Saturday, February 19, 2011

Education waste: We have only ourselves to blame

There's a curious line in the summary of President Barack Obama's proposed fiscal 2012 Department of Education budget. "Now more than ever," it reads, "we cannot waste taxpayer dollars on programs that do not work." It's curious because no federal education programs appear to work, yet the Obama administration is proposing to increase Education Department spending from $64 billion to $77 billion. It's a bankrupting contradiction, but don't get angry at Obama: We only have ourselves to blame.

Educational outcomes prove that federal education involvement has practically been the definition of profligate spending.

First, elementary and secondary schooling. While real, federal per-pupil expenditures have more than doubled since the early 1970s, the scores of 17-year-olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress — the so-called "Nation's Report Card" — have been pancake flat. We've spent tons with no educational returns to show. We have, though, got bloat such as a near doubling of school employees per-student, and opulent buildings like the half-billion-dollar Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex that opened in Los Angeles last year.

In higher education, the federal government has focused on providing financial aid to make college more affordable. The problem is, policymakers have ignored basic economics. The more Washington gives to students, the higher schools can raise their prices, wiping out the value of the aid.

In addition to being a major cause of the disease it wants to cure, Washington has fostered higher-ed failure by encouraging an increasing number of people often unready for college to pursue degrees. That's a likely reason the most recent federal assessment of adult literacy recorded big literacy drops from 1992-2003 among Americans with at least a bachelor's degree. It's also no doubt a significant factor behind only about 56 percent of students in four-year programs completing their studies in six years.

Wasting federal dollars on schools is not, importantly, exclusively a Democratic problem. Both parties have used education spending to try to signal that they "care" about Americans, especially cute little child-Americans. And while the House GOP has identified about $4.9 billion in cuts for the Education Department, that's less than 8 percent off the Department's $64 billion budget.

So how is all this the fault of the American people? Isn't the real problem that politicians lack integrity and will try to buy votes using things that sound wonderful even if they're toxic?

While it would be nice if politicians would start looking at results and stop throwing money into black holes, the fact is they're human, and, like all of us, they ultimately want what is best for themselves. For politicians that's votes, and when it comes to education Americans don't like cuts.

When presented with several federal undertakings that could be targets for deficit-reducing cuts in a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, education finished second only to Social Security for protection. A full 63 percent of respondents wanted no education reductions, versus 13 percent calling for "major" cuts. In contrast, the top candidate for gutting — foreign aid — saw 11 percent of people call for no reductions and 52 percent demand major slashing.

As with most things you buy, people generally expect that spending more on education will get a better product. Moreover, the public constantly hears, especially from huge special interests like teachers' unions, that our schools have been surviving on table scraps for decades. It's no surprise, then, that average Americans — people with jobs, families, and lots of other pressing concerns that make analyzing education policy hugely cost prohibitive — recoil at the idea of taking money from schools.

But take we must, because federal money does no discernable educational good, and our nation can simply no longer afford pointless spending.

Unfortunately, there is only one way to get sustained sanity in federal policy, and it will require slow, hard work. People who know the reality of federal education spending must tell others about it as forcefully and clearly as possible. They must change the public's attitude so that what's in politicians' self-interest will also change. Ultimately, federal politicians must be rewarded not for giving away dollars in the name of education, but for leaving them in the hands of hardworking taxpayers.


US House votes to block Education Dept. rule attacking private colleges

The U.S. House of Representatives voted to block the Department of Education from pursuing the implementation of the proposed gainful employment rule that could cut-off for-profit colleges' access to federal student aid.

The Republican-controlled House voted 289-136 to a bipartisan amendment introduced by John Kline, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "By blocking the administration's regulation, we prevented an unnecessary hurdle to important skills and training at a time when workers need every advantage to succeed in the workplace," Kline said in a statement following the House vote.

BMO Capital Markets analyst Jeff Silber said the passing of the amendment showed the broad support the industry and others have gained against the rule. However, the colleges face a tougher battle getting the amendment passed in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats.

Tom Harkin, head of the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, has been leading the push in Congress to tighten regulation on for-profit schools. "I don't think one could declare victory yet for the industry," Sterne Agee & Leach analyst Arvind Bhatia said. "It is going to be a tough road to get this through the Senate." The Senate is expected to vote on the amendment in the week of Feb. 28, according to analyst Silber.

The proposed rule ties federal aid to colleges proving they are doing a better job of preparing students for work. Programs that fail to offer good job opportunities stand to lose federal funding -- the primary source of revenue for many colleges.

The gainful employment rule is part of a larger package of rules introduced by the Obama government aimed at making for-profit colleges more accountable for the $145 billion in federal funds they get for student aid.

The rule would restrict access to federal aid for over 2 million students at private-sector colleges and universities in the next 10 years, according to The Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities.

For-profit colleges have been lobbying heavily over the last few months to either get the rule scrapped or at least weaken it before a final version comes out. The gainful employment proposal was delayed last year after it received a large number of comments -- about 90,000 -- calling for delaying the rule. It is expected to be finalised in early part of this year.


British school chaos

"A lack of discipline is at the root of our educational malaise"

David Starkey

I may have quite considerable experience as a history teacher – over 15 years lecturing in the subject at the London School of Economics – but I had never imagined that the next time I stepped into the classroom, I’d be doing so under circumstances quite like these.

Let me explain. Recently, Jamie Oliver approached me and asked if I’d be interested in teaching at his Dream School – a “school” staffed by celebrities and well-known experts in their field. They would try to turn around the education of a group of 16 to 18-year-olds who had resisted every attempt to be educated in the past, all in front a the cameras. Rolf Harris would teach art, Daley Thompson would tackle sports, drama lessons were to be led by Simon Callow, and I was to take the history class. Guest assistants would include Cherie Blair and the photographer Rankin.

The first thought that came to mind was that this sounded rather like “Strictly Come Teaching”. The second was that the task in hand was going to be very hard going.

All the young people had failed, for various reasons, to obtain five GCSEs at A* to C grade – some had experienced personal or health difficulties during their schooling, while others had spent time excluded from school for short periods.

You have to remember that these children – and they are children, despite what they themselves might believe – find it difficult to control their emotions. As I was to find, they are easily distracted and the smallest thing can make them fly off the handle. The violence that can be witnessed on our streets is also to be found bubbling under the surface in the classroom. An aggressive emotional incontinence pervades inside the school gate.

No wonder, then, that I felt this particular mission of Jamie’s would probably fail. But I was also aware that the fundamentals behind his Dream School were inspiring.

I am passionately committed to state education. I went to a progressive primary school in Kendal, followed by a boys’ grammar school and then Cambridge. Back then, two thirds of the students were from state schools. It is more or less the opposite case now, which is testimony to the crisis inflicted on state education, which this TV programme aimed to address.

I decided to let my heart rule. I’ve long had a high opinion of Jamie. I first met him back in 2001 at an awards ceremony where we had both won book prizes. I have to confess I did not behave well towards him. I was snobby and I couldn’t understand why a cook was getting a book prize. But Jamie went out of his way to be nice – and that impressed me. He still does. His heart is most certainly in the right place.

And so I prepared my lessons carefully. I wanted to show the class how the historical concept of honour and dying for one’s country had changed. But my first lesson was, if I am honest, a catastrophe. I decided to use props in the form of the Anglo-Saxon Hoard, which was found in the Midlands last year, to teach the class about the old aristocratic society and how the upper classes decked themselves in jewels to illustrate their status. The only problem was that we had to transport it from Birmingham to London. Sure enough, it got stuck on the M6. The students were forced to wait for two-and-a-half hours. By the time the lesson started, they were bored, irritated and edgy.

This is perhaps understandable. But what surprised me was the utter lack of discipline in the school. The Dream School’s head teacher was the award-winning John D’Abbro, whose New Rush Hall educational organisation specialises in working with children with behavioural and emotional difficulties. D’Abbro treated the institution rather like a caring machine, rather than an educational one.

My students felt they could do what they wanted. They shouted, gossiped and sent texts to friends. The noise was quite extraordinary. It was bedlam – like the Lord of the Flies. I am not normally scared by anything, but even I was sweating. It was an appalling experience and it gives you a sense of why things have gone so wrong in state education.

During the lesson, I had a mild altercation with one boy, Conor. It was silly and trivial, with mild insults on both sides – he commenting unfavourably on my height and I commenting on his weight. He didn’t take offence, but the school officials became agitated. I was told I must never say anything harsh to the children – even though they were trying to tear me apart. The notion that an adult is not allowed to verbally spar, to give as good as they get, is ludicrous. It is why our educational system has gone wrong. I believe young people need rules. They will respond to discipline.

I don’t blame anyone at Jamie’s school for this. To my mind, the headmaster was simply a representative of the new kind of establishment running our state schools. It is reluctant to discipline, brims over with human kindness and is sceptical about authority.

By the end of the series, I had taught five lessons on everything from jousting to religion. So did I notice a big transformation in the pupils’ attitude? The short answer is there was no miracle. A few weeks is not going to change the pattern of behaviour of someone who is so damaged. You are fighting a continuing battle. The notion you can get these pupils to do what you, the teacher, want is an alien concept.

I did try to engage them as much as I could – and had some success. About half of the class of 20 became enthusiastic about history. By the final lesson, we even talked about how you would write an essay, something they had never done before.

I have stayed in touch with a few of them, including Conor, and a girl called Danielle. I even took Danielle to Cambridge University for a tour. In a different world, she would have been the right girl for Cambridge. Instead, her reaction was somewhere between inspiration, bewilderment and frustration.

I have nothing but admiration for teachers who face these kinds of problems every day. Without wishing to sound too emotional, I also felt deeply for many of the pupils who, with the exception of one or two, were all above average in intelligence. A few others were even higher. It is tragic that they feel so disillusioned and ambivalent about their schooling.

Education might be at the centre of our political debate, but I realise now that until you have stood in front of a class and tried to teach in this kind of challenging environment, you don’t know much about the realities. The programme hasn’t necessarily offered solutions, but it has highlighted the problems we face. And it does provide incontrovertible evidence to show why a lack of discipline is at the root of our educational malaise.

I have nothing but contempt for the new-style head teachers who adopt a “happy family” approach, where everything is laid back. It has failed several generations already – and now society is paying the consequences. Jamie’s restaurants are run like military operations: why aren’t our schools?

And how could we really save the children in Jamie’s school? I would prescribe a good dollop of discipline – and a system of one-to-one mentoring. I am sure this would work wonders.

I’m glad I took part, but sadly, the whole experience has only confirmed that turning our state education system around is a bit like turning a tanker round: it’s a slow and arduous process. One can only hope that we’re not too late to start.


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