Sunday, August 21, 2011

Texas Schools and crooked Leftist statistics

The canard about Texas school failure came up back in February when the innumerate and statistically incompetent New York Times columnist Paul Krugman tried to argue that low levels of public spending in Texas resulted in poor educational outcomes.

"Compassion aside, you have to wonder — and many business people in Texas do — how the state can prosper in the long run with a future work force blighted by childhood poverty, poor health and lack of education."

This was shortly after the brouhaha over public-sector unions — which mostly means teacher unions — in Wisconsin. The Economist chimed in with a snide comparison:

"Only 5 states do not have collective bargaining for educators and have deemed it illegal. Those states and their ranking on ACT/SAT scores are as follows:

South Carolina — 50th
North Carolina — 49th
Georgia — 48th
Texas — 47th
Virginia — 44th

If you are wondering, Wisconsin, with its collective bargaining for teachers, is ranked 2nd in the country."

The whole Krugman/Economist thesis was decisively exploded by blogger Iowahawk in a March 2nd post. Iowahawk pointed out what everyone acquainted with psychometric or educational statistics knows: that the only meaningful population comparisons are those that have been disaggregated by race and ethnicity.

In fact, the lion’s share of state-to-state variance in test scores is accounted for by differences in ethnic composition. Minority students — regardless of state residence — tend to score lower than white students on standardized tests, and the higher the proportion of minority students in a state the lower its overall test scores tend to be … Whatever combination of reasons, the gap exists, and it’s mathematical sophistry to compare the combined average test scores in a state like Wisconsin (4% black, 4% Hispanic) with a state like Texas (12% black, 30% Hispanic).

Iowahawk went on to perform the necessary disaggregation, showing that:

"White students in Texas perform better than white students in Wisconsin, black students in Texas perform better than black students in Wisconsin, Hispanic students in Texas perform better than Hispanic students in Wisconsin. In 18 separate ethnicity-controlled comparisons, the only one where Wisconsin students performed better than their peers in Texas was 4th grade science for Hispanic students (statistically insignificant), and this was reversed by 8th grade. Further, Texas students exceeded the national average for their ethnic cohort in all 18 comparisons; Wisconsinites were below the national average in 8, above average in 8.

Iowahawk got a huge email bag from that post. He responded with a follow-up on March 5th, from which:

"After controlling for ethnicity, compared to the running-dog Gang of Five non-collective bargaining states (TX, VA, SC, NC, GA), Wisconsin is a (1) middling performer for white students; (2) below middling for Hispanic students, and (3) an absolute disaster for black students."

If I were Rick Perry I’d have Iowahawk’s analysis displayed on billboards on state highways.


Sex education returns to classrooms of New York

For the first time in nearly two decades, students in New York City's public middle and high schools will be required to take sex education classes this year, with a curriculum that includes how to use a condom and discussions on the appropriate age for sexual activity.

The new mandate is part of a strategy the mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has announced to improve the lives of African and Latin American teenagers. City statistics show that these teenagers are more likely than their white counterparts to have unplanned pregnancies and contract sexually transmitted diseases.

"It's something that applies to all boys and all girls," the deputy mayor for health and human services, Linda Gibbs, said.
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"But, when we look at the biggest disadvantages that kids in our city face, it is blacks and Latinos that are most affected by the consequences of early sexual behaviour and unprotected sex."

The change will bring a measure of cohesion to a system of programs largely chosen by school principals.

It will also involve New York in the roiling national debate about how much students should be taught about sex.

Nationwide between 2006 and 2008, one-in-four teenagers learnt about abstinence without receiving any instruction in schools about contraceptive methods, an analysis by the Guttmacher Institute, which studies reproductive health found.

As of January, 20 states and the District of Columbia mandated sex and HIV education in schools. An additional 12 states, including New York, required HIV education only, a policy paper published by the institute said. New York City's new mandate goes beyond the state's requirement that middle and high school students take one semester of health education classes. It calls for schools to teach a semester of sex education in 6th or 7th grade and again in 9th or 10th grade.

The New York sex education program is part of a raft of public health efforts introduced by Mr Bloomberg's administration - including the push to reduce the intake of salt and sugary sodas - which has been criticised as interventionist. It is also unique because the city does not usually tell schools what to teach.

"We have a responsibility to provide a variety of options to support our students, and sex education is one of them," the Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, Dennis Walcott, said.

Parents can have their children opt out of the lessons on birth control methods.

City officials said that while there would be frank discussions with students as young as 11 on topics like anatomy, puberty, pregnancy and the risks of unprotected sex, the focus was to persuade them to wait until they are older to experiment.

But, while knowing many teenagers are sexually active, the administration wants to teach them safe sex to reduce pregnancy, disease and dropouts.

Classes will include a mixture of lectures, perhaps using statistics to show that while middle school students might brag about having sex not many actually do; group discussions about why teenagers resist using condoms; and role-playing exercises that might include techniques to fend off unwanted advances.

New York high schools have been distributing condoms for more than 20 years but, in the new sex-education classes, teachers will describe how to use them and why, going into areas some schools have never ventured before.


Britain has launched a revolution in its university system -- says Matthew d'Ancona

The ritual argument about the difficulty of A-levels strikes me as both rude and pointless. It’s hard to imagine anything more offensive or crass to those celebrating their results than telling them noisily that the currency has been debauched and devalued.

The fact is: they don’t have to be told any of this. Their conduct – the brightest teenagers taking six or seven A-levels to mark themselves out as the best – shows that they know the score, perfectly well aware that pass rates don’t improve for 29 years in a row if standards are stable. Today’s smartest sixth formers pursue A* grades with the same zeal that their forebears sought the old-fashioned A. They do whatever is necessary to distinguish themselves, with much greater ingenuity and industry than was necessary in the past.

It cannot be said too often: the row about grade inflation is a row about the failures of past policy-makers, not a critique of today’s teenagers. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, is committed to an overhaul of A-levels, following a review of the examination commissioned by the Tories in Opposition and led by Sir Richard Sykes, a former rector of Imperial College London. The themes of the forthcoming reform are encouraging – fewer “modules”, more traditional written tests, the probable withering on the vine of the AS level, new exam boards – but the timetable is not yet settled. I would be pleasantly surprised if the poor, ailing A-level is healed in the lifetime of this Parliament.

Which is not to say that the pace of change in education has stalled. Quite the opposite, in fact: as we trot biliously through the traditional arguments of A-level and GCSE fortnight (“This boy has 36 As at A-level, and yet can’t even get a place at Simon Cowell University”, etc, etc), we risk missing the bigger, fizzing picture. As the aftershock of the August riots continues to pulse through the nation, it is easy to forget the violent mayhem in Westminster last November in protest at the prospective rise in university tuition fees. Inexcusable as those earlier riots were, they at least had a measure of political content: the changes against which the protesters bellowed are indeed revolutionary. In this context, the chaos in university clearing last week symbolised the death throes of the old, or, if you are of an optimistic cast of mind, the birth pangs of the new.

Many of those scrambling for a place last week were desperate to slip under the wire to avoid the new system, which will be implemented in the academic year 2012-13 and lift the annual ceiling for undergraduate fees from £3,500 to £9,000 pa. At present, 60 per cent of university funding is public, and 40 per cent private; those percentages will now be reversed. This represents a transformation, not only in higher education finance but in what, since Cardinal Newman, we have called “the Idea of a University”. It completes a shift that has its distant origins in the introduction of student loans in 1990 and, more decisively, in Tony Blair’s Teaching and Higher Education Act of 1998, which introduced fees of £1,000 pa and began the phasing out of maintenance grants.

It has taken more than 20 years, but the deeply entrenched assumption that a university education was an immutable entitlement which taxpayers (graduates or not) were required to subsidise in full has been replaced by the recognition that it is a privilege, positional good and lifetime advantage that ought to be paid for (in large part) by the beneficiary himself. The corollary is that universities will have to raise their game as teaching institutions if they wish to attract funding, and – an important change – publish details of the A-level subjects taken by successful applicants. As long as the fees they can charge are capped, Britain will not have the unfettered higher-education marketplace that it needs to compete globally. But the trajectory is clear.

One of the most significant proposals in the Higher Education White Paper published in June was that universities should be able to admit as many students as they wish with two As and a B at A-level (or better). In effect, this quietly grants the Russell Group – the top 20 universities – something close to market flexibility. “That’s a radical change,” according to one senior source. “It amounts to the quiet introduction of a higher education voucher.”

Co-payment by the consumer; the rudiments of a university marketplace; a discreetly introduced voucher system – so far, so Conservative. But this is not a Conservative Government; it is a Coalition held together by Sellotape and exhaustion. Although many Tories wish that the expansion of higher education could be halted, the Prime Minister and David Willetts, the Universities Minister, are not among them. Both men share the Lib Dems’ belief that campuses can be engines of social mobility and aspiration. For this reason, the new system will be progressive in every sense that matters. No graduate will pay a penny back until he earns £21,000 or more. Less affluent students will benefit from the new National Scholarship Programme, a fund championed by Nick Clegg that will give successful applicants at least £3,000 to offset the annual costs.

But there is still tension between the Coalition partners over the precise extent to which government should twist arms, pull levers and risk confrontation to force universities to admit applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. All 123 higher education institutions in England are planning to charge more than £6,000 – a decision that automatically makes them subject to much more stringent “access agreements”. Tory ministers are foursquare behind any measures that make universities look at the potential of candidates as well as their achievements. There is no quarrel over the need to get more state pupils into higher education.

The argument concerns means, not ends. Clegg is up for a fight with the vice-chancellors, and has said as much in private. Denied electoral reform at Westminster as his legacy, he demands measurable results on social mobility, especially in the composition of university admissions. The Lib Dems want everything short of formal quotas, which are illegal under the 2005 Higher Education Act. They believe that no progress will be made unless the Coalition bares its teeth. Their Conservative partners fret that the Coalition needs its remaining teeth intact for all the other battles that lie ahead.

Unexpectedly, universities have become the laboratory of this Government’s social ambitions. But these individual ambitions are not necessarily consistent. Is the higher education system to become an ever more independent marketplace of free institutions? Or a great Heath Robinson machine for social engineering? It cannot be both. This is the unanswered question that lurks beneath this year’s university clearing bedlam. Clearing for what, exactly?


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