Thursday, March 04, 2010

The fall of America's universities

Since 2004, the world's top 200 universities have been ranked annually by the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings. Recently, the U.S. has been losing representation on the list while Asia has been gaining. In 2008, the U.S. had 37 universities in the top 100 and 58 in the top 200. In 2009, that dropped to 32 and 54, respectively. Between 2008 and 2009, Japan went from ten universities in the top 200 to eleven, Hong Kong went from four to five, South Korea went from three to four, and mainland China maintained its position with six.

Having visited nearly half of these Asian universities and having seen their large number of research facilities, I am not surprised when I read about Asian nations making enormous investments in their universities.

I am surprised, however, when I read about funding reductions for U.S.universities. For example, the University of California —long regarded as the nation's leading public university— recently suffered an $813 million reduction in state financing. Disinvestment is also happening to universities in Michigan, Washington, Arizona and many other states.

Budgets are being cut from state-supported universities primarily because states are facing budget shortfalls of historic proportions. However, short-sighted state politics like this will lead to long-term consequences. For example, state budget cuts force universities to raise tuition, cap enrollment, and cut academic programs. These changes result in a smaller number of graduates, which in turn results in a shrinking skilled workforce. The U.S. needs a growing skilled workforce—not a shrinking one—to compete in the global economy.

Currently, the U.S. has the best universities in the world. They attract the best students from around the world. After graduating, these non-U.S.students often stay in the U.S. to work, helping to fuel the nation's innovation and economic growth. However, when U.S. universities decline in quality and lose their elite status because of budget cuts, bright students from around the world will seek universities in other nations.

The goal of Asian nations is to create world-class universities that surpass U.S. universities. They have "every prospect of success," argued Yale University President Richard C. Levin in a recent lecture, titled "The Rise of Asia's Universities." Levin also stated that rising Asian nations "all recognize the importance of an educated workforce as a means to economic growth and the impact of research in driving innovation and competitiveness."

Speaking at the inaugural Asian Roundtable of Presidents of Universities of Education, Xu Jialu, director of the College of Chinese Language and Culture at Beijing Normal University, said that China needs to produce massive numbers of innovative people if it is to continue its robust economic growth. He added, "In Chinese education, the development of a creative mindset and abilities among students is urgently needed."

Asian nations are making enormous investments in their universities in order to produce massive numbers of innovative people who can contribute significantly to economic growth.

In the current issue of Foreign Policy, Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Fogel predicts that China's GDP will reach $123 trillion by 2040 partially because of "the enormous investment China is making in education." He also predicts that the U.S.'s share of global GDP will be roughly one third that of China's.

Without increased investment in universities, the U.S. will no longer have the best universities in the world, will no longer be the world's innovation leader, and will no longer have the world's largest economy. It's time for the U.S. to increase—not reduce—university funding. As Benjamin Franklin put it, "An investment in knowledge pays the best dividends."


Time Magazine Says We're Failing Our Schools because of Unions

Add Time to the growing list of teacher-union critics. (See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

In a recent column, Joe Klein writes that New York's United Federation of Teachers (UFT), "a storied crew," is blocking efforts to win $700 million in federal Race to the Top education funds - " the issue is charter schools, with a substantial dollop of teacher accountability thrown in." Klein continues:

The UFT's slogan is "A Union of Professionals," but it is quite the opposite: an old-fashioned industrial union that has won for its members a set of work rules more appropriate to factory hands. There are strict seniority rules about pay, school assignment, length of the school day and year. In New York, it is near impossible to fire a teacher - even one accused of a crime, drug addiction or flagrant misbehavior. The miscreants are stashed in "rubber rooms" at full pay, for years, while the union pleads their cases. In New York, school authorities are forbidden, by state law, to evaluate teachers by using student test results... No, teachers' unions are not the only problem here. Troglodytic local school boards [link my own] and apathetic parents are just as bad. But the unions, and their minions in the Democratic Party, have been a reactionary force in education reform for too long.

Ironically, the idea of public charter schools was largely popularized by the late Albert Shanker, who launched New York teachers union in 1960. The idea was to create more innovative, teacher-run schools where educators would want to work, and where students could learn.

SOURCE (See the original for links)

School trips 'axed' for thousands of British pupils

Thousands of pupils are missing out on traditional school trips as new Government rules tie teachers to the classroom, MPs have been told. Attractions and study centres have reported a “significant reduction” in the number of bookings following changes to teachers’ contracts imposed last year. One expert also said that parental fears over child safety meant many young people were becoming “entombed” in the home instead of being allowed out to play.

Under new rules, schools are effectively barred from asking teachers to cover for absent staff. Heads are supposed to pay for supply teachers instead of ordering existing staff members to step in when colleagues are leading trips. The move was introduced in September to ease teachers’ workloads.

But the Commons schools select committee was told on Wednesday that many schools are simply cancelling outings altogether instead of raiding stretched budgets to pay for supply staff. Giving evidence to MPs, Robert Lucas, chief executive of the Field Studies Council, a charity running 17 education centres, said 100,000 children regularly attended residential and daytime courses but numbers had dipped in the last six months. “A lot of our residential courses seeing the unintended consequences of the workforce reform,” he said. “We have got 17 centres in the UK – most of them in England – and all of them are reporting significant reductions in bookings; groups that are cancelling because of rarely cover.”

New teachers’ contracts state that they will “rarely cover” for missing colleagues. The changes affect foreseeable absences such as jury service, school trips and training courses. It means that if a teacher is out of school for the whole day – or part of the day – other teachers can only "rarely" step in to take their classes.

But Mr Lucas quoted teachers who said some geography groups had no fieldwork during the first three years of secondary school because of the changes. Other teachers led trips during the holidays and weekends to get around the rules, he said.

Sir Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, said the issue was “proving to be a matter of concern”. In evidence to MPs, Sir Mike, who is also chairman of the National Science Learning Centre, in York, said: “Rarely cover is having an impact. “There’s direct evidence from teachers and there’s direct evidence in terms of the number of courses we’re having to cancel. Even if the teachers have signed up, they are being told ‘no’. “There are head teachers who say ‘there will never be a teacher outside of my school during term time’.”

MPs staged the latest hearing five years after it published a report calling for improvements to the quality of school trips. Barry Sheerman, the committee’s Labour chairman, quoted a study from Natural England that suggested the number of children visiting any green space had halved in a generation. “For many children in this country, an out-of-school trip is the one chance they have to get out of their local environment,” he said. “But five years later it looks as though outdoors learning has decreased rather than increased.”

Anthony Thomas, chairman of the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom, a charity established last year to promote school trips, said: “You are seeing a decline in youngsters actually using parks and playgrounds. “We are becoming entombed with our homes. Part of it is about security – parents worried about youngsters – and part of it is about the inclination of youngsters themselves.”

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: “There’s absolutely no reason why schools should stop providing planned school trips or visits because of rarely cover provision as advance arrangements should already have been put in place. “Rarely cover would only ever apply if the teacher taking the children to the event is then unforeseeably absent and alternative cover had to be provided. The guidelines on this are crystal clear. “Rarely cover is there to ensure that teachers do just that – rarely cover – allowing them to be freed from tasks which do not require their professional skills and expertise, and to focus on teaching.

“Learning outside the classroom should be an integral part of every child's education and personal development, and provision for it should be included in school calendars and timetables.”


Australia: New mathematics curriculum a feeble tool calculated to bore


On Monday, after almost two years of work, a draft of the new Australian national curriculum was released. As maths lecturers deeply dissatisfied with the state of Australian education, we were keen to see what would emerge. Keen, but pessimistic. We were concerned about the almost total lack of involvement of mathematicians in the writing process and unimpressed by the background documents, which displayed a disturbing ignorance of mathematical culture.

Our doubts have unfortunately been confirmed. We are convinced that implementing such a curriculum will do little to improve the woeful state of Australian mathematics education.

The substance of the draft, which covers prep to year 10, is in the year-by-year syllabus, with an "elaboration" of each point: the syllabus point indicates "what" is to be taught; the elaboration suggests "how" it is to be taught. The syllabus itself is divided into three streams: number and algebra, statistics and probability, and measurement and geometry.

These artificial divisions, while necessary, have led to an unnecessary dissolution of the syllabus; every part of every stream is addressed in every year. The few concepts in the statistics syllabus, for example, are continually drip-fed over 11 years. There is simply no reason for "data" to be collected and analysed over and over again.

A more central problem with the syllabus is what is emphasised and what is de-emphasised, or omitted entirely. To illustrate, consider the approach to calculators and technology. We shouldn't need to say it, but pushing buttons on a calculator is not doing mathematics: it may (rarely) be a "how", but is never a "what". Yet, "calculator" appears time and again as a core concern of the syllabus. By comparison, reasoning involving proof - the one compelling argument for teaching mathematics - is reduced to elaboration, just another method of getting to a (usually boring) fact. This technology ramming extends to advocating the use of calculators to introduce adding in prep, a suggestion so appallingly misguided it beggars belief.

The technology fetish goes hand in hand with another major problem with the draft curriculum: a preference for "practical" mathematics at the expense of more fundamental and ideal concepts.

As a consequence, number (mainly arithmetic) crowds out algebra, measurement crowds out geometry, and statistics swamps everything. This emphasis on supposedly useful mathematics is seriously misguided. The result is an unbalanced, ugly, bitsy, pseudo-applied curriculum. It will constitute woeful preparation for students continuing maths beyond year 10, and we predict it will bore the pants off everyone.

We have many specific objections to the draft curriculum. Here is but a sampling. We cannot see why times tables have been shoved out to make room for "multiplication facts", nor why multiplying by 7 alone is omitted from the year 4 syllabus, nor why the 11 and 12-times tables are never even implicitly referred to. We wonder why "theorem" - the central concept in mathematics - only ever appears with "Pythagoras", and why the proof of this one theorem is merely an elaboration. We wonder why pi and real numbers and irrational numbers barely get a mention.

We also wonder why there is a pandering to indigenous Australians while the major Chinese and Arabic contributions to mathematical wisdom are ignored. Why isn't Euclid or any mathematician (other than Pythagoras) ever mentioned by name? So much for presenting mathematics as a human endeavour.

Attempting to sell mathematics by imposing an artificial concreteness, by inflating the importance of calculating bank interest, is simply farcical.

Just as children best learn to read by experiencing the joy of great stories, they best learn mathematics by experiencing its beauty and the joy of mathematical play. But in this curriculum there is little sense of the fun and the beauty of mathematics. Not a hint of infinity, of the fourth dimension, of Moebius bands, of puzzles or paradoxes. Why? If mathematics can be taught as ideas, as something beautiful and fun, then why is it not being proposed? Because it is difficult to do. To teach real mathematics makes demands on the teacher, and it is risky.

What is proposed is little more than a cowardly version of current curriculums, a codification of the boring, pointless approach - which is "safe" but which has already failed a generation of students.

The draft curriculum begins by declaiming the beauty and intrinsic value of mathematics, and the elegance and power of mathematical reasoning. But as a means of unfolding all this before our students, the proposed curriculum is a feeble tool indeed.


No comments: