Monday, February 20, 2012

Obama Community College Job Training Plan Is Unproven

President Obama's latest budget would give $8 billion to community colleges to train workers in growing sectors of the economy. Yet it is unclear if such programs work, and the latest plan stresses the slow-growth green energy industry.

The Community College to Career Fund would award grants to the institutions to train students for careers in sectors such as clean energy, advanced technology, health care and transportation. The 2009 stimulus contained $2 billion for such grants, with the first $500 million awarded last September.

Community colleges often award vocational "certificates," which indicate the completion of a discrete program of study. Limited research on these technical degrees suggest that longer study has a bigger payoff.

"For certificates of less than a year, I could not find evidence of consistent, strong labor market returns," said Brian Bosworth, president of FutureWorks, a consulting firm. "Certificates of oneyear or more, yes, there is strong evidence of labor market returns. They are a good platform for people wanting to start a career and have long-term success."

But it's far less clear that federal grant programs to community colleges achieve such results.

"I do not believe that we have a strong enough database to say that (the president's proposal) will work or how much it will pay off," said Mark Schneider, vice president at the American Institutes for Research.

Schneider, who was commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics during the Bush administration, notes that the federal government does not yet have the data to examine the vocational programs nationally. But he adds that the Education Department should have "gainful employment" information regarding career-oriented programs in March.

The Education Department last year ordered colleges to show that they are preparing their students for "gainful employment" or risk losing federal student aid.

Other federal vocational training programs have had mixed results.

The Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, passed in 1984, provided funds for high-school vocational training.

A report found some improvement in earnings for students taking part, but not any impact on their academic performance. Ultimately the report stated that the "path and pace of improvement are hampered by a lack of clarity over the program's fundamental purpose and goal."

The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 was supposed to provide low-income populations with greater access to community colleges and vocational training. But due to poor accountability, WIA actually limited access to training, according to an article in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

Clean Energy Murky

Another problem may be the economic sectors that the new Obama program may target.

"It's perfectly OK for the government to make sure that community colleges are doing this in high-demand areas," said Bosworth, "Now can the federal government decide what is high demand for the whole country? Probably not, but I don't think they'll try."

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that the purpose of the fund was to "align job-training programs to better meet the needs of employers."

Some touted sectors, such as health care, are growing rapidly.

Clean energy, however, is more murky. It's been a high political priority for Obama going back to his presidential campaign. But despite billions of dollars in taxpayer funds for "green jobs," it hasn't been a high-growth industry.

"The size of the clean energy industry relative to other industries has been declining and not increasing over during the last decade," said Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute.

He cites a 2011 study by the liberal Brookings Institution that found from 2003 to 2010 clean energy jobs grew at an average annual rate of 3.2% vs. 4.2% employment gains for the overall economy.


British Private schools fear 'social engineering' in university admissions

Like Leftists everywhere, the British Liberals hate the idea of merit. All men are equal, donchaknow

Professor Les Ebdon's selection as the new head of the university regulator has raised fears of "social engineering" among independent schools and elite universities.

When Professor Les Ebdon was once asked about his university’s lowly position in the national rankings, his response was swift and revealing. “It’s a snobs’ table,” he said, which guarantees that “institutions like Cambridge and Oxford are always at the front, while newer places bring up the rear”.

The man at the centre of a Coalition storm, who looks set to be the next head of the Government’s higher education admissions regulator, is well versed in the language of “them and us”.

Over the years, the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire University has bemoaned the “Oxbridge obsession”, referred to the “well-off and well-heeled” Russell Group of leading universities as “these people”, and claimed that for parents who pay independent school fees, the new £9,000 a year tuition fees “might not seem an awful lot of money”.

Perhaps not unsurprisingly for a man brought up on a north London council estate who won a place at Imperial College, London, Prof Ebdon has a self-proclaimed mission to increase the number of working-class students going to university and widen the social mix of students at the best institutions.

“Education transformed my life,” he says. “I’m absolutely certain that my background has been a factor in my commitment to widening participation.”

Under his leadership, Bedfordshire’s fortunes have been transformed. It is now a thriving institution that successfully recruits from some of the poorest postcodes, giving the dream of a university education to thousands of students with low exam results or even no A-levels at all.

Even his critics would applaud Professor Ebdon’s efforts. What they fear, however, is giving him the power to remake other universities in Bedfordshire’s image.

The appointment — expected this week despite Tory opposition from the Prime Minister down — will be welcomed by those who want greater opportunities for the socially disadvantaged.

Yet opponents fear it will lead to the “social engineering” of university admissions, with privately-educated pupils routinely rejected because of the school they attended and less-qualified state school pupils given places on the basis of their “potential”.

With Prof Ebdon in post, the country risks “levelling down standards at university for the sake of a misguided strategy,” according to Nadhim Zahawi, one of the Tory MPs on the Commons Business, Innovations and Skills Committee which voted against his appointment. “In the UK, we are second probably only to America in university quality. What I would hate to see is a head of Offa who would level down standards at university instead of levelling upwards.”

The furore over Prof Ebdon is the latest in a series of rows about the UK’s dire social mobility record that has put university admissions centre stage, dating back to 2000 when Gordon Brown, then chancellor, condemned as an “absolute scandal” Oxford University’s rejection of state school pupil Laura Spence. The high-profile case put the middle-class dominance of higher education under the microscope.

Since then, universities have come under increasing pressure to admit more students from poor backgrounds.

Labour’s weapon was Offa, established in 2004 to mollify left-wing backbenchers threatening to sink Labour’s plans to introduce variable fees of up to £3,000 a year. It was given real power — the potential to ban a university from charging full fees if it failed to attract applications from working class candidates.

Although the power has yet to be exercised, the threat has been enough to put the “widening access and participation” agenda at the heart of university admissions.

As a matter of course, students now provide information on their university application form about the education levels of their parents to allow admission tutors to take into account those who are the first in their family to go to university.

Children in care are also flagged on the Universities and Colleges Admission Service (Ucas) form, as are pupils who have attended summer school, mostly attended by pupils selected by their state schools.

Increasing numbers of institutions take into account “contextual data” relating to the kind of school a candidate attended. Students from low performing secondaries are sometimes given lower A-level entry requirements. This positive discrimination is also extended by some universities to students who live in deprived areas with low proportions of young people going on to higher education.

As thousands of sixth formers across the country wait nervously for university offers of places, figures suggest that almost two-thirds of universities will employ data covering students’ social class, parental education or school performance to give the most disadvantaged candidates a better chance of getting on to degree courses this year.

At Birmingham University, a student’s background may be “factored in to move an applicant up the ranking order”, for instance; while at Leeds, the poorest teenagers may receive lower offers — such as an A and two Bs instead of three As for the most demanding courses.

Applicants to Oxford who are flagged because of their school and postcode, and have the necessary three A grade prediction, will be shortlisted for interview. Or, as the university says ominously, the department who failed to select them will be asked to explain why.

What independent schools fear is that this pressure on admission staff and academics will result in background factors being used in a formulaic fashion to meet unofficial quotas, where candidates with the “right” profile are automatically selected before other, equally well-qualified candidates. Some universities are already moving beyond simply using information on a candidates’ background in a tie-break situation.

Last year, one of the largest exam boards advocated a national system for ranking pupils’ achievements according to the school in which they were taught.

Teenagers at weak secondaries would get bonus points while those at elite schools would be penalised. Applicants with the same grade would then be “ranked according to the favourability of the context in which they were educated”.

While the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference of private schools might publicly claim there is no evidence of across-the-board discrimination, privately, some heads feel that it may play a part in cases where well-qualified students are rejected by every university they apply for.

One such student, Prina Shah, 18, from City of London School for Girls, was turned down to study medicine last year by every university she chose despite being awarded an exemplary four A*s at A-level.

According to Mark Steed, the principal of Berkhamsted School, in Hertfordshire, discrimination does “apparently exist” against independent school pupils. “Take the case of one Berkhamsted pupil last year,” he says. “She had a perfect academic record: 10 A*s at GCSE and was predicted A*A*A* at A-level. She was rejected by four out of five universities.

“Now I can understand how someone with such an academic record could fail to gain a place at Oxford — the Oxbridge colleges still believe in additional testing and interviews.

"However I am at a loss as to how she could fail to gain an offer to study English from Leeds University on the basis of her UCAS form alone. How many A*A*A* applicants does the English Faculty at Leeds get each year? What can justify their standard offer of AAB, if they can reject A*A*A* candidates without an interview?”

For Anthony Seldon, the master of Wellington College, in Berkshire, the move to impose “artificial systems” on university admissions is worrying. “It’s like the nationalised industries of the 1970s,” he says. “By distorting the system you institutionalise patterns of failure. “The great fear is that you produce unintended consequences, such as a lack of competitiveness in state schools by making it easier for their pupils to get a leg up.

"It will drive the independent sector to crank up its exam achievement to an even greater level, which will not be a good outcome for the wider aspects of learning.”

A regulator director on a mission and with the power to impose, in Prof Ebdon’s words, “nuclear” financial penalties on universities could wreak real damage, according to Alan Smithers, professor of education at Buckinghamshire University.

He fears that the admission of less-qualified students by the back door will threaten the quality of UK higher education: “His appointment is potentially disastrous for the leading universities. Discrimination of that kind will undoubtedly weaken our universities and make it harder for them to guarantee academic excellence and compete in the world league. It introduces institutional unfairness.”

High ranking institutions argue that the focus on admissions is ignoring the underlying cause of why so few disadvantaged pupils go to university — state school failure.

A lack of candidates from poor backgrounds with the right grades in the right A-levels is the main reason student intakes are skewed towards the privately educated middle-classes, they say. “It is really important to understand the root causes of the under-representation of students from poorer backgrounds - underachievement at school and poor advice on the best choice of A-levels and degree course,” says Wendy Piatt, the Group director general.

Figures released in 2010 show that only about 1 per cent of the 81,000 pupils on Free School Meals (FSM) who get to university win a place at the top 20 institutions. And only 45 teenagers on FSM made it to Oxford or Cambridge, half the number of undergraduates supplied by Westminster, the £30,000-a-year public school in London, where an average of 82 sixth formers go on to Oxbridge each year.

But underlying this stark picture are even starker statistics that show that only 189 FSM pupils across the whole country achieved three A grades at A-level, the standard offer for many courses at Russell Group institutions.

The figures reveal the extent to which the Government faces an uphill struggle to change the fate of the poorest pupils through its academy and free school “revolution”.

In the meantime, Professor Ebdon, whose own grammar [selective] school education gave him the opportunity to attend one of the best universities in the world, believes universities should take responsibility and be “more flexible about entry” — or face the “nuclear” consequences.


Australian PM's guarantee on private school funding

FAMILIES fearing big rises in tuition fees have won a crucial guarantee that taxpayer funding to private schools will be protected.

But the Government will dump the current controversial arrangements that deliver big funding increases to private schools every time public school funding rises, regardless of their needs.

For the first time, the Gillard Government will back a pledge that "no school will lose a dollar" under a proposed new funding system, with a promise to offer new indexation arrangements covering grants to private schools.

The big changes proposed by the Gonski report on school funding, led by businessman David Gonski, will be unveiled tomorrow and are expected to endorse the ALP's longstanding push for a needs-based funding model. It will endorse parental rights to choose public or private schools, as vital.

Over time, the needs-based funding model is likely to deliver more money to some low-fee Catholic and independent schools and a big injection of funds to public schools. But the rapid growth in taxpayer funding for rich private schools is likely to slow under the new system.

"What we're saying is indexation will be built into any future model that will assist parents worried about future increases in school costs," Education Minister Peter Garrett said yesterday.

The existing system has been blamed for entrenching disadvantage in the system, ensuring that attempts to inject more funding to students with special needs or living in remote or Aboriginal communities, flowed on to wealthy private schools as well.

Instead, the new measure that determines funding to independent and Catholic schools will be based on an analysis of the cost of educating a child in both the public and private systems.

Australian Education Union president Angelo Gavrielatos backed the changes, warning public schools needed a "massive injection in funding".

"Disadvantaged students are up to two years behind other children. Indigenous students are up to three years behind. We don't have a level playing field," he said.


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