Sunday, March 06, 2011

Bill Gates fires arrows at the sacred cows of America's Education System

Good to have him onside

Speaking at the 2011 TED Conference (Technology, Education, Design), Gates sharply criticized states for the waste in American education. "The guys at Enron never would have done this! I mean this is so blatant, so extreme that, is anybody paying attention to what these guys do?" Gates said.

The 55-year-old multi-billionaire has made it a mission to find the money to make schools and teachers better.

"State budgets are a critical topic because here's where we make the real tradeoffs," he said. "If we make the wrong choice education won't be funded the right way."

Gates said many states, in their efforts to close their budget deficits, are making the wrong choices, cutting education. "The bottom line is we need to care about state budgets because they're critical for our kids and our future."

Gates' theory: Identify and develop teachers, then reward excellence in the field.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which he and his wife started, is studying and videotaping teachers in seven urban school districts. The goal is to determine exactly what teaching methods work, and which don't.

In the meantime, Gates challenged some long-held assumptions about education. He said the U.S. spends $50 billion a year on automatic salary increases for teachers based on seniority, but, according to Gates, "Seniority seems to have no effect on student achievement."

Gates also questions spending $15 billion a year on salary bumps for teachers who get advanced degrees. "Such raises have almost no impact on achievement," he said.

The head of the nation's largest teachers union vehemently disagreed. "I was a math teacher for 23 years," said Dennis Van Roekel, President of the National Education Association. "I can guarantee you that what I took as part of my masters degree program in mathematics made a difference to me as a teacher."

Gates challenged the notion that smaller class sizes are better. He proposed that the best teachers actually take on more students. He said skilled teachers ought to be paid more to take on five or six more kids per class, so more children can benefit from what those teachers are doing right.


Free the Children, Cut the Budget: States have no business running schools

Pundits like David Brooks of the New York Times lament that the deficit-cutting mood supposedly sweeping the United States is myopically targeting education in favor of more powerful constituencies. “If you look across the country, you see education financing getting sliced — often in the most thoughtless and destructive ways,” Brooks writes. “The future has no union.” In Washington, he adds, early-childhood programs might be slashed, and

Many governors of both parties are diverting money from schools in thoughtless and self-destructive ways. Hawaii decided to cut the number of days in the school year. Of all the ways to cut education, why on earth would you reduce student time in the classroom?

Texas is taking the meat cleaver approach. School financing will be cut by at least 13.5 percent, around $3.5 billion. About 85,000 new students arrive in Texas every year. There will be no additional resources to accommodate them.

To Brooks’s relief, the Obama administration has at least one voice of sanity:

Education Secretary Arne Duncan gave a superb speech in November called the New Normal. He observed that this era of austerity should be an occasion to increase productivity and cut the things that are ineffective.

As though a bureaucrat’s bromides about increasing productivity and reducing ineffectiveness stands a chance of righting what’s wrong with education. We’ve had quite a lot of that over the years, with little to show for it. Education budgets went up; the quality of education did not.


There’s a reason for that: bureaucracy. That’s the antonym of “competitive entrepreneurial undertaking.” If we’re truly in a budget-cutting mood and wish to breathe life into education at the same time, we should de-bureaucratize schools by putting them entirely into the entrepreneurial arena: the marketplace.

I do not mean vouchers or charter schools. At best they operate according to a constricted model of competition tended by education bureaucrats and legislative bodies. The central flaw in these “reforms” is taxpayer financing. As long as the money comes through government, demands will be made for schools to be accountable to government rather than parents and students, setting limits to competition. Tax financing also reduces individual responsibility, while limiting — because of the double payment — most people’s ability to break out of the system altogether.

Moreover, financing learning through the compulsion of taxation is perverse. Education should be a consensual relationship among parents, children, and (when necessary) formal teachers. I’m fond of Isabel Paterson’s questions to teachers in her book The God of the Machine: “Do you think nobody would willingly entrust his children to you or pay you for teaching them? Why do you have to extort your fees and collect your pupils by compulsion?”

What’s Really Radical?

No school taxes and no compulsory attendance. Sounds radical, but what’s really radical is the State’s asserting the power of parens patriae over children and forcing everyone to pay for the outrage. As education historian E. G. West noted, it did not take laws to achieve virtually universal education in the nineteenth century (among the free population). But it did take laws to give us schools that function like indoctrination centers, preaching the glory of government while preparing children to be quiescent taxpaying citizens who will take their place in industry, the bureaucracy, or the military. Today the goal is to train the personnel necessary to assure America’s status as the undisputed leader of the global economy, as though the world marketplace were a race among nations.

My references to competition, entrepreneurship, and markets do not imply that education should be provided by for-profit firms only or even predominantly. A freed education market would include nonprofits, co-ops, extended homeschooling, and things no one has thought of yet. The key is to liberate all participants from the heavy hand of bureaucracy. No authority should interpose itself between aspiring providers competing with one another and consumers of education services. Only then will the “discovery procedure” that F. A. Hayek identified with competition be fully ignited.

What about the Poor?

That’s the inevitable question. The irony is that poor children in this society have been treated disgracefully by government school authorities. It is sheer chutzpah for advocates of “public education” to say they worry about the poor after having inflicted and/or tolerated such abuse for so long.

The poor would stand a much better chance in a freed education environment. If some of the most destitute places on earth manage to have private for-profit schools for poor children, then so can the United States, especially if the shackles were removed. Of course, there would be far fewer poor people in a freed society.

Will School be separated from State any time soon? Unlikely. The public-school industry, including the unions and all the vendors selling things to school districts, is big, rich, and powerful. The education-industrial complex surely rivals the military-industrial complex in its capacity to consume tax revenues.

But if for no other reason, the dismal fiscal condition of the states makes this a good time to talk about separation. It certainly won’t happen if nobody ever mentions it.

How would we go about it? I’ve long thought the best way would be simply to turn each school over to the people who work in it. Let them run the schools and compete independently of government without tax revenues. An alternative would be to turn the schools over to the parents if they want them. Just get them away from the bureaucracy.

Brooks is right. Education is important – far too important to leave to politicians and bureaucrats.


The cheating epidemic at Britain's universities

A cheating epidemic is sweeping universities with thousands of students caught plagiarising, trying to bribe lecturers and buying essays from the internet. A survey of more than 80 universities has revealed that academic misconduct is soaring at institutions across the country.

More than 17,000 incidents of cheating were recorded by universities in the 2009-10 academic year – up at least 50 per cent in four years.

But the true figure will be far higher because many were only able to provide details of the most serious cases and let lecturers deal with less serious offences.

Only a handful of students were expelled for their misdemeanours among those universities which disclosed how cheats were punished.

Most of the incidents were plagiarism in essays and other coursework, but others examples include:

* Three cases categorised as "impersonation" by Derby University and three at Coventry, along with 10 "uses of unauthorised technology"

* Kent University reported at least one case where a student attempted to "influence a teacher or examiner improperly".

* At the University of East Anglia students submitted pieces of work which contained identical errors, while others completed reports which were "almost identical to that of another student", a spokesman said, while one was caught copying sections from the Wikipedia website.

* A student sitting an exam at the University of the West of Scotland was caught with notes stored in an MP3 player.

* A Bradford University undergraduate completed work at home, smuggled it into an examination then claimed it had been written during the test.

* The University of Central Lancashire, at Preston, reported students had been caught using a "listening and/or communications device" during examinations.

* Keele undergraduates sitting exams were found to have concealed notes in the lavatory, stored on a mobile telephone and written on tissues while two students were found guilty of "falsifying a mentor's signature on practice assessment documents to gain academic benefit".

Many institutions reported students buying coursework from internet-based essay-writing companies. Dozens of websites offering the services are available on the web, providing bespoke essays for fees of £150 and upwards. Some offer "guaranteed first class honours" essays at extra cost and many "guarantee confidentiality and privacy" – hinting that the essays can be used to cheat.

In one website offering "creative, unique, original, credible" essays, a testimonial from a previous customer says: "I am very satisfied with my order because I got the expected result." There are even sites which offer express services, while many claim the work is written by people with postgraduate qualifications.

Nottingham Trent discovered examples of bespoke essays, and Newcastle reported three cases of essays being purchased from a third party. Two students bought work at Salford and cases were also reported at East London University, Greenwich and London South Bank, which uncovered three incidents.

Professor Geoffrey Alderman, from the University of Buckingham, who is a long-standing critic of falling standards in higher education, said: "I think it is a pretty depressing picture. "It is worrying that students now resort to cheating on such a widespread scale and that the punishments on the whole are not robust enough. "In my book it should be 'two strikes and you're out'.

"Although universities are perhaps better than they were at detecting certain types of cheating, such as plagiarism, when I talk to colleagues across the sector there is a view that cheating has increased."

Professor Alderman said the style of teaching and assessment now used at some institutions was partly to blame for the rise in academic dishonesty. "There has been a move away from unseen written examinations and most university degree courses are now assessed through term papers, which makes it more tempting to commit plagiarism," he said.

"I advocate a return to the situation where it is impossible to pass a degree unit without achieving a minimum score in an unseen written test."


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