Monday, February 27, 2012

SCOTUS to take new look at affirmative action

The U.S. Supreme Court today agreed to consider whether the University of Texas at Austin has the right to consider race and ethnicity in admissions decisions. Those bringing the case hope the Supreme Court will restrict or even eliminate the right of colleges to consider race in admissions - a prerogative last affirmed by the Supreme Court in 2003 in a case involving the University of Michigan's law school.

In a sign that is likely to worry supporters of affirmative action (and to cheer critics of the practice), Justice Elena Kagan announced that she took no part in consideration of the appeal seeking a Supreme Court review — a likely sign that she will not take any part in the actual review. Kagan did not announce why, but conservative legal bloggers have been calling on her to recuse herself because of her work as U.S. solicitor general filing a brief in support of the University of Texas. If she continues to recuse herself, a justice thought to be supportive of affirmative action will not be voting.

The case before the Supreme Court now is over whether the University of Texas is exceeding the right granted by the 2003 decision. The plaintiffs argue that because Texas uses a statewide "10%" plan - in which students in the top 10% of their high school classes are automatically admitted to the public college of their choice - the state's flagship university can achieve a diverse student body without race-based policies. (Many Texas high schools have enrollments that are overwhelmingly made up of members of particular racial or ethnic groups, so the plan provides a steady stream of black and Latino students to UT Austin.)

The university and other defenders of affirmative action argue that just because a university can achieve some diversity without the consideration of race and admissions does not mean that it may not also consider race and ethnicity to achieve a higher level of diversity.

The 2003 ruling affirming the right of colleges to consider race in admissions, like most decisions upholding affirmative action plans, suggests that the consideration of race should take place only when other approaches would not work.

In theory, the Supreme Court could rule only on the question of whether universities with admissions plans like that of Texas (a relatively small number) are permitted to also consider race in admissions. But a reopening of the question of the use of race in admissions decisions could involve broader questions about whether any consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions is appropriate. Any such broader consideration makes many college officials very nervous. The Michigan decision was narrowly decided — 5 to 4. The author of the 2003 decision - Justice Sandra Day O'Connor - has since left the court. And the court's decisions since 2003 have shown skepticism about the consideration of race in education and public policy.

The lawsuit over the Texas policies was rejected by a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

But the consideration of the case by the appeals panel demonstrates how divided courts are on these issues. The decision by the court was 3 to 0, but one judge filed a concurring opinion stating that the appeals panel had to rule as it did, given the 2003 Supreme Court case on Michigan, but that the Supreme Court ruling had been incorrect. Then in June, the full appeals court considered whether to take up the case, and rejected that idea by a vote of 9 to 7.

Several groups that have been critical of the consideration of race in admissions decisions have filed briefs urging the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the Texas case. The major higher education associations have not yet weighed in on the case at the Supreme Court. But a coalition of groups, led by the American Council on Education, filed a brief with the Fifth Circuit backing the University of Texas position.


It’s secondary education that needs to get real, Mr. Ebdon

If one phrase were needed to sum up all that is wrong with the choice of Les Ebdon as ‘Fair Access’ Czar of British universities, it must be this: “I don’t think universities can just say: ‘Oh well it is because they are doing the wrong GCSEs’… Universities have to deal with the world as it is rather than the world as we would want.”

What he means is that universities should not be allowed to maintain high standards and insist on schools meeting them. Instead, universities should supplicate themselves to whatever mania is sweeping the teacher training colleges at the time.
Ironically, Ebdon’s policies mark the latest in the public education sector’s long march away from anything resembling ‘the real world’.

As I wrote in June, this sort of thinking is the result of the ‘progressive’ education establishment’s attempt to combine its love for fashionable theories with the terrible results when those theories are field tested.

Instead of adopting more effective teaching methods, to which much of the teaching profession has developed a certain ideological antipathy, state educators realised that they had another option: move the goalposts that marked success.

This started with the concept of ‘value added’ results. In essence, where schools had to deal with ‘disadvantaged’ groups such as ethnic minorities, immigrants or the poor, educators demanded that grades and league table positions reflect how well they thought they had done, given the poor materials to hand. Instead of seeing these children as challenges, they sought excuses.

But all these illusory achievements count for little when universal standards are applied, as in university applications. Because no matter how hard state educators insist that one child’s Cs are equivalent to another’s As because the first child is black or poor, in the ‘real world’ so beloved of Professor Ebdon a C is still a C and an A is still an A. Grade inflation notwithstanding, of course.

Once again, instead of renouncing failing methods ‘progressive’ educators are instead trying to lower the bar. It is our world class universities that must adapt ‘to the real world’, not our many unsatisfactory secondary schools.

Yet even if you crowbar these children into universities, they still aren’t properly equipped for the experience. Some universities already have to dedicate time in first year to equipping students with the sort of basic skills they should have developed during their A Levels.

These students will be accruing tens of thousands of pounds of debt to acquire second- or third-rate qualifications, all the while denying a place to a more capable student and weakening the strength and international competitiveness of British higher education.

Yet how far can this fantasy be sustained? What happens when these students hit the employment market and find that the illusory value-added grades they’ve been given by lazy educators aren’t actually worth the same as qualifications acquired through impartial assessment and intellectual rigour?

Will the next generation of Ebdons insist on ‘value-added’ degrees, and that employers must deal with the world ‘as it really is, not as they would wish it to be’? Will employers be forbidden from ‘discriminating’ against such qualifications?
It sounds totally outlandish. But following the logic of Ebdon’s appointment, it no longer sounds impossible.


Disruptive children in British schools are to be moved to “sin bin” schools

Not quite the "Borstals" of yore but a step in the right directions

Disruptive children are to be educated in “sin bin” schools that will concentrate on basic skills with longer teaching days

A government review after last summer’s riots is to recommend wide-ranging powers for institutions teaching those expelled from mainstream schools.

Ministers will this week announce that the schools, to be known as pupil referral units, will be able to become academies with the power to set their own timetables, curriculum and staff wages. They are designed to tackle what ministers have branded the “educational underclass”.

Head teachers have already been given powers to make it easier to expel unruly children. It is hoped that the disruptive pupils can be moved more quickly to the special units.

The proposals form the central recommendations of a review of school discipline and truancy conducted by Charlie Taylor, a headmaster and the Government’s behaviour adviser.

The review is understood to back higher fines for the parents of truants. Ministers are believed to be in favour of docking benefits if the fines are not paid. However, the publication of the review may be delayed as the Liberal Democrats are understood to be opposed to more draconian sanctions.

Mr Taylor said: “We have a flawed system that fails to provide for some of the most vulnerable children in the country. “If we fail to give them a first-class education then, as the events of this summer showed, we will pay a heavy price. “Mainstream academies flourish and improve faster than the national average. Heads of the best pupil referral units tell me that they want the same freedoms.”

A senior government source said the new generation of schools would focus on teaching basic skills such as reading and writing. Teenagers may also be taught vocational skills. The source said: “They will be freed from the constraints of local authorities to teach their own curriculum and pay staff appropriately.”

Children who are excluded from schools already attract far higher levels of government funding. However, the results from pupil referral units are typically appalling. Figures published last year showed that in 2009-10, only 1.4 per cent of pupils in the institutions achieved five good GCSEs, compared with a national average of more than 53 per cent.

It is hoped that many pupils will be able to return to mainstream schools after short, but intensive periods. The system is the latest reform introduced by Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, to improve school discipline.


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