Saturday, April 24, 2010


The one below is an example. It is an academic journal article that comes to some very unsurprising conclusions -- but its first sentence is still one that would be denied by evidence-ignoring Leftists

Teacher Quality Moderates the Genetic Effects on Early Reading

By J. Taylor et al.

Children’s reading achievement is influenced by genetics as well as by family and school environments. The importance of teacher quality as a specific school environmental influence on reading achievement is unknown. We studied first- and second-grade students in Florida from schools representing diverse environments. Comparison of monozygotic and dizygotic twins, differentiating genetic similarities of 100% and 50%, provided an estimate of genetic variance in reading achievement. Teacher quality was measured by how much reading gain the non-twin classmates achieved. The magnitude of genetic variance associated with twins’ oral reading fluency increased as the quality of their teacher increased. In circumstances where the teachers are all excellent, the variability in student reading achievement may appear to be largely due to genetics. However, poor teaching impedes the ability of children to reach their potential.

Science 23 April 2010: Vol. 328. no. 5977, pp. 512 - 514

Muslims, Christians challenge content of Canadian sex ed curriculum

Christians and Muslims in Ontario are united in their objections to the province’s new sex education curriculum.

Mentions of homosexuality as early as Grade 3 have raised objections from diverse groups and the participants in a school boycott on May 10 – aimed at putting pressure on Premier Dalton McGuinty to pull the new curriculum – will likely represent a cultural cross-section of the city.

“There’s a big reaction in Muslim community,” said Suad Aimad, president of Somali Parents for Education. “We believe basically that sex education may be taught by the parents to their children. It’s not public, it’s a private matter and that’s why I don’t think [sex] should be part of education, especially at such a young age.”

The new curriculum, outlined in 208 pages that were quietly posted on the Ministry of Education's website in January, will for the first time teach Grade 3 pupils about such topics as sexual identity and orientation, and introduce terms like “anal intercourse” and “vaginal lubrication” to children in Grades 6 and 7. The new curriculum begins in Grade 1 with lessons about the proper names of body parts.

The changes are part of a regular review of Ontario’s physical education and health curriculum, which hasn’t been updated since 1998. They went nearly unnoticed until a Christian group, led by evangelist Charles McVety, threatened to pull its children from school.

Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak plans to use the new sex education curriculum as an opportunity to attract advocates for family values, party insiders say.

The Tories began staking out their position Wednesday, arguing that it is the responsibility of parents to teach children in Grade 1 about body parts.

“A six-year-old should be learning how to tie their shoes and playing with Barbies,” said Lisa MacLeod, a Tory MPP and mother of a five-year-old daughter.

The Tories already have the support of conservative and religious groups. But Mr. Hudak also has an opportunity to characterize himself as a moderate, and Premier McGuinty as a leader who has gone too far, said David Docherty, a political scientist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.

This will involve walking a political tightrope, Prof. Docherty said, where Mr. Hudak and his caucus colleagues will have to stick to their message that children in Grade 1 are too young to be taught such words as penis and vagina.

“It’s going to allow Tim Hudak to talk about family values,” he said. “If he goes any further, it does risk becoming a faith-based education argument where he risks losing ground.”

A party insider said the Tories plan to seize on the new curriculum, because it is such a sensitive issue that speaks to many families’ values and beliefs. Mr. Hudak echoed Ms. MacLeod on Wednesday, saying children in Grade 1 are too young to learn about genitalia.

“The notion of teaching sex ed to kids as young as six years of age just doesn’t sit right,” Mr. Hudak told reporters. “I don’t think it sits right with the vast majority of moms and dads in our province.”

Murielle Boudreau, of the Greater Toronto Catholic Parent Network, said Catholic parents aren’t happy that Mr. McGuinty is condoning such an explicit approach to sex education and she expected many would keep their children at home in protest.

“I don’t understand how the business of sensual behaviour between consenting adults has anything to do with Grade 3,” she said. “Grade 6? Getting them ready for masturbation and vaginal lubrication? Give me a break. They’re going to traumatize these children – they’re going to be doing everything out in the schoolyard.”


Australia: Small classes for schools a 'costly mistake'

Nice to hear the occasional voice of sanity on this

THE head of the Productivity Commission has attacked the emphasis on reducing class sizes in schools as "the most costly mistake" in education policy in recent years, stealing scarce resources from investment in teaching.

Productivity Commission chairman Gary Banks also pointed to the waste of money in highly bureaucratic state school systems, with NSW spending more money than Victoria per student to achieve similar results.

Mr Banks said the "performance of teachers appears not to have been a priority of education policy" and "if anything, attention to it seems to have been weakened over the years, at least until recently".

"Arguably the most costly mistake has been to spend scarce budgetary resources on smaller class sizes instead of better teachers, notwithstanding steadily accumulating evidence that smaller classes, in the ranges contemplated, were unlikely to achieve improved learning outcomes," Mr Banks said.

"While there are many more teachers in Australia than ever before. . .the average teacher who joined years ago seems to have effectively paid for this with a lower salary today."

Mr Banks's comments come as the federal government this week asked the Productivity Commission to look at the education and training workforce, including school teachers.

In a speech on the government's human capital agenda, delivered last week but released yesterday, Mr Banks said opposition to reform in the school sectors seemed "particularly strong and wrong-headed" but future policy needed to rest on the evidence of what worked.

Mr Banks said the debate over teachers' pay had to look not only at improving the overall rate of pay compared to other professions, but also paying more to certain types of teachers, such as maths and science teachers, who are in short supply.

"Currently, one finds little recognition in remuneration structures for experience or skill levels, let alone for scarcity, or the contentious matter of differential performance on the job," he said.

Mr Banks noted the $500 million partnership on teacher quality between the federal and state governments, which is trialling schemes to pay more to highly qualified teachers or those in remote or disadvantaged schools.

"The main constraint on their success -- or the scope to extend them -- may be resistance by teacher associations, rather than the budget," he said, pointing to objections by the NSW Teachers Federation to the introduction of a highly-paid teaching position for "highly accomplished teachers" in disadvantaged schools.

Mr Banks also championed autonomy for school principals, saying most had little or no say in hiring, firing or promoting staff. This ran counter to the trend internationally, with Australia being among the most centralised systems in the OECD.

"There is little between Victoria and NSW currently in relation to literacy and numeracy outcomes. What does seem clear is that Victoria's devolved system achieves comparable outcomes at a significantly lower cost per student than NSW's more highly centralised and bureaucratised one," he said.

"Or, to put it another way, NSW has achieved similar results to Victoria with additional resourcing."


Friday, April 23, 2010

FL: Crist signs school voucher legislation

With the stroke of a pen and solid bipartisan support, Gov. Charlie Crist on Thursday ushered in the most sweeping expansion of private-school vouchers in Florida history. Crist signed Senate Bill 2126, which significantly increases the value of a ``tax-credit voucher,'' offers more incentives to corporations to fund the program and essentially removes a cap on how much they can collectively give.

``This is the largest expansion of a voucher program in the country,'' said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who sponsored the House version of the bill. ``It's a good day for parents, good for students.''

``It's gone too far,'' countered Pinellas school board member Linda Lerner, who was among the plaintiffs in a successful effort to overturn another voucher program in 2006. ``It's time to get legal opinion about a legal challenge.''

Tax-credit vouchers are available to low-income students and funded by corporations that get dollar-for-dollar tax credits in return for contributing to them. Currently, 27,700 students - including 2,500 in the Tampa Bay area - use the vouchers, which are valued at $3,950 each.

But under SB 2126, the value of a voucher would grow over several years until it reached 80 percent of the state's per-pupil funding figure. At the current per-pupil rate of $6,866, the voucher amount would grow to $5,492, putting the cost of private school in reach for even more low-income families.

"Our sense is, the demand is there," said Jon East, spokesman for Step Up for Students, the Tampa-based outfit that provides the scholarships.

With little marketing, the program has grown an average of 22 percent a year for five years, East said. At that pace, it will have 70,000 students by 2015.

Vouchers have been controversial and divisive since former Gov. Jeb Bush led the fight for them in 1999. Supporters consider them a lifeline for high-poverty students and a competitive lever that forces public schools to improve. Critics see a drain on public school funding and, because so many private schools are faith-based, a dangerous blurring of church-state lines.


Pupil behaviour 'poor in fifth of British schools'

Behaviour is still not good enough in more than a fifth of secondary schools, according to figures. At least 700 state secondaries in England are failing to keep order to a high standard, it was revealed, despite hundreds of millions of pounds spent by Labour to crackdown on unruly pupils.

In some [minority] areas, behaviour was poor in more than half of comprehensives, figures suggested.

The disclosure comes just weeks after Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, told headteachers to take parents of the worst offenders to court for failing to control their children.

He said behaviour had improved dramatically under Labour but mothers and fathers had to play their part to make sure all pupils followed school rules.

According to figures, the number of schools with good or outstanding behaviour – the two top rankings on a four-point scale operated by Ofsted – has increased year-on-year since 2006.

But it suggests behaviour is still not good enough in more than 21 per cent of secondaries.

The conclusions follow a survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers last month that found a quarter of teachers had been forced to deal with violent pupils in the current academic year.

The Conservatives accused Labour of “undermining adult authority in schools”. Michael Gove, the Conservative shadow schools spokesman, said: “Over the last ten years teachers have been denied the power to keep order in the classroom and stop violent incidents. Unless there is good discipline pupils can't learn and teachers can't teach and the children who suffer most are the poorest.”

Mr Balls said: "It's encouraging that the number of schools judged good or outstanding for behaviour continues to increase and there are fewer schools with poor behaviour standards, even under the new inspection framework. "But I know there is more to do to make sure every school is an orderly place with strong discipline so no child's learning is disrupted by the bad behaviour of a minority."

Figures from the Department for Children, Schools and Families show that 78.6 per cent of secondaries had good or outstanding behaviour in December 2009. The figures – based on an official breakdown of judgments made by Ofsted – show that standards have steadily improved since 2006. Four years ago, some 73.7 per cent of schools imposed order to a high standard, rising to 74.5 per cent a year later and 76.1 per cent in 2008.

But the latest statistics reveal stark differences between areas. In Bradford, Hull, Brighton and Stockport more than half of schools were rated merely satisfactory or inadequate for behaviour – the watchdog’s bottom two rankings.

Last month, the Government suggested schools could crackdown on the worst pupils by targeting parents. Under plans, headteachers can apply for parenting orders, forcing mothers and fathers to attend counselling sessions and parenting classes, as well as setting out strict rules on how they should bring up sons and daughters.

This includes making sure children do not stay up late, ensuring they cannot get access to alcohol at home, getting them to school on time and making sure uniform rules are followed.

New powers for teachers to use force and search pupils without consent for alcohol, drugs, stolen property or weapons have also been introduced


British High School exams HAVE got easier, says Cambridge exams chief

GCSEs and A-levels really have got easier, an exams chief has admitted. Tim Oates, a key figure in Cambridge University's exams board, admitted his warning over 'grade inflation' could amount to a 'Ratner moment'.

In a paper designed to provoke debate about exam standards, he drew a comparison with jeweller Gerald Ratner, who in 1991 sent the value of his stores plummeting by admitting they sold 'crap'.

Mr Oates admitted exam boards had bowed to political pressure to make exams more 'accessible'. Pupils and teachers are also helped by guidance on how tests are marked. At the same time, A-levels, and increasingly GCSEs, had changed in structure to become 'modular', with pupils examined on their courses in bite-size chunks.

The measures had, over the years, led to 'subtle drift', Mr Oates admitted. It is thought to be the first time such a senior figure in the exams world has publicly acknowledged the possibility of the tests getting easier.

Mr Oates is head of research at Cambridge Assessment, the parent company of the OCR exam board, one of four offering GCSEs and A-levels in England and Wales. The company is a department of Cambridge University, and a non-profit agency.

His paper was published ahead of a conference on exam standards to be staged by Cambridge Assessment next week.

The controversial remarks emerged as another speaker at the conference - testing expert Professor Roger Murphy - warned that trusting GCSE and A-level results was 'dangerous' because grades were only 'approximations' of pupils' ability.

The men's comments are part of a drive to shine a light on the shadowy world of exam grading.

The proportion of typical A-level students gaining three A-levels has risen to 17 per cent from 7 per cent in the mid-1990s.

Mr Oates said: 'Giving the benefit of the doubt to pupils - consistent with the general moral sense of "access" and "best chance" which was foremost in the political agenda - can result in subtle grade inflation.'

He went on: 'Increasing access, updating content, switching to modular/unit provision - and being as transparent as possible over mark schemes, grade criteria and guidance - have all been fervent pre-occupations of policy makers and the education establishment. Awarding bodies delivered on that agenda. 'To investigate possible grade inflation, to publicly acknowledge that there may have been subtle drift, and that a reorientation of standards might be required, sounds like a "Ratner moment" for awarding bodies.' But he said boards must not shy away from self-criticism.

But Professor Murphy, of Nottingham University, said it was wrong to try to turn grading into an 'exact science'. He said: 'Most examinations require the person taking them to undertake a sample of tasks and do not attempt to provide a comprehensive examination of the area under assessment.

'Give the candidate a different sample of tasks and almost certainly they will produce a different performance. 'Give them the tasks on a different day and their performance may vary again. 'Give their responses to a range of different examiners to mark and again you will probably get different judgments.'


Thursday, April 22, 2010

The virtual university

This article is from a Leftist source so is a bit starry-eyed but there are some good points in it

Young people worldwide are caught between the spiraling cost of college and an apparently bottomless hunger for it. According to a 2009 report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), today 150 million students are enrolled in some kind of education beyond high school, a 53 percent increase in less than one decade. With such numbers, there is no foreseeable way enough traditional universities could be physically built in the next two decades to match the demand.

Meanwhile, here in America, the birthplace of mass higher education, we are stalling in our educational attainment while the rest of the world is roaring ahead. In the U.S., about 30 percent of high school students drop out, and just 56 percent of college freshmen complete their bachelor's degree after six years, 150 percent of the time allotted. Only a little more than a third of Americans end up with any kind of college degree. For more than a century, arguably the world's most educated nation, we've now fallen behind nine others. Unlike citizens of every other rich country except Germany, Americans in their late teens and early 20s are no more educated than older generations.

President Barack Obama clearly understands the problem. In his first address to Congress, he promised, "We will provide the support necessary for all [young Americans] to complete college and meet a new goal: By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."

Obama has appointed some wonderful advocates for students to the Department of Education. His administration has backed great proposals, like increasing the Pell grant's maximum amount, cutting corporate subsidies out of the student-loan program, simplifying the federal student-aid application process, and raising funding for community colleges. But nothing on the table addresses the underlying issues that make tuition rise or the capacity problems and leaks in the system.

College tuition has been outpacing inflation for decades. Between 1990 and 2008, tuition and fees rose 248 percent in real dollars, more than any other major component of the consumer price index. Raising the Pell grant's maximum doesn't address this underlying problem. Constant transfusions of public money help keep the patient alive but do not stop the bleeding.

What's to be done about dropout rates and outstanding student-loan debt that currently totals over $730 billion, or $23,200 per graduating senior in 2008? At first, I stood with progressives who say the federal government should increase grants and rein in the parasitic student-loan business. But while the student-loan industry has been part of the problem, and more grants are part of the solution, there is more to this story.

The higher-education system has a lot in common with another great challenge our country is confronting: health care. Colleges, like hospitals, have little incentive to conserve resources or compete on price. They can actually gain prestige by raising tuition. They shift costs to students to make up for gaps in state funding and then hand out grant money to the applicants they want the most, not the ones who need the most help. Community colleges dedicated to serving the poorest get a fraction of the public money that goes to flagship state universities.

The fact is, as aspirations toward, and for, higher learning grow, the model of inexorably growing bureaucratic institutions of formal education is under extreme pressure. "Our learning institutions, for the most part, are acting as if the world has not suddenly, irrevocably, cataclysmically, epistemically changed -- and changed precisely in the area of learning," Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg write in their 2009 book The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age. Universities may be on the brink of a phase change from something monolithic to something more fluid: a sea of smaller, more specialized and diverse institutions offering a greater variety of learning opportunities, a cloud of ideas, texts, and conversations. More than one in five of the nation's 19 million college students took at least one online class by the fall of 2006, according to a study by the Sloan Consortium, but technology hasn't yet changed the prevailing model or brought down costs in higher education as it has for so many other industries.

Princeton economists William Bowen and William Baumol argued in their 1966 book, Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma, that modernization, mechanization, and efficiency just plain escape certain areas of human endeavor. If you want a proper Beethoven string quartet, you can't cut the cellist, and you can't squeeze in more performances by playing the music faster. Just as there is no substitute for the concert hall experience, the writers argue, there is no substitute for being in the classroom with a professor. Higher education and health care, as well as the arts, are subject to a "cost disease."

Today, live performance is still vibrant and without rival. However, the music aficionado has opportunities that go far beyond what could have been imagined when Beethoven was composing or even when Baumol and Bowen were writing. My husband's grandparents go to a New York City movie theater to watch a live broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera's Tosca. If I search YouTube for "Beethoven," I can watch 80,800 videos, like of the late Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan conducting the full "Seventh Symphony in A Major." Contemporary composers can record entire symphonies from their bedrooms. Musicians from around the world can collaborate and perform for an audience of millions without ever meeting each other. The marginal cost of distributing a copy of a musical recording around the world has dropped to pretty much zero.

The same is happening in education. Since 2001, a growing movement -- from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, and hundreds of other universities worldwide to insurgent bloggers and entrepreneurs barely out of school themselves -- is looking to social media to transform higher education. They're releasing educational content for free to the world and enlisting computers as tutors. Google has scanned and digitized 7 million books. Wikipedia users have created the world's largest encyclopedia. YouTube Edu and iTunes U have made video and audio lectures by the best professors in the country available for free.

The face-to-face learning experience, like the live concert experience, remains inimitable. Research shows that, at its best, hybrid learning beats both online-only and classroom-only approaches. Learners can take in and retain more content faster and more easily, form strong mentoring and teamwork relationships, grow into self-directed, creative problem solvers, and publish portfolios of meaningful work that help jobs find them. These innovations hold out the tantalizing possibility of beating the cost disease while meeting the world's demand for higher education.

As exhilarating as this future sounds for students, there is plenty of anxiety about the transition. "Thinking Big in a Crisis" was the title of a summer 2009 higher-education policy summit in Washington, D.C., featuring representatives from the worlds of journalism and architecture sharing war stories about the scary impact of the Web on existing business models. Later that summer, I attended an Open Education conference in Vancouver titled "Crossing the Chasm." The pace of transformation is uneven. Existing institutions don't want to give up their authority, nor faculty their jobs. Even among early adopters, there's a divide over basic issues: Some see an economic opportunity, while others are eager to spread free education; some want the university to absorb the new information technologies, while others see the digital age absorbing the university.

As a print journalist, I'm all too aware that a cardinal way the Internet has disrupted traditional knowledge industries is through disaggregation or unbundling of services. In the case of a daily newspaper, for example, Craigslist replaced the classifieds, Yahoo! Finance the stock listings, the sports scores, bloggers the op-eds. Newspapers are making shaky attempts to profit from their remaining unique strengths in local and investigative reporting.

Higher education is not just an industry. Still, from students' point of view, colleges do provide a bundle of services. You crack a book or go to lecture and learn about the world. You go to labs or write papers and build a skill set. You form relationships with classmates and teachers and learn about yourself. You get a diploma, and the world can learn about you. Content, skills, socialization, and accreditation.

The Web and allied technologies can make each of these services better, cheaper, more accessible, and even free to the student. Content, whether text, video, audio, or game-based, has progressed the furthest along that path. Interactive teaching algorithms can adapt to your learning style on the fly, allowing you to grasp concepts intuitively and at your own pace. And the Internet hasn't just changed the way we consume information. It has altered the way we interact. Social media can help students and teachers form learning communities. Reputation, assessment, and certification are held jealously as a monopoly by existing institutions, but new tools and models are knocking on that door, too.

"If universities can't find the will to innovate and adapt to changes in the world around them," professor David Wiley of Brigham Young University has written on his blog, "universities will be irrelevant by 2020."

Open content -- also known as open courseware, or open educational resources (OER) -- can mean any use of the Web to share the fruits of faculty time, from curricula to lesson plans to texts to original research. As Wikipedia is to a conventional encyclopedia, open content is to a conventional textbook or lecture hall. Both open-source software and Creative Commons, a nonprofit set up in 2001 to create the intellectual and legal framework to share or remix creative work found online, share intellectual DNA with OER. For example, you can search the photo Web site Flickr for CC-licensed images and use them like stock photos, for free, to illustrate a blog post, so long as you live up to the requirements of the CC license, such as crediting the creator or linking back to the original photo on Flickr.

More than a technical innovation, CC has spread to millions of works in all media and become the focus of what thinkers like Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, author of the book Remix, term the "copyleft" movement. "What happened was unexpected," says Ahrash Bissell, former director of CCLearn, the educational division of Creative Commons. "We tapped into this social dimension of people who are hungry to be able to stand up and say, 'Yes, I am part of this new and exciting universe of possibility around distributed collaboration and adaptation.'"

Those values -- distributed collaboration and adaptation -- are central to open education. The ball got rolling in 2001 with the OpenCourseWare project at MIT, funded by the Hewlett and Andrew W. Mellon foundations. If you go to MIT's Web site today, you can find the full syllabi, lecture notes, class exercises, tests, and some video and audio for every one of the 1,900 courses MIT offers, from physics to art history. By the end of 2009, some 65 million current students, aspiring students, alumni, professors, and armchair enthusiasts around the world had checked them out.

"Education has a long, long history of a gift economy around knowledge," says Steve Carson, a director of MIT's project, explaining why the university devotes up to $15,000 per course in development costs from its own budget to put each course online to everyone for free. "That ethos underpins both open-source software and educational sharing." Over 200 institutions in over 30 countries have posted courses online at the OpenCourseWare Consortium under CC licensing. Countries from Kenya to the Netherlands have started their own open courseware repositories. China's Ministry of Education has been funding the release of university courses since 2003; over 10,000 courses are now available for free online, many including video.

These materials have been accumulating for several years now, but most colleges have yet to fully take advantage of them. Students spend an average of $1,000 a year on textbooks, and faculty spend countless hours preparing and updating course materials, which prompts the question: What will it take for colleges to realize the power of free and open resources and use them to cut educational costs?


Britain: Conservative vision for education 'will change schools for the better'

The writer below sees no need for radical change but that probably reflects today's wishy-washy British Conservative thinking

When the Liberal MP WE Forster masterminded the successful passage of the Education Act, 1870, the main opposition to the legislation came from within his own party. He did in fact rely on Conservative support for his measure to become law.

No one would deny that Forster’s eventual Act, introducing primary schooling for most children, was a big step forward. One hundred and 40 years on and as the electoral campaign begins to heat up, the Conservative Party is determined to welcome in a new vision for educational change and to stamp home its message should they be able to gain enough seats in the House of Commons after the next general election.

But what do the Tories stand for in education? What policies are they unveiling for schools and for the teaching profession? In this article, I will put forward some of the keynote school and teacher policies currently supported by the Conservative Party.

An important starting point for a new Conservative government would be the schools. The Conservative Party would legislate at the outset to open more academies, and radically reform Ofsted, the body in charge of inspecting standards in schools.

Much effort will go towards using the best schools to help the ones that are struggling.

Michael Gove MP, Shadow Secretary for Children, Schools and Families, would promote a Bill, to become law by the end of July 2010, leading to the creation of new academies.

The Tories would be able to build on the record of the Labour Government, and they would seemingly enhance the status of the academy and the attractions of combining the best of the public with the best of private provision in the school system.

In a similar vein Kunskapsskolan (translates into English as the ‘knowledge school’), Sweden’s largest supplier of independent schools, provides an important model for change. This scheme envisages that greater choice will be made available to parents, regardless of their income.

Teachers would be given far more freedom to develop innovative practices in the way they teach children and it is evident that vital lessons can be learnt from Sweden and many of the schools in that country.

Cameron and his team believe that schools thrive when they are allowed the freedom to innovate. Academies and schools based on the Kunskapsskolan blueprint could benefit from other freedoms such as the right to shape the curriculum, to exclude disruptive pupils, and to choose the best elements in the private and public sectors. And to enforce their own discipline.

I can’t see much wrong with this kind of approach, but an emphasis must, on this policy, in my view, be placed on the importance of compassion and care and on not forgetting that the poor and deprived deserve more than just lip service and are more often than not in need of special help and consideration.

Cameron himself has been touched by the sad loss of his disabled son, Ivan, who passed at the age of six. Conservative policies designed for disabled children open the door for children in need either to attend mainstream schools or go to special schools. This will avoid the sort of blanket solution that many previous governments have mistakenly pursued.

The Conservatives also aim to replace the leadership of those schools with persistent serious problems. Where Ofsted judges that schools are failing to teach the basics properly, where discipline is absent and where the leadership has failed, they will install leadership teams with a track record of success.

As far as inspection is concerned outstanding schools will too be free from Ofsted inspection. Improvements in discipline are, moreover, a key tenet behind the Tory programme.

Quangos, those organisations or agencies that are financed by a government but that act independently of it, that are wasteful will meet with the full force of Tory venom and I would expect where savings can be made the money would be best spent on helping directly to finance projects in schools that really give a boost to realise as the full potential of school children.

However, root and branch reforms are not always the best way ahead.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, the regulatory body for public examinations and publicly funded qualifications such as GCSEs and A-levels, is, for instance, one quango ready for the chop, and a degree of understanding might be advised. The QCDA, for instance, has done much work in the area of disability awareness, and success in this area, particularly for the deaf and visually impaired, should not be overlooked.

Yet the QCDA might be stripped of its control to meddle with A-levels, and instead they would be given back to the universities and exam boards. This would reverse decline in the A-level's reputation globally and help bring back the former prestige and status attached to the delivery of the nation’s examinations.

Cameron has been inspired by the passion for their subject shown by teachers across many disciplines and in many different schools and colleges he would like to build the National Curriculum around a basic entitlement to study scientific disciplines in a more rigorous manner: each of the three basic sciences would be given greater depth and detail than at present.

Turning to the teachers – those heroes without whom everything would collapse – what do the Tories have in store for them? Professional status is one dominant value and it definitely appears that the Conservatives are keen to improve the lot of the classroom teacher.

Economic stringency might limit the rewards going into their pockets and it might be hard to give in too liberally to teachers in their demands for substantial pay increases when there are so many additional deserving cases contributing to society and the economy.

Teachers’ academic credentials will no doubt be greater and those with the basic pass degree might find that their options to take up teaching would be limited.

Speaking with Nick Gibb MP, the Shadow Minister for Schools since July 2009, I learnt that he is very sympathetic to causes which help teachers. A Royal College of Teachers established along the lines of the royal colleges in the medical profession sounds an intriguing plan, and is supported in the House of Lords by Baroness Pauline Perry.

For such a reform the Conservatives would be wise to get teachers support first and to continue to consider the role of bodies such as the existing College of Teachers, the world’s oldest surviving teachers’ society, incorporated by Royal Charters in 1849 and 1998.

On the other hand, Cameron has less passion for the General Teaching Council for England, the watchdog of the teaching profession, brought in by New Labour, and similar to the GMC in the medical profession.

I doubt whether Cameron would abolish it but a revised role for this body, might well be in the interests of teachers who are generally reluctant to have their annual fee for membership forcefully extracted from their salary, as has been the case since 2000.

The GTC for England clearly needs to focus on primarily being in charge of teachers’ discipline though with perhaps less stress on naming and shaming those found guilty of misconduct...


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The bubble in for-profit schooling

In the midst of economic depression, the for-profit trade-school industry is booming. Enrollment has grown 20% annually over the past two years, and some experts predict that revenue may increase as much as eightfold over the next decade. Entrepreneurs and economists alike would usually commend such a herculean performance and credit the basic laws of supply and demand at work; however, this growth has not been earned by free-market means such as innovation, efficiency, and accurate forecasting.

Instead, the giants of for-profit education have grown fat on a steady diet of government credit by cleverly maneuvering their way through a vast field of regulatory landmines to take advantage of federal-aid programs aimed at helping those they ultimately hurt — students. As expected, many have ignorantly aimed their weaponry at the profit motive, instead of unleashing their fury on the root cause: government interference in the market.

For-profit trade schools have long been marred by controversy stemming from questionable business practices and accusations of sub-par education. For example, only 16% of University of Phoenix students without prior college experience graduate within six years, compared to nearly 50% at traditional schools; moreover, Corinthian Colleges Inc., which owns Everest College, agreed to pay $6.5 million in 2007 to settle a lawsuit that claimed they engaged in false advertising by overstating starting-salary information. Unimpressive outcomes and multimillion dollar lawsuits have become synonymous with the for-profit trade school industry.

Under market conditions, such dismal performance would unquestionably have a substantive impact on a company's bottom line; after all, if an airline agreed to bring its passengers to Maui but instead brought them to Midland, a rational observer would expect the business to founder soon after. In essence, this is precisely what for-profit trade schools are doing — promising paradise in the form of high-paying jobs and delivering destitution in the form of unimpressive career prospects and heavy government-sponsored debt burdens. In fact, the average debt for students graduating from proprietary schools in 2008 was an astounding $33,050 — a substandard return on investment, considering many struggle to achieve hourly wages above $12 in the workforce.

Unlike the fate of our incompetent airliner, however, trade schools continue to fill their seats. In 2009, the publicly traded giant Career Education Corporation (CEC), which owns Le Cordon Bleu and American Intercontinental University, reported revenue of $1.84 billion, a 10.6% increase over 2008. Similarly, Apollo Group, which owns University of Phoenix, has seen enrollment nearly double since 2004. Federal loans and grants accounted for 80% and 86% of their revenues, respectively while this figure jumps to 88% industrywide. To understand how unsatisfactory student outcomes can be accompanied by increased profits, one need not look further than the effects of federal financial aid (FFA) on the industry's pricing system.

"In essence, FFA allows for-profit schools to increase their prices significantly above what they would be in a true market."

In a free market, the ability to satisfy an obligation is a basic consideration of almost any transaction; with a reputation for not satisfactorily settling his debts, one is hard-pressed to find a willing creditor. However, creditors might be keen on accepting a high degree of risk in exchange for a larger return; this risk is directly reflected in the form of higher relative interest rates.

In essence, a market has natural mechanisms for punishing credit abusers, mechanisms that decrease the likelihood that these individuals will be the beneficiaries of credit in future transactions.

Unfortunately, much to the dismay of the American taxpayer, such mechanisms are not intrinsic in FFA, where everyone enjoys equal status regardless of their ability to satisfy debt-related obligations. Only in rare instances, such as prior default on student loans, will government restrict access to this ubiquitous program. While some may champion FFA by arguing the merits of readily accessible education, they fail to heed the lessons taught to us by Henry Hazlitt in his masterpiece Economics in One Lesson. In particular, advocates conveniently overlook the unintended consequences of systematically extending credit to undeserving debtors: higher prices and default.

When government offers virtually unfettered access to student loans, it artificially increases the threshold of what students can afford. Many would presume this to be a highly desirable outcome and precisely the reason FFA exists. However, this reasoning fails to account for the causal relationship between FFA and prices: tuition rates are not only based on factors such as the costs of delivering education, the industry's competitive landscape, and the economy as a whole, but also on demand, which encompasses the ability of students to pay for the education they consume.

In essence, FFA allows for-profit schools to increase their prices significantly above what they would be in a true market. If FFA were eliminated or significantly scaled back, schools would be forced to decrease their prices to the point of market efficiency or face a catastrophic decrease in enrollment industrywide. Only then would students receive a market-based return on investment in their education.

Moreover, it's commonsensical that systematically extending credit to high-risk borrowers has dire consequences for creditors and debtors alike. Unqualified borrowing, in addition to paltry completion rates and low admission standards, has caused for-profit education to become a breeding ground for student-loan default. A US Government Accountability Office analysis of the 2004 federal student loans cohort default rate has shown that 23.3% of proprietary students default on loans within four years. In a private transaction, this would generally be of little or no consequence to the average citizen; however, because these losses are socialized, one can reasonably conclude that the financial success of for-profit schools is being bankrolled by American taxpayers.

Many schools have begun offering their own institutional loans to stay in compliance with federal regulations such as the "90/10" rule, which stipulates that no less than 10% of a school's revenue must come from nongovernmental sources; failure to adhere to this guideline could result in FFA funds being frozen, a cataclysmic result for any of the major trade schools.

To prevent the well from drying up, CEC planned on giving approximately $50 million in institutional loans in 2009, which helped them maintain a sufficient gap between public and private student funding. Interestingly, some schools are setting aside as much as 50% of these reserves as losses, clearly indicating that they have relatively little faith in the ability of their students to honor debt obligations. One cannot help but wonder how taxpayers can reasonably expect to collect their dues when for-profit schools can't collect such debts themselves. There is something terribly awry with this system.


Government interference in the marketplace has allowed for-profit schools to realize immense profits at the expense of American taxpayers. By offering virtually unfettered access to FFA, these institutions are able to increase prices significantly beyond true market value to students who pose a high risk for default. Privatized profits and socialized losses are the result of such a system.

Profits, per se, are not to be demonized; rather, the role of government-backed loans in private transactions must be called into question. For-profit schools can play a significant role in educating a traditionally underserved market; however, for their thousands of students to be the beneficiaries of such education, the market must be freed of governmental involvement.


SCOTUS to consider religious discrimination allegations vs. law school

At the oldest law school in the West, law is being made this semester, not just taught.

In a case that carries great implications for how public universities and schools must accommodate religious groups, the University of California's Hastings College of the Law is defending its anti-discrimination policy against charges that it denies religious freedom.

The college, which requires officially recognized student groups to admit any Hastings student who wants to join, may be well-meaning, says the student outpost of the Christian Legal Society. But the group contends that requiring it to allow gay students and nonbelievers into its leadership would be a renunciation of its core beliefs, and that the policy violates the Constitution's guarantee of free speech, association with like-minded individuals and exercise of religion.

"Hastings' policy is a threat to every group that seeks to form and define its own voice," the group told the court in a brief. The case, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, will be argued in the Supreme Court Monday morning.

Hastings counters that the CLS, a national organization that seeks to "proclaim, love and serve Jesus Christ through the study and practice of law," is demanding special treatment. It wants the college's official stamp of approval and the access to benefits and student activity fees that come with it, but it will not commit to following the nondiscrimination policy that every other student group follows.

The CLS is not being forced to do anything, Hastings contends. "A group may abide by the school's viewpoint-neutral open-membership policy and obtain the modest funding and benefits that go along with school recognition, or forgo recognition and do as it wishes," it said in its brief.

The case poses a quandary for a court that has recognized both the ability of public universities and schools to control the use of their facilities and funds and the right of religious groups to select members based on their beliefs. It comes as religious groups have become more active and litigious in demanding a place in the public forum of free speech.

Christian groups have brought suits against similar policies across the country, from the University of Florida to Boise State University. "In every case . . . either the courts have ruled for the religious student group or the university has settled or mooted the case by revoking its unconstitutional policy," the CLS brief asserts.

The controversy also raises questions about who needs protection. CLS lawyer Michael W. McConnell, a former federal judge and director of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center, likens the underdog status of Christian groups at liberal law schools such as Hastings to the way gay rights groups might have felt on a Southern campus years ago.

"One of the things I find kind of pleasantly ironic about the briefing in this case is we find ourselves relying on about a dozen cases that involve gay rights groups in universities," said McConnell, who was appointed as an appellate judge by President George W. Bush. The other side, he said, relies on decisions and legislative acts that helped Bible clubs.

Hastings has also brought in high-powered help. It is represented by Gregory G. Garre, a solicitor general under Bush who is now in private practice. The National Center for Lesbian Rights, which represented a campus gay rights group called Hastings Outlaw that is a party to the case, has made way at the high court for Washington lawyer Paul M. Smith. He successfully argued Lawrence v. Texas, in which the court struck down a state law making homosexual conduct illegal.

They are joined by 37 organizations and states who have filed amicus briefs. Notably missing is the Obama administration, which chose not to get involved.

More here

British bishop fears loss of faith schools

A senior Roman Catholic bishop criticised the Liberal Democrats yesterday for an election pledge that could result in the abolition of religious schools. The Lib Dem manifesto commits the party to stopping Catholic, Anglican and Jewish schools from selecting pupils on grounds of faith.

Critics say the policy will effectively spell the abolition of schools that have succeeded in delivering high quality education over generations.

The Catholic bishops have refused on principle to be drawn into party politics during the general election campaign. But the Rt Rev Malcolm McMahon, the Bishop of Nottingham, broke ranks to accuse the Lib Dems of seeking to destroy the partnership between the state and the churches in the provision of education.

“Catholics should give it very serious consideration before they vote Liberal Democrat,” said Bishop McMahon, the chairman of the Department for Education of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. “Our position is that every person should have the right to bring up their children according to their consciences.”

The policy is contained in a section of the Lib Dem election manifesto entitled Freeing Schools for Excellence. “We will ensure that all faith schools develop an inclusive admissions policy and end unfair discrimination on grounds of faith,” the policy states.

Critics said that if the policy was implemented 4,470 Church of England, 2,300 Catholic and 85 Jewish schools would lose control of the admissions process.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

An open letter to high school science students

Always be inquisitive about science. As Will Rogers said, “Everyone is ignorant; just on different subjects.” Even an individual with a Ph.D. in science does not know everything in science.

The reason why you need to be curious and questioning about science is that there is a lot of false science being generated because of politics. This false science is backed by billions of dollars in special interests. Unfortunately, this false science is being spread by television, newspapers and magazines. It is also spread by those who benefit financially from the false science. Sadly, many Americans do not question science as to whether it is true or false, thereby making it much easier for false science to control lives and cause the loss of individual freedoms.

Here are some examples of scientific things about which you should be curious. For a thousand years, scientists have used what is called “the Scientific Method” to solve scientific problems. The four steps to the scientific method are (1) observe and describe a phenomenon; (2) formulate a hypothesis to explain the phenomenon; (3) use the hypothesis to predict; and (4) perform experimental tests of predictions to obtain reproducible test results.

Question why so-called experts in global warming cannot get to Step (4) which is to obtain reproducible test results. There simply are no reproducible test results. Ask others why scientists who advocate anthropogenic (man-made) climate change cannot obtain reproducible test results.

Here is another scientific thing to be curious about. Energy is measured in British Thermal Units, BTUs. A gallon of biofuel contains only 61% of the energy in a gallon of gasoline. Therefore, it takes 1.64 gallons of biofuel to do the same amount of work as one gallon of gasoline. Burning that amount of biofuel emits about a pound more of carbon dioxide into the air than burning a gallon of gasoline. Therefore, using so-called “clean” renewable biofuel instead of a gallon of gasoline will emit about a pound more carbon dioxide into the air. Be curious. Ask others why anyone would want to use biofuel instead of a gallon of gasoline since it emits about a pound more of carbon dioxide into the air.

This brings up another scientific thing to be curious about. Since using biofuel emits more carbon dioxide into the air than using gasoline, and since our climate policy is to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide into the air, our energy policy to switch to biofuels conflicts with our climate policy to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. Ask others why we have this conflict in scientific policies.

Here is something else to be curious about. I have asked famous global warming scientists this simple question, and they have been unable to provide a scientific answer. Why is it that carbon dioxide from carbonated beverages, pets, cattle, farm animals, humans, yeast, dry ice, fireplaces, charcoal grills, campfires, wildfires, alcohol and ethanol is good, and carbon dioxide from fossil fuel is bad? Ask others to explain why carbon dioxide from fossil fuel is bad.

Here is yet another thing to be curious about. The United States does not have enough crop land to grow crops for enough biofuel to replace our current oil demand of 15.1 million barrels per day. In fact, using our entire corn crop land, we can only produce enough ethanol, after 12 more years of increasing ethanol production, to provide 15% of our current oil demand. Using the size of New Mexico, our 5th largest state, as a measurement, switchgrass would require crop land—which we do not have—2.6 times the size of New Mexico, sugar cane 3.8 times the size of New Mexico, and palm oil 4.6 times the size of New Mexico. Algae would require a controlled chemical tank 1.5 times the size of New Mexico. Ask others how renewable biofuel can replace oil when the US simply does not have the crop land to replace more than 15% of current oil demand.

Be curious about science as it relates to increasing taxes, particularly taxes on oil. All oil wells decline in production. Each oil well has an economic limit that is the producing rate below which the well will start losing money. The equation for calculating the economic limit of an oil well contains four parameters, taxes, operating costs, royalty and oil price. Raising taxes destroys proven oil reserves by raising the economic limit, thereby shortening the life of the well. Ask others to explain why they would want to increase taxes on oil since doing so would destroy proven oil reserves.

If you get a reasonable and understandable scientific answer to any of the above six scientific questions relating to climate change and “cap and trade,” please let me know immediately. The public needs to know the answers to all six questions before any decision is made.

Inquire! From inquiry comes knowledge. Question anything I have said which you do not fully understand. I will be glad to explain in much more detail.


The possibilities and limitations of educational alternatives

Last week, I wrote that we needed many more options in education than the traditional public school. In his latest column, Steve Chapman echoes that sentiment but cautions that no single alternative is likely to bring revolutionary change. For instance, Chapman looks at the lackluster results from the voucher program in Milwaukee:
In 1990, in one of the most innovative developments in modern American education, the Milwaukee public schools created a parental choice system. Some low-income parents got vouchers that could be used to send their children to private schools.

It was a richly promising idea. The new option would let disadvantaged kids escape wretched public schools. Competition would force public schools to improve or close. Students would learn more.

Twenty years have passed. Last week, researchers at the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas published their latest assessment of the results.

What did they find? Something unexpected: Kids in the program do no better than everyone else. “At this point,” said professor Patrick J. Wolf, “the voucher students are showing average rates of achievement gain similar to their public school peers.”

Although I agree with Chapman’s main point, I think he is too critical here. Voucher students score basically the same as public school students, but the graduation rate for students receiving vouchers is 77% to 65% for students without the voucher, which is hardly insignificant. Even more striking, especially in such a lean fiscal year, voucher students attain the same level of education as their public school peers for less than half the cost — $6,400 a year for voucher students against $14,000 for public school students. In other words, the private schools are doing the same job with half the resources. Cutting costs without substantially improving educational outcomes is not worthy of a standing ovation, but it at least deserves mild applause. The same point can be made about charter schools.

That said, Chapman’s conclusion is incredibly wise:
What should we learn from these experiences? Not that nothing works, but that few if any remedies work consistently in different places with different populations. We shouldn’t expect that broad, one-size-fits-all changes imposed by the federal government—such as those offered by the Obama administration—will pay off in student performance.

From the local school district to the federal Department of Education, humility, caution, and open-mindedness are in order. Because right now, the main thing we know about improving schools is that we don’t know very much.

This is why changes in the educational system should come from the bottom up. Students, parents, and individual schools and districts should be encouraged to experiment and imitate those experiments that work. Grandiose nationwide (and even statewide) plans, on the other hand, have a tendency to ignore local and individual particulars. Ignoring those particulars all too often leads to general failure.


Class size not important in education say German researchers

One of many such findings

Smaller school classes, long the holy grail of politicians, parents and educationalists aiming to improve performance, do not actually have any affect on children’s achievements, according to a new study.

And the researchers showed that a child’s social background was a very important factor when it came to whether he or she would be sent to a university track school, or Gymnasium.

Scientists who examined data from recent international primary school test results concluded the most important thing was for the teaching to be good, and for additional support lessons to be provided to children who were struggling.

“An effect from class size is not demonstrable,” the researchers write in their analysis of the 2006 data, reported in Der Spiegel on Saturday.

Working under the Dortmund educational researcher Wilfried Bos, the group examined a number of different factors including the social status of parents, and the recommendation of a school of whether a child should go to Gymnasium.

They confirmed the results of other studies which suggested that children from higher social classes had clearly better educational chances than those from worker families.

The chances of a child from a higher social class going to Gymnasium are around four times those of a child from a working class family, they said.

Even when the children have matching scores in reading and other capabilities, those from a higher social background are on average still three times as likely to get into a Gymnasium than those from a lower social class, they concluded.


Monday, April 19, 2010

PA: School district snapped thousands of student images

The suburban Philadelphia school district accused of spying on students using school-issued laptops snapped thousands of images of teenagers in their homes, including shots of a boy asleep in his bed, documents filed in a lawsuit claimed Thursday.

In a motion filed April 15 by Michael and Holly Robbins, and their teenage son Blake, the family's attorney said Lower Merion School District personnel remotely activated Blake's MacBook over 400 times in a 15-day stretch last fall, taking photos using the notebook's camera and snapping images of the computer's screen.

"There were numerous webcam pictures of Blake and other members of his family, including pictures of Blake partially undressed and of Blake sleeping," alleged the motion. Screenshots of Blake's conversations with friends using instant messaging were also taken, said his lawyer.

The motion claimed that the LANRev software Lower Merion used to track stolen, lost or missing MacBooks took "thousands of webcam and screen shots ... of numerous other students in their homes, many of which never reported their laptops lost of missing." Among the photographs were some of a student who had a name similar to another student's who had reported a missing notebook.

Lower Merion, of Ardmore, Pa., was first sued by the Robbins family in mid-February, when they alleged that the district spied on Blake Robbins using his laptop. Later, Robbins said, a Harriton High School assistant principal accused him of selling drugs and taking pills, and used a snapshot taken by the computer as evidence. Robbins claimed the pictures showed him eating candy.

The motion filed on Thursday asked U.S. District Court Judge Jan DuBois to grant the Robbins' attorney access to the home of Carol Cafiero, information systems coordinator for the district, to seize any computers found in her home. Cafiero is one of two district employees who were put on paid administrative leave by Lower Merion in late February pending the ongoing investigation. According to her attorney, Cafiero only triggered the remote monitoring feature on school officials' orders.

Cafiero's computers' hard drives will be imaged, and the machines returned to her within 48 hours, the motion said. "There is reason to believe that evidence may be found on her personal home computer of the downloading of the pictures obtained from the LANRev 'peeping tom' technology," the Robbins' attorney argued.

The motion noted that Cafiero cited her right under the Fifth Amendment to not answer questions during a recent deposition, which she had earlier contested. "Unlike any of the witnesses asked to testify, [Cafiero] invokes the Fifth Amendment to every question asked of her, including a question asked as to whether she had ever downloading [sic] pictures to her personal computer, including pictures of students who were naked while in their home."


“The Federal Takeover of Higher Education Financing: Why Obama’s Boost Could Bust Taxpayers”

America’s colleges and universities might not qualify as bailout material, but the nation should get ready for what amounts to a federal takeover of higher education financing. Legislation signed March 30 by President Barack Obama practically seals the deal. And despite the administration’s claims to the contrary, taxpayers may find the transition exceedingly expensive.

The measure, tacked onto the massive health care overhaul, requires that campuses using the prevailing system – federally-guaranteed private-sector lending – must move to federal direct lending. The latter program has been in place for more than 15 years. President Obama wants to make it the only game in town. Banks, credit unions and other private lenders would still be allowed to operate, but without backing from Washington. With an Obama-style ‘let’s-get-it-done’ clap of the hands, the law mandates that all colleges and universities switch by July 1. The legislation also relaxes loan repayment terms; provides massive funding for Pell Grants; and boosts aid to historically black institutions.

The president is trumpeting the switch to direct lending as a victory for the American people and a blow to avaricious lenders and servicing firms. “For almost two decades,” Obama announced at the signing ceremony on the Alexandria campus of Northern Virginia Community College (where Vice-President Joe Biden’s wife, Jill, teaches English), “we’ve been trying to fix a sweetheart deal in federal law that essentially gave billions of dollars to banks. Those were billions of dollars that could have been spent helping more of our students attend and complete college.” Those “unnecessary middlemen,” as Obama described them, now would be virtually obsolete.

The White House estimates elimination of government fees payable to private-sector intermediaries would save taxpayers $68 billion through 2020, a savings that presumably will pay for other programs. Yet experience suggests that the savings will not materialize and that more taxes will be needed.

Before casting doubt on the new system, it’s essential to understand what it replaces. That would be the Federal Family Education Loan Program, or FFELP. Created by Congress in 1965 as part of the Higher Education Act, FFELP is an elaborate public-private partnership in which participating for-profit, nonprofit and state lenders underwrite and/or service loans to borrowers with a limited income or credit history.

The program now serves in excess of six million participants, underwriting more than $55 billion a year in new loans, or more than 75 percent of the federal total. FFELP consists primarily of Stafford and PLUS components. Stafford loans, which run from 10 to 30 years, can be interest-subsidized or unsubsidized based on financial necessity. PLUS loans are available to parents of dependent undergraduate and graduate students, and cover the full cost of attendance minus outside aid.(The means-tested Perkins loan program may be part of either FFELP or direct lending).

Fueling much of the FFELP’s rapid growth over the last couple decades has been SLM Corp., better known as ‘Sallie Mae.’ Chartered by Congress in 1972 as a Government-Sponsored Enterprise, Student Loan Marketing Association, the Reston, Va.-based Fortune 500 company has an active loan portfolio of nearly $190 billion covering some 10 million students and parents. Having phased in a full privatization plan during 1997-2004, Sallie Mae engages in a wide range of lending, servicing and counseling activities.

It soon will scale them back. Sallie Mae, unlike the residential mortgage industry’s roughly equivalent Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (which thus far have received a combined more than $125 billion in federal bailout money), can be seen as the inverse of “too big to fail.” Call it “too big to succeed.” That is, Obama administration officials and allied Democrats in Congress, seeing a huge, solvent and privatized company, recognized an obstacle to a full conversion to direct lending, and decided to crowd it out.

During the signing ceremony, the president singled out Sallie Mae as the prime culprit in an “army of lobbyists.” That the company had been named one of America’s “100 Best Corporate Citizens” at least five times by Corporate Responsibility Officer scored no points. And its contribution of the $250,000 legal maximum to George W. Bush’s second inauguration no doubt cost it a few.

Now that its services suddenly have become dispensable, Sallie Mae is figuring out how to downsize. Almost as soon as Obama signed the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, corporate management announced plans to lay off 2,500 employees from its 8,600-person work force at dozens of offices across the nation. This likely isn’t the only college loan-related employer who will distribute pink slips. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who served as Education Secretary nearly 20 years ago under President George H. W. Bush, estimates 31,000 private-sector employees will lose their jobs. “The Obama administration’s motto is turning out to be: ‘If we can find it in the Yellow Pages, the government ought to try to do it,’” he said.

Supporters of direct lending argue that it is more efficient than the public-private partnership model, since it eliminates unnecessary layers of bureaucracy. Now there’s little question that the FFELP has had its share of problems. In 1991, U.S. Senate investigators concluded that the program is “plagued with fraud and abuse at every level.” Accusing the Department of Education of “gross mismanagement, ineptitude and neglect,” the Senate put cumulative losses during 1983-90 at $13 billion. In 1994, the Education Department (ED) admitted that waste, fraud and defaults in its higher education loan and grant programs amounted to at least $3 billion annually.

And in May 2005, ED Inspector General John Higgins told a House committee that “the department’s student loan programs are large, complex and inherently risky…the loan programs rely upon over 6,000 postsecondary institutions [and] more than 3,000 lenders.”

Direct lending offers pretty much the same terms, benefits, interest rates and loan ceilings as its FFELP counterpart. And a sizable number of schools, such as Penn State University, already have made a transition to direct lending on their own. But would mandatory full conversion be an improvement? The evidence suggests not.

In 1993, Congress enacted and President Clinton signed into law the first-ever direct loan program. The main argument, then as now, was that cutting out middlemen would deliver more education for the dollar. Then-Education Secretary Richard Riley remarked:

So, who opposes direct lending? The financial middlemen who benefit from the old loan program, earning billions each year while assuming virtually no financial risk. That’s because the guaranteed loan system gives them a federal guarantee to replace their money if a borrower defaults, as well as hefty federal subsidies for participating in the guaranteed loan program. The bottom line is that the special interests’ profits are threatened, and their lobbyists have made clear to Congress that they expect to be protected. They do not want competition from a new system that works better.

Those words could have come straight from President Obama. Yet evidence indicates that direct lending, formally known as the William D. Ford Direct Loan Program, isn’t the bargain it’s cracked up to be. For one thing, the projected $68 billion in long-term savings is an exaggeration. Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf estimates the true figure at $40 billion. Writing in his blog this past March 15, he explained:

CBO estimates that replacing new guarantees of student loans with direct lending would yield savings in mandatory spending of about $68 billion over the 11 years through 2020. That figure represents the estimated savings in mandatory costs that would be shown in a CBO cost estimate for legislation under consideration by Congress. However, adjusting for the projected increase in annual discretionary administrative costs in the direct program, the net reduction in federal costs from the proposal would be about $62 billion. On a fair value basis, incorporating administrative costs and the cost of risk, CBO estimates that replacing new guarantees of student loans with direct lending would yield savings of about $40 billion over the 2010-2020 period. The primary reason for that $22 billion difference is that payments from the government to lenders are risky – they terminate when a borrower defaults on or prepays a loan.

On top of this, when the federal government becomes the bank, it is unlikely to assess risk as thoroughly as banks and other private lenders. A paper prepared by Deborah Lucas (Northwestern University) and Damien Moore (Congressional Budget Office) for the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that as of January 2006, the direct loan portfolio had incurred a composite 11 percent default rate, whereas the rate for guaranteed loans was only 8 percent. And the Government Accountability Office several years ago found that the direct lending program spent more than it collected in interest and fees in each year since 1997.

Additionally, direct lending severely diminishes consumer choice. The federal government, not the student or his family, chooses the lender with whom to do business. Bill Spiers, director financial aid at Tallahassee Community College explains: “One of the great benefits of the FFELP is the ability of the student, and where it is appropriate, their parent(s) to decide with whom they want to do business. Students in direct lending are not given this choice.”

Perhaps the most onerous consequence of a full conversion to direct lending is the possibility of financial aid used as political leverage. We all know the old saying about the Golden Rule: “He who has the gold makes the rules.” Well, it applies here. Nominally, these are ‘student loans.’ But in fact the federal government disburses them to institutions. When a student takes out a loan, he effectively is promising to his respective college or university to pay back all debt with interest following completion of studies. Without recourse to switch back to the FFELP system, campus administrators may be at the mercy of the federal government. Peter Wood, president of the Princeton, N.J.-based National Association of Scholars, recently outlined the dilemma:

The federally subsidized student loan system surely stands in need of reform. But “Direct Lending” may well be a cure that is worse than the disease. The main problem is not financial but political. It will make American higher education extraordinarily vulnerable to political interference. Will Congress, presidential administrations, and the Department of Education resist the temptation to misuse their new power? Direct Lending will give the federal government decisive if not quite total control of higher education finance.

Then there is a paradox common to direct and indirect lending: tuition ‘cost-push.’ An individual loan defrays a student’s tuition, but loans a whole raise it because participating institutions have fewer incentives to constrain costs. Taxpayers, after all, are liable for losses. “More and more Americans have sought a college education,” wrote Neal McCluskey and Chris Edwards in a Cato Institute paper last year, “which has pushed prices higher. Ordinarily, such upward pressure would be restrained by consumers’ willingness and ability to pay, but as government subsidies have helped absorb tuition increases, the public’s budget constraint has been lifted.”

The new legislation exacerbates this problem by loosening repayment requirements on direct loans. Students who meet income and other eligibility requirements and who borrow after July 1, 2014 would be allowed to cap their repayments at 10 percent above basic living requirements rather than the current 15 percent. Moreover, if borrowers remain on schedule in their payments, any debt remaining after 20 (instead of 25) years would be forgiven. Loan forgiveness would kick in after only 10 years if the student finds employment in a designated public service such as teaching, nursing or the military. It’s a backdoor way to expand government and raise tuition in one movement.

The switch to direct lending has major implications for a planned expansion of the Pell Grant program, the main source of federal aid to postsecondary students from low- and moderate-income families. Enacted in 1972 and named after its prime sponsor, Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., the program serves more than 10 percent of all college students, costing $16.3 billion in fiscal year 2009. That figure may seem quaint in the near future. Under the new law, the federal government would provide about $36 billion worth of new financing for Pell Grants over the next decade. The maximum annual grant would rise from $5,350 to $5,975 by 2017. If anything, these figures undershoot the mark. The CBO projects annual outlays to rise by $27 billion during fiscal years 2010-19 – in other words, to exceed $40 billion – thanks to Consumer Price Index indexing and increased participation. The Department of Education likewise projects Pell Grant spending to increase to $35.4 billion during fiscal 2009-13. Other beneficiaries of the new law are the more than 100 ‘Historically Black Colleges and Universities’ (HBCUs) and their students.

The new legislation provides $2.55 billion to black four-year institutions (e.g., Howard, Florida A&M) and another $2 billion to black two-year community colleges. That’s a hefty sum to maintain and promote racial separatism. That students at HBCUs typically exhibit high default rates makes this giveaway all the more inexcusable. President Obama puts it differently: “We’re not only doing this because these schools are a gateway to a better future to African-Americans; we’re doing it because their success is vital to a better future for all Americans.” Got that? We’re all better off.

Americans are overextended to their creditors, and the new legislation will push the situation further into the danger zone. During 2000-09, total outstanding federal student loans more than quadrupled from $149 billion to $630 billion. President Obama says he wants to double higher education enrollment from 18 million to 36 million by the year 2020. If this comes to pass, can anyone deny the possibility that debt will explode even faster? There are practical ways of getting around the high cost of a four-year college: attend a community college for the first two years; live at home and attend a commuter four-year school; choose an in-state public institution; apply for a partial or full scholarship; contribute to a ‘529’ state-sponsored prepaid tuition plan; contribute up to $2,000 annually to a tax-free Coverdell Education Savings Account; and enroll in college after accumulating full-time work force experience (or take evening courses during such experience). Yet the ultimate cost-reduction strategy is to avail ourselves of the notion that college is a basic right.

It’s understandable why an entitlement view is taking root. A special Census Bureau study early last decade, for example, concluded that adults with a four-year college degree receive around 75 percent higher lifetime earnings than adults with only a high school diploma. Yet the blunt truth is this: College is not for everyone. The very term ‘higher education’ assumes a mastery of basic reading, math, history, science and other skills. It’s not ‘elitist’ to say that colleges and universities shouldn’t be providing remedial high school education. Yet so long as the line of applicants gets longer and the pot of federal aid gets larger, more institutions may find themselves filling that role. Taxpayers, less than cheerfully, will provide support.


When experts lack expertise

Jeffrey Tucker, discussing the decline of apprenticeships last week, noted the modern state-controlled schooling system is based on “the completely la-la-land view, emerging sometime after World War II, that a student can sit at a desk listening for 16 to 20 years and thereby be prepared to call down immediately a substantial salary from a firm by virtue of the great value he or she provides.” This view is preposterous, Tucker said, as businesses are often flooded with college graduates who have little practical knowledge. Of course, that’s only a problem for the private sector; when it comes to the government sector, schooling credentials have always been more valuable then practical ability.

Bureaucracy is a credential-based system. A PhD or Juris Doctor is the modern equivalent of an earldom or a knighthood. Mere possession of a credential is sufficient to establish one’s credibility on a subject — even if the subject isn’t directly related to the credential.

Educational credentials are generally a stepping-stone towards government commissions; these pieces of paper confer authority upon the possessor, which in the eyes of the state and its supporters equal expertise. Some government commissions are election-based: the president, members of Congress, etc.; the overwhelming majority of commissions are beholden to the bureaucracy itself, technically originating from the president in communion with the Senate, but in practice arising from self-selected interest groups. These groups function much like medieval guilds in that they are effectively mini-states that rely on credentialism to restrict competition or challenges to their so-called expertise over a given trade.

Let’s consider my favorite agency, the Federal Trade Commission. Although the FTC is billed as a “consumer protection agency,” in reality it is simply the research-and-development arm of the antitrust guild. The law specifies no particular qualifications for FTC members — unlike, say, the solicitor general, who must be a lawyer — but in modern practice virtually all commissioners are antitrust professionals.* It’s a closed system, and the FTC’s primary job is to ensure it remains closed to “unqualified” outsiders.

Consider the words of former FTC member Thomas B. Leary. In a 2005 interview, Leary bemoaned the fact that so many physician groups had run afoul of the FTC’s “guidelines” about how medical providers were expected to organize and conduct their businesses. Leary said he was sympathetic to the physicians themselves; he blamed a lack of competent antitrust advice:
The Guidelines are very helpful to practitioners who are willing to pay attention to them and deal with them. I think they’re very fulsome. It may be, quite frankly, that collectively they’re too big a mouthful for outside-the-beltway practitioners. And I am not saying that in a patronizing way.

I get the impression there are an awful lot of lawyers giving antitrust advice on the Health Care Guidelines who are not really antitrust lawyers, and I think that it might be desirable to consider amplifying on those Guidelines through speeches and things of that kind to make them more focused for the edification of outsiders. As you know we’ve got a case under consideration right now involving possible application of the Guidelines. When that opinion comes out, it may provide some guidance for people — regardless of the outcome. (Italics added)

It’s important to understand that Leary is not talking about the law — that is, a statute enacted by Congress — but merely the opinions of unelected antitrust lawyers at the FTC and Department of Justice. The “guidelines” exist solely in their minds; even if a physician group followed the guidelines to the letter, the FTC can turn around and say, “Oh, that’s not what we meant.” Indeed, that’s exactly what’s happened in the majority of FTC cases (about three dozen since 2001) against physician groups.

Now, Leary is no healthcare expert. He’s never run a medical practice or a hospital. His knowledge of healthcare management is no greater than mine. He is, however, an antitrust lawyer with “50 years of experience” in that field, according to Hogan & Hartson, the law firm he was a partner at before and after his six-year FTC tenure. And that’s what’s important. He’s master of a field with no real market value, but thanks to the state’s antitrust patent, he’s instantly a valuable commodity for firms — such as physician groups — looking for “expertise” in dealing with the FTC.

The damage such false expertise can reek on the market is incredible. The man who succeeded Leary as a commissioner, John Thomas Rosch, proved as much. Like Leary, Rosch spent his career as an antitrust litigator for a prominent law firm. When he was invested with the powers of the FTC, Rosch suddenly became an expert in hospital management, which he put to use in a handful of cases involving hospital mergers. One of his victims was a small nonprofit hospital that nearly suffered financial ruin at Rosch’s hand.

Prince William Hospital in Manassas, Virginia, spent over a year seeking a larger nonprofit partner to provide badly needed capital. PWH was a one-hospital operation, and many of its facilities had not been upgraded since the 1960s. After a lengthy review, the hospital’s board chose to merge with Inova Hospital System, a larger group also based in northern Virginia. Inova promised approximately $250 million in new investment. PWH physicians and local politicians seemed agreeable to the deal; it was a win-win for everyone.

Everyone except Commissioner Rosch. The FTC was in the midst of a losing streak when it came to stopping hospital mergers. Rosch, a Republican, joined the FTC during the Bush years and quickly asserted control over the agency’s litigation bureaucracy. Rosch needed a hospital merger he could torpedo as a show-of-strength. PWH and Inova presented themselves as victims of opportunity.

What ensued was one of the longest merger “reviews” in antitrust history — nearly two years of FTC demands for documents about every aspect of PWH and Inova’s operations. The review wasn’t limited to “competitive” issues. During one meeting with over two dozen FTC lawyers, the staff questioned PWH’s architectural decisions regarding future construction plans; one lawyer scoffed at the hospital’s plans to include only private rooms in a new patient wing, as opposed to semi-private rooms. On another occasion, FTC lawyers demanded PWH’s confidential personnel files, a move the hospital balked at.

All of this took place at Rosch’s command. In December 2007, he issued a ten-page memorandum to the FTC’s chief litigator. The FTC refused to release the contents of this memorandum, but an FTC official later confirmed to me that “[Rosch] was very active in the investigation.” This same official said that at that time, “Rosch views the litigation strategy of the staff as his unique domain among the Commissioners given his litigation experience.” [This may no longer be the case since Democrat Jon Leibowitz became chairman; Rosch publicly chided the staff for its actions in a recent physician case.]

After two years, over $15 million in legal bills, and a downgrading of PWH’s credit rating, the hospitals’ merger collapsed. The final straw came when the FTC finally announced it would challenge the deal under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act. The FTC Act requires complaints be tried before an administrative law judge. The FTC, however, bypassed their two sitting judges — neither of whom was hearing a case at the time — and appointed Rosch himself to serve as judge! The hospitals saw the writing on the wall.

The FTC’s only stated reason for its unprecedented decision to name a sitting commissioner as trial judge was Rosch’s “40 years of experience as a trial lawyer, predominantly in the context of complex competition cases, making him the best available candidate to sit as the trier of fact in this case.” This doesn’t pass the smell test. Experience as a litigator is not equivalent to experience as a judge. More importantly, the FTC’s two administrative law judges at the time both had substantial experience both as judges and as triers of “complex competition cases.” Indeed, then-Chief Administrative Law Judge Stephen J. McGuire had just presided over the most complex antitrust case in FTC history, the Commission’s seven-year pursuit of Rambus Incorporated (more on that in a moment).

The real reason that Rosch orchestrated his own appointment as trial judge – and an FTC official told me, “I’m sure the idea came out of his office, not at anybody else’s request” — was that McGuire and his fellow judge had ruled against the FTC staff in four major antitrust cases. Rosch wanted to avoid any independent review of the antitrust investigation that he had directly supervised.

Shortly after PWH and Inova abandoned their merger, Rosch spoke to an antitrust industry audience, where he again emphasized his “expertise” as the primary justification for his appointment as trial judge:
I haven’t discussed the specific reasons for the assignment with my colleagues. But I hope the assignment helped address concerns about both the antitrust expertise of the judges conducting plenary trials at the Commission and the time it takes to prepare for and conduct such a trial.

Rosch’s outright lie about not speaking to his colleagues aside, it’s not clear who had “concerns” about the “antitrust expertise of judges” — aside from Rosch and his fellow commissioners, that is. In two cases where the FTC disagreed with its administrative law judge about the disposition of an antitrust case, the appellate courts broke the deadlock in favor of the judges. (Of course, Rosch has also chastised the appellate courts for lacking sufficient antitrust expertise.)

Rosch’s claim that judges lack sufficient “antitrust expertise” mirrors Thomas Leary’s statement about lawyers “who are not really antitrust lawyers” advising physicians. Both place enormous weight on their own credentials as antitrust lawyers; which, in reality, means they have law degrees and chose to network with other people who call themselves antitrust lawyers, nothing more. Whether they possess relevant knowledge and experience is, apparently, irrelevant.

Such thinking permeates the FTC’s trial of cases. In the Rambus litigation, Judge McGuire rejected the Commission’s two principal “expert” witnesses as unreliable. The Rambus case arose from the FTC’s belief — heavily influenced by industry lobbyists — that the computer memory industry had adopted the “wrong” technical standards, because they included inventions that were under patent to Rambus. (Please, spare me the anti-IP comments here; this isn’t the forum.) The FTC paid over $1.1 million to expert witnesses to help prove this theory.

One expert, Dr. Bruce Jacob of the University of Maryland, received $208,900 to testify about alternative technologies the memory industry — specifically manufacturers of DRAM — should have adopted in the 1990s instead of the Rambus designs. Judge McGuire said Jacob was “not persuasive,” because he, um, lacked expertise in memory design:
Professor Jacob had never done DRAM circuit design. Indeed, Professor Jacob had never designed any circuits for computer chips (even apart from DRAMs) that were to be fabricated prior to 2002. Aside from reviewing some DRAM data sheets, Professor Jacob, who was a student at the time, had no particular DRAM-related experience in the mid-1990s. Professor Jacob did not obtain his graduate degree and begin to teach electrical engineering until 1997

A second expert, economist R. Preston McAfee, received $573,000 to detail the alternate universe that would have existed if the DRAM industry had adopted non-Rambus technologies. Like most “expert” economics testimony, McAfee was compelled to work backwards from the FTC’s conclusions. As with Dr. Jacob, Judge McGuire found McAfee’s testimony “not persuasive.” Among the problems was Dr. McAfee’s conclusion that there were “equal or superior technologies” that the DRAM industry should have adopted; Judge McGuire said this analysis was “flawed,” because Dr. McAfee “did not quantify” any cost, performance, or future flexibility differences between Rambus and non-Rambus technologies.

Overall, the FTC’s attempt to retroactively create an alternate DRAM universe demonstrated an appalling mix of arrogance and ignorance. Judge McGuire issued his initial decision dismissing the case in February 2004. The FTC then took three years to review, reverse, and rewrite the decision in favor of the Commission’s position; this was followed by another two years of review by the federal appellate courts, which ultimately reversed the Commission and reinstated McGuire’s original decision. The FTC, however, never wavered from its view that it knew best, even after conceding defeat in the courts.

You can condemn the FTC’s petulance, but it’s more important to understand where it comes from. These people sat at their desks for 20 years, obtained that all-important schooling credential, “worked” as lawyers (or academics) in a field where they could fabricate any theory they wanted without any regard for economics or empirical data, and ultimately found themselves rewarded with a government title, salary, benefits, and staff. What do you think the consequences of such a system are?

*The current five commissioners include two career government attorneys, two career antitrust litigators, and a law professor who consulted foreign governments on antitrust policy.


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Forget the PhD and become a mechanic

Overqualified and underworked? Then try working with your hands

Matthew Crawford, who has a PhD in political philosophy, gave up his job as executive director of a Washington think tank to start his own business as a mechanic of vintage motorcycles

What does a good job look like these days: smart suit and BlackBerry in the palm or overalls and dirt under the fingernails? The question isn’t as counterintuitive as it sounds. We’ve never been more qualified for white-collar work, but with a 44% increase in graduate unemployment in the UK, according to recent figures, it’s time to reconsider some long-held assumptions.

I started working as an electrician’s helper in America when I was nearly 14. What I learnt then gave me something to fall back on when I couldn’t get a job, despite having a degree, further down the line. And that position — highly educated but potentially unemployable — is one that’s increasingly common. Having a practical trade meant I could always earn money when my career plans weren’t in full flight. But it offered something more as well: regular moments of accomplishment. I never ceased to take pleasure in the moment, at the end of a job, when I would flip the switch: “And there was light!”

The imperative of the past 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the office cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. This has not come to pass. Now, as ever, somebody has to actually do things: fix our cars, unclog our toilets, build our houses.

Further, the globalised economy has sprung a cruel surprise on many who invested in a university education. Some programmers and accountants and radiologists, for example, find their jobs outsourced to distant countries. Plumbers, electricians and mechanics do not.

The Princeton economist Alan Blinder foresees a massive disruption that has only just begun. He argues that the crucial distinction in the emerging labour market is not the conventional one between those with more or less education, but between those whose services can be delivered over a wire and those who must do their work in person. As Blinder puts it, “You can’t hammer a nail over the internet.” Nor can the Indians fix your car. Because they are in India.

Yet despite the fact they have become one of the few reliable paths to a secure living — and are now at the heart of building a greener economy — the trades suffer from low prestige. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience.

I have a small business as a motorcycle mechanic in Richmond, Virginia, which I started in 2002. I work on mostly older bikes with some “vintage” cachet that makes people willing to spend money on them. I have found the satisfactions of the work to be very much bound up with the intellectual challenges it presents. And yet my decision to go into this line of work is a choice that seems to perplex many people.

After finishing a PhD in political philosophy at the University of Chicago 10 years ago, having already done a degree and an MA, I managed to stay on with a one-year postdoctoral fellowship at the university’s Committee on Social Thought. The academic job market was utterly bleak.

In a state of professional panic, I retreated to a makeshift basement workshop where I spent the winter tearing down an old Honda motorcycle and rebuilding it. The physicality of it was a balm.

Stumped by a starter motor that seemed fine in every way but wouldn’t work, I sought help from an independent mechanic named Fred Cousins. He checked the electrical resistance through the windings to confirm there was no short circuit or broken wire. He spun the shaft that ran through the centre of the motor, as I had. No problem: it spun freely. Then he hooked it up to a battery. It moved slightly but wouldn’t spin.

He grasped the shaft delicately and tried to wiggle it from side to side. “Too much free play,” he said. He suggested that the problem was with the bushing (a thick-walled sleeve of metal) that captured the end of the shaft in the end of the cylindrical motor housing. It was worn, so it wasn’t locating the shaft precisely enough. The shaft was free to move too much side to side (perhaps a couple of hundredths of an inch), causing the outer circumference of the rotor to bind on the inner circumference of the motor housing when a current was applied.

Fred scrounged around his shop for a Honda motor. He found one with the same bushing, then used a “blind hole bearing puller” to extract it, as well as the one in my motor. Then he gently tapped the new, or rather newer, one into place. The motor worked! Here was a scholar.

Over the next six months I spent a lot of time at Fred’s shop, learning, and put in only occasional appearances at the university. Then in the spring I landed a job as executive director of a policy organisation in Washington. This felt like a coup.

But certain perversities became apparent as I settled into the job. It sometimes required me to reason backwards, from desired conclusion to suitable premise. I was making arguments I didn’t fully buy myself. This was demoralising.

Further, my boss seemed intent on retraining me according to a certain cognitive style — that of the corporate world, from which he had recently come. This style demanded I project an image of rationality but not indulge too much in actual reasoning. I had landed the job because I had a prestigious education in the liberal arts, but the job itself felt illiberal.

As I sat dejectedly in my office, Fred’s life as an independent tradesman gave me an image of liberality that I kept coming back to. Here was someone who really knew what he was doing, losing himself in work that was genuinely useful and had a certain integrity to it. He also seemed to be having fun.

After five months at the think tank, I’d saved enough money to go into business fixing bikes. The work is sometimes frustrating, but it is never irrational. And it frequently requires intellectual rigour — a sort that may not be obvious to an uninformed bystander, but which I have found to be more demanding than the kind you exercise in work that deals only in abstractions.

There is always, for example, a risk of introducing new complications when working on old motorcycles, and this enters the diagnostic logic.

Imagine you’re trying to work out why a bike won’t start. The fasteners holding the engine covers on 1970s-era Hondas are Phillips-head, and they are almost always rounded out and corroded. Do you really want to check the condition of the starter clutch if each of eight screws will need to be drilled out and extracted, risking damage to the engine case? Such impediments have to be taken into account. The attractiveness of any hypothesis is determined in part by physical circumstances that have no logical connection to the diagnostic problem at hand. The mechanic’s proper response to the situation cannot be anticipated by a set of rules or algorithms.

Some diagnostic situations contain a lot of variables. Any given symptom may have several possible causes, and these causes may be difficult to isolate. In deciding how to proceed, there often comes a point where you have to step back and get a larger gestalt. Have a cigarette and walk around for a while. What you need now is the kind of judgment that arises only from experience; hunches rather than rules.

For me, there is more real thinking going on in the bike shop than in the think tank. Put differently, mechanical work has forced me to cultivate different intellectual habits. Cognitive psychologists speak of “metacognition”, which is the activity of stepping back and thinking about your own thinking. To be a good mechanic you have to be constantly open to the possibility that you may be mistaken.

This is a virtue that is at once cognitive and moral. It seems to develop because a good mechanic internalises the healthy functioning of the motorcycle as an object of passionate concern. Why else does he experience such elation when he identifies the root cause of some problem?

More here

This story has many resonances for me -- not the least is that I had some involvement in fixing up old motorbikes in my youth myself and that my admirable brother has made it his life's work -- and has prospered doing so. I don't think he even did an apprenticeship, let alone go to university. He simply started playing around with small motors as a kid and has never stopped.

Another resonance is that I have twin stepdaughters, one of whom got a degree and one who went straight into the workforce. The latter is now very highly paid, the other not so much

A third resonance is that I have often employed tradesmen in connection with my business activities and I have always admired the creativity, ingenuity, insight and skills that they bring to their work. They are the salt of the earth and I treat them accordingly

Another very small resonance is that I was once a champion seller of diehead chasers, though I doubt that anybody reading this will know what they are. So not all my talents are academic -- JR

Edinburgh University’s Scottish bias may break race laws

THE admissions policy of a leading university might breach race relations laws because it favours Scottish applicants over those from England, according to one of the country’s most senior education lawyers.

Edinburgh University gives “additional weighting” to applicants for some courses depending on where they live, and favours those who come from the area around the Scottish capital.

In a formal legal opinion obtained by The Sunday Times, Oliver Hyams, a barrister at Devereux chambers in London, writes that the policy “might, depending on the facts, be directly discriminatory and therefore contrary to section 17 of the Race Relations Act 1976”. The opinion could open the way for candidates to take legal action if they believe they have been turned down because they are English, Welsh or Northern Irish.

Hyams, chairman of the Education Law Association, argues that Edinburgh’s criteria “put persons who are not of Scottish national origins at a particular disadvantage”.

The policy at Edinburgh, where 41% of the intake is English, was introduced in 2004 to give local applicants a greater chance of winning places.

In contrast with the Edinburgh admissions policy, Hyams believes Scottish universities are acting within the law by discriminating against English students in the level of fees charged.

Under Scottish law, British undergraduates from outside Scotland are charged £1,820 a year, while Scots and those from other European Union countries have fees paid by Holyrood. Although the British courts have ruled that the Race Relations Act applies to discrimination between the UK’s nations, these nations are not recognised by EU law.

Universities such as Birmingham, King’s College London and Glasgow run schemes that favour pupils from comprehensive schools in their region. However, schools in deprived areas are singled out, a policy that Hyams said could be justified. Edinburgh, by contrast, bases part of its decision purely on where an applicant lives. “I suspect that the area [favoured by Edinburgh] as a whole could not reasonably be called socially deprived,” writes Hyams.

Dennis Harding, former vice-principal and professor of archeology at Edinburgh, said: “I’d very much regret it if Edinburgh had a reputation for not accepting good students from English schools as I’d like to think of it as a top British university, not a parochial Scottish one.”

Edinburgh’s weighting applies to candidates for some humanities and social science courses from the area close to the university and in a second tier of regions including the rest of Scotland, Cumbria, Tyne and Wear and other parts of northern England.

Hyams believes a court could see Edinburgh’s inclusion of a few English regions as “a thinly disguised cloak for discrimination in favour of persons resident in Scotland”.

Edinburgh, ranked 15th in the Sunday Times University Guide, said the impact of the policy was only “minimal”, adding: “Without some way of acknowledging local applicants in selection, we would risk running some degree courses with barely any local, or Scottish, students on them.”

It said: “Previous consideration has given us no reason to think this approach falls foul of any anti-discriminatory legislation, but we will give further consideration to this question in the light of the comments made by Mr Hyams.”

The university’s policy has angered English head teachers. Richard Cairns, of Brighton college, East Sussex, said one of his pupils, Jo Saxby, had been rejected by Edinburgh without an interview despite being predicted to achieve three A*s and an A in his A-levels. He has been offered a place at Oxford.

Cairns, who this weekend is making a formal complaint about Edinburgh to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said the university was “pandering to nationalist sentiment”.

Andrew Halls, of King’s college school in Wimbledon, southwest London, called the university’s policy “perverse, xenophobic and anti-English”. He added that only six out of 42 of his pupils who applied there had been offered places, a far lower success rate than at Bristol, Durham or Imperial College London.

Halls said: “It just so happens that all the boys offered places have Scottish surnames or ones that are very obviously foreign and not English. I’m sure it’s a coincidence.”


Australia: Report on bungled school funding could punish the Labor Party in the forthcoming election

THE last time the Auditor-General released a report during a federal election campaign the results were explosive. With one week to go in the 2007 campaign the independent investigator found the Coalition government had used a controversial grants program to funnel millions of dollars into projects in marginal seats, against departmental advice.

This year it is the Labor government's turn to wonder when the Auditor-General will drop a potentially damaging report into its Building the Education Revolution. The $16.2 billion program was announced as part of the government's efforts to keep Australia from falling over a cliff into recession.

As well as helping to upgrade school facilities the project was designed to quickly inject cash into the building sector, with the idea of keeping jobs going at a time when the government was expecting unemployment to eclipse 8 per cent.

For the past six months reports of overspending on projects have been filtering out, as have principals' and parents' complaints about their lack of input into the projects.

The temptation is to see parallels between the building program and that other federal economic stimulus program – the home insulation program. But the home insulation program was actually administered by the federal government. The state bureaucracies are the ones managing the education building funds and projects.

The federal opposition is making the most of the link, saying the school program is yet another example of the government's inability to manage programs and taxpayers' money.

Once it realised the extent of the problems of the insulation program – both practical and political – the federal government axed it. Ministers are no longer visiting homeowners talking about the benefits of ceiling insulation. But not so the schools building program.

Julia Gillard visited at least one school construction site every day last week, hard hat and reflective safety vest on.

Gillard is not backing away from the program and continues to point out the benefits of spending money to improve educational facilities. She is also taking every opportunity to ask the opposition if it would guarantee the program's future.

Tony Abbott has indicated the opposition would axe it, although this is at odds with what his education spokesman Christopher Pyne has reportedly been telling school principals. Nevertheless the opposition is not letting this get in the way of its attacks on the program.

Last week Gillard commissioned her own investigation into the billions of dollars of spending. This is in addition to the Auditor-General's report, which was originally expected last week but has been delayed. There are now nine official state and federal examinations of the scheme.

Although it is likely the reports will conclude that only a relatively small number of the 24,000 projects were problematic, the opposition will still pounce on any evidence that the government is a poor economic manager.

That is why it is in the government's interest for all the reports to come out as soon as possible. The sooner they are released the further away from the election they are.