Saturday, January 23, 2010

So Your Freedom-loving Kid Is Going to College, How do you pick the right school?

Colleges, and especially college professors, take a beating from freedom lovers these days. And it isn’t without some desert. Organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education have documented all kinds of abuses of students’ rights by institutions and individuals in higher education. It is also clearly true that college faculty, at least at the major universities, are significantly to the political left of the American public and certainly no friends of the really free markets that The Freeman Online readers are likely to support. So what to do if you have a college-bound junior or senior in your house as the season of college visits marches on? Are there ways to try to make sure he or she has the best experience possible? There are, and in this week’s and next week’s column I’ll offer some suggestions.

One obvious choice is to attend a college with a reputation for being sympathetic to the freedom movement, such as Grove City or Hillsdale. Another choice is to attend a religious institution whose values parallel those of your son or daughter. These are a solution for some, but clearly not anywhere near a majority. What to do if your kid doesn’t want to go either of those routes?

Before even asking freedom-related questions, find schools that are good fits in all other relevant respects. Students do best when they go to colleges that feel right to them across a whole range of variables that have nothing to do with freedom issues. It would be a mistake for a young person to decide on a college only, or even predominantly, for its political environment. Many prominent libertarians are products of schools not so conducive to libertarian ideas. I went to the University of Michigan as an undergraduate, having already become a libertarian. I not only survived, I loved every minute of it.

One of the great advantages of attending a left-leaning school is that you get exposed to the best arguments that the opponents of free markets have to offer. I’m a much better scholar and much more able to interact with my professional colleagues on the left today for having been through that experience. As John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty, the only way to know how good your own arguments are is to expose them to dissenting views. (This, I should add, is also the downside of attending a school that has an explicit conservative or libertarian image — you don’t get exposed nearly as much to the best that others have to offer.)

In general, though, if you and your child are concerned about so-called “political correctness” and monolithic thinking by the faculty, there are a few things you should try to find out. First, how highly does the school value teaching and how much teaching do regular faculty do? Schools where teaching is rewarded and is done by the regular faculty (as opposed to graduate assistants or even temporary faculty) are much less likely to have the sorts of “classroom indoctrination” horror stories we read about. If you follow those stories, note how often the problematic faculty member is an adjunct (temporary faculty) or a graduate assistant. The indoctrination-oriented classroom is just bad teaching, and students know it and will complain about it on evaluations and in other forums. It will backfire on faculty. Really good teachers, even if they have strong views, know that trying to cram them down the throats of undergraduates makes for a really bad classroom and won’t work in any case.

Critics of left-leaning faculty don’t give young people enough credit. Most of them know indoctrination when they see it, and the last thing most of them want to do is adopt the beliefs of their elders. They just aren’t that conformist, as the parent of any teenager will tell you.

Even though I wouldn’t change my own undergraduate experience, 20 years of teaching at a small liberal-arts college has made me more of a believer in the value of those kind of schools than I ever was before. (And I’ve put my money where my mouth is: My own son attends a school that mostly falls into that category.) Liberal-arts colleges meet the criteria above much more so than larger state or private schools. It’s also worth noting that a number of U.S. liberal-arts colleges have recently become home to small groups of faculty associated with the Austrian school of economics. For students who care about freedom, these sorts of schools can often be good environments.


‘Stop deceiving British children with worthless qualifications’, says private school headteacher

The headmaster of Harrow has accused many state schools of deceiving children by entering them for “worthless” qualifications. Barnaby Lenon said that grade inflation and a shift to vocational qualifications was masking a failure to teach enough pupils to a good standard. “Let us not deceive our children, and especially children from poorer homes, with worthless qualifications so that they become like the citizens of Weimar Germany or Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, carrying their certificates around in a wheelbarrow,” he told a conference. “[Let’s not] produce people like those girls in the first round of The X Factor who tell us they want to be the next Britney Spears but can’t sing a note.”

He cited media studies as an example of a soft subject, for which many schools were keen to enter students because it was easier for them to get a good grade. The real route to a good job in one of the professions, he said, was good grades in traditional academic subjects such as maths, sciences and languages.

Mr Lenon, addressing a conference of leading independent and state school heads in Beckton, East London, attacked a report by Alan Milburn, the former Labour minister, on social mobility. He said that this should not be the primary objective of a good education system. “The main aim should be to educate every child really well to the standards that we see in places like Finland and Singapore in the knowledge that if you do that, of course, social mobility ought to be a by-product,” he said. “Making social mobility a main aim is a mistake in my view because it can so easily lead to dumbing down.”

Mr Lenon pointed to the abolition of CSEs and O levels in 1988, which was intended to end a two-tier school system and, he said, led to a fall in standards in education at 16, with a knock-on impact in A levels and universities. “If we want the brightest children from our poorest homes to fulfil their potential we must not deceive them with high grades in soft subjects or allow them to believe that going to any old uni to read any subject is going to be the path to prosperity, because it is not.”

For this reason independent schools had deliberately adopted harder qualifications such as the IGCSE, International Baccalaureate and Pre-U, he said.

Mr Lenon told the conference: “The road to social mobility is not a downhill stretch on an empty motorway; it’s an agonisingly steep path up a mountain whose summit is never quite in view.”

Addressing the same conference Michael Gove, the Shadow Schools Secretary, responded to criticism of his policy to prevent graduates with a third-class degree from training to be teachers with public funds. Mr Gove said that it was a fallacy to say his policy implied that those with higher degrees would automatically make good teachers. A good degree was only the first step and teachers needed an ability to continue to learn and to stimulate curiosity in others, he said.


Australian parents slap down teachers' union on school league tables

PUBLIC-school parents have expressed anger at a union-led campaign against league tables, accusing the NSW Federation of Parents and Citizens of failing to consult them and misrepresenting their views.

The NSW P&C Federation has joined with the Australian Education Union in warning of the detrimental effects of league tables and condemning a new website that allows direct comparison of schools' performances.

But there is concern among parents that the federation is too closely aligned to the NSW Teachers Federation and is pushing a union agenda that does not reflect the views of parents, who are in favour of greater transparency and accountability.

Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Julia Gillard will launch the website My School on Thursday, staring down teachers' threats this week to boycott national literacy and numeracy testing. The website will allow parents to compare the performance of schools in NAPLAN tests against those of statistically similar schools.

Pevlin Price, the outgoing president of the P&C association at Normanhurst High School, in Sydney's northwest, said many parents were strongly supportive of greater accountability by schools. "Are we going to push on without knowing what the facts are?" Mr Price said. "Who are we protecting? "I am really disappointed that the P&C has not consulted on this issue. If they asked every individual school P&C (for its view), they would have got a very different response."

David Ogilvie, a member of a P&C council at a primary school on Sydney's north shore, said many parents disagreed with the views expressed by the P&C Federation and were strongly supportive of the My School website. "I think generally parents think its a good idea," Mr Ogilvie said. "I personally don't understand the P&C Federation or the Teachers Federation's point of view. "The parents I have spoken to are more than impressed by the steps the government is taking here in terms of transparency. "I don't believe the argument that schools that aren't performing are going to be further disadvantaged. I think the reality should be quite the opposite -- that if these schools aren't performing then the Education Department and the ministers should be addressing the issue of why they are not performing."

The federal government does not support the creation of league tables but is unwilling to introduce measures to ban them.

The NSW Federation of P&Cs president Dianne Giblin said yesterday the data that would be available on the My School website would be simplistic and comparing schools would result in a narrowing of the curriculum.

Northern Sydney Regional Council of P&C Associations president David Hope said while he supported the position of the P&C Federation on league tables, he said the issue of accountability and transparency was far broader. "We need to ensure that the education system doesn't let down individual students or particular schools," he said.


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