Saturday, January 30, 2010

A responsible choice

Fiscal crises demand efficiency in education

In his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed spending another $4 billion annually on K–12 public education. He did not mention that state, local, and federal governments already spend well over twice what they did in 1980, or that there has been no discernible improvement in student achievement during that period.

Especially in the current economic climate, the president would have been better served backing a policy with a proven record of improving achievement and saving money: school choice.

State and local budgets are in sorry shape. States came up more than $158 billion short of projected tax revenue when planning their budgets for 2010 last year, and as the economy deteriorated and tax revenue plummeted more quickly than expected, nearly $34 billion was added to the tab. Together, these shortfalls add up to the largest gap on record — 28 percent of general-fund budgets for 2010. And the near future looks even bleaker than the present.

As unemployment remains high and home prices continue to fall or stagnate, states are facing an estimated shortfall of $180 billion for 2011 and another $120 billion for 2012. Compounding the growing problems at the state and local levels, federal stimulus funds used this year and next to close shortfalls will evaporate. And most states' reserves were tapped long ago.

K–12 schooling is the biggest item on state and local budgets. Judging by the 2005–06 totals from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), state and local governments now spend well over $500 billion each year on public K–12 education. The Bush and Obama administrations have overseen a startling increase in the federal involvement in and funding of K–12 education, but the federal government provides just 9 percent of education funds, compared with 44 percent from local sources and 47 percent from states.

State governments spent 35 percent of their general funds on K–12 education in 2007, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers. In contrast, Medicaid — which is continually singled out as a problematic state-budget item, even though most Medicaid funds come from the federal government — accounted for just 17 percent of general-fund expenditures. Combined, state and local governments spend 27 cents of every dollar they collect on public K–12 education system, but only 8 cents on Medicaid.

The amount we spend on education has increased dramatically and consistently over the past century, with a 25 percent increase in per-pupil expenditures, in constant dollars, between 1995 and 2005 alone. This upward trajectory shows no sign of flagging, with total state education spending increasing even during this serious recession, and amidst plummeting tax revenue, with the assistance of federal stimulus funds. The White House reports that elementary- and secondary-education spending at the state level increased from just over $228 billion in 2007–08 to $236 billion the next, leveling off at $235 billion for 2009–10.

And yet student achievement has been stagnant since the 1970s. There is little evidence that increased spending, especially at the federal level, has any impact on long-term student outcomes. Indeed, a recent, rigorous, government-sponsored study of the federal Head Start program — the Holy Grail of public programs aimed at boosting long-term student achievement — discerned no positive effect on student outcomes past the first grade.

Meanwhile, ten similar studies show decisively that school choice works. Nine of the studies found statistically significant positive impacts on at least some students. None found a negative effect. The latest results from the Washington, D.C., voucher program show that children in the program for three years read more than two grade-levels ahead of those who applied but didn't win the voucher lottery.

Even small and restricted school-choice programs save taxpayers millions a year: $32 million under an existing program in Milwaukee; $39 million in Florida; and more than $531 million in Pennsylvania. Larger programs that give all families access to vouchers could save billions of dollars every year while greatly improving education.

The evidence is staring the Obama administration in the face: States, local governments, and taxpayers can't afford not to have school choice.


Free speech on campus? Yes. A free ride? No

There should be full freedom of speech for ‘extremists’ in British universities – and also for those who want to slate or ridicule them

In our era of dumbing down, where the academy risks turning from a hotbed of Platonic debate and Truth-seeking into a conveyor belt that churns out jobsworths, it isn’t often one can agree with the words uttered by a university provost. But yesterday Malcolm Grant of University College London (UCL) made a statement that spiked can get behind. In response to claims that the ‘Pants bomber’, Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab, was radicalised during his spell as a student at UCL, and therefore that ‘extremist speech’ on campus should be curtailed, Grant said it is not a university’s job to ‘police’ its students’ beliefs or speech.

‘We must continue to regard students as adults’, he said. ‘Campuses should be safe homes for controversy, argument and debate.’ Hear hear. In defending the free exchange of ideas on campus, Grant is taking a stand for rigour and honesty in university life against the anti-extremist camp that wants students to be protected from ideas judged to be too ‘toxic’. One of the academics concerned about extremism says that when universities ‘tolerate on their campuses organisations which seek to radicalise, they hammer another nail in the coffin of the idea of higher education’. In fact, banning organisations on the basis that their ideas are dangerous and that students are easily brainwashed would be the real funeral pyre of higher education, turning universities into thought-policing institutions and redefining students as overgrown children.

Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian-born rich boy who allegedly tried to blow up a jet flying from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day with explosives hidden in his underpants, studied at UCL from 2005 to 2008. He was president of UCL’s Islamic Society which often held meetings to discuss (and denounce) the ‘war on terror’. He helped to organise a ‘War on Terror Week’ which included debates such as ‘Jihad or Terrorism?’. Radical Islamist preachers and members of the controversial Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir spoke at UCL while Abdulmutallab was there, and this has led some to argue that UCL, by tolerating such discussions, was ‘complicit’ in the failed Christmas Day bombing and that there should now be tighter controls on who can speak in universities.

There are many problems with the demand to curtail so-called inflammatory speech. First, it transforms the university from a place where asking questions (yes, even off-the-wall questions) is positively encouraged, where students are provided with access to Knowledge and the space in which to interrogate and doubt such Knowledge, into a place where only certain, non-extreme, vetted ideas are allowed to leak on to campus and into students’ heads. And that can, and already has, led to the exclusion not only of Isalmist rants but also of other ideas considered dangerous these days: climate change ‘denial’, alternative views of history, lecturers who are too right-wing or too left-wing. Erecting an intellectual forcefield around universities changes the whole nature of university life, turning it into a place where students are provided with nuggets of wisdom, the correct ideas and thoughts, rather than a place that nurtures a way of thinking, independent thought, the sharing of Knowledge through expertise but also through debate and interaction.

Second, filtering out ‘extremism’ infantilises students. University is meant to be an arena where boys become men and girls become women, demonstrating an ability to think, work and act independently as well as with professors and other students. The academy is built on the idea not only that its students are thirsty for Knowledge but that they are also capable of weighing it up and understanding it; that is, their minds are healthy and robust. The expulsion of ‘extremism’, by contrast, sends the message that students are fragile creatures, with minds like sponges, who might be easily swayed by some loony cleric or Holocaust denier. One reporter said of Abdulmutallab’s ‘War on Terror Week’, ‘It was brainwashing’. This is a judgement not so much on the nonsense that Abdulmutallab’s speakers were no doubt spouting but more fundamentally on students’ own ability to decipher right from wrong, Knowledge from gibberish. The censorship of so-called extremism would denigrate the very idea of the student.

And third, trying to shut up hotheaded Islamists is an extraordinary displacement activity. It is true, as spiked has argued many times, that al-Qaeda-style terrorists are more likely to be radicalised in the West than in Kabul, Kandahar or Baghdad, where the disastrous ‘war on terror’ is still focused. The evidence shows that most wannabe Muslim martyrs are middle-class, well-educated and tend to be either from Western cities or to have lived and studied in them. Often they seem more influenced by the woe-is-me politics of victimhood and identity than by Taliban-style traditionalism. Yet chasing the preachers who might possibly exacerbate such feelings is about avoidance: instead of getting to grips with what is missing in, or wrong with, Western society, to the extent that some young people are drawn towards shallow anti-Westernism and reject the ‘evils of integration’, such censorship pins the blame for social problems on a handful of men in frocks. It discourages open, honest debate; it leaves burning political issues unresolved.

For these reasons, Malcolm Grant’s comments are welcome. However, while it is sweet relief to hear a provost defend freedom of thought and speech, it is also worth asking what lies behind the idea today that ‘Colleges must let extremists speak’, as the front page of the London Evening Standard declared yesterday, reporting Grant’s comments as if they were shocking and disturbing. Because often, I fear, the ‘let the extremists speak’ argument springs not from an unflinching commitment to freedom of speech but rather from a deep-seated crisis of authority in the modern academy. It seems to me that it is not so much universities’ love of openness and rigour that leads them sometimes to tolerate extremists but rather their doubt about what is True, what is Right, what is Good, so that they provide platforms to all-comers who might have something ‘valid’ to say. It is relativism that underpins the tolerance of ‘extremists’, rather than freedom. And we should insist that having free speech on campus does not mean giving everyone a free ride. In fact it means the opposite.

That relativism has been elevated over liberty can be seen in the fact that at the same time that more ‘extremists’ are allegedly running riot on campus, there are more and more codes of speech governing the extent to which other people can question, ridicule or mock these ‘extremists’, or even moderate religious and political speakers. At the end of last year I was invited to debate the head of the UK wing of Hizb ut-Tahrir at Queen Mary Westfield College in London. But under pressure from censorious student groups and the university’s administration, the debate was banned. It was moved to the University of Westminster a couple of weeks later, and there, both me and the representative of Hizb ut-Tahrir were informed about what we could and could not say. The university’s religious affairs liaison – a white convert to Islam – told us that before being allowed to speak we would have to read a document telling us not to insult or ridicule anyone else’s religious beliefs, political affiliations, sexual preferences and so on.

I read it, and ignored it, and later got booed for saying ‘Sharia law is inferior to Enlightenment-derived laws’. Yet this experience reveals much about the crisis of freedom in British universities. In one serious London university a debate is banned outright because the ‘extremist’ might corrupt the pathetic students, and in another serious London university the debate is allowed to go ahead but is severely governed by informal codes designed to preserve ‘respect for identities’. Such codes now exist on campuses across the UK. The extremist is allowed to speak, but no one is really allowed to say to him: ‘You’re talking bollocks, mate, and here’s why…’ Such informal rules protecting all belief systems and granting equal weight to all lifestyle choices really demonstrate what lies behind the ‘let the extremists speak’ argument: a relativistic climate in which universities doubt whether it is their job to assert Truth with a capital T over madder, weirder small-t ‘truths’, and where what looks like free speech is actually something very different.

If a student at a British university starts believing that some radical form of Islam is ‘the Truth’, it is most likely as a result of this intellectual cowardice rather than the strength of conviction of some visiting preacher. It is the climate of non-debate, of listening and nodding along to everyone, that can make things seem like the Truth by default. This creation of a relativistic mishmash of equally valid views sells students short as surely as does the outright censorship of ‘extremists’: it, too, creates a climate of conformism and question-avoidance, where the extremists are allowed to speak but only because ‘everyone must be heard and treated with respect’.

John Stuart Mill said the Truth can only be worked out through free and open debate, and ‘on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right’ (6). Absolutely. That remains the essence of freedom of thought and freedom of speech. But Mill didn’t mean creating an unsightly, unchallengeable public parade of ‘many truths’ showing us their wares – he meant a rigorous arena in which everything is sayable and in which some ideas will inevitably be defeated and sidelined by other, better ones. Just such an atmosphere should prevail in British universities, rather than the dire choice between outright censorship or a relativistic pseudo-free-for-all that they are faced with today.


Australia: Traditional educational methods get results

WHEN you are already learning Sanskrit, Latin, Spanish and putting on a Shakespearean production each year, the national literacy and numeracy tests might seem like a cinch to children at John Colet School.

Gilbert Mane, the headmaster of the independent school in Belrose, which came sixth overall in a ranking of NSW primary schools based on results from NAPLAN tests, said the students also studied philosophy and meditation.

While other schools have abandoned traditional grammar, John Colet has maintained a strict approach. Its students also learn their times tables the old-fashioned way, by rote.

"Most of our parents are more interested in character building, spiritual values, our enriched curriculum and the overall care we take to build on every individual child's strengths and abilities," Mr Mane said.

"All our children, regardless of ability, study classical languages, philosophy and perform annually in a Shakespeare play. This raises the academic level naturally without the need to hothouse the children or 'teach to the test'."

Mr Mane said the 150 students shared a love of learning and were taught by a committed and passionate teaching staff. He was pleased with the results but warned parents against using them as the only measure of success.


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