Thursday, July 21, 2011

Education Is Worse Than We Thought

Walter E. Williams

Last December, I reported on Harvard University professor Stephan Thernstrom's essay "Minorities in College -- Good News, But...," on Minding the Campus, a website sponsored by the New York-based Manhattan Institute. He was commenting on the results of the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, saying that the scores "mean that black students aged 17 do not read with any greater facility than whites who are four years younger and still in junior high. ... Exactly the same glaring gaps appear in NAEP's tests of basic mathematics skills."

Thernstrom asked, "If we put a randomly-selected group of 100 eighth-graders and another of 100 twelfth-graders in a typical college, would we expect the first group to perform as well as the second?" In other words, is it reasonable to expect a college freshman of any race who has the equivalent of an eighth-grade education to compete successfully with those having a 12th-grade education?

Maybe this huge gap in black/white academic achievement was in the paternalistic minds of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals justices who recently struck down Michigan's ban on the use of race and sex as criteria for college admissions. The court said that it burdens minorities and violates the U.S. Constitution. Given the black education disaster, racial preferences in college admissions will become a permanent feature, because given the status quo, blacks as a group will never make it into top colleges based upon academic merit.

The situation is worse than we thought. U.S. News & World Report (7/7/2011) came out with a story titled "Educators Implicated in Atlanta Cheating Scandal," saying that "for 10 years, hundreds of Atlanta public school teachers and principals changed answers on state tests in one of the largest cheating scandals in U.S. history, according to a scathing 413-page investigative report released Tuesday by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal."

The report says that more than three-quarters of the 56 Atlanta schools investigated cheated on the 2009 standardized National Assessment of Educational Progress. Eighty-two teachers have confessed to erasing students' answers. A total of 178 educators, including 38 principals, many of whom are black, systematically fabricated test scores of struggling black students to cover up academic failure. The governor's report says that cheating orders came from the top and that widespread cheating has occurred since at least 2001.

So far, no Atlanta educator has been criminally charged, even though some of the cheating was brazen, such as teachers pointing to correct answers while students were taking the tests, reading answers aloud during testing and seating low-achieving students next to high-achieving students to make cheating easier.

Teacher and principal exam cheating is not restricted to Atlanta; it's widespread. The Detroit Free Press and USA Today (3/8/2011) released an investigative report that found higher-than-average erasure rates on tests taken by students at 34 schools in and around Detroit in 2008 and 2009. Overall, their report "found 304 schools where experts say the gains on standardized tests in 2009-10 are so statistically improbable, they merit further investigation. Besides Michigan, the other states (where suspected cheating was found) were Ohio, Arizona, Colorado, Florida and California." A Dallas Morning News investigation reported finding high rates of test erasures in Texas. Six teachers and two principals were dismissed after cheating was uncovered.

In 2007, Baltimore's George Washington Elementary School was named a Blue Ribbon School after the number of students who passed state reading tests shot from 32 percent to nearly 100 percent in just four years. Last year, The Baltimore Sun reported thousands of erasures on those tests. Susan Burgess, the school's principal, had her professional license revoked after an investigation by state and city school board officials.

Why is there widespread cheating by America's educators? According to Diane Ravitch, who is the research professor of education at New York University, it's not teachers and principals who are to blame; it's the mandates of the No Child Left Behind law, enacted during the George W. Bush administration. In other words, the devil made them do it.


The Internet Will Reduce Teachers Union Power

Online learning means fewer teachers (and union members) per student

This has been a horrible year for teachers unions. The latest stunner came in Michigan, where Republicans enacted sweeping reforms last month that require performance-based evaluations of teachers, make it easier to dismiss those who are ineffective, and dramatically limit the scope of collective bargaining. Similar reforms have been adopted in Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey, Indiana, Tennessee, Idaho and Florida.

But the unions' hegemony is not going to end soon. All of their big political losses have come at the hands of oversized Republican majorities. Eventually Democrats will regain control, and many of the recent reforms may be undone. The financial crisis will pass, too, taking pressure off states and giving Republicans less political cover.

The unions, meantime, are launching recall campaigns to remove offending Republicans, initiative campaigns to reverse legislation, court cases to have the bills annulled, and other efforts to reinstall the status quo ante—some of which are likely to succeed. As of today, they remain the pre-eminent power in American education.

Over the long haul, however, the unions are in grave trouble—for reasons that have little to do with the tribulations of this year.

The first is that they are losing their grip on the Democratic base. With many urban schools abysmally bad and staying that way, advocates for the disadvantaged are demanding real reform and aren't afraid to criticize unions for obstructing it. Moderates and liberals in the media and even in Hollywood regularly excoriate unions for putting job interests ahead of children. Then there's Race to the Top—initiated over union protests by a Democratic president who wants real reform. This ferment within the party will only grow in the future.

Then there's a crucial dynamic outside of politics: the revolution in information technology. This tsunami is only now beginning to swell, and it will hit the American education system with full force over the next few decades. The teachers unions are trying to stop it, but it is much bigger than they are.

Online learning now allows schools to customize coursework to each child, with all kids working at their own pace, receiving instant remedial help, exploring a vast array of courses, and much more. The advantages are huge. Already some 39 states have set up virtual schools or learning initiatives that enroll students statewide, often providing advanced placement courses, remedial courses, and other offerings that students can't get in their local schools.

The national model is the Florida Virtual School, which offers a full academic curriculum, has more than 220,000 course enrollments per year, and is a beacon of innovation. Outside of government, tech entrepreneurs like K12 and Connections Academy are swarming all over the education sector. They are the innovative force behind the rise of virtual charters, which now operate in 27 states, enroll some 200,000 full-time students (who typically do their studying at home), and stand at the cutting edge of technology's advance.

This is just the opening salvo. Most American parents want their kids to actually go to school—to a physical place. So the favored virtual schools of the future will be hybrids of traditional and online learning. There are already impressive examples.

At the high-performing Rocketship schools in San Jose, Calif., for example, students take a portion of their academics online—generating $500,000 in savings per school annually. Schools use that money for higher teacher salaries and one-on-one tutoring.

As the cyber revolution comes to American education, it will bring about a massive and cost-saving substitution of technology for labor. That means far fewer teachers (and union members) per student. It also means teachers will be far less concentrated in geographic districts, as those who work online can be anywhere. It'll thus be far more difficult for unions to organize. There will also be much more diversity in educational offerings, and money and jobs will flow out of the (unionized) regular schools into new (nonunion) providers of online options.

The confluence of these forces—plus the shifting political tides among Democrats—will inexorably weaken the unions, sapping them of members, money and power. It will render them less and less able to block reform. The political doors will increasingly swing open to reforms that simply make good sense for children and for society.

So the unions can weather the Republican attacks of 2011. But the real threats to their power are more subtle, slowly developing—and potent.


4,500 British 'Mickey Mouse' courses to face the axe... including the 'GCSE' in claiming welfare payments

Michael Gove sounded the death knell for around 4,500 ‘Mickey Mouse’ qualifications yesterday. The Education Secretary plans to axe such vocational courses from school league tables where they serve as GCSE equivalents.

They have been used for years by schools as an easy way to boost their GCSE league table rankings. For example an NVQ level 2 in hairdressing is worth the equivalent of six GCSEs, but students never cut hair because health and safety regulations ban the use of scissors. In a major shake-up, pupils will still be allowed to take the qualifications but they will no longer count towards league tables.

There are more than 4,800 GCSEs, NVQs, BTECs and other qualifications for 14 to 16-year-olds. Some 4,500 ‘soft courses’ are expected to be excluded. The number of ‘equivalent’ qualifications taken in schools ballooned by almost 4,000 per cent under Labour – from 15,000 a year in 2004 to 575,000 last year.

Mr Gove proposes that only a few ‘high quality’ vocational qualifications will be included in league tables. All GCSEs, iGCSEs and AS-levels will be retained. Under the new standards, qualifications will count in the league tables only if they have a proven track record. They must also give students the chance to go on and do a wide range of other courses.

Their content must be the size of a GCSE, or bigger, a ‘substantial’ amount of it must be externally assessed and they must be marked with A*-G grades.

BTECs are unlikely to be included because they do not include a large amount of external assessment and many are only graded pass or fail.

Ministers said they also plan to change the system so that every qualification counts equally in the tables. Under the current system, some vocational qualifications are worth multiple GCSEs.

In an attempt to encourage students to follow a ‘balanced’ curriculum, the Department for Education said only two non-GCSE courses per pupil will count towards the Government’s benchmark of each child gaining five A*-Cs at GCSE.

The proposals, which are open for consultation until the end of September, follow the Wolf review of vocational education. In her review, Professor Alison Wolf warned that thousands of 14 to 16-year-olds are taking vocational courses that are encouraged by league tables but do not help the pupils’ prospects.

Schools Minister Nick Gibb said: ‘Reforming the league tables so they include only those qualifications that allow young people to maximise their potential is long overdue.’

But Nansi Ellis, of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: ‘A one-size-fits-all suite of qualifications will not develop the diverse range of skills and aptitudes of all young people. ‘If the Government insists on returning to a 1950s grammar school education and qualifications it will discriminate against the thousands of young people who will be more successful in other subjects and more practical qualifications.’


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