Friday, October 14, 2011

D.C. Drove Up Your Student Debt

One of the major complaints of the Occupy Wall Street crowd, many of whom have taken on significant student debt, is that the cost of college is too darn high. And they're right, but not because of greedy corporate fat cats. No, the real guilty party here is federal politicians, who for decades have been fueling high profits — and prices — at both for-profit and nonprofit schools.

Wait. Big profits at nonprofit colleges? Yes, money has been piling up even at schools you thought had no interest in profit. And Washington, D.C., is the biggest hand feeding the beast.

Thanks to recent congressional hearings and battling over new regulations for for-profit schools, most people — including many college-aged, profit-disdaining Wall Street squatters — are probably at least vaguely aware that for-profit colleges are making good money.

But not just openly profit-seeking schools are making big bucks. If we define profit simply as revenue derived from providing a service exceeding costs, putatively nonprofit colleges actually have much higher margins than for-profit schools.

How do we know that? It's tough, because nonprofit schools typically report all their profits as expenses. Basically, they take excess revenues coming from undergraduate education and distribute them throughout the college in subsidies for research, graduate education, low-demand majors, low faculty teaching loads, excess compensation or featherbedding. In other words, rather than rewarding investors, colleges pay themselves.

Given this surplus-into-costs alchemy, there are just a few ways to get at schools' real costs. One is the buildup method, in which you calculate all the inputs required to educate undergrads, from market-rate professors' salaries to photocopying costs. The second is to get the best internal accounting of actual college expenditures you can, which a few states furnish, and estimate costs from that.

Using both methods reveals that it costs roughly $8,000 to educate an undergraduate at an average, residential college.

Now look at your college bill, including room and board: An average of almost $37,000 at a private four-year university, and $16,000 at a public equivalent.

So what's the profit? The average tuition and fee charge at a private bachelor's college, minus institutional aid, was $13,515 in 2008. Subtract $8,000 from that, and just from tuition and fees the school made about $5,500 per student, a margin of 41%. Add donated money like endowment funds, which are often intended to help undergraduate students, and the margins become even bigger.

Profits are similar at public institutions — only what schools don't get from tuition they make in state subsidies.

This is where Washington's policies come in.

Colleges have been able to achieve these stunningly high profit margins by radically increasing the prices they charge students. Inflation-adjusted tuition and fees have tripled in the last 30 years.

Politicians have enabled schools to charge these skyrocketing rates in the name, ironically, of helping students. Indeed, inflation-adjusted federal aid to students has quadrupled since 1980, going from $35.4 billion to approximately $146.5 billion. Meanwhile, total student debt has leapt ahead of total credit card debt, blowing past the $800 billion mark.

In other words, the feds have been blasting helium into the college-cost bubble, enabling profits — which, if driven by undistorted demand, could be good — to balloon at the expense of students and taxpayers.

Fortunately, since Washington has been a big part of the problem, it can be a major part of the solution. One relatively easy thing it can do is change financial aid rules that give schools sizable advantages over students when setting after-aid prices. Basically, when students apply for aid the feds give schools students' total financial pictures, enabling colleges to change their after-aid prices on a student-by-student basis. Students have no such insider knowledge about schools.

The politically tougher, but essential, move would be to phase out the big subsidies to students that enable schools to raise prices with impunity. That means reducing everything from Pell Grants, to cheap student loans, to tuition tax deductions.

The outcry would be that this will hurt students, an objection that would probably issue loudly from the people raging against the financial machine. But it would do the opposite, forcing schools to keep their prices in line with the real cost of providing education, and saving both students and taxpayers big bucks. And that is what everyone should want.


New law nationalizes science education standards

California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law SB300, Oct. 8, which approves the forthcoming national science-curriculum standards and lays out the path for California to put them into effect in 2013. It is hard to think of something that could be more important than teaching the subject-matter of science well. California and American K-12 students need to learn science content that is the most rigorous in the world, and teachers need to teach K-12 science in the most effective way possible.

If Americans are going to create feats of engineering, invent cutting-edge technologies, make scientific discoveries, and work in a scientific-technological workplace, our students will need a science curriculum with a rigor and effectiveness as good as or better than that of top-performing foreign countries.

The brand-new law says that California’s science standards are to be based on those being created under the auspices of the federal government’s National Research Council (NRC) – but are as yet sight unseen.

I see three problems with the policy contained in California’s new law. The first is that the law would replace California’s top-rated science standards instead of updating them. The second is that the National Research Council has a history of promoting “fuzzy” science. The third is that the law furthers the nationalization of curriculum that is currently taking place across the country -- but under the radar of most parents and taxpayers.

California’s current science-curriculum standards were written under the supervision of nuclear scientist Glenn Seaborg. Seaborg was a Nobel Laureate in chemistry, chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, chair of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (predecessor of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission), member of the “Nation at Risk” commission, president of the American Chemical Society, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, discoverer of 10 elements, and adviser to 10 presidents, from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton.

Governor Brown wants to discard Seaborg’s standards for pig-in-a-poke standards written behind closed doors by as-yet-unnamed science educators -- who are not going to be as knowledgeable and expert as Seaborg.

California’s science standards were given an A-rating (on an A-F scale by) by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. California got 97 out of 100 per cent, according Fordham’s reviewers, and its score was the highest rating of any state science standards in the country.

The Fordham review summed up by saying: “California has produced an exemplary set of standards for school science; there was no question among readers about the “A” grade.”

So the question naturally arises, why not just update the matters that need updating after a dozen or so years. The answer lies in the yearning of Progressive educators for “fuzzy science” and the drive under the administration of President Barak Obama to nationalize the public-school curriculum.

“Fuzzy science” is also called “discovery-based”or “inquiry-based” instruction, though it might better be termed excessively inquiry-based. The notion is that students will make scientific discoveries and construct scientific theories and ideas of their own with minimal guidance. This view of learning is sometimes called “constructivism.”

Contrary to those who hold this view, it is in fact crazy to expect K-12 students to reconstruct the scientific knowledge that scientists have accumulated over thousands of years. This is a method of teaching that objects to acquiring knowledge based on facts, disdains memorizing formulas and definitions, and resists mastering standard problem-solving techniques. In essence, inquiry-based instructions is the old Progressive Education approach of learn-through-play and follow-what-interests-the-student dressed up in new jargon.

The NRC has a long record of promoting fuzzy science. In 2000, the National Research Council published “Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards,” which – as the title suggests -- promoted “inquiry” as the best way to teach K-12 science.

Back in 1996, the NRC had published the “National Science Education Standards.” Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, said at the time: These standards are “science as inquiry-based learning. And that's a major revolution.”

Inquiry, as laid out the NRC’s 1996 science standards, may only be inquiry "into authentic questions generated from student experiences." Hence, such NRC-style inquiry, as physicist Alan Comer wrote, is “very different” from traditional laboratory-based science, in which “students learn to systematically use methods and equipment appropriate to ends determined by the curriculum.” Here in the NRC’s earlier standards, we see an example in a new guise of the idea that teaching must follow-what-interests-the-student.

One has to conclude that the NRC has a history of proposing science curriculum that is based on discovery-learning and against learning facts and formulas. This method of teaching is not only wrong-headed; it has never been proven to be better than traditional subject-matter content and traditional teaching methods.

What are these new NRC new national science-curriculum standards that Governor Brown has committed California to? They don’t exist yet and will surely be somewhat different from the NRC’s 1996 standards. But there is evidence that the same spirit of “inquiry-based” Progressive Education will persist.

University of Virginia biologist Paul Gross has reviewed (for the Fordham Institute) the new NRC framework for its national science standards. He wrote that the new framework frequently writes about “scientific inquiry” and overlapping concepts. Gross notes that according to the NRC framework students will be taught that inquiry is an aspect of science to be distinguished from scientific facts.

But Gross asks what is “the evidence for [inquiry’s] separability (pedagogically speaking) from facts”? His answer: Such evidence is “thin to nonexistent in modern cognitive psychology.” In its devotion to Progressive Education’s inquiry-based learning, the NRC wants to impose on America’s classrooms an approach that isn’t backed by research psychology.

Gross criticizes the NRC framework for – like the NRC’s 1996 standards – not letting go of the subjectivist, “postmodern” view of how science really works. The 2011 framework relies on postmodern works of the 1980s and ‘90s that argue that scientists (and science as a community of scholars) cannot discover truth (that is, what really exists and is going on).

Instead, according to postmodernists (whom the new NRC framework references), “truth” is what influential people and power-wielders have imposed on society and enforced as culturally acceptable. The new NRC framework suggests that how-science-works should be taught to students not as a search to find out reliable truth about nature, but instead as power-brokerage and influence-peddling.

Judging by the framework for the new national science-curriculum standards, they will shun the concept of objective scientific truth and will instill Progressive Education teaching methods. To add insult to injury, the framework also promises teaching of science without using analytic mathematics.

Ze’ev Wurman, who worked on the California Mathematics Framework and the California Standards Commission, reviewed the new NRC science framework and zeroed in on the difficulty: The framework does not expect students to use analytical math in any K-12 science problem.

Brown University biologist Michael McKeown writes: “Only one formula or equation in [the NRC framework’s] 280 pages? So much for physics at even the simplest level. Chemistry is out. Imagine making solutions, doing dilutions, doing pH changes with out basic math skills.”

Why is the NRC science framework (and hence the forthcoming national standards) mathless? Math teacher Barry Garelick suggests that Progressive Educators believe that the quantitative aspect of science is “inauthentic,” so they don’t think it is valuable and won’t include it.

The result is, Wurman says, that the NRC science framework “simply teaches our students science appreciation, rather than science.” It expects America’s students to become “good consumers of science and technology,” rather than teaching them what is necessary for them to be the “discoverers of science and creators of technology.”

Having established that the forthcoming national science standards are going to deprecate mathematics, will be unfriendly to the idea of scientific objectivity, and will be locking in Progressive Education – we can turn to why these standards are “national.” (Previous curriculum standards have been developed and put into effect at the state level.)

What has happened is that some people have thought that America should have a European-style Ministry of Education at the national level, where the national government sets curriculum for all public schools and tests all public-school students. These people have been working to accomplish this for a long time. They reflexively believe that civic problems are best managed at the national level, and loss of local control is an insignificant price that citizens should happily pay.

These national aggrandizers pay lip service to social science, but the evidence does not show that countries with national curriculums do better that those with regional or state curriculums.

The NRC is part of the federal government, and its creation of the science framework and its sponsorship of the national standards themselves are welcomed by advocates of nationalization of K-12 schooling. Federally sponsored national science standards, like the national math and English standards, are a big step toward full nationalization in the European mode.

This nationalization is proceeding apace, under the radar of state legislators, members of Congress, taxpayers, and parents. It’s important, it deserves to be better known, and it deserves a broad public debate.


Rank pupils by their marks, not by grades: This would better distinguish stars at A-level, says British education boss

Pupils could be ranked on their raw exam marks under proposals to tackle grade inflation at A-level. Currently, the marks awarded to candidates are converted into grades.

However many employers and academics have complained it is too difficult to distinguish between pupils’ abilities as so many of them are awarded top grades.

Under measures outlined yesterday by Education Secretary Michael Gove, raw marks would instead be used to rank all pupils, allowing a clearer comparison of their ability.

In addition, Mr Gove is also looking at re-introducing a system that only allows a fixed percentage of pupils to get top grades.

The ranking data would be published in online tables and show whether a pupil came tenth in the country or 200,000th. This information could be accessed by employers, parents and pupils across the country and would enable youngsters to compare their performance with peers.

In addition schools, colleges and universities could use it to better differentiate between candidates. If introduced, the proposals would lead to the biggest shake-up of exams in 60 years – since the A-level was introduced in 1951.

Speaking at a conference on standards, organised by exams watchdog Ofqual, Mr Gove pledged to ensure grades reflect ability and to ‘tell the truth and shame the devil’.

While experts welcomed the plans, some critics claimed the emphasis on competition will place undue pressure, and possibly shame, on non-academic children with poor grades. It is not yet clear whether the ranking information would appear under pupils’ names, or if youngsters would be given individual reference numbers.

Mr Gove is also looking at reintroducing ‘norm referencing’, a grading system last used between 1963 and 1987. This would, for example, see just five per cent of candidates awarded an A* grade in maths.

In contrast, currently any student who gains an A overall as well as scoring at least 90 per cent in each of their papers in the second year achieves an A*. Mr Gove said this change would be suitable only for top grades.

Over the past two decades, exam pass rates have risen dramatically. Some 44 per cent of pupils obtained an A-level at C or above in maths in the early 1990s, compared with more than 55 per cent in 2008.

Mr Gove yesterday cited Burlington Danes Academy in west London, which has set up a system to rank pupils. The method sees pupils tested every half-term and given a ranking which is shared with the pupils, their parents and teacher. At the end of term the rankings, which have proved popular among parents and pupils, are published.

He said: ‘Is there a case for exam boards publishing more data about the performance of students, rather than less? It could be a completely wrong-headed idea. But I put it out there explicitly for debate.’

Professor Robert Coe, director of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University, welcomed the move. He said: ‘We have the data to rank pupils so we should be doing so. Ranking is crucial to selecting candidates. Whole grades no longer give us enough information and lots of youngsters now get three A*s.’

A spokesman for exam board Edexcel said: ‘We know universities and employers want to get more detailed information about how students perform at A-level, and we think students would welcome more information on their achievements too.’

‘We welcome a conversation regarding the possible introduction of norm referencing for A* candidates, although we should not limit discussions to just one method of differentiating outcomes.’


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