Monday, March 29, 2010

The entitlement mentality in academia

Brian Leiter is incensed. Mr. Leiter — famous primarily for his website containing comparative rankings of philosophy programs, as well as his blog, which covers job-related news in academic philosophy — has recently learned that King's College, London (KCL) is facing budget problems and must cut back on staff. In order to assess the extent of layoffs, the school will require every faculty member to interview for their current position.

Leiter has kept his readers updated on the situation through his blog, and linked to The Times Higher Education's coverage of the event — which, in an article titled "'Draconian' measure: King's to cut 205 jobs," emphasizes how the cutbacks will affect the humanities and focuses on the reaction this has set off among academics:
A proposal on "restructuring" in the School of Arts and Humanities, where 22 jobs are at risk, tells staff that "all academic roles … will be declared at risk of redundancy."

Selection of the redundancies "will be done through an assessment based on the performance of each role holder," it adds.

A group of 26 academics from nearby University College London have written to the head of the school, Jan Palmowski, warning that such a "savage reduction of staff numbers" would mean that the best candidates in the humanities will "shun the institution."

Only in academia — or in government — could the reduction of just over two hundred jobs from among thousands (and in this economic climate!) be considered "draconian" and "savage" in an unqualified sense. The reaction of these academics betrays the degree to which an entitlement mentality has permeated institutions of higher education.

No one enjoys it when resources are mismanaged, time and money are wasted, and an organization must face tough decisions on how to clean up after its past mistakes. Sometimes these corrections include firing staff members, some of whom may have been hard-working and dedicated employees. However, while personnel changes caused by financial problems are often tragic, the alternatives — pretending that no such problems exist, for example — are much worse.

Unsustainable activities cannot continue forever, for the simple reason that they are wasteful by definition and must eventually either collapse or become a drag on the rest of society (e.g., through tax- or inflation-funded transfers of wealth). Those companies and institutions not on the public dole do not have the second option: profit and loss mechanisms ensure that all organizations which weigh down the rest of society are dissolved, reformed, sold to more capable owners, reorganized, etc.

However, this is not the case with universities and colleges, most of which are entirely state owned and the majority of which receive sizeable benefits supplied by the public. Administrators at these institutions enjoy the privilege of negotiating political solutions for their financial problems, which amounts to bypassing the need to please consumers first and foremost. Yet this comes at a cost: if you earn your living not by voluntary exchange but through entitlement, it is impossible to run an organization on sound financial principles.

During the good times, few notice the tension between economic reality and university policy. There is enough money to go around, and schools routinely enlarge their scope of activity by hiring promising young scholars and expanding the number of programs they offer. But when recessions hit and everyone is forced to rein in his spending, academics desire to retain their right not to be affected by the rest of the world's concerns. They ride the boom but refuse to feel the bust.

Even the reorganization of one school such as KCL — in this case, the reduction of a small percentage of its faculty — can send academics across the world into a fury. Brian Leiter comments on the situation:
KCL Philosophy is a remarkably consistent unit in terms of strength, so it is an insult that any member of staff should have to re-apply for his or her job. Indeed, we can go much further: it is an insult and an outrage that any professional hired with an expectation of permanent employment absent gross dereliction of duties should have to re-apply for his or her job.

Terms like "insult" and "outrage" imply that the morality of a matter is clear and needs little or no explanation. Yet it is not apparent why KCL's reorganization is such a case.

Granted, KCL has broken promises it made to its professors, who were "hired with an expectation of permanent employment." However, there are many situations in which breaking a promise — while undesirable — is nevertheless necessary in order to avoid an even worse state of affairs. When an institution makes grand promises of a prosperous future, it should be obvious that the fulfillment of such claims is simply not within its control. Who is KCL to decide that it will remain prosperous regardless of a change in the economic climate?

It's not outrageous to fall short of a promise you never should have made; on the contrary, to make questionable commitments is unwise and blameworthy in itself. Consider an industry that has experienced its own crisis in recent years: real-estate–management firms boasted record high profits in 2005, with promises of ever-greater expansion in the future. During 2007 I worked in a massive, new complex with offices, retail space, and residential areas that had been planned at the height of real-estate mania. It was built on the expectation of steady increases in real-estate prices, but to this day only a fraction of its condos and offices have been sold or leased. The project remains a massive failure.

The firm that executed the project, their investors, their clients, and their employees were all deceived: in reality, the real-estate boom was a sham, and the project, which seemed like a sure bet, never had a chance. And so the consequences for their foolishness had to be met. Promises could not be kept; painful cutbacks and reorganization were needed to survive. Many were disappointed.

Strangely enough, I have never seen any outraged letters to the editor about asset managers losing their jobs. Everyone recognizes that there was simply too much real-estate–related activity at the time, pushing too many, often ill-conceived projects. Most also realize that to continue the illusion can only delay the recovery and readjustment to normality. If there are too many workers in real estate, some of them need to find productive work in other fields.

The same principles must apply to higher education no less than they do to real estate, whether we choose to recognize this or not. The only difference — and the reason busts appear to go easy on universities — lies in the political connectedness of most schools. When times are tough, the taxpayers are expected to eat the lion's share of costs (since university professors after all are "hired with an expectation of permanent employment").

More here

British High School exam results being 'inflated', says examiner

School exam results are being driven up by “grade inflation”, a leading examiner has admitted. Tim Oates, head of research at Cambridge Assessment, said that exam boards had bowed to political pressure by making questions more accessible for students and giving schools guidance about the way tests were marked.

He suggested that changes to GCSEs and A-levels could be leading to a rise in the number of students gaining the top grades. Last year, some 17 per cent of students scored three A grades at A-level, compared with only seven per cent in the mid-90s.

Mr Oates said publicly admitting the possibility of "subtle drift" in standards sounded like a "Ratner moment" for exam boards - a reference to Gerald Ratner whose infamous gaffe about the quality of his jewellery wiped an estimated £500m from the value of his company.

But he said it would be "profoundly dysfunctional" for examiners not to critically assess the reasons for rising results.

Writing in an article published by Cambridge Assessment, he said: “Giving the benefit of the doubt to pupils… can result in subtle grade inflation.

“Constantly enhancing the ‘accessibility’ of questions, the transparency of mark schemes and the precision of guidance can ease up the numbers gaining the highest grades.

“Changing the content to be more accessible to a wider audience than the previous educational elite can in turn move the content standards away from the precise requirements of elite higher education.”

The comments were made in an article designed to kick start a debate on why the number of top grades rises year-on-year.

Results published last summer showed the number of A-level papers graded A to E increased for the 27th year in a row.

More than a quarter of entries in England, Wales and Northern Ireland was awarded an A grade – double the number 20 years ago.

Critics have claimed that examinations have been “dumbed down” to make them easier to pass.

Mr Oates said exam boards – independent organisations with contracts to run GCSEs and A-levels – were under political pressure to make tests more accessible to students. This included moving to "modular" courses, which are broken up into bite-sized chunks that students can re-take to boost overall grades.

“Increasing access, updating content, switching to modular [tests] – and being as transparent as possible over mark schemes, grade criteria and guidance – have all been fervent pre-occupations of policy makers and the education establishment,” he said. “Awarding bodies have delivered on that agenda.”


British classroom anarchy, killers in school uniform and how a generation is being betrayed

Note for U.S. readers: The writer below uses the old British convention of referring to "public" schools when he means private schools. Government schools are "State" schools

The murder of 15-year-old Sofyen Belamouadden is an especially shocking gang crime because it was carried out in the midst of Victoria station, by [black] boys apparently wearing school blazers.

It is tragically easy to imagine the horrors of life in the sort of classrooms the murderers come from. We have grown accustomed to the existence of feral children - violent, amoral, unteachable and later unemployable - in many parts of Britain.

It is easy to identify their immediate victims, fellow teenagers who are bullied and occasionally killed. But beyond these, a much larger host pays the price: millions of children who want to equip themselves to lead decent lives. Indiscipline and violence are viruses, which infect all those around them. In classrooms up and down the land, they make it impossible for many teachers to teach and their pupils to be educated.

For every young gangster, there are 20 or 30 more children who, amid chronic disruption, are robbed of the opportunity to gain skills which alone can offer them a future beyond stacking supermarket shelves.

The sanction of exclusion exists, and is imposed in extreme cases. But in thousands of schools, in the name of 'social justice' and 'fairness', every teacher is expected to handle their quota of 'difficult' children. They are obliged to conduct classes in which the presence of disruptive boys and girls is taken for granted.

If teachers lose their tempers or fail to handle such pupils, this is deemed a symptom of professional failure. Such an approach is shockingly wrong. The interests of law-abiding, biddable children are daily damaged on a massive scale, to protect the supposed rights of the lawless minority.

Last week, I received a lengthy letter from a secondary school teacher, attesting to this state of affairs. It was anonymous, because identification would mean dismissal. 'Blending is a key feature of the state sector,' he writes. 'Pupils who cannot, and will not, behave appropriately are blended in with the other children. They call it inclusion. 'Teachers are expected to have their fair share of unmanageable louts and those who struggle to cope are labelled as poor teachers.

'This is manifestly unfair, because class teachers have no powers whatsoever to deal with the louts. They can only call for assistance, which is considered to indicate an inability to manage behaviour. You can predict levels of poor behaviour by looking at the academic results of a school.'

The Labour Government has miserably failed to raise state educational standards. It has spent hundreds of millions of pounds to create a massive edifice of supervision and bureaucracy. Far from supporting the teaching process, this sustains a reign of terror among school heads who must meet relentless, meaningless targets.

Worse, the educational establishment is fundamentally resistant to imposed discipline or sanctions against unruly children. It trains young teachers to suppose that anti-social behaviour is self-correcting, a view shared by no sensible parent.

I disliked school, as most of us do, and indeed was a badly behaved child. But I realise how vastly privileged was my private education, and that of my children. Fees bought excellent teaching. Much more important, we learned things because we were constrained within a rigorous framework of discipline. If we erred, we were punished. Serious excess meant expulsion - the sack - which is recognised in every middle-class household as a disgrace.

The real privilege of attending a public school is not to 'learn to talk posh' or even to enjoy lavish facilities. It is to acquire habits of self-discipline without which it is impossible for a human being to achieve anything in life, or even to relate to other people. One is taught that it is impossible to indulge every immediate impulse, and often necessary to do things one does not wish.

Of course some state schools and new academies foster this culture, and each year turn out thousands of well-behaved as well as educated adolescents. But they are a minority.

Many, if not most, are trapped in an endless struggle to avoid succumbing to mob rule. It is a miracle that they manage to teach their pupils anything at all.

I quote again from my teacher correspondent's bitter letter: 'My experiences have shown me that state education is being run by people who do not believe in discipline. They believe that unruly pupils will eventually reform themselves. They refuse to adopt rigorous policies.

'They have moved the definition of what constitutes "good" teaching. A lesson cannot be graded as "good" by Ofsted unless ALL the pupils in the class make good progress. If a single pupil misbehaves or refuses to work, the teacher is penalised.

'None of this makes for good teaching. Teachers become so obsessed with ticking all the boxes on the Ofsted checklist that they forget about the content.'

Most parents understand all this, and know what needs to be done. Only the Labour Party and the education establishment reject the obvious message.

We shall continue to fail in our efforts to match the new generation of, for instance, young Singaporeans until children willing to learn and obey rules are segregated from those who are not.

Call this, if you like, a quarantine process. We take it for granted that people suffering an infectious disease are set apart from the healthy for as long as doctors recommend.

In state schools, there is a sort of madness about the systemic rejection of such precautions. Month after month and year after year, a child or group of children is permitted to wreck the learning process for scores or hundreds of others.

Of course it is true that some of the wreckers deserve compassion - for the misery of their home lives, broken families or deprived circumstances. Those of us who live comfortable existences untouched by squalor, crime or violence know how fortunate we are. But the majority also has its rights.

In education as so much else, the Labour Government has ruthlessly subordinated the vital interests of most of the British people to the supposed welfare of minorities, some of them criminal.

The murder at Victoria station should serve as an alarm call, not merely about teenage violence, but about its consequences for much of our schools population. Until uncontrollable and unteachable children are separated from the rest, state education will continue to fail

It is hard to overstate the importance of what is at stake. Unless our state schools can produce much larger numbers of educated and disciplined pupils than they do today, not only will the individuals suffer, but this country will be unable to compete through the 21st century.

We live in an era dominated by technology and science. Yet science classes have become a privilege available overwhelmingly to fee-paying pupils.

In most state schools, basic skills to make possible such learning are lacking among teachers and pupils. Universities complain that many students waste their first year mastering essay-writing and other core techniques indispensable to fulfil degree courses, and which should be acquired before A-level.

If further evidence was needed of the insane social engineering conducted by those running Britain's education system, it came yesterday from Professor Steve Smith, President of Universities UK. he called for more university places to be given to students from poorer backgrounds, heedless of their inferior A-level grades. This supremely foolish man is demanding a further lowering of standards, in recognition of the ghastly failure of state schools.

The murder at Victoria station should serve as an alarm call, not merely about teenage violence, but about its consequences for much of our schools population. Until uncontrollable and unteachable children are separated from the rest, state education will continue to fail.

Unless teachers have power to command the attention of their classes, they cannot instill the learning for which schools exist.

Feral children merit pity, because their futures are bleak even if they escape likely years caged in cells. But much more sympathy is owed to millions of honest and ambitious teenagers who are today forced to share the cost of the gangsters' animality.


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