessary.”

The Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA), the Training and Development Agency for Schools and the Government’s technology agency, Becta, are among those that should be abolished, researchers at the right-of-centre think tank said. While politicians of all parties had made repeated calls for a reduction in the size and number of quangos, little had been done, the report said.

The research analysed 11 education quangos receiving public funding totalling £1.2 billion in 2007-08. In the last year, the cost to the taxpayer of these organisations has increased by 12 per cent. The report recommended a programme of reform that would remove seven of the bodies and overhaul the others. It said: “There is no evidence that the performance of the quangos has matched the growth in their budgets.”

The Department for Children, Schools and Families’ annual report in 2008 revealed that productivity in UK education had fallen by 0.7 per cent a year between 2000 and 2006.

The authors of the report argue that the new QCDA (formerly the QCA) should be scrapped and replaced by a small Curriculum Advisory Board, with the aim of freeing schools from centralised control in the national curriculum. Plans by ministers to abolish national strategies and “repeated” fiascos in the Sats exams, showed the failure of the QCA, it said. A new advisory board would be responsible for creating a broad, voluntary curriculum for schools, which would be mandatory only for those that were failing.

Ofsted should be revamped and returned to its original function as an inspectorate focusing on failing schools. Its remit to inspect children’s services should be given to another organisation, the report said. Christine Gilbert, the chief inspector at Ofsted, earns £230,000 a year, say researchers, an increase of 70 per cent on the salary in 2002. Staffing numbers at Ofsted have fallen by 48 since 2002 but costs per head for each member of staff have increased by 38 per cent. The programme of reform would cut Government spending by £633 million.


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