Sunday, February 26, 2012

Math Matters

Walter E. Williams

If one manages to graduate from high school without the rudiments of algebra, geometry and trigonometry, there are certain relatively high-paying careers probably off-limits for life -- such as careers in architecture, chemistry, computer programming, engineering, medicine and certain technical fields. For example, one might meet all of the physical requirements to be a fighter pilot, but he's grounded if he doesn't have enough math to understand physics, aerodynamics and navigation. Mathematical ability helps provide the disciplined structure that helps people to think, speak and write more clearly. In general, mathematics is an excellent foundation and prerequisite for study in all areas of science and engineering. So where do U.S. youngsters stand in math?

Drs. Eric Hanushek and Paul Peterson, senior fellows at the Hoover Institution, looked at the performance of our youngsters compared with their counterparts in other nations, in their Newsweek article, "Why Can't American Students Compete?" (Aug. 28, 2011), reprinted under the title "Math Matters" in the Hoover Digest (2012). In the latest international tests administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, only 32 percent of U.S. students ranked proficient in math -- coming in between Portugal and Italy but far behind South Korea, Finland, Canada and the Netherlands. U.S. students couldn't hold a finger to the 75 percent of Shanghai students who tested proficient.

What about our brightest? It turns out that only 7 percent of U.S. students perform at the advanced level in math. Forty-five percent of the students in Shanghai are advanced in math, compared with 20 percent in South Korea and Switzerland and 15 percent of students in Japan, Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Canada.

Hanushek and Peterson find one bright spot among our young people. That's Asian-American students, 52 percent of whom perform at the proficient level or higher. Among white students, only 42 percent perform math at a proficient level. The math performance of black and Hispanic students is a disaster, with only 11 and 15 percent, respectively, performing math at the proficient level or higher.

The National Center for Education Statistics revealed some of the results of American innumeracy. Among advanced degrees in engineering awarded at U.S. universities during the 2007-08 academic year, 28 percent went to whites; 2 percent went to blacks; 2 percent went to Hispanics; and 61 percent went to foreigners. Of the advanced degrees in mathematics, 40 percent went to whites; 2 percent went to blacks; 5 percent went to Hispanics; and 50 percent went to foreigners. For advanced degrees in education, 65 percent went to whites; 17 percent went to blacks; 5 percent went to Hispanics; and 8 percent went to foreigners. The pattern is apparent. The more rigorous a subject area the higher the percentage of foreigners -- and the lower the percentage of Americans -- earning advanced degrees. In subject areas such as education, which have little or no rigor, Americans are likelier -- and foreigners are less likely -- to earn advanced degrees.

In a New York Times article -- "Do We Need Foreign Technology Workers?" (April 8, 2009) -- Dr. Vivek Wadhwa of the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University said "that 47 percent of all U.S. science and engineering workers with doctorates are immigrants as were 67 percent of the additions to the U.S. science and engineering work force between 1995 to 2006. And roughly 60 percent of engineering Ph.D. students and 40 percent of master's students are foreign nationals."

American mathematic proficiency levels leave a lot to be desired if we're to maintain competitiveness. For blacks and Hispanics, it's a tragedy with little prospect for change, but the solution is not rocket science. During my tenure as a member of Temple University's faculty in the 1970s, I tutored black students in math. When they complained that math was too difficult, I told them that if they spent as much time practicing math as they did practicing jump shots, they'd be just as good at math as they were at basketball. The same message of hard work and discipline applies to all students, but someone must demand it.


The man who wants to dumb down Britain

The new access tsar runs one of the county's WORST universities - offering courses in breast-feeding, counselling, beauty spa management and carnival arts

Professor Les Ebdon likes to begin his PowerPoint presentations by quoting the Roman philosopher Cicero: ‘Wisdom often exists under a shabby coat.’

With his penchant for shapeless suits and loud ties (betraying a dress sense that’s stuck firmly in the world of 1970s academia), such a mantra is perfect for the vice chancellor of the recently created University of Bedfordshire. But his point is a serious one, for Professor Ebdon is evangelical about the need to get more poor students into higher education.

Few would challenge the concept of ‘opportunity for all’, but Ebdon’s ideas on achieving this are radical in the extreme.

He is vehemently against the ‘Oxbridge Obsession’, never mind the acknowledged excellence of other top-level universities.

Most controversially, he is in favour of social engineering, threatening ‘nuclear’ retribution against universities that don’t increase their intake of students from less well-off backgrounds.

He has also spoken of his disapproval of the grand ‘baronial halls’ of leading universities, saying they could deter applicants from a disadvantaged background.

But why bother about the views of a man who presides over the University of Bedfordshire — ranked joint 102nd out of 119 in the Good University Guide? The answer is that he is about to become Head of the Office for Fair Access, the body designed to help more poor students into higher education.

It’s a profoundly contentious appointment. Professor Ebdon has been steam-rollered through by the Lib Dems, against bitter Conservative opposition. Indeed, Vince Cable, the coalition Business Secretary, ignored both the ‘concerns’ of David Cameron and a parliamentary Business Select Committee questioning his suitability for the post.

It was under Tony Blair that Labour first introduced its so-called ‘flagship’ education policy of aiming to send half of all school-leavers to university — leading to widespread fears about the lowering of university standards and devalued degrees.

Now critics of Ebdon, who is on record defending what detractors term ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees, are deeply worried that he will simply continue to dumb down our higher education institutions.

Education Secretary Michael Gove is said privately to have described the Ebdon appointment as a ‘disaster’. Gove has called the trend for universities to skew admissions rules in favour of candidates from under-performing comprehensives as ‘bizarre’, as they give poor schools an excuse not to improve.

Other Tories fear Ebdon will lead a ‘race to the bottom’ of educational standards, forcing universities to slash their entry requirements in pursuit of crude social engineering quotas — or risk having their student fees capped by the new tsar.

A leading critic of university fees, Ebdon’s salary at the University of Bedfordshire is around £246,000. In his new government job, which polices tuition fees and admissions targets, he will be paid £45,000 for just two days a week.

But he will have huge powers over elite universities — able to slash their tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000 a year if they fail to meet targets to take on more students from poor families. He says, rather melodramatically, that he will be an ‘iron fist in a velvet glove’.

But apart from social engineering – what, precisely, does Professor Ebdon, 65, believe in? He is fervently pro ‘modern’ universities — many are ex-polytechnics — railing against the traditional system which has seen Britain’s top universities become world leaders and magnets for research funding.

The Cambridge-Oxford-London ‘Golden Triangle’ group of universities is in his firing line. Why should these establishments receive more money for research than lesser institutions, he asks? Isn’t that elitism? Just because they are better, should they get more money?

He highlights the great potential of newer institutions’ research facilities by mentioning the Fitflop footwear range which was developed at London Southbank University.

As the former chairman of the Million+ think-tank, which represents newer universities including Kingston University London and the University of Wolverhampton, he speaks of such colleges as ‘modern universities’ — as opposed to ‘traditional institutions’, which, in politically correct circles, are considered inaccessible and elitist.

Asked about his own university’s lowly position in the national rankings, his answer was revealing. ‘It’s a snobs’ table,’ he said. ‘Institutions like Cambridge and Oxford are always at the front, while newer places bring up the rear.’

At the University of Bedfordshire (formerly the less illustrious-sounding Luton College of Higher Education), he stresses the importance of ‘widening participation’, ‘social mobility’ and ‘fair access’.

Yet he ignores the latest research that shows the under-representation of working-class pupils in leading universities is due to the poor quality of teaching in many state schools, rather than entry hurdles.

The courses on offer at his institution do not include traditional degree courses such as maths, physics, chemistry, history or modern languages.

Instead, there is a less-than-scholastic two-year course in carnival arts — teaching undergraduates how to design costumes and allowing them ‘to take part in Europe’s largest one-day carnival: the Luton International Carnival’.

Then there is the degree in advertising, and in beauty spa management. Work experience ‘is gained from working in the college’s own salon’. Students will also become ‘expert in hairstyles, wig dressing and making, fashion styling and make-up.’

A fashion and surface pattern design course promises to ‘develop and constantly build upon your creative and problem solving skills’.

Next up is the event management course, during which students will go on ‘sporting field trips to venues like Luton Town Football Club, Twickenham, Wimbledon, Eastlands Stadium, Manchester and the Woburn Golf Club’.

Not surprisingly, there is also a football studies course in which students are given a ‘broad overview of football within a business, coaching and educational environment’. The course is ‘underpinned by academic theory related to football, sport and leisure, and will involve students in the application of concepts in industry-related scenarios and realistic simulations.’ It doesn’t stop there. Students on the sports therapy course will ‘gain qualifications and professional practice in body massage and sports massage’.

In addition, there are courses in beauty therapy and breast-feeding counselling, on which students will ‘work with parents in a person-centred manner that respects individuals’ beliefs and needs’ and will ‘be made aware of the significance of issues of diversity in your practice’.

There are also courses in animal management, advertising design and computer game design and a post-graduate course in sport tourism management (which teaches ‘academic theory in tourism, leisure and events’). Dumbed down indeed!

The University of Bedfordshire also awarded the late TV presenter Sir Jimmy Savile an Honorary Doctor of Arts in 2009. Well-loved he may have been, but he is hardly an exemplar of academic excellence.

In the last year for which statistics are given, almost 13 per cent of Ebdon’s students dropped out of their studies. The national drop-out average was just below 8 per cent, although the university says its drop-out rate is close to the benchmark set by the Government.

In 2004, the then Luton University famously proposed relaxing the consequences for students failing second-year exams, leading one newspaper to ask: ‘Is this the worst university in Britain?’

In 2009, Ebdon backed plans to give students from poor families a head start by offering them places at university on lower exam grades.

He launched a scathing attack on medical schools, mostly found in the top universities, as ‘full of very earnest young people from middle-class backgrounds’ who, he said, might be unwilling to practise in working-class areas.

On being appointed to his new position as access tsar, Ebdon said: ‘I feel privileged to be appointed to this post at such a key time. I am passionate about access to higher education and strongly believe that no one should be put off from going to university because of their family background or income.’

His political ideas on the future of education in Britain are firmly grounded in his own background. He said in March last year: ‘I myself came from a background where nobody had previously been to university, and I remember every time I had a setback, the common response from people in my peer group back home to me was: “University is not for the likes of us.” ’

He said last September: ‘To date, ministers have been too focused on the progression of relatively small numbers of students to a relatively small number of universities.

‘These are very limited aspirations and will do little to ensure the progress of people from groups traditionally under-represented in higher education — those from poorer backgrounds, those who are the first-in-family to go to university, black and ethnic minority students and mature and part-time students.’

The Russell Group, which represents Britain’s top 20 universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, wants to see a return to fewer, higher quality students. Instead, Ebdon is lobbying for the removal of a cap on student numbers.

He acknowledges this will be costly, but says: ‘The easiest thing in the world would be for my board of governors to say to me, “Stop doing all this widening participation work. Go and get some of these easier students to teach with three As at A-level, and save us all a bit of money.”

‘I think it is important, if the Government’s belief is behind their rhetoric, that they recognise these increased costs and that it is important for government money to be there to support them.’

Quite how this can be sustained at a time of austerity and public spending cuts is another matter. Indeed, in their report, the MPs on the Business Select Committee accused Professor Ebdon of woolly-thinking.

Ebdon faced intense questioning from members of the committee about his suitability for the access role. He responded by chastising highly selective universities with ‘patchy’ records on access, saying that he would be prepared to use the ‘nuclear option’ of stopping institutions from charging higher fees if they did not measure up.

The MPs later voiced their concerns, saying: ‘We struggled to get a clear picture of Professor Ebdon’s strategy for the future.’ They concluded: ‘We recommend that the Department conducts a new recruitment exercise.’

Just why Vince Cable has chosen to ride rough-shod over their views, and why the Prime Minister has allowed him to do so, is deeply worrying. But the tragedy is that the effects of the appointment of this unashamed social engineer risk damaging academic standards in Britain for several generations.


More red tape, more autonomy, less choice in Australian education?

Kevin Donnelly

If we project the Gonski school funding recommendations into the future, it is possible to make some hypothetical predictions.

It is possible they would improve state schools by making them more autonomous and giving parents more input into their running, but they would also further bureaucratise school funding and reduce the range of choices for mothers and fathers.

The contradiction in the Gonski report is this: it argues giving schools increased flexibility and freedom will improve results and raise standards, but at the same time recommends increased bureaucracy and red tape and an accountability regime that will restrict innovation and diversity.

A defining characteristic of the Kevin Rudd/Julia Gillard education revolution is its top-down approach. While the Commonwealth government neither manages schools nor employs staff, its national curriculum, testing, teacher registration and certification, and partnership agreements - all linked to funding - have centralised control of education and led to more micromanagement.

Schools would suffer additional compliance costs and red tape under the Gonski recommendation for additional government-sponsored agencies such as the National School Resources Body and School Planning Authorities in the various states.

Then there is the impact inside the classroom. Linking funding to measures such as National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) results would exacerbate the negative influence of standardised testing.

The curriculum will narrow, teachers will feel pressure to be bean counters and schools will be forced to contrive ways to ensure that test results improve. As in the US, especially New York, where there is a history of standardised tests and public accountability, there will also be pressure on governments and education authorities in Australia to water down tests and artificially lift results to convince a sceptical public that standards are being raised.

Over the past 20 years or so, school choice in Australia has become a reality. Many parents have voted with their feet, choosing non-government schools. While enrolments in Catholic and independent schools have grown by approximately 20 per cent, government school enrolments have flatlined at a little more than 1 per cent.

Across Australia, some 34 per cent of students attend non-government schools; more than 50 per cent in some capital cities. Critics argue non-government schools have been so successful because of the Howard government's supposedly inequitable socio-economic status (SES) funding model. They also argue the success of Catholic and independent schools residualises government schools and exacerbates disadvantage as they are left with high concentrations of at-risk and poorly performing students.

But there are two problems with Gonski's team accepting these arguments, which will only make the situation in state schools worse. Firstly, parents are choosing non-government schools because of their values, not just their resources. Secondly, labelling state schools as underperformers will lead to fewer enrolments. Parents are naturally averse to sending their children to a school characterised as serving at-risk students, especially when non-government schools are seen to achieve better results.

The report does nod in the direction of increased school autonomy and allowing schools to better respond to the needs and aspirations of their communities. So parents in future could expect co-operative state governments to free schools from a one-size-fits-all model of educational delivery and ensure that schools, both government and non-government, are more able to manage their own affairs.

Gonski argues for more community engagement with schools, for example, and a greater role for parents, businesses and philanthropic groups. This will add to the pressure on governments to give schools control over budgets, hiring and firing staff and their culture and curriculum focus. So parents could have more input into how the local state school runs.

Then again, the Gonski report could also have an unintended consequence. By recommending that government and non-government students with a disability receive equal funding and that such funding should be portable, it could produce a sort of pilot study for a voucher system for all students. Governments would then be forced to acknowledge that parents have a right to choose where their children go to school and to ensure money follows the child and parents are not financially penalised for their choice.

Of course, given the Gillard government's decision to put the report on the backburner, postponing any decisions until after another round of consultations and submissions, its future is uncertain at best.

Given that the opposition education spokesman, Christopher Pyne, has argued for the existing SES model and expressed doubts about the report, any future Coalition government is likely to shelve it or accept its proposals very selectively.

SOURCE. A lot of interesting commentary here on Finland, genetics and such things

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