Wednesday, March 10, 2010

If Schools Discriminate Against Blacks, Do They Discriminate In Favor Of Asians?

Asians get "disproportionate" results too

In the post immediately below I discussed the Obama Dept. of Education’s view that lower minority graduation rates and lower participation in advanced placement courses, etc., reflect a pervasive problem of civil rights violations in our nation’s schools.

In that regard, however, consider the penetrating question asked by George Leef:
American colleges and universities are delighted to have minority students. They’re usually specially recruited and often given favorable treatment by the administration and professors. Some minority students work hard, perform very well, and graduate with honors. So why is it that graduation rates for minority students tend to be low? Is it because schools haven’t learned how to teach them? I don’t think so. The explanation is that on the whole, those students enter college with far lower basic academic skills (which can seldom be overcome just with a remedial course or two) and less academic engagement.

If you doubt that, ask yourself if the very high graduation rate among Asian students is because schools are “good at teaching them,” or because those students generally have high skills and motivation as they enter college....
Good question. If the “underrepresentation” of some minorities in advanced school courses and programs means the schools are discriminating against them, does the “overrepresentation” of Asians mean the schools are discriminating in favor of them?

Isn’t it posible, that is, that students and their families might be more responsible for how students perform than their schools?


High educational standards best achieved by parent power

MASSACHUSETTS AND RHODE ISLAND were two of the 16 finalists named this week in the Obama administration's "Race to the Top" competition for a share of $4.3 billion in education "stimulus" funds. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the finalists on Thursday; those that made the cut have agreed to embrace policies favored by the administration, such as higher caps on charter schools and tying teachers' raises to performance.

Central to the administration's approach to education is its drive for uniform national standards in reading and mathematics. The White House announced last month that it intends to "require all states to adopt and certify that they have college- and career-ready standards . . . as a condition of qualifying for Title I funding." Duncan has reserved $350 million to assist states that consent to common curriculum standards; those that don't will be barred from seeking Race to the Top grants.

The argument for national standards seems straightforward. The No Child Left Behind law enacted in 2002 required the states to establish their own academic standards, but most of them -- under pressure from teachers' unions and school administrators' associations -- set the bar quite low. In a 2006 report, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation concluded that most states' standards were "mediocre-to-bad . . . They are generally vague, politicized, and awash in wrongheaded fads and nostrums. With a few exceptions, states have been incapable (or unwilling) to set clear, coherent standards." The only way around the states' aversion to high standards, the Obama administration and others have concluded, is to impose uniform national standards, using the federal purse as leverage.

But if the goal is to have more American students get a successful education, it is far from clear that imposing a single set of benchmarks from above is the best strategy for getting there.

For one thing, the political resistance to rigorous academic standards that has been so effective at the state level is likely to be effective at the national level. The teachers' unions and administrators' organizations that oppose higher performance mandates are at least as influential on Capitol Hill as they are in the statehouses. The Cato Institute's Neal McCluskey points out that the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of School Administrators, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, and the Council of Chief State School Officers all make their national headquarters in Washington, DC. Whether in the states or in Washington, McCluskey writes, "the political system is stacked against high standards and tough accountability."

Moreover, the very nature of American society -- a nation of 300 million that comprises a multitude of ethnic, religious, social, and ideological traditions -- argues against the imposition from above of one-size-fits-all education standards. There is no uniform answer to the question of what parents want most from their children's education. "The greater the diversity of the people falling under a single schooling authority," McCluskey observes, "the greater the conflict, the less coherent the curriculum, and the worse the outcomes."

Anyone who called for legislation to establish mandatory national standards for television programming or restaurant menus would be laughed at: No one thinks the government is competent to decide what shows they can watch on TV or what they can order for dinner when they eat out. Is it any less risible to think that government knows best when it comes to your children's education?

Rather than centralizing even more government authority over education, genuine reform would move in the opposite direction. It is parents -- not local, state, or federal officials -- who should control education dollars. School and state should be separated, with schools being funded on the basis of their ability to attract students and teach them well. The primary responsibility for children's education should be vested in the same people who bear the primary responsibility for their feeding, housing, and religious instruction: their mothers and fathers.

More government control is not the cure for what ails American schools. The empowerment of parents is. No teachers' union, no school board, no secretary of education, and no president will ever love your children, or care about their schooling, as much as you do. In education as in so much else, high standards are important -- far too important to hand off to the government.


Russia's super-rich take advantage of recession to storm Britain's private schools

Note that the article below adheres in part to the old British practice of calling private schools "public" schools

While recession-hit Brits are forced to scrimp to send their children to private school, Russia’s super-rich are cashing in on the chance of an elite education. Louise Carpenter meets a woman who is grooming the offspring of oligarchs for England's upper classrooms.

She tells me that at first, when she turned up at the school gates, the other parents were wary: she looked too expensively pulled together, too exotic (the cheekbones are an immediate giveaway), but more than anything, she looked and sounded very Russian, and like a very, very rich Russian at that.

She sighs: 'I look like a damn model, which doesn't help me at all. The perception is always wrong. I am a very grounded person – and I don't even wear make-up. For the past 10 years, I have worked 16 hours a day as an international property broker. I am a single mother and I've worked in Moscow and Manhattan and I was very, very successful, so successful that in the end I set up my own company. I sleep only six hours a night and I start work very early every morning. Everything I have I have earned through hard work. My generation of Russians had to. There was no inherited wealth.'

In the next few years, if Dina Karpova's business plans come to fruition, there will be many more like her at the gates of our best public schools. While recession-hit British families remortgage their homes, sell off the family silver and consign themselves to five years of staycations to ensure their children can be privately educated, Karpova is helping her rich Russian business contacts move in on the British market.

Russian children pitching up at public schools is a growing phenomenon. Harrow, Westminster, Winchester, Shrewsbury, St Mary's Ascot – these are just some of the institutions in the sights of Karpova and her team. Where once a school's foreign 'quota' might have been filled mostly by children from China, South Korea and the Emirates, registrars are now seeing an increase in inquiries from Russians.

Karpova herself is a lesson in how a new generation of motivated Russians got rich. The daughter of two government nuclear physicists, brought up in a closed city, she trained as an aerospace engineer, specialising in life-support systems in space. She narrowly missed becoming one of a few female Russian astronauts because of her height. 'I'd love to go back into that field,' she says. The decision to go into property broking – a profession that has made her very rich – was made only because the fall of the communist regime destroyed the scientific fields for which she was trained.

Ten years on, with the advent of the global financial and property crisis, she is reinventing herself again. Jaded by the declining quality (by her standards) of Russian schools and universities, no sooner had she moved to London than the calls started coming in from Russian business contacts, many of them oligarchs, although that is not a term Karpova likes to use. ('How many oligarchs are left any more? I think the idea of an oligarch is kind of shaky now.')

Whoever her clients are, they are still very rich and their questions were the same: Which schools are the best? How can we get our children in? What is the procedure? "I said to my assistant, 'I haven't got time for all of this," ' Karpova remembers. 'And she said, "Why don't you start a website?" and what with the property market collapsing anyway, it just went from there."

Given that even the most well-adjusted British child is prone to griping about boarding school food, crammed dormitories, lack of privacy and compulsory chapel, it seems extraordinary to think of pampered Russian children living in such cheek-by-jowl conditions.

But according to Karpova, that is precisely the point: 'The education system in England is incomparable with what you find in other countries, Russia included. You have had hundreds of years of perfecting that system. It was based on when Britain was a colonial superpower and the message was, 'The world is yours!' I do think the spirit goes back to this time when English public [private] schools were trying to create world leaders to rule the colonies. It is not about wealth, it is about the spirit of taking part, of having a broad all-round outlook.'

Russians, she says, love our crumbly old buildings with history behind them. It reminds them of the long-gone tsarist lifestyle, a heritage they are now looking to reclaim. Karpova stops short of saying it, but the implication is clear: if you want to create a world leader, send your child to the kind of school with a history of creating them. And what will happen to them afterwards, I ask. "Well, I hope they will go back to Russia," she says. "I want them to give something back to my country. I hope my son will go back. We owe it to our country, if not to ourselves."

It is well known that the top schools operate a 10 to 15 per cent 'foreign' policy and that there are agents all over the world attempting to place the children of rich families whose applications are, as Karpova says, 'lumped in this pile'.

Whether a Russian child would be given a place otherwise intended for a British child is a hazy area. Karpova is adamant that the leading schools such as Westminster – there is currently only one other Russian boy there – can afford to stick to their marginal foreign quota. The other less prestigious schools are much more receptive to filling up with anybody who can pay the fees, even if they can't speak much English.

Paradoxically, these are precisely the schools that Karpova is sniffy about. "A child that I haven't been able to prepare, who will not make it to the top schools, will probably end up at a school surrounded by eastern Europeans and other Russians and Asians, and they won't get an experience of British culture at all. I think it is OK and fair that foreign kids have to perform better than their British counterparts, because that is why we come here."

Karpova, in Russia at least, has a head start. Her clever idea has been to recruit a British educational consultant called Charles Bonas, who runs a London-based 'super-tutor' and mentoring agency. His work is with children based in Britain, many with foreign parents, but also with many very wealthy English families preparing for rigorous entrance tests. As a result, Bonas knows the admissions process and cultures of all the leading schools inside out.

Nevertheless, how on earth are Russian children who barely speak English when they arrive able to be propelled to the top of the pile? This is the question a forthcoming Channel 4 documentary, The Russians Are Coming, attempts to answer – although it does so only partly successfully, due to what Karpova says is the inherent problem of her clients' privacy and their fear that their children will appear to have been 'over-tutored' and thus undeserving of a place.

Karpova is shown in the film in all her splendour, being immensely diligent and gentle with the children. She clearly has, as she says herself gesticulating madly with her hands, "a brain out here". At one point, we see her striding about in elbow-length patent gloves, hair flying, a head-turning combination for any public school headmaster.

We see her with 11-year-old stepbrothers Natan and Vassili and their father, a Russian billionaire businessman referred to only as 'Boris', during a tour of Stowe. Who is Boris, I ask Karpova. "Can't comment," she says. Is he an oligarch? "Can't comment. Can't say anything about him. The problem with what I do is that publicly my clients always want to put space between me and them. We have to be very careful."

There is a knock on the door and in putters Charles Bonas. In contrast to Karpova's exoticism, Bonas appears to have walked off the set of Jeeves and Wooster. He is small, balding and well-spoken, with an education at Harrow and Oriel College, Oxford; Karpova could not wish for a more authentic specimen of the English public school system to sell to her billionaires. It immediately becomes clear that Bonas lives in the house too. Perhaps they are a very unlikely couple? Karpova shakes her head violently. "No, no!" she asserts. "Charles is guardian to my son. He stays here when I am abroad."

This year, Karpova has about 10 children going through "the process". (Bonas snaps at me when I call it 'grooming'.) They will either be children coming over for the last two years of prep school – 'always the best way of doing it,' Karpova says – or applying for their main (secondary) school. It's a rough 60/40 ratio of boys to girls. Each child is carefully monitored by Bonas and his tutors. There are about 100 of these – teachers, writers, poets, scientists, post-graduates, doctors – 'anybody with a huge amount to offer a child'.

Many Russian children need extra tuition, provided by Bonas and this team, especially in English and in critical thinking, which Bonas says is peculiar to the English system. Some need weekly tuition, others will have a crash course in the holidays, every day, all day. (Prices for mentoring start at £600 a term and basic tuition rates are £50 an hour.)

Whatever the ability of the child, Karpova and Bonas are constantly evaluating progress throughout the term and researching appropriate future schools. 'It is a very, very hard job to go back to the parents when the school is saying, "He's perfect, he's fantastic" and we're seeing that actually he's not that perfect, and when in two years he's got to go and compete with the cream of the crop if his maths is not that great,' Karpova says.

They get to grips with the curriculum, they go to parents' evenings, they liaise between parents and teachers, they study past papers. They explain to the Russians the academic standing of a school such as, say, Harrow and they try to explain the merits of single-sex education for girls, unheard of in Russia. ('No luck yet in getting that across,' Karpova says.) And if Karpova gets to know a child very well and thinks they are being channelled into the wrong school, she speaks up.

'I had one extremely wealthy client who had a very artistic child. He was desperate for the child to study business but I explained there was no interest there. The man said, "How much will it take for you to do as I say?" and at that stage I pulled out. I want the children to be happy.'

A big part of their job is working out the subtle differences between the schools, and then matching the right school to the right child. 'I'll take Charles's opinion of a school,' Karpova explains, 'but I'll also take the opinion of at least three other people. It drives him insane.'

'That's a very communist approach,' Bonas says. 'Where the Russians score is that apart from those who want to be near Heathrow, their applications can cover a wide geographic area, whereas English families think in terms of an hour's drive. Our schools are centres of excellence. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for a child to talk his or her way into somewhere. If you haven't got a really good report from your prep-school headmaster or mistress, if you haven't done particularly well in the pre-tests, and you haven't got other things to offer, such as sport, music, drama, you are not going to get in.'

While Natan and Vassili come over very well on film – they are very game in trying to speak English to the headmaster of Stowe – there is an unfortunate sequence in which they are taken to a stately home in Dorset. This is part of a wider English Mentors programme, to which Bonas contributes, intended to help integrate foreign children into society instead of just leaving them in completely alien boarding schools like lambs to the slaughter. Academic prowess is all very well, Bonas says, but if a child hasn't got the confidence to speak up in an interview or shake a headmaster's hand with pride, he will not win the place.

The film shows a process of 'social integration' that Karpova endorses (which the Russian families also pay for). In Dorset, the brothers are instructed how to shoot and play polo. They have never ridden before, and eye the ponies nervously as Karpova tells them, 'If you play polo you will become… how shall I put it?… part of high society.' It is a toe-curling moment. The boys are then given guns, and also shown how to make a bed with hospital corners. The albeit well-meaning intention of social integration gives the film an unfortunate subtext: that in reality, however good our schools are, the new rich Russians, so at pains not to be seen as 'nouveau', are just as taken with the idea of their children hobnobbing with the aristocracy.

Surely, I say to Bonas, no head teacher will give a hoot about children boasting those sort of skills. They are completely irrelevant to an application. 'Not at all!' he says quickly. 'I can see that it might look a bit contrived, but the boys love history and they loved the house with all its old books. It is so important that a child from abroad fits into a school. Basically head teachers are looking for confident children who will get a lot out of boarding, and I say to the children we look after, "I will be just as happy when I hear you've had your first Sunday lunch with an English family as I will when you get your first academic success." It's about giving them life skills and confidence. It never ceases to amaze me how brave these children are.'

But what about the parents? 'Look,' Bonas says, 'a lot of these Russian clients aren't particularly socially conscious at all. Certainly the family on the film couldn't be more disinterested in social advancement. For other families, would it help if they looked down an intake list and saw a viscount's son there? Perhaps a bit, but not much. Teaching them basic manners, etiquette, deportment – we're not trying to turn these children into little lords. It is actually just giving them the sort of ground rules and life skills that every­body needs.'

Karpova is keen to clarify what the Russian families want. 'When I say they want to mix with "the best of British families", I mean the best in their field, whatever that is,' she says. 'Wealth has nothing to do with it, it is the culture.'

Despite her 10 years in the west, Karpova is still very Russian. It is there in everything she says, in the way she blatantly identifies power in talent and beauty. It is a refreshing change to the unspoken codes of the English, although she says that she is slowly learning those too. 'You English are so polite,' she says, 'and so humble. You don't see that humbleness in Russia at all. Not at all!'

In the film, we see her son, Ivan, fluent in English, become impatient with her because she does not understand the word 'oar' (he is an avid rower at Westminster and she does not understand that either). 'Darling, not all of us had the privilege of being educated at Westminster,' she tells him by way of defence.

I ask her about the cultural divide the success of her business will create between Russian parents and their children. She pauses. 'It is very interesting. But what happens is that the child pushes the family to learn more, to understand the culture more. It is a struggle but I believe it is very important that children do not lose touch with their families.'

Karpova will not tell me her age, but my guess would be mid-thirties. She became pregnant and married very young, while at college, left the father before the birth of her son (he went on to become a very wealthy businessman), divorced and married again – this time an American – only to divorce him too. When Ivan tried to track down his father, they found out that he had disappeared five years ago and that his family now presumed him dead. Suicide? I ask. Karpova shrugs. Murder? She shrugs.

With all the security issues attached to working with billionaires, it can't have been an easy film to make. Karpova certainly does not need the publicity. She tells me she met the documentary's director through a mutual friend: 'I have these enticing things about me,' she explains almost with a sigh. 'The way I look, the way everybody thinks I'm a rocket scientist, the way I was in the Russian Olympic biathlon team for skiing… I did this film because I'm fed up with Russian women always being portrayed as hookers or money-grabbers. There are a lot of us who are very beautiful and very clever and very hard-working with it.'


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