Sunday, August 30, 2009

What Will They Learn?

by Walter E. Williams

When parents plunk down $20, $30, $40 and maybe $50 thousand this fall for a year's worth of college room, board and tuition, it might be relevant to ask: What will their children learn in return? The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) ask that question in their recently released publication, "What Will They Learn: A Report on the General Education Requirements at 100 of the Nation's Leading Colleges and Universities."

ACTA conducted research to see whether 100 major institutions require seven key subjects: English composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, mathematics and science. What ACTA found was found was alarming, reporting that "Even as our students need broad-based skills and knowledge to succeed in the global marketplace, our colleges and universities are failing to deliver. Topics like U.S. government or history, literature, mathematics, and economics have become mere options on far too many campuses. Not surprisingly, students are graduating with great gaps in their knowledge -- and employers are noticing."

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that only 31 percent of college graduates can read and understand a complex book. Employers complain that graduates of colleges lack the writing and analytical skills necessary to succeed in the workplace. A 2006 survey conducted by The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Society for Human Resource Management found that only 24 percent of employers thought graduates of four-year colleges were "excellently prepared" for entry-level positions. College seniors perennially fail tests of their civic and historical knowledge.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni graded the 100 surveyed colleges and universities on their general education requirements. Forty-two institutions received a "D" or an "F" for requiring two or fewer subjects. Twenty-five of them received an "F" for requiring one or no subjects. No institution required all seven. Five institutions received an "A" for requiring six general education subjects. They were Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, Texas A&M, University of Arkansas (Fayetteville), United States Military Academy (West Point) and University of Texas at Austin. Twenty institutions received a "C" for requiring three subjects and 33 received a "B" for requiring four or five subjects. ACTA maintains a website keeping the tally at

ACTA says that "paying a lot doesn't get you a lot." Generally, the higher the tuition, the less likely there are rigorous general education requirements. Average tuition and fees at the 11 schools that require no subjects is $37,700; however, average tuition at the five schools that require six subjects is $5,400. Average tuition fees at the top national universities and liberal arts colleges are $35,000 (average grade is "F").

Dishonest and manipulative college administrators might try to rebut the report saying, "We have general education requirements." At one major state university, students may choose from over 100 different classes to meet a history requirement. At other colleges, students may satisfy general education requirements with courses such as "Introduction to Popular TV and Movies" and "Science of Stuff." Still other colleges allow the study of "Bob Dylan" to meet a literature requirement and "Floral Art" to meet a natural science requirement.

ACTA's report concludes by saying that a coherent core reflects, in the words of federal judge Jose Cabranes, "a series of choices -- the choice of the lasting over the ephemeral; the meritorious over the meretricious; the thought-provoking over the merely self-affirming." A general education curriculum, when done well, is one that helps students "ensure that their studies -- and their lives -- are well-directed."

ACTA says that a recent study reports that 89 percent of institutions surveyed said they were in the process of modifying or assessing their programs. What these and other institutions need is for boards of trustees, parents and alumni to provide the necessary incentive to administrators and there's little more effective in opening the closed minds of administrators than the sounds of pocketbooks snapping shut.


Fewer than a quarter of British pupils get good High School passes in core subjects

Too many are doing "junk" subjects

Fewer than a quarter of children pass GCSEs with a good grade in all four important core subjects, according to figures released today by the Conservatives. Hundreds of thousands of teenagers will receive their GCSE results on Thursday, and results are expected to rise again. The percentage achieving five good GCSEs (A* to C) increased from 45 per cent in 1996 to 65 per cent last year.

However fewer than a quarter got a good grade last year in English, maths, science and a modern foreign language. This figure has fallen each year since 2001, from 30 per cent to 23.7 per cent. It means that almost 500,000 GCSE candidates each year do not get a core combination of passes, the Conservatives said.

Secondary school pupils no longer have to study a foreign language beyond the age of 14, and the number doing so is expected to have fallen again in this week’s results.

Nick Gibb, the Shadow Schools Minister, said:“These are the core academic subjects that are highly valued by universities and employers. The fact that the number of children attaining these GCSEs has fallen year on year since 2001 is a terrible indictment of the Government’s record.

“The environment children face upon leaving education has never been so competitive, which makes it even more important to reverse this trend and ensure that more pupils are equipped with the rigorous, academic knowledge and qualifications that will give them the best start in life.”

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: “It is misleading to use this combination of subjects as a benchmark of success for all pupils, as many choose not to study a foreign language.

“The true picture is that we have seen big increases in attainment in English, maths and sciences in recent years. The proportion of pupils achieving the equivalent of five good GCSEs including English and maths at 15 has continued to rise from 35.6 per cent in 1997 to 47.3 per cent last year.

“Nonetheless, measures are being put in place to boost language learning in schools.”


Western Australian schools are independent in name only

By Jennifer Buckingham

The WA government recently announced that it would be allowing up to 30 government schools (out of 768) to become ‘Independent Public Schools.’ These schools will have full management of their recurrent budget and will be given more authority over staffing appointments. They will allegedly have more flexibility in the curriculum up to Year 10 and will not have to apply to the education department for permission to expel students.

These are all good things for schools to be able to do. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to be enough to create any real change. Some people have wrongly compared this reform to the charter school model used in the United States. In fact, it is more like a small-scale version of the self-managing schools reforms that took place more than 10 years ago in Victoria.

Unlike charter schools, Independent Public Schools in Western Australia will still be subject to the state industrial award for teachers. Schools might be able to choose the best candidate when/if a teaching position becomes available, but they will have no greater powers to get rid of bad teachers. They will have no flexibility with teacher salaries, and mandatory maximum class sizes will still apply.

Again, unlike charter schools, freedom of choice of curriculum will be tightly constrained since the schools will still have to comply with the national curriculum due to be rolled out across the country next year. Independent Public Schools might be able to make the final decision on student expulsions, but they will still have to find another school for any child they want to exclude. They will also still be obliged to take all students from within their enrolment zone, meaning that families who would like to attend these schools can only do so if there are leftover places.

The risk is that these reforms will be used as evidence that school autonomy doesn’t work, when in fact this not school autonomy at all.

The WA education minister, Liz Constable, described the Independent Public Schools policy as ‘an historic leap forward’ for public education in the state. The WA government is to be applauded for taking schools policy in the direction of flexibility and freedom, but this is more of a step than a leap.

The above is part of a recent press release from the Centre for Independent Studies. Enquiries to Snail mail: PO Box 92, St Leonards, NSW, Australia 1590. Telephone ph: +61 2 9438 4377 or fax: +61 2 9439 7310

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