Friday, June 24, 2011

The abuse of higher education

Texas Governor Rick Perry’s request for transparency and accountability in higher education has set the faculty furies loose.

On May 16, Gov. Perry responded, “The big lie making the rounds in Texas is that elected or appointed officials want to undermine or deemphasize research at our colleges and universities. That disinformation campaign is nothing more than an attempt to shut down an open discussion about ways to improve our state universities and make them more effective, accountable, affordable and transparent.”

What Perry seeks to achieve in Texas would be a laudable goal for every state in the country.

Let me start at the beginning. I began college teaching in 1961 at the University of Michigan. In the ‘70s I began to witness the steady demise of higher education—not higher research, but higher education.

Today, higher education is actually abusive—in two ways. One, it is staggeringly and unnecessarily expensive. Two, too many good teachers are taken out of the classroom.

How did we get in this mess?

It began in the ‘70s with the glut of Ph.D. graduates. I watched it happen with my colleagues. With more and more applicants applying for fewer and fewer positions, administrators needed new ways to distinguish among candidates. As it would be difficult to assess teaching abilities of a new Ph.D. candidate, focus switched to the quality of their publications.

It logically followed that publication replaced teaching; education became replaced with research. Publication was first, students came second. Prestige and image outside the classroom replaced teaching within it.

When I began university teaching, the average teaching load was five classes, or 15 credit hours per semester. It then dropped to four classes, then to three classes, and then today commonly to two or even a mere one class. Reduced teaching loads were granted so that professors could conduct research. It was now the external prestige of the university that mattered—more so than the internal education of students.

But much research has now become virtually worthless. I could cite a plethora of examples to support my charge, but let me cite just three representative examples.

John Silber, former dean at the University of Texas-Austin and president of Boston University, recently told the Texas Tribune that many products of research “aren’t worth anything.”

Hofstra University law professor Richard Neumann reported at a conference this April that it costs approximately $100,000 for a tenured law professor to publish one article per year and that 43 percent of law review articles are never cited by anyone. In Neumann’s words, “At least a third of these things have no value.”

World Shakespeare Bibliography reports that from 1980 to mid-2010, there were 39,222 scholarly articles published on Shakespeare. Professors can research and publish anything they wish; it’s a free country. But should they be given reduced teaching loads, at student and taxpayer expense, to publish the 39,223rd article?

Today, countless professors are virtually semi-retired. They teach one or two classes, totaling often some 40 students a semester. Their salaries are in six figures, and they teach 30 weeks a year, with 22 weeks off. Once they get tenure, indolence often sets in and they don’t have to research or publish anything.

A study released this May by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity revealed that of the roughly 4,200 faculty members at the University of Texas-Austin, the 840 most productive teachers taught 57 percent of all student credit hours, while the least productive 840 taught only 2 percent of all student credit hours. For the lower 80 percent of faculty, the average teaching load was 63 students per year.

CCAP reported that if the lower 80 percent of faculty taught just half the load of the top 20 percent – roughly 150 students per year – UT-Austin would save more than a quarter billion dollars per year. That savings would be enough to reduce tuition by more than half.

I suspect that many universities in the country aren’t as bad as UT, but abuse is nonetheless rife. Too many students are taught by young, inexperienced teaching assistants, and costs continue to rise exorbitantly.

Residents in every state should put relentless pressure on regents and trustees of universities to demand transparency and accountability of teaching loads and research. Of research, the public and regents must ask: how does each research project serve either students or wider societal needs?

Administrators and faculty will fight this exposure tooth and nail, but they must be held accountable for expenditure of public money. Only then will we get the best worlds of teaching and research.


One in four British state schools flouts duty to teach RE

Hundreds of state schools are killing off religious education by ignoring their legal obligation to teach the subject, it was claimed yesterday.

Since 1944 it has been enshrined in law that all five to 16-year-olds must study the subject at school. Typically, guidelines state it should comprise at least 5 per cent of their curriculum – equivalent to one hour every week – and all 14 to 16-year-olds must take at least half a GCSE in religious studies.

But research published yesterday shows one in four comprehensive and academy schools do not teach religious studies at GSCE. And some 31 per cent of grammars are now shirking the obligation.

The findings come as the Government seeks to leave the subject out of the new GCSE performance measure, the English Baccalaureate. And the Coalition has removed the onus from schools watchdog Ofsted to police take-up of the subject.

As a result, schools have less incentive to teach the subject and increasingly think they can get away with breaking the law, it is claimed. And religious experts fear RE is now at serious risk of completely disappearing in many schools.

Religious education has been integral to schooling in Britain since the Church of England first provided schools for the masses in 1812.

In 1870, when the State opened schools, it remained a core component. And with the Education Act of 1944 it became law for pupils aged five to 16 to be taught RE. Initially the law simply required schools to give ‘religious instruction’.

This remained unchanged to 1988 when the Education Reform Act established a mandatory National Curriculum of ten subjects, including RE. Over time the subject has broadened to include all major world religions and atheism.

Ed Pawson, chairman of the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education, said: ‘There has been a dramatic slump in the take-up of RE in secondary schools. ‘Once it dies out at GCSE level, it will die right across the board. ‘Nobody is policing the teaching of RE and the Government offers no incentive for it to be taught. It would be an absolute tragedy if it died out. ‘The subject is more relevant today than ever and gives pupils an understanding of their culture and heritage, and the culture of others.’

The association conducted a poll of almost 2,000 secondary schools and found more than 500 are breaking the law by failing to teach RE to children aged between 14 and 16.

It predicts this trend will surge by at least 10 per cent next year – and says the introduction of the English Baccalaureate is the key reason.

The English Baccalaureate is given to teenagers who score at least a C at GCSE in English, maths, science, a foreign language and a humanities subject, which is limited to history and geography.

But campaigners said that RE should have been included and its exclusion sparked a wave of protest.

A Department for Education spokesman said: ‘RE remains a vital part of the school curriculum. That’s why it remains compulsory for every single student up to 16.’


New spelling test for British 11-year-olds in primary school exam overhaul

All 11-year-olds will be forced to sit a new-style test in spelling, grammar, punctuation, handwriting and vocabulary to drive up poor standards of English, it emerged today.

Some 600,000 pupils will take the toughen-up literacy exam at the end of primary school as part of a major overhaul of Sats tests, it was disclosed.

It will replace an existing exam in writing composition which has been branded “pointless” by teachers because of inconsistent marking and fears young children struggle to come up with creative prose in formal test conditions.

An independent review of assessment in English primary schools said a more focused exam based on fundamental literacy skills would “raise attainment” in these areas and give teachers more freedom to monitor children’s composition throughout the year.

The review – led by Lord Bew, the crossbench peer – also recommended:

* Maintaining existing tests in maths and reading;

* Keeping the current system in which teachers informally monitor children’s speaking and listening skills;

* Introducing three year “rolling average” results for schools alongside annual scores to stop small primaries being penalised by sudden dips in grades;

* Giving children at least a week to sit tests if they are ill on exam day – replacing the current system in which absences are marked down as “failures”;

* Investigating the possible use of on-line testing and marking as a long-term replacement for traditional pen and paper exams.

The conclusions come amid claims from teachers and academics that Sats promote a culture of “teaching to the test” and lead to a narrowing of the curriculum.

Last year, a quarter of state primaries boycotted the exams as part of industrial action staged by the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Head Teachers. Today, both unions welcomed the reforms, saying they appeared to mark a “step in the right direction”.

But the NASUWT union branded the report a “fudge”. Chris Keates, general secretary, said: “The simple and straightforward question Lord Bew was asked to look at was the relative merits of teacher assessments versus externally marked testing, whilst ensuring public confidence. “However, he has ducked the issue and come up with a fudge.”

Currently, children take three exams in reading, writing and maths during the final May of primary education. Results are published in national league tables.

At the same time, teachers informally assess pupils’ progress in all three areas – alongside speaking and listening – and these results are released at the same time. In today’s report, Lord Bew proposed beefing up the role of teacher assessment by publishing results before formal exam scores.

He also criticised the existing writing test, which asks pupils to pen a piece of prose, verse or a formal letter. It is then marked for composition, spelling, grammar, punctuation and handwriting.

The review said composition should now be assessed informally by teachers throughout the final year of primary school. The other elements “where there are clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers” should be subjected to a new externally-marked test, it said.

The changes – which are likely to be accepted in full by the Government – are set to be introduced as early as next year.

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, welcomed the review team's report, adding: "Their recommendations represent an educationally sound approach while taking account of different opinions. They are fair for teachers and schools.

"They give an opportunity for pupils to showcase their abilities. They still give parents the vital information they need about how their school is performing, in a range of new and different ways.”


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