Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Mitt Romney announces education policy team

Mitt Romney on Tuesday announced an extensive list of education policy advisers, further adding to the growing roster of voices helping the presumptive Republican presidential nominee flesh out his policies on major national issues.

The policy group includes several top officials from the administration of President George W. Bush, including former education secretary Rod Paige. It also includes several who advised Romney while he was Massachusetts governor, including Robert Costrell and Jim Peyser.

“I am proud to announce the support of this impressive group of policy leaders who are devoted to expanding educational opportunities for students,” Romney said in a statement. “Our education system is failing too many of our kids, and I look forward to working closely with these leaders to chart a new course that emphasizes school choice and accountability, the importance of great teachers, and access to quality, affordable higher education.”

Peyser, who also advised Romney predecessors William F. Weld and Jane Swift, was involved in several key decisions in Massachusetts education reform, including the birth of charter schools and keeping support intact for the MCAS graduation requirement for high school students. He left his post with Romney fairly early in his four-year term to become a partner at NewSchools Venture Fund, a San Francisco nonprofit organization that gives money to projects aimed at improving public education, including charter schools.

“It is an honor to work with Governor Romney and his team to help develop innovative solutions to our nation’s education challenges,” said Nina Rees, a group co-chair for K-12 education. “He established an extraordinary track record of results during his time as governor of Massachusetts, and I am confident that with his leadership and his focus on achievement we can ensure that all students have access to the education they deserve.”

Romney has not made education a core part of his campaign, mentioning struggles that students may have finding jobs or paying off college loans but rarely wading into education policy. But that could change with the announcmenet of his new team of advisers.


The Unteachables: A Generation that Cannot Learn

"The honeymoon is over." Instructors who award low grades in humanities disciplines will likely be familiar with a phenomenon that occurs after the first essays are returned to students: former smiles vanish, hands once jubilantly raised to answer questions are now resentfully folded across chests, offended pride and sulkiness replace the careless cheer of former days. Too often, the smiles are gone for good because the customary "B+" or "A" grades have been withheld, and many students cannot forgive the insult.

The matter doesn't always end there. Some students are prepared for a fight, writing emails of entreaty or threat, or besieging the instructor in his office to make clear that the grade is unacceptable. Every instructor who has been so besieged knows the legion of excuses and expressions of indignation offered, the certainty that such work was always judged acceptable in the past, the implication that a few small slip-ups, a wrong word or two, have been blown out of proportion. When one points out grievous inadequacies - factual errors, self-contradiction, illogical argument, and howlers of nonsensical phrasing - the student shrugs it off: yes, yes, a few mistakes, the consequences of too much coffee, my roommate's poor typing, another assignment due the same day; but you could still see what I meant, couldn't you, and the general idea was good, wasn't it? "I'm better at the big ideas," students have sometimes boasted to me. "On the details, well . ".

Meetings about bad grades are uncomfortable not merely because it is unpleasant to wound feelings unaccustomed to the sting. Too often, such meetings are exercises in futility. I have spent hours explaining an essay's grammatical, stylistic, and logical weaknesses in the wearying certainty that the student was unable, both intellectually and emotionally, to comprehend what I was saying or to act on my advice. It is rare for such students to be genuinely desirous and capable of learning how to improve. Most of them simply hope that I will come around. Their belief that nothing requires improvement except the grade is one of the biggest obstacles that teachers face in the modern university. And that is perhaps the real tragedy of our education system: not only that so many students enter university lacking the basic skills and knowledge to succeed in their courses - terrible in itself - but also that they often arrive essentially unteachable, lacking the personal qualities necessary to respond to criticism.

The unteachable student has been told all her life that she is excellent: gifted, creative, insightful, thoughtful, able to succeed at whatever she tries, full of potential and innate ability. Pedagogical wisdom since at least the time of John Dewey - and in some form all the way back to William Wordsworth's divinely anointed child "trailing clouds of glory" - has stressed the development of self-esteem and a sense of achievement. Education, as Dewey made clear in such works as The Child and the Curriculum (1902), was not about transferring a cultural inheritance from one generation to the next; it was about students' self-realization. It involved liberating pupils from that stuffy, often stifling, inheritance into free and unforced learning aided by sympathy and encouragement. The teacher was not so much to teach or judge as to elicit a response, leading the student to discover for herself what she, in a sense, already knew. In the past twenty years, the well-documented phenomenon of grade inflation in humanities subjects - the awarding of high "Bs" and "As" to the vast majority of students - has increased the conviction that everyone is first-rate.

This pedagogy of self-esteem developed in response to the excesses of rote learning and harsh discipline that were thought to characterize earlier eras. In Charles Dickens' Hard Times, Mr. Gradgrind, the teacher who ridicules a terrified Sissy Jupe for her inability to define a horse ("Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth . "), was seen to epitomize a soulless pedagogical regime that deadened creativity and satisfaction. Dickens and his readers believed such teaching to be a form of mental and emotional abuse, and the need to protect students from the stigma of failure became an article of faith amongst progressive educators. For them, the stultifying apparatus of the past had to be entirely replaced. Memorization itself, the foundation of traditional teaching, came to be seen as an enemy of creative thought: pejorative similes for memory work such as "rote learning" and "fact-grinding" suggest the classroom equivalent of a military drill, harsh and unaccommodating. The progressive approach, in contrast, emphasizes variety, pleasure, and student interest and self-motivation above all.

It sounds good. The problem, as traditionalists have argued (but without much success), is that the utopian approach hasn't worked as intended. Rather than forming cheerful, self-directed learners, the pedagogy of self-esteem has often created disaffected, passive pupils, bored precisely because they were never forced to learn. As Hilda Neatby commented in 1953, the students she was encountering at university were "distinctly blasé" about their coursework. A professor of history, Neatby was driven to investigate progressive education after noting how ill-equipped her students were for the high-level thinking required of them; her So Little For the Mind remains well-worth reading. In her assessment:

    The bored "graduates" of elementary and high schools seem, in progressive language, to be "incompletely socialized." Ignorant even of things that they might be expected to know, they do not care to learn. They lack an object in life, they are unaware of the joy of achievement. They have been allowed to assume that happiness is a goal, rather than a by-product.

The emphasis on feeling good, as Neatby argued, prevents rather than encourages the real satisfactions of learning.


British Liberal leader promoting 'communist' policies for university access

Nick Clegg has been accused of promoting "communist" policies to force universities to take more students from state schools.

The Deputy Prime Minister suggested that leading colleges should lower their A-level entry grades for state school candidates.

Under a sweeping "social mobility strategy", the country's higher education system will be judged on how many state school pupils win places at leading universities, he said.

Vice-chancellors will face financial penalties if they fail to meet targets for increasing the number of disadvantaged students they admit.

But the plan raised concerns that independent school pupils who achieve good grades will be rejected by the best universities.   Leading head teachers warned Mr Clegg he risked "stirring up ill feeling" between the state and private education systems.

Tim Hands, master of the independent Magdalen College School in Oxford, said Mr Clegg's plan would "betray" parents who pay for a private education.  "This is the old-style communist creation of a closed market, to try and deal with the problem after the event," he said.

The government's "energy and money" would be better spent on improving state education "rather than capping the achievements" of pupils in independent schools, he said.

Dr Hands, co-chair of the universities committee at the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) of leading independent schools, said Mr Clegg should "value" high quality teaching.  "Many parents make huge sacrifices in order to get the best possible education for their children," he said.

"Privileged politicians propose to betray those parents and their values."

Brian Binley, a Conservative MP on the Commons education committee, said the drive to widen access to universities had been "one of the most destructive measures to our skills base that anyone could ever imagine".  He said it was "absolute nonsense" to tell universities to take more students from state schools when the focus should be on improving standards of primary and secondary education.

The criticism came as Mr Clegg annouced sweeping “social mobility strategy” intended to break the grip of middle-class families on the best-paid jobs and the most highly regarded universities.

In his most strident remarks on college access to date, he said universities to recruit students “on the basis of an ability to excel, not purely on previous attainment”.

He said ministers would aim to ensure that children born into working-class homes can find better jobs than their fathers held, amid evidence that “a large number of professions remain dominated by a small section of society”.

Mr Clegg said the Coalition’s social policies would be rated against 17 new indicators, ranging from babies’ birth weight to adults’ job opportunities.

Opening the best colleges to working-class students is essential to create a country “where what matters most is the person you become, not the person you were born”.


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