Thursday, October 27, 2011

Why allow kids to be hostage to government monopoly?

For years, American education from kindergarten through high school has been a virtual government monopoly.

Conventional wisdom is that government must run the schools. But government monopolies don't do anything well. They fail because they have no real competition. Yet competition is what gives us better phones, movies, cars -- everything that's good.

If governments produced cars, we'd have terrible cars. Actually, governments once did produce cars. The Soviet bloc puts its best engineers to work and came up with the Yugo, the Volga and the Trabant.

The Trabant was the best -- the pride of the Eastern Bloc. It was produced by actual German engineers -- known for their brilliance. Yet even the Trabant was a terrible car. Drivers had to put the oil and gas in separately and then shake the car to mix them. Trabants broke down and spewed pollution.

When government runs things, consumers suffer.

Our school system is like the Trabant. Economist Milton Friedman understood this before the rest of us did. In 1955, he proposed school vouchers. His plan didn't call for separating school and state -- unfortunately -- but instead sought a second-best fix: Give a voucher to the family, and let it choose which school -- government-run or private -- their child will attend.

Schools would compete for that voucher money. Today, it would be worth $13,000 per child. (That's what America spends per public school student today.) Competition would then improve all schools.

Friedman's idea was ignored for decades, but now there are voucher experiments in many states.

Do vouchers work? You bet they do. Just ask the low-income kids in Washington, D.C., who have participated in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. The U.S. Department of Education found that the voucher kids read better than their government-school counterparts.

So what did the politicians do? Expand the program? No. Two years ago, President Obama killed it. Why? "The president has concerns about ... talking large amounts of funding out of the system," then-press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

Voucher families protested. One voucher student, Ronald Holassie, said, "President Barack Obama, you say that getting an education is a key to success, but why do you sit there and let my education and others be taken away?"

The program was reauthorized only after John Boehner became Speaker of the House and insisted on it.

Holassie was a guest on my Fox Business show last week. He says the difference between a government school and his private school was dramatic. "In the public school system when I was in there, (there were) lots of fights. There were shootings, stabbings, and it was really unsafe -- drugs."

The Opportunity Scholarship didn't offer the full $20,000 that the district squanders on its public schools. It was worth just $7,000, but that was enough to get Ronald into a Catholic school.

"I was actually challenged academically," he said. "I remember when I was in the public school system, my teacher left in the middle of the year. I remember doing crossword puzzles and stuff like that. We weren't actually learning."

He says most of his government-school teachers acted like they didn't care. His mother, who's from Trinidad, was going to send him back to that country for an education because the schools there are better than American schools. "She wasn't going to continue to just let this system fail me." But he got the voucher and a good education, and now he's in college.

Despite the data showing that voucher kids are ahead in reading, the biggest teachers union in America, the NEA claims: "The D.C. voucher program has been a failure. It's yielded no evidence of positive impact on student achievement."

Holassie asks: "How is it a failure when the public school system is failing students? I don't understand that."

I don't understand it either. Vouchers aren't a perfect solution, but they are better than leaving every student a prisoner of a government monopoly. District government schools have only a 49 percent graduation rate. Ninety-one percent of the voucher students graduate.

Why would the union call that a failure? Because vouchers allow parents to make choices, and many parents would chose non-union, non-government-run schools. The school establishment can't abide this. Too much money and power are at stake.


British university students increasingly seeking second degrees to compete for top jobs

One degree is no longer enough to secure the best-paid jobs, according to research. Growing numbers of university students are staying on after their bachelors’ degrees to complete postgraduate masters and doctorate courses, said the study by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics.

Employers are increasingly seeking more highly qualified staff and typically pay workers with postgraduate courses 13 per cent more than those with first degrees only, the research found.

Last week figures showed that universities were facing their largest fall in applications for 30 years after a rise in tuition fees to up to £9,000 a year.

The study findings will add to concerns that increasing numbers of prospective students may decide that a university degree is not worth the investment. Workers with degrees have traditionally been paid better than those without. But the research from Prof Stephen Machin of University College London and Joanne Lindley from the University of Surrey found a significant gap opening between employees with one degree and those with higher qualifications.

“Employers are increasingly demanding postgraduates,” the researchers said, adding that postgraduates have “significantly strengthened their relative wage position”. In 1996, postgraduates were typically paid 6 per cent more than workers with first degrees only, but by 2009, this earnings “gap” had widened to 13 per cent.

More than a third of graduates now have a postgraduate qualification, with 37 per cent of graduates possessing a further degree in 2009, compared with 30 per cent in 1996. According to research, those with postgraduate degrees are on average carrying out jobs that involve significantly more complex tasks than people with just one degree.

“In key skills areas, the levels are significantly higher for postgraduates,” said the report. “For example, postgraduates have higher numeracy levels (especially advanced numeracy), higher levels of analysing complex problems and more specialist knowledge or understanding.”

Postgraduates have also benefited most from the increased demand for workers with computer skills over the past 15 years. “Postgraduate and college-only [first degree] workers both report high levels of computer usage, but using computers to perform complex tasks is markedly higher among the postgraduate group,” the study said. “The principal beneficiaries of the computer revolution have not been all graduates, but those with postgraduate qualifications.”


Australia: Religious education counters religious prejudice

Probably true in general but maybe not if Islam is taught honestly

Religions must be properly taught in state schools as part of the curriculum because people who never come across religion are far more likely to be prejudiced against it.

I came across that interesting and plausible assertion this week because teaching religion in state schools was back in the news when the Anglican church in Melbourne voted down a call for a multi-faith-based general religious education (GRE).

The church's synod (parliament) rejected it (204-167) not because they think it is a bad idea but to support and encourage the existing system of special religious instruction (SRI), taught by volunteers.

I blogged on religion in schools earlier this year, when it became a fresh issue in April. The reason I am revisiting it is because I was interested in the claim in my first sentence, above.

John Baldock, the minister at East Malvern, made it in moving the call for GRE that was eventually defeated. He said the reason a secular version teaching all faiths (though endorsing none), taught as part of the curriculum by trained teachers, is so necessary is that it promotes tolerance and understanding.

He said: “This is important. British and European studies show that children with some education about religion are more tolerant than those without it. Studying religion helps develop inclusive attitudes and promotes a climate of respect. Starkly put, without education about different faiths, conflict and disharmony are more likely.”

Therefore, paradoxically, the less religious Australian society becomes, the more important religious education will be.

Baldock told the synod: “The recent Mapping Social Cohesion report alerts us to how those who know least stereotype most; how those who know little about religion hold the most negative views towards groups other than their own.”

(I add an important qualification: such education would help prevent not only anti-religion bigotry, but bigotry by adherents of one religion against those of another or none.)

And of course, religion is not disappearing any time soon, despite the predictions and hopes of many over the past few decades. Around the world, its numbers and influence are rising. Surely it is better to know something of what other people believe than not.

GRE in the state curriculum would mean every student getting a basic grasp of the history, beliefs and practices of the major world religions, including Christianity. Now, only half the students get SRI.

Baldock also noted the role of religion in influencing people’s attitudes to ethics and philosophy, law and politics, gender relations, plus its impact on health and social services, and the challenge of religiously motivated violence and terrorism.

He said: “While I reject many of the criticisms levelled at SRI, I agree that religion is too important to leave to optional classes taught to students by volunteer teachers.”

SRI is almost entirely Christian, though Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and Baha’is also teach in state schools. The reason the Anglicans rejected Baldock’s proposal was to support Access Ministries, which provides 96 per cent of SRI and has come under strong attack.

Access chairman Bishop Stephen Hale says there has been a campaign against Access in which The Age and The Sunday Age have played a part, and that the debate has sometimes been quite personal and unpleasant.

Yet even though state and federal inquiries found no evidence of volunteers proselytising children, I am certain some have abused their role. There is too much anecdotal evidence of some seeking to convert children and, worse, suggesting their families will go to hell if they don’t go to church.

The Anglicans favouring GRE - which only became possible via a change to the state Education Act in 2006 – argue it should operate alongside the voluntary SRI. That should remain, along with better provision for those who take no part.

This is simple common sense, unarguably right - though as far as the adverb is concerned, I am sure I will be proved wrong. But I will say this: my experience on this blog and elsewhere leads me to give that opening sentence serious credence.


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