Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Supreme Court can’t fix university admissions policies

Universities have a history of ignoring the law to engineer the right ethnic mix on campus

The charming assumption of the plaintiffs in Fisher v. University of Texas—a case the Supreme Court recently agreed to hear—is that if five robed justices behind mahogany desks tell universities to stop discriminating by race in their admissions policies, universities will stop. (Fisher involves a white female student allegedly passed over for admission in favor of less-qualified minority candidates.) Yet regardless of what the justices say, university officials will give up their firstborns before they let go of their beloved racial preferences.

Fisher backers hope that the presence of John Roberts and Samuel Alito on the bench means that the Supremes will shut the door that their ruling in 2003’s Grutter v. Bollinger flung open to racial preferences. In Grutter, the Court accepted the University of Michigan’s argument that “diversity” was a compelling state interest. And consideration of race on an individualized basis was constitutionally acceptable to promote it.

After Grutter, the University of Texas went to town.

A little history: The 5th Circuit Court’s 1996 Hopwood ruling had banned the University of Texas from explicitly using race in admissions, prompting then-Gov. George W. Bush to sign Texas’ pioneering “10 percent solution,” a race-neutral way to help state schools keep their minority numbers up. Under his solution, Texas automatically admits the top 10 percent of every school’s graduating class, including inner-city schools. Even liberals admit that this strategy was better for campus diversity than the regime of straight-up preferences.

But once Grutter gave the green light to race-based admissions, UT decided that the 10 percent strategy was not yielding a “critical mass” of minority students in every major and every classroom. Hence, it tacked its old race-based standard onto the new scheme. The upshot? The university’s Hispanic and African American population went up from 23.23 percent to 26.65 percent—a whopping 3.42 percentage-point bump.

Racial preference opponents are hoping that the Supreme Court will overrule the racial component of Texas admissions and—if they get lucky—the Grutter decision itself. But what if they get their wish? Will that usher in a new era of colorblind campuses?

Not a chance.

For starters, the 10 percent solution is something of a scam, one that seeks a specific racial outcome via race-neutral means. But the instructive case of Michigan’s public universities offers more evidence as to what happens when race-ban activists get what they want: nada. In 2006, outraged by the Grutter ruling, Michigan voters approved Proposition 2, a ballot initiative that outlawed race in government hiring and college admissions. Undeterred, University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman defiantly declared that she “will find ways to overcome the handcuffs that Proposal 2 attempts to place on our reach for greater diversity.”

She wasn’t bluffing.

She enlisted the College Board, the company that administers the SAT, to develop Descriptor Plus, a geo-demographic tagging service, to filter applicants. This involves using demographic factors other than race to identify under-represented “neighborhood clusters.” Here’s how it works, in theory: Descriptor Plus could identify, say, two clusters of low-income students living in single-parent homes, one cluster in a predominantly black Detroit ZIP code and another in a majority-white ZIP code in upper Michigan. The University of Michigan could then decide that it wants to give the Detroit cluster greater preference than the one in upper Michigan, thus achieving a racially balanced student body without openly using race.

Such flouting of voter will would be bad enough. But UCLA law professor Richard Sander maintains that the university’s claims that it had given up the explicit use of race for Descriptor Plus were “total bulls***.” Sander, a self-avowed liberal who opposes preferences because he believes they harm minorities, filed a Freedom of Information request to obtain Michigan’s admissions data for 2008. The university’s minority numbers had barely budged, something that was hard to explain, even with Descriptor Plus. The only way this could have happened was if the university was still explicitly using race, Sander’s regression analysis revealed.

This demonstrates that universities will use proxies, subterfuge and outright violation of the law in their quest for the “right” student mix. And it raises a troublesome question: Is there some way to get them to stop? There’s nothing foolproof, unfortunately. Going through courts and legislatures is an exercise in futility. For example, getting the University of Michigan to give up race requirements would require more time-consuming FOIA requests to gather information, then filing lawsuits (in which the university would outspend and out-lawyer its opponents). Meanwhile, the legislature would have to engage in an intrusive examination of the university’s books, inevitably inviting accusations of abrogating academic freedom.

The best option might be to open up university admissions to public scrutiny through full-disclosure laws. Just as publicly traded companies are required to disclose accurate financial information to investors, public universities should be required to declare what admission standards they use for which groups (including, incidentally, children of alumni and donors, the other big beneficiaries of preferences) along with each group’s graduation rates. This would force the universities to defend any blatant double-standard in public. And smart kids who felt that the university was diluting its standards too much might choose other schools—as might minority students who feel the university is setting them up for failure.

This solution is far from ideal, of course. But realism might be a better friend in fighting this battle than starry-eyed appeals to the Supremes.


Girl, 12, 'interrogated' by school staff until she gives up Facebook password

This is a disgrace. How is this caring for the children?

A 12-year-old girl is suing her school district after staff at Minnesota middle school searched her Facebook and e-mail accounts.

The sixth-grade Minnewaska Area Middle School student, named in court documents as R.S., claims she twice suffered humiliating punishment for things she had written on Facebook.

She was also pressured by school officials to given them her password.Her complaint, back by the American Civil Liberties Union, alleges that the girl's First and Fourth Amendment rights were violated.

It states: 'R.S. was intimidated, frightened, humiliated and sobbing while she was detained in the small school room' as she watched a counsellor, a deputy, and another school employee pore over her private communications.

The girl claims she felt that one of the school's adult hall monitors was picking on her, so she wrote on her Facebook wall that she hated the monitor because she was mean. The message was not posted from school property or using any school equipment or connections, the lawsuit states.

Somehow, the school principal got a hold of a screenshot of the message, and punished R.S. with detention and made her apologize to the hall monitor.

She was in trouble again shortly thereafter for another Facebook post, which asked who turned her in, using an expletive for effect. She was given in school suspension and missed a class ski trip.

In the third incident, according to the complaint, R.S. was called in by school officials after the guardian of another student complained that R.S. had had a conversation about sex on Facebook.

The girl was allegedly called to a meeting with a deputy sheriff, school counsellor and an unidentified employee, where she was intimidated into giving up her login and passwords to her Facebook and e-mail accounts.

‘R.S. was extremely nervous and being called out of class and being interrogated,’ the lawsuit says. It adds that the officials did not have permission from R.S.'s mother to view her private communications, and gave her a hard time about some of the material they discovered.

The school district maintains that such searches did not cross any boundaries. A spokesperson said: ‘The district is confident that once all facts come to light, the district's conduct will be found to be reasonable and appropriate.’


British regulator says English standards in primary schools 'too low'

Standards of English in primary schools should be dramatically raised because too many pupils start secondary education with poor reading and writing skills, Ofsted warned today.

In a damning report, the education watchdog said almost a third of pupils who reached national targets at 11 failed to gain good GCSEs in the subject aged 16. It claimed that standards had been “flat” since 2005 because the demands put on children were too low.

Ofsted told of key weaknesses in the way the subject was delivered at all ages, with schools often shunning creative and extended writing tasks and failing to teach the basics of spelling and handwriting.

It also emerged that many schools were placing an “increasing emphasis” on analysing non-literary texts such as holiday brochures and complaint letters to pass exams instead of requiring pupils to read whole novels and poems.

The conclusions were made as Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector, prepared to outline a 10-point plan to drive up standards of reading and writing.

In a speech on Thursday, he will call on the Government to set tougher English targets for all 11-year-olds amid fears current demands in primary schools are too low – leaving children struggling with the basics in secondary education.

In a further move, Sir Michael will say that more specialist English teachers should be parachuted into primary schools – or clusters of small primaries – to drive improvements.

He also recommends:

* Giving parents regular updates on their children’s reading age – showing whether they are reaching the basic standard expected for their peer group;

* Prioritising Ofsted inspections in schools with the lowest levels of achievement in English;

* Sharpening up the inspection process to ensure all trainee teachers are being taught how to deliver phonics – the back-to-basics method of reading;

* Tightening up regulations for childminders and nurseries to ensure they place a greater emphasis on promoting speaking and listening skills among under-fives.

In a speech at a primary school in west London, Sir Michael will say: “There can be no more important subject than English. It is at the heart of our culture and literacy skills are crucial to pupils’ learning for all subjects.

“Yet too many pupils fall behind in their literacy early on. In most cases, if they can’t read securely at seven they struggle to catch up as they progress through their school careers.

“As a result, too many young adults lack the functional skills to make their way in the modern world. We are no longer a leading country in terms of our literacy performance: others are doing better.”

Currently, the average pupil is expected to achieve at least “Level 4” in exams taken at the end of primary school. This means they can write complex sentences and spell accurately in English.

Figures show around one-in-five children – more than 100,000 – currently fail to reach the benchmark each year. Results have only marginally increased between 2005 and 2011, it was revealed.

But Ofsted warned that hitting the target was no guarantee of success in secondary education. According to data, 45 per cent of pupils who just passed Level 4 at 11 failed to go on to gain at least a C grade in GCSE exams last summer – the result expected of the average 16-year-old. Some 29 per cent of the total number of Level 4 pupils missed out on a C grade.

In a report on the teaching of English, published to coincide with Sir Michael’s speech, Ofsted said that “too few schools gave enough thought to ways of encouraging the love of reading”, with many pupils failing to read whole texts.

A common activity in many English lessons was the "teaching of features of a persuasive text", said Ofsted, but this was involved "studying holiday brochures or writing letters of complaint" instead of reading novels and poems.

The teaching of writing was also “variable in quality, with too little attention given to spelling and handwriting”, Ofsted warned.

The Department for Education said it was already assessing English standards as part of a wider review of the National Curriculum and was introducing a reading check for all six-year-olds to pick out those struggling the most at the start of school.

“We want England to move back up the international league tables and for children to leave school with the knowledge that will stand them in good stead for their future careers and adult life,” a spokesman said.

But the comments were condemned by teachers’ leaders who accused Ofsted of attempting to undermine schools. Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “Both Ofsted and the government need to get the balance right between labelling pupils and their teachers as failures, and helping them improve learning. “Countless tests and stressful inspections are not the answer.”


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