Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Peter Thiel, university-hater, heads to campus

Peter Thiel, the superstar Silicon Valley investor, has famously dismissed university as a waste of time and money, and even offered students cash to drop out. But his views apparently do not apply to himself - or to Stanford University.

Thiel, 44, will teach at the elite university this spring, sharing pearls of entrepreneurial wisdom in a class called "Computer Science 183: Startup." The course is already oversubscribed, with Thiel's return to his alma mater sparking both enthusiasm and skepticism on a campus increasingly obsessed with start-up success.

"It's puzzling to us what he has to say," said Nruthya Madappa, a senior in electrical engineering who saw rumors of Thiel's class explode on her Facebook news feed on a recent evening and rushed to sign up "several minutes" after course enrollment went live.

"He's famously known to make people furious with his views and the way he questions things," she said. "But he's challenging us to look at our education here in a different way."

Thiel, who co-founded online payment processor PayPal and later reaped billions with bets on gilded names like Facebook, LinkedIn and Zynga, is known for his maverick ways, even emerging recently as the main financial backer for libertarian presidential contender Ron Paul. Thiel has argued that the brightest young minds should strike out on their own and start companies rather than take on crushing debt to pursue a college degree.

Never mind that Thiel himself holds both a bachelor's degree in philosophy and a law degree from Stanford; he has backed up his talk with his checkbook. Last year, Thiel started a fellowship that offered $100,000 to 20 budding entrepreneurs between the ages of 14 and 20 who would drop out to focus on their ventures.

But Thiel last year also submitted a formal course proposal to Stanford after approaching Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford computer science professor, to discuss the possibility of teaching. (Thrun has since left the university to work on an online education project.)

"If I do my job right, this is the last class you'll ever have to take," Thiel said through a spokesman.

Mehran Sahami, the department's associate chair for education, said the curriculum committee debated whether Thiel would use the class as a conduit to recruit students to his companies. Other faculty voiced concerns that they were "not sure of his motivations given his history with respect to universities," Sahami said.

"We went into this with eyes wide open," said Sahami, a former research scientist at Google. "But on balance, this would be something our students would benefit from."

Still others, like Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford's Rock Center of Corporate Governance, were not so sure.

"It's hypocritical, but I'm not surprised," Wadhwa said. "The same people who go around bashing education are the most educated. What's he going to do? Tell students, ‘When you graduate from my class, drop out right after that?'"

Jim O'Neill, the head of the Thiel Foundation, which administers the entrepreneurship fellowship, said that the investor has been concerned for several years about the skyrocketing cost of tuition and the burdens of student debt for many graduates.

"He's only said that college is good value for some people, it's just not necessarily a good value for everyone," O'Neill said. "He's not calling for the abolition of college."

Thiel chose to deliver his message in the classroom because he "wants to reach out to people in many different spaces," O'Neill said, adding that Thiel chose Stanford, his alma mater, because the university's startup culture made it a "natural fit."


British School exams subjected to equality checks to stamp out bias

Examiners are closely vetting primary school test papers to ensure they do not discriminate against children on the grounds of race or gender, it has emerged.

They have resorted to counting the number of black and white children pictured in exams to reduce “potential bias” in this year's tests, it was revealed.

Test developers analysed papers – sat by up to 600,000 children in England – to ensure they do not prejudice ethnic minorities, the disabled and boys as opposed to girls by using images that promote one group over another.

But Ofqual, the qualifications watchdog, says examiners should go even further to minimise bias for "protected" groups. This could result in exam bosses monitoring the performance of gay and bisexual pupils in English, maths and science tests.

Critics have attacked the recommendations and claim that Ofqual should concentrate on monitoring exam standards instead of promoting equality. Nick Seaton, secretary of the Campaign for Real Education, said: “It's political correctness gone mad.

“Of course, there shouldn't be any huge bias for any group but going into this sort of detail, such as counting the number of black children in diagrams, is a waste of someone's time and taxpayers' money.”

Pupils aged 11 currently take Sats tests in the final year of primary education in England. Test developers contracted by Standards and Testing Agency – an executive agency within the Department for Education – have already prepared for this year’s exams.

A report into the preparations – by Ofqual – said examiners had attempted “to identify items/questions which may be potentially biased against particular groups, such as boys in comparison to girls (and vice versa)”.

It also said they had analysed “the number of images of black and minority ethnic children appearing in the test paper versus the number of images of white children, the representation of children with a range of physical disabilities and the choice of personal names used in the questions”.

But is said examiners should go further by carrying out a “detailed analysis of the performance of children who fall within protected characteristics [of the Equalities Act 2010]”. This includes children of different sexual orientation, age, race, religion and those with disabilities.

An Ofqual spokeswoman confirmed that was recommending that the Standards and Testing Agency undertakes the additional analysis after the tests have been sat by all students.

She said that “previous studies have looked at the performance of different groups of pupils in tests under development, but not the actual performance of students when the tests are administered nationally”.

Prof Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said that while equality was important, it was “absurd to pursue it to this extreme”.

“This pursuit of 'fairness' is getting in the way of the essential purpose of the tests, which is to look at the extent to which the young person can use words and numbers fluently,” he said. “Essentially, there's a balance to be struck between excellence and equality but it looks to me that political correctness has tipped us too far in the direction of equality.”


Australia: Bureaucracy of the NSW Department of Education will be stripped back under the state's biggest education revolution

NSW Minister for Education Adrian Piccoli at Griffith North Public School. Picture: Nathan Edwards Source: The Sunday Telegraph

THE unwieldy bureaucracy of the Department of Education will be stripped back under the state's biggest education revolution in 50 years.

The move will potentially save millions of taxpayer dollars, which could be pumped back into schools but Premier Barry O'Farrell and Education Minister Adrian Piccoli have promised there will be no cuts to teaching staff or overall front-line school funding.

The sweeping changes announced yesterday will arm principals with unprecedented powers to hire and fire staff, control 70 per cent of school budgets and see teachers paid on performance - not years of service.

Mr Piccoli said the reforms were designed to de-centralise control and cut red tape by shifting decision-making from head office to school level.

"We're putting our principals and teachers back in the driving seat - allowing them to exercise their professional judgment and making them accountable for their decisions," he said.

The reforms will also fundamentally shatter the age-old allocation formula where school funding was based on student numbers.

This has long been criticised because a small change in students - of which a principal's salary is also pegged - can have a big effect on an individual school's budget and number of teachers.

Instead schools will control a budget that separates staffing and non-staffing funding and reflects not only its student population but a school's "complexity".

The Secondary Principals Council has welcomed the move to slash more than 200 policies governing administration, reporting and centrally run programs in favour of greater autonomy.

A spokeswoman said schools had a good track record for managing their accounts, whereas within the department "you do wonder where the money goes?"

It comes as the Opposition, Teachers Federation and the Greens warned the reforms were a "smokescreen" for the government to slash school funding and leave principals to shoulder the blame.

Opposition education spokeswoman Carmel Tebbutt said the decision to "break the nexus" of funding based on pupil numbers offered nothing to hold the government to account. Teachers Federation president Maurie Mulheron said the real motive was to slash up to $700 million from the education budget and leave principals holding the can when schools deteriorated.


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