Monday, January 23, 2012

The Higher-Education Bubble

When President Obama gives his state of the union address next week, you can count on his making a big pitch for education. No president in recent memory has failed to tout expanded educational opportunity as the panacea for all that ails us -- and Obama has been the most passionate of pitchmen on the issue. In last year's speech, he said, "Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine."

But the fact is that dumping billions more in education will have little payoff and has arguably created more problems than it has solved.

The most recent issue of Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars, addresses one aspect of the problem: the higher-education bubble. With the mounting cost of higher education -- driven in part by the infusion of government subsidies -- many new graduates are finding that the degree they've earned is not worth the investment. At one time, a college degree was a virtual guarantor of secure, well-paying employment. Now, most college grads leave school with large debts -- more than $27,000 on average. It's money they will struggle to pay back if they're lucky enough to get a job in this weak economy.

A college degree no longer signifies that the recipient is either well-educated in the traditional sense or that he has acquired specific skills suited to the labor market. As the former president of St. John's College in Santa Fe, John Agresto, argues in his essay, "The Liberal Arts Bubble," were it not for the continued infusion of government subsidies and the influx of foreign students, the bubble might already have burst. Agresto points out that the liberal arts, once the backbone of the higher education system, has fallen into a precipitous decline.

"What was once normative -- that Jake or Suzie would go off to college and study some history, some literature, learn a second language, and perhaps major in philosophy or classics -- has not been the case for years," Agresto writes. By 2008, the number of bachelor's degrees had risen to 1.5 million Americans, but few of these degrees were in the traditional liberal arts. Barely 2 percent of BAs were awarded in history and only 3.5 percent in English literature. Agresto points out that more than a third of undergraduate degress are now earned in business, health professions and education. Colleges have become trade schools by another name -- but far more expensive ones than their for-profit counterparts.

It's no wonder that students have fled the liberal arts. For centuries, the liberal arts passed on what was best in Western civilization. Agresto explains that what kept Americans from forsaking the liberal arts in favor of the purely utilitarian, despite our practical bent, was that our youth should be encouraged "to pursue inquiry into serious and perennial questions."

But he also notes that the humanities in particular were considered the "Keepers of the Culture" at a time when we actually believed we had a culture worth keeping and passing on to another generation. Since the 1960s, however, our culture has been under attack, our history rewritten as one of unmitigated oppression and the values our Founders and subsequent generations held dear reviled. Humanities courses in liberal arts colleges across the country have replaced the canon of Western civilization with course offerings in gay scholarship, feminism, race studies and the like -- all aimed to show our benighted past and to condition us to a more tolerant future. That is, tolerant of every group except for white, heterosexual males.

Students have fled such course offerings in droves to pursue technical or professional skills in colleges that now award most of their degrees outside the liberal arts. Meanwhile, their parents -- and increasingly the students themselves, through student loans -- are left footing the bill for degrees that neither pay off in the marketplace nor enrich the intellectual lives of those on whom they are conferred.

Not even President Obama's billions will keep this bubble from bursting because it contains nothing but ever-expanding hot air.


AZ: School voucher push is revived

As he has before, Rep. Jack Harper proposed a bill this month that would let voters decide whether to change the Arizona Constitution to permit the use of school vouchers.

The bill would allow many parents to get state vouchers for per-pupil K-12 funding and use them to pay for their children to attend private schools, including religious ones.

Harper doesn't expect it to pass. But the West Valley Republican's proposal -- made as an "ideological" statement, he says -- represents the efforts of some conservative leaders to advance school-choice measures that steer public education money to private schools.

Harper's bill is unlikely to get support, even from GOP leaders, he says, because the ballot measure has no financial backing and similar ones have been rejected by voters in other states, including Utah and California.

But other bills designed to steer more state funds to private schools do have leaders' support.

Two proposed Senate bills would double the amount residents could save on their state income-tax bills, via credits, by donating to private-school scholarship funds. The bills also would expand the number of students eligible for the scholarships. The bills were passed by the Senate Finance Committee last week.

A third school-choice proposal, in a bill being drafted, would give parents the power to fire a failing district school's principal, shut the district school down or replace it with a charter school. The trend of empowering parents began in Los Angeles and is spreading.

"We see that these bills will be opening up opportunities to ensure as many children as possible can attend the school of their parents' choosing," said Deborah Sheasby, an attorney and lobbyist for the Center for Arizona Policy, which advocates for conservative causes, including school choice. "These bills are winners all around for Arizona families."

The groups and people pushing these bills were among those that helped bring to Arizona privately operated public schools, called charters, as well as creation of the tax-credit scholarships.

Their latest victory, which began this school year, is a law that created a statewide program giving parents of disabled students most of the money the state would spend educating their child. Parents can spend that money on private-school tuition and other education services, such as tutoring and even college-savings plans. The program is up and running at the same time its constitutionality is being challenged in court.

Opponents say school-choice measures can end up weakening district schools and argue that channeling state money to private schools violates state constitutional bans on spending state funds on religion or on private or religious schools. The opponents, which include district school boards, teachers unions and advocacy groups, argue the state has a constitutional obligation to use public money to improve cash-strapped public schools, not give it to private and religious schools. Instead, the state has cut funds to public schools for three consecutive years while passing laws that provide more state money for private schools, they say.

Arizona parents already have more school choice than many other states, they say. They can send their child to any school within their district or another district. Many districts offer special programs for advanced students and in vocational training, science, math, the arts and languages. If parents can't find something they like in a district, there are also 510 charter schools.

"It's (the school-choice push is) extremely frustrating because there is no Arizona student trapped in a public school," said Janice Palmer, lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association. Parents don't need more choices, Palmer said; schools need more parents to take an active interest in education.

Groups such as Palmer's have fewer allies in the Legislature, but voters often come down on the side of public schools. The most recent was the approval of a temporary sales-tax hike to help schools make it through the recession.

More here

Named and shamed: Failing British High Schools that play the system to be exposed

Secondary schools that try to manipulate league tables will be exposed next week when previously undisclosed information is made public, the schools minister said today.

MP Nick Gibb today claimed weak schools that play the system by only focusing on pupils who will affect their rankings will be revealed in a new league table figures to be published for the first time next week.

Mr Gibb said that since 1997 there has been a significant increase in the proportion of C grades awarded because weaker schools had been given incentives to focus on them. He said this meant students who might have been capable of getting As and Bs, or E students who might be able to get Ds, had been neglected.

In the reformed league tables, parents will be able to compare schools based on the amount of progress made by the top pupils between 11 and 16.

Mr Gibb said: 'The way school league tables have evolved over the past two decades can encourage a degree of 'gaming' by some weaker schools, desperate to keep above the standard that would trigger intervention by Ofsted or the Department for Education.

'But the purpose of performance tables must be to incentivise schools to raise standards and to enable parents to make informed decisions when choosing a school.

'We are determined to stamp out any incentives to 'game' the system whereby some schools focus just on those pupils who will affect their league table position. It is vital that all schools give every pupil the best chance to maximise their potential.

'We intend to make available data formerly kept secret in the Department for Education. 'For example, we want to show how well secondary schools educate those children who left primary school still struggling in the 3Rs. 'The new tables will have a column showing the proportion of such children who went on to achieve five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C. 'We can then compare schools to see which are better at helping children who started from this low base.'

The figures will also highlight how well a secondary school educates pupils who joined them as high achievers and will show how well schools transform the chances of children from poorer backgrounds, Mr Gibb said.

He added: 'A key objective of the Government is to close the attainment gap between those from poorer and wealthier backgrounds. 'We are giving those schools with more challenging intakes significant extra funding through the Pupil Premium - £600 for every child eligible for free school meals, from April.

'In return, schools must deliver the same level of achievement for all children regardless of background.' [In your dreams!]

The data will also show how each school performs in the EBacc, the core academic subjects, and only the highest quality non-GCSE and vocational courses will be included in performance tables to remove any incentive for schools to put students on to courses which do little to help them progress, Mr Gibb said.


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