Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bill Gates and education: "Innovation is your only hope"

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced Monday that it would be funding a $20 million, multi-year grant program to foster innovation in online instructional tools with a particular focus on community colleges. According to the New York Times, the Foundation will be joined by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and four nonprofit education organizations in using technology to ultimately prepare more students for the high-skill job market. As Bill Gates described it in a CNET interview,
The people who are going to apply for these grants, they have all been doing interesting stuff. The grant will let them do a little bit more and it will encourage them to come together as a group. The money will help them do more measurement. We think the timing on this is really great and this will be very catalytic.

The first round of RFPs will be focused on “postsecondary online courses, particularly ones tailored for community colleges and low-income young people,” according to the Times report.
Another round of RFPs next year will include K-12 schools. Bill Gates, not surprisingly, seems to have the right idea on this (the added emphasis is my own):
There are some great laptop schools where things have gone well, and as laptop costs come down, you’ll be hearing more about tablet-type devices, Netbooks, iPads in the classroom.

But it’s the material that shows up on those devices that really counts. That’s where the foundation is focused. We’ll have another RFP early next year that is more focused on K-12 online material.

The community college programs are expected to supplement and differentiate in-class instruction and ensure that more students are motivated to pursue post-secondary education by focusing their efforts on classes that meet their technical and professional needs. As many other countries in the world have realized, not everyone needs to go to a four-year college or earn advanced degrees. However, virtually everyone needs to pursue post-secondary education to be competitive in the job market and increase the nation’s competitiveness overall. With more than half of our young workforce lacking post-secondary training, it’s clear that something needs to give and, as Barack Obama has pointed out, the community colleges are an untapped resource for making this happen.

The so-called Next Generation Learning Challenges will not only fund new approaches, but allow existing successful programs to scale and affect much larger groups of students. For example, Carnegie Mellon found that it could improve recall and performance while reducing necessary time in class and class duration by taking a hybrid approach with both direct instruction and online components. This same approach is now rolling out to community colleges to allow students to complete degrees and training more quickly (and therefore, more cheaply).

Gates also addressed the ability to measure the success of the programs his foundation is funding. Calling again for a common core curriculum, he noted that we would be far better able to determine how well technological interventions worked if all students could be measured against the same standards.


TX: Education candidates grilled about sex, religion and politics

Candidates for key State Board of Education races took a quiz Monday: Did they believe dinosaurs roamed the Earth alongside humans? Did they believe in giving Texas children age-appropriate lessons about sex?

The Texas Business and Education Coalition sponsored the first and, perhaps, only debate for candidates in the contested races in District 5 (San Antonio to Austin) and District 10 (Houston area to Austin) for seats on the SBOE, whose recent curriculum-setting votes on science and social studies garnered negative national attention.

In District 5, Republican incumbent Ken Mercer of San Antonio faces Texas State University English Professor Rebecca Bell-Metereau, a Texas State University English professor. Mercer is one of the 15-member board's seven social conservative members, who favor a back-to-basics approach. Critics complain that their conservative politics and religious leanings seep into education policy.

Republican Marsha Farney of Georgetown and Democrat Judy Jennings of Austin, both of whom have doctoral degrees in education, meet in the Nov. 2 election to replace the retiring Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, in District 10.

The board's handling of science and history curriculum standards attracted national attention, with CNN, Fox News and the New York Times covering the board's political posturing and fight over what students should learn about science and history.

Mercer and Bell-Metereau disagreed over the curriculum approach taken in recent years by the board, which has made scores of changes to what experts had recommended for the science, social studies and English language arts standards for 4.8 million Texas public school children.

Mercer is a strong advocate of back-to-basics math, including the memorization of multiplication tables, and a phonetics approach to reading.

“Some folks call this drill and kill. I don't. I call it drill to develop confidences and skills,” Mercer said.

Mercer said parents in his district, which runs across 12 counties, have demanded a new emphasis of phonics.

“For some parents, they are remembering their past,” Bell-Metereau said of the 50-year-old approach. “That's how they learned to read. The studies have shown there are other, more effective ways of teaching how to read.”

She believes public schools should provide comprehensive sex education at age-appropriate levels, especially since Texas has the second highest rate of teen births in the country.

“We are teaching you everything except how to prevent pregnancies and how to prevent sexually transmitted disease. That's not really teaching students very much,” Bell-Metereau said.

Texas is currently “an abstinence-emphasis state,” she said, adding, “Abstinence is the best answer but we also have to prepare all those students who don't make that life choice.”

Pressed for a yes or no answer on whether he supports comprehensive sex education, Mercer gave a nuanced answer: “We want kids to be aware of what's out there, but we do not want a ‘how to' manual.”

Bell-Metereau emphasized a need to remove politics from the board and to rely more on teachers and subject experts to develop curriculum standards.

But Mercer noted that he ran for the board four years ago because parents wanted a more balanced approach. They wanted a “true and accurate” portrayal of American history with greater emphasis on the free-enterprise system, he said.

The social conservatives already lost one of their leaders — Don McLeroy, R-Bryan — in a GOP primary election earlier this year. McLeroy calls himself a “young Earth creationist,” who believes dinosaurs co-existed with humans.

“No, I don't believe that dinosaurs and humans walked the earth at the same time. That's outrageous,” Jennings said during the debate. Farney, also rejecting any possibility of dinosaurs and humans simultaneously sharing the planet, said parents should be responsible for teaching faith and values.

Mercer and Bell-Metereau didn't get the dinosaur-human question.


British report unveils radical university reform

A plan for higher university fees, fewer subsidies, more markets and less government has been unveiled by an independent review into the future of the English higher education system.

The radical blueprint, revealed on Tuesday by a panel chaired by Lord Browne, the former chief executive of BP, will cause tremors in the coalition government and problems for Labour.

The review proposes removing the current cap on annual fees of £3,290. If institutions want to charge more than £6,000, however, they will be obliged to pay a levy to recompense the government for the cost of higher student loans.

This levy, it is hoped, will keep fees in check, by increasing rapidly with tuition charges. An academic body raising its annual fees from £6,000 to £7,000 would keep £600 of the uplift in charges. By contrast, a university moving from £11,000 to £12,000 would keep only £250 of the extra income.

In a scenario mapped out in the report, the government could save £2.8bn by concentrating the teaching subsidies paid to universities on courses that are expensive or strategically important and cutting them for other, cheaper subjects. In this situation, average fees would rise to above £7,000.

The report will test the Liberal Democrats, who fought the election promising to abolish fees. But Lord Browne’s recommendations will also cause problems for Labour, which has come out in favour of a graduate tax, an idea that the report dismisses.

Making students pay a greater share of the cost of their degrees would increase the market pressures on English universities. But this is only one pro-market part of the package.

Lord Browne also proposes allowing any student who meets basic attainment criteria to buy education from any provider accredited by a powerful new watchdog, the Higher Education Council. This new super-regulator’s remit would include:

* Making sure that students have the benefit of more information about the courses on offer to them;

* Distributing subsidies on teaching for expensive, strategically important and vulnerable subjects;

* Enforcing teaching quality standards;;

* Making sure new entrants can enter the sector:

* Dealing with financial failure in universities;

* Adjudicting disputes between students and their universities; and

* Enforcement of new access rules.

Institutions charging more than £7,000 would be required to submit to more vigorous scrutiny to make sure that students from poor backgrounds are not being discouraged from applying to them.

The Browne report also proposes a simplification of the current byzantine system of bursaries for poor students. All students would be eligible for a loan to cover living costs and a more generous means-tested grant.

The report also recommends cutting the cost of the heavily-subsidised student loan system, but attempts to do so in a way that does not penalise graduates who go on to earn little money.

As at the moment, all fees would be covered by student loans. Currently, these loans are repaid by graduates, with 9 per cent of income above £15,000 clipped from their pay packets. A zero per cent real interest rate is charged against the balance and outstanding debts are forgiven after 25 years.

Under the new scheme, graduates will pay back 9 per cent of their income above £21,000 and that threshold will rise with earnings. But the interest rate for those who earning more than that level will also be linked to the government’s cost of borrowing and loans would not be forgiven for 30 years.

Any student who earns more than the threshold, but not enough to cover the cost of the higher rate of interest – 2.2 per cent above inflation – would have the rest of interest rebated to them. No student should therefore face a rising real debt burden because of interest accrual.

Part-time students will be given access to this loan system, so long as they study more than one third as intensively as a full-time student.

Vince Cable, the Lib Dem business secretary, asked Lord Browne in July to consider a graduate tax, a special income tax levied on former students that could be used to pay for the university system. Mr Cable has subsequently disavowed interest in the policy. But Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, has meanwhile committed his party to the policy.

Responding to Mr Cable’s request to consider the proposal, the report contains an annex which explains that the graduate tax would need to be set at 3 per cent of lifetime income to pay for the sector and would not raise enough to pay for the whole system until 2041-42. The plan would also increase the deficit by £3bn a year in the short term.


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