Saturday, March 13, 2010

Texas textbook troubles

In my own field of work, university education, there are a great many who scoff at the idea of privatization, something that is exactly how a free society should handle all education from primary to post graduate schools. There is no excuse for government to be responsible for educating young people or anyone else for that matter. Not only is it destructive of educational impartiality to entrust schools to governments–only if there is variety can impartiality be at least approximated–but the threat of out and out indoctrination is most real when one monolithic agency, with the power to coercively collect funds for its operations and conscript its students, runs “education.”

Yes, thousands of professor and teachers want the government to be in charge but after this has been accomplished, as it has for a couple of centuries throughout America and elsewhere, there is no escaping the turf fight that takes over educational policy, especially when it comes to such courses as history, civics, and even biology and the textbooks teachers are required to use in them.

In a free and open society there will be a great variety of ways that people, even the most highly educated ones, will see the country’s history, especially when it comes to politics and economics, as well as whatever other disciplines study. Few Americans could miss the current fracas about whether, for example, the New Deal was a valuable or destructive policy of the federal government. Yes, even Prohibition, with its bloody history, has its defenders. A good many scholars and citizens in general find themselves in different camps about the civil war, so much so that there is much controversy even about whether it should have as its name “Civil War” or “The War between the States.” Innumerable other topics covered in various elementary, high school and college courses are fraught with controversies among sincere minded citizens and scholars–no one could miss the battles fought over the nature of biological evolution.

The idea that one can simply override all this with some kind of governmental policy–as it is being tried right now in Texas where there is a fight brewing among those who have their agendas concerning what should be taught to students in all sorts of subjects–is absurd. One need not be a subscriber to post-modernism–with its claim that there is no objective reality at all and the world as all in the eye of the beholder (be this in history, English literature, philosophy, or government studies)–in order to admit that there are many seriously divergent educated opinions and beliefs in what is the truth of the matter in a discipline. And in a free society the way this is supposed to be dealt with and acknowledged is by making it possible for all of them to compete in the marketplace of ideas without even a whiff of government intrusion (i.e., censorship).

No such marketplace can exist, however, if government education dominates, as it does everywhere in the country. The United States of America is practically not much different from the old Soviet Union or the current North Korea when it comes to how young people are being educated–they basically get some politically palatable stories, some banal compromises reached within the halls of government, instead of the outcome of scholarly and academic conferences where the different sides of the various controversies are presented and from which scholars return to their classrooms throughout the academic landscape and proceed to teach what they earnestly believe students should learn. What some of them will teach will dismay, even outrage, certain others; although often teachers know well and good how to give different sides a fair presentation and thus make it possible for their pupils to arrive at answers of their own.

But this cannot go on with government ordering what is to be taught and what the textbooks must contain. The wielding of political power in the field of education is no less insidious than it would be for government to run the profession of journalism, the publication of books and magazines, and so forth. None of that is acceptable in a genuine free country. Nor should government-run schools be.


Obama's New Anti-Civil Rights Civil Rights Policy

Yesterday, in Does Obama’s “Stimulus” Discriminate Against Minorities? (yes, according to the administration’s definition of discrimination), I noted (referencing this earlier post) that the liberal solution to “structural inequalities” is to regard “all employment policies or practices ... that have a disparate impact as by definition discriminatory by virtue of their disparate impact alone.” Now, according to laudatory articles today in both the Washington Post and New York Times, the Dept. of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is about to launch an all-out attack on the nation’s schools based on that warped view of “civil rights.”

In the Times, reporter Sam Dillon obviously shares OCR’s view that the nation’s schools are rife with discrimination because
[a]t the end of high school, white students are about six times as likely to be ready to pursue college-level biology courses as black students, and more than four times as likely to be ready for college algebra, department officials said. White high school graduates are more than twice as likely to have taken advanced placement calculus classes as black or Latino graduates.
Dillon notes that the OCR has been swimming against the current in its effort to enforce civil rights, undermined by its own complicity with violations during the Bush area but also by barriers put up by other opponents of civil rights, such as the Supreme Court.
As it seeks to combat discrimination in schools and universities more aggressively, the administration will be acting in an area in which some Supreme Court rulings in recent years have brought more ambiguity. Federal policy for decades had aimed at compelling school districts to end racial inequality, for instance.

But in examining longstanding desegregation efforts in the Seattle and Jefferson County, Ky., schools in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that school authorities could not seek to achieve or maintain integration through measures that take explicit account of a student’s race, a decision that seemed to reverse the thrust of four decades of federal policy.
The new OCR, in short, will not be deterred by the old, discredited view that “civil rights” recognizes the rights of individuals not to be burdened by the government based on their race, despite the Supreme Court’s continuing (if tenuous) dedication to that quaint notion.

Under its new, Obama-appointed leadership, OCR is about to step up its “compliance” efforts. This new effort, predictably, will not limit its attention to “procedures” — which I take to mean whether actual students have been treated fairly — but with results. ““Now we’ll not simply see whether there is a program in place,” Russlyn H. Ali, the new assistant secretary of education for civil rights, told the Times, “ but [we will] also examine whether that program is working effectively.”

And in Obamaland, working “effectively” means not an absence of discrimination but the presence of proportional results. Thus when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announces new enforcement action in the coming weeks, as the Post reports today, “to ensure that students have equal access to a college-prep curriculum, advanced courses, and classes in math and science,” it is quite clear that he doesn’t really mean “equal access”; he means proportional results, as confirmed in an interview Ms. Ali gave the Post.
Ali said in an interview Friday that “we are weaving equity into all that we do” and that her office would examine potential cases for evidence of discrimination through “disparate impact” against certain classes of students on the basis of race, ethnicity, sex or disability.

Ali said the department plans to initiate 38 compliance reviews this year. There were 29 initiated last year, she said, and 42 in 2008. But she said the depth of the reviews will be “much greater than in the past.”
Since school districts will do whatever is necessary in order to be in “compliance” with the new “civil rights” directives from Washington, it is inevitable that many students across the country will now be excluded from Advanced Placement courses, etc., because of their race, i.e., because other students were included because of their race.

It is thus the height (or depth) of irony that Secretary Duncan will announce this new anti-civil rights “civil rights” policy today in a speech at the Edmund Pettus bridge near Selma, Alabama, site of one of the epic confrontations during the era when civil rights meant civil rights. And it is sad that he and the worshipful reporters covering the event don’t even recognize the irony.


Hopeless mathematics teaching in Australian schools

THE Group of Eight [universities] has declared mathematics education in Australia is in crisis. A six-point rescue package for maths and related disciplines recommends better dialogue between mathematics and teaching faculties to improve the mathematical competence of teachers. At the same time, it accepts an increasing number of students will be taught secondary school mathematics at university through expensive "enabling" programs. These will require "systematic organisation" and new funding initiatives.

A groundbreaking review of the mathematics and statistics disciplines at school and university by the Go8 found "the state of the mathematical sciences and related quantitative disciplines in Australia has deteriorated to a dangerous level, and continues to deteriorate."

The review was compiled by a committee of the nation's senior mathematicians headed by former University of Sydney vice-chancellor Gavin Brown. It found that in 2003 the percentage of Australian students graduating with a major in mathematics or statistics was 0.4 per cent, compared with an OECD average of 1 per cent. Between 2001-2007 the number of mathematics major enrolments in Australian universities fell by approximately 15 per cent. In contrast from 2002 to 2006 the number of applicants to mathematics degrees in Britain increased by two-thirds.

Professor Brown told the HES yesterday an attitudinal study which found only 33 per cent of year 8 mathematics students said they enjoyed maths - compared to an international average of 54 per cent - had "frightened" him. "This finding sticks out like a sore thumb," he said. "It suggests that the subject is taught reasonably well at technical level but not at the excitement level, and it's probably because many of the teachers are being asked to teach outside their own areas of expertise. They've never been passionate about the subject."

Professor Cheryl Praeger, Winthrop Professor in the school of mathematics and statistics at the University of Western Australia, told the HES that "very bright" students were entering Go8 universities inadequately prepared for university mathematics because of the poor state of maths tuition in schools. "Many will be learning their high school maths at university," she said. "We have to provide for them." She warned Australia risked becoming a Third World country if it failed to move quickly to arrest the decline in mathematics.

The chief executive of the Australian Research Council, Margaret Sheil, said she shared the concerns of the Brown review and had made mathematics one of the targeted disciplines for the next round of the federation fellowships. But she observed that statistics, which was important for new developments in biology, health and economics, was in an even worse state. She said universities could play a leadership role in arresting the decline at school level, because "strong and vibrant mathematics departments create opportunities to train strong and vibrant mathematicians, and that spins off into teaching."

The chairman of the Go8 Chair, University of Western Australia vice-chancellor Alan Robson, welcomed the review and its recommendations, which focused on equipping primary school teachers with mathematical skills and identified the need for remedial maths courses at the tertiary level.

The Go8 has renewed its push for a new higher education policy architecture focused on targeted funding to strengthen the top research institutions and render them more internationally competitive. The Go8's executive director, Mike Gallagher, will warn a higher education congress in Sydney today against attempts to emulate research universities across the sector. He will stress the need for more cost-effective forms of higher education supply, such as teaching only institutions, amid expanding domestic enrolments.


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