Friday, December 03, 2010

DC trailblazer comes to Florida

Gov.-elect Rick Scott [GOP] announced Thursday that he has formed a transition team of education and community leaders to help him create "a new education system for a new economy."

Topping the list is Michelle Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools who has become something of a rock star in the world of education reform. Sharply critical of teacher tenure, she butted heads with the teachers union and fired or forced out hundreds of educators and other employees before she resigned recently. She also closed dozens of failing schools.

The vast majority of the people named to Scott's education transition team — there are 18 of them — are from Florida, and some have been called upon by previous governors for guidance.

For example, Jonathan K. Hage, the president of Charter Schools USA, one of state's largest providers of charter schools, has helped both governors Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist, a spokesman for Hage said.

Before Thursday's announcement, there had been widespread speculation in the blogosphere and other media that Scott might ask Rhee to become Florida's next commissioner of education. Her selection to the transition team heightened that speculation.

Neither Scott nor Rhee could be reached for comment. And a spokesman for Florida's teachers union had little to say except, "We hope that the governor and the Legislature will seek the viewpoints of public-school teachers when discussing changes in our public schools."

It isn't yet clear precisely what Scott's transition team will do or how often it will meet. But his announcement said the group will help him find creative ways to cut costs and set legislative priorities that will "help reduce the size of government, improve the education system in Florida and meet the workforce needs necessary to create 700,000 jobs over the next seven years."

Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who was asked to serve on the team, said she expects Scott to use the panel to vet ideas. She said she was impressed by the breadth of views included in the group, including community members, business owners and supporters of charter schools, private-school vouchers and virtual schools.

Hillsborough is breaking ground in Florida in its own way by using a $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to overhaul teacher evaluation and pay. "It's a really important approach the governor is taking — to put together a group of people to give him insights as he takes over the governorship," Elia said.

Other members of the team, dubbed by Scott as his "Champions for Achievement," include Patricia Levesque, executive director of Bush's Foundation For Florida's Future; as well as Judy Genshaft, president of the University of South Florida; and Julio Fuentes, president of Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.


Britain should end the madness of "predicted" High School exam results

The current nonsensical system is a prize example of British eccentricity. I won't even try to explain it

Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, said exam boards should be required to mark tests quicker to give teenagers time to apply for degrees over the summer. Currently, applications are made on the basis of predicted results but as many as half of estimated grades turn out to be wrong.

There are also fears that the quality of predictions differs wildly between schools – often pushing students onto courses ill-suited for their needs.

Students usually sit final exams in May and courses are only confirmed when grades are published in mid-to-late August. It gives candidates just a few weeks to appeal against results and find places through the clearing system if they have fallen short of predicted grades.

Speaking on Thursday, Mrs Curnock Cook said Britain should move to a post-qualifications admissions system. She said examiners should “speed up the marking” of tests to allow pupils to apply for degree courses in early summer before starting university in September or October.

Ucas has already launched a review into the points-based tariff used to award places on degree courses following concerns that it fails to differentiate between students’ qualifications.

The move could give institutions greater freedom to prioritise candidates taking the toughest courses at school and sixth-form college.

Mrs Curnock Cook said: “I have come to the conclusion that probably the biggest single reform that we can do in the qualifications arena and higher education is to move to a post-qualifications admissions system. “This is something that’s been put in the ‘too difficult to handle box’ for a very long time.

“I have to say that I was quite shocked to have a circular from [exam boards] setting out the A-level results day dates for the next five years. And it is still that same Thursday in August. “You know, guys, what’s happened to technology? I cannot believe that in the next five years we cannot speed up the marking of exams.”

The comments were made in a speech to the Westminster Education Forum in central London.

Similar proposals were made by a leading official from the former Department for Education and Skills five years ago. But they were rejected amid claims that they would not leave enough time for rigorous academic selection. It could also have a serious impact on university interviews and aptitude tests staged by the most selective universities.


Australia: Bureaucracy that it as obstructive as it is stupid holds back university research

A year ago I was introduced at a blue chip institute, owned by Sydney University, to an eminent professor leading an exciting research project. His team had (almost) isolated the scent molecule in cat fur that is recognised by and affects the behaviour of rodents. He can demonstrate that exposing rats to the critical molecule, in tiny concentrations, causes them to flee from the source, with great reluctance to return, and brief exposure appears to interrupt their prolific breeding cycle. Almost one-third of the Indonesian rice crop is lost to rats and mice each year. For a country trying to feed 240 million people, most of whom eat rice every day, this is a seriously interesting idea.

The professor needed $300,000 to fund three senior scientists and their equipment and materials for a year to take the final step in isolating the active molecule from a dozen alternatives. I offered to raise the money privately but he explained this was not possible, as any private investment had to be sanctioned and brokered by the university's commercialisation arm, Sydnovate. I was informed that his funding rounds take place at fixed intervals – miss one and you have to wait for the next – and that grants of $50,000 are hard to get. It was possible for a private investor to help but there were very strict rules. The last time his team had gone down this path, it took two years to consider the request and a competing university in Europe published the innovation in the interim.

The Commonwealth gave Sydney University $750 million in grants in 2009 – before you get to HECS payments and student fees. About $200 million a year goes to the faculty of medicine for research. Those funds employ a small army of very clever men and women in trying to solve human health-related problems. Sydnovate's sole purpose is to commercialise the good ideas that this army of researchers (and their colleagues in the faculties of engineering, chemistry, etc) create. So what is the royalty return that we taxpayers get for $750 million a year? It's $2.5 million in 2009 out of total university revenue of $1.4 billion – or one-third of 1 per cent. After 160 years of operation, Sydney University makes more money selling beer and hamburgers to students than it does licensing intellectual property.

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Sydnovate employs 26 full-time staff including six lawyers and five PhDs. Like one hand clapping, they are expert at registering patents, hopeless at making money – all protection, no profit. They remind me of the Soviet shoe factory that suffered a failure of the left sole cutter and continued producing thousands of right shoes, knowing their quota in a command economy was measured by the number of shoes produced, rather than the number of pairs. There are partnerships, where industry has come to the university asking for help in a research task, but as far as I can tell, negligible revenue from faculty-created knowledge. Performance reporting is opaque; Sydnovate doesn't produce an annual report. If public company directors practised these levels of transparency with other people's money, they would be struck off.

It's unfair to pick on one institution when the story is repeated so consistently. The University of Queensland gets points for effort in its Uniseed collaboration with Melbourne University and UNSW, which has attracted $15 million in third-party superannuation investment.

That ray of hope is overshadowed by the most recent DEEWR data (2008) suggesting "royalties, trademarks and licences" generate 0.46 per cent of total university operating revenue. By contrast, one US listed therapeutics company, AmGen, has amassed $50 billion in 30 years, improving the prospects of 18 million patients, by commercialising three good ideas.

The cost of running a research-intensive university is rising twice as fast as government willingness to fund it. The most creative idea to fill the hole seems to be more full-fee-paying foreign students. We go through the motions of running commercialisation units but there is little conviction and fewer results – partly because the culture of the education unions is so anti-profit and anti-business. How can our universities credibly teach "entrepreneurship" when their own record on the subject is so bad?

There will always be a place for "pure" research but we must move beyond the infantilism of institutions addicted to the easy money of government grants and foreign students.

The relevant leading body of public institutions – Knowledge Commercialisation Australia (KCA) – appears to see its role as rationalising the failure of its members and organising further and deeper raids on commonwealth and state treasuries.

KCA's message is that Australian universities ought to expect to make much less than 1 per cent of revenue from commercialising ideas because "discoveries that produce financial bonanzas are so rare that policies designed to pursue them would almost always lead to failure".

How inspiring. Recurrent funding to public research institutes should include incentives and penalties. If they prove incapable of giving cartilage to ideas, we should contract the role to others. Researchers must be able to bypass the politburos masquerading as deal-brokers. We could create an annual "Australian Innovation Market", bringing together venture capitalists and the research community, allowing scientists to produce a simple prospectus and pitch deals to recruit capital in a global online IP auction.

Failure to act also involves risk. The rats will keep eating the rice and our best minds will emigrate, fondly recalling Australia as a nice place to retire.


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