Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A vision of a truly liberal ideal in education

To date, many of the arguments for increasing parental choice in education and allowing a diversity of provision have focused on a number of practical arguments such as the need to improve the performance of failing government schools, the need for additional school places and the general desire to ensure that all children can benefit from the best schools available, irrespective of income or location. These arguments originate from the “what matters, is what works” school of politics where ideological principles are no longer relevant.

However, while this evidence, results or outcomes-based approach can be very persuasive, it may not be sufficient if the proposed reforms are to win widespread support amongst both politicians and the general public. According to Nobel Laureate James Buchanan, evidence of “what works” must be supplemented with a vision of the liberal ideal that attempts to capture the minds of people.

Consider, for example, the suffragettes who were campaigning for the right to vote at the start of the twentieth century. Their case for reform was not based on any evidence which showed that extending the right to vote to women would guarantee a better election result than the existing voting system. In fact, many opponents of the reforms (mostly men, but not exclusively) warned of the perverse consequences and the chaos that would follow if women were allowed to vote on the important and complicated matters of national government.  Instead the suffragette movement were campaigning for a fundamental freedom and a basic human right – the freedom and right of women to vote. A voting system based upon universal franchise was therefore deemed to be superior to one which was based upon a restricted franchise, irrespective of the results or outcomes of subsequent elections. In this example the evidence-based approach was clearly of limited use and, in fact, it could be argued that those who attempted to appeal to evidence had completely misunderstood the nature of the problem and the key issues at stake.

This same line of reasoning could also be applied to the current debate in education. An education system in which all parents have the freedom to choose would be deemed to be superior to the current system which continues to restrict these freedoms. Any appeal to evidence or what works would therefore be dismissed as irrelevant.  Buchanan refers to the repeal of the corn laws in the 19th century as a successful example of when evidence was supplemented with a vision of the liberal ideal to help gain support for proposed reforms. If we were to heed his advice then a national campaign for the repeal of the school laws, which restrict freedom in education is now required.

A campaign for freedom in education would be based on the principle that it is parents and not politicians who are ultimately responsible for their children’s education - a responsibility which can only be carried out if parents are free to choose the nature, form and content of education which their children receive. Parental choice or freedom in education therefore is not desirable simply because it may help to improve the efficiency of failing government schools. Nor is parental choice in education simply the latest policy reform that will go out of fashion in a few years’ time. Instead, it is important for the same reasons that religious freedom or freedom of the press are important - because they are both recognised as basic human rights or fundamental freedoms, which deserve to be respected and protected at all costs.

A vision of the liberal ideal in education would therefore recognise that the responsibility for educating children cannot be transferred to others; nor can it be side-lined or placed behind other considerations. Instead, it is the key principle upon which the whole education system is based. This means that governments must not in any way restrict, undermine or distort this important relationship between parent and child and the natural growth and development of education. As a result, it will not be the role of politicians to dictate which schools children should or should not attend or how much parents should invest in their children’s education.  This will, once again, be the responsibility of parents. Nor will it be the role of politicians to dictate who can and cannot set up and manage a school.

The liberty to teach and the freedom to educate must be respected and it will ultimately be parents who decide if a new school will flourish or not.

While politicians have previously argued that education was far too important to be left to ignorant parents and the chaos of the market, they must now be prepared to admit that education is far too important to be left to politicians. Politicians must have the humility to recognise that their own personal views on what works on education are completely irrelevant. After all, what does any politician know about the detailed and very specific circumstances of each and every pupil and parent across the UK?

Therefore, a future education sector where the rights and responsibilities of parents are both respected and protected will not be planned or directed by central government, nor will it be used to achieve any “national” objectives. Instead, it will consist of a variety of different national and international private, independent, autonomous, for-profit and not for-profit institutions, each with their own specific missions. The needs and desires of parents (and not politicians or governments) will be supreme and the government will be restricted to establishing a regulatory framework that will encourage a variety of different institutions to compete and flourish on a level playing field.

According to Buchanan a vision of the liberal ideal would also be based upon our desire to be free from the coercive power of others, combined with the absence of a desire to exert power over others.  Another Nobel Laureate, Milton Friedman, helps to explain:
Willingness to permit free speech to people with whom one agrees is hardly evidence of devotion to the principle of free speech; the relevant test is willingness to permit free speech to people with whom one thoroughly disagrees. Similarly, the relevant test of the belief in individual freedom is the willingness to oppose state intervention even when it is designed to prevent individual activity of a kind one thoroughly dislikes.

Therefore, this provides a useful test to all those who continue to view parental choice or increasing diversity in the provision of education as an unnecessary evil. Do they have the discipline to place their personal views to one side and recognise that the rights and responsibilities of individual parents must always come first? If they do, then they should be willing to oppose the existing government restrictions which prevent profit-making companies from managing state-funded schools, despite the fact that they may not want their children to attend such a school. From this perspective, a vision of the liberal ideal should be seen as much less self-obsessed and instead much more compassionate towards the private beliefs and the opinions of those who are directly responsible for children’s education – their parents.

For those politicians concerned with the “vote motive”, the fact that most parents are also voters might imply that reforms that increase parents’ freedom to choose in education have a good chance of gaining electoral support if the case for reform is communicated and presented in the correct way.  The time may also be right to launch a campaign for freedom in education because a vision which is based upon liberty and democracy is currently a common denominator of both the Conservative and Liberal Democratic Party. There can be nothing more liberal and democratic than extending the right to choose to all parents, irrespective of their income or location. The following advice from Bastiat should therefore appeal to both parties:
Away, then, with quacks and organizers! Away with their rings, chains, hooks, and pincers! Away with their artificial systems! Away with the whims of governmental administrators, their socialized projects, their centralization, their tariffs, their government schools, their state religions, their free credit, their bank monopolies, their regulations, their restrictions, their equalization by taxation, and their pious moralizations!

And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty.


Ideas: up for auction?

It’s no secret that the American educational system has a political bias.  The left-of-center prejudice is most blatant in the university system, but also permeates throughout the entire public school system via skewed history books, science lessons, and woefully inadequate politics and civics requirements.

The big question is: are our nation’s academicians for hire?  Is it really the “inconvenient truth” that is spewing from the mouths of our educators, administrators, and textbook editors?  Are “conservatives” of all varieties simply a misinformed minority whose children must be purged of extremist nonsense? Doubtful.  In fact, there is most definitely a less noble impetus influencing education (and, therefore, ideas) in America — cold hard cash.

According to tax records, in 2010 progressive, liberal, and generally left-leaning organizations donated at least $69,000,000 to politically active groups involved with education in America — these include public school advocacy, teacher support organizations, and student achievement groups.  Sound like a hefty chunk of change?  Hardly.  In fact, it pales in comparison to the $142,000,000 donated by similar funders to Universities and Colleges that same year (according to tax records).

The majority of this funding came from the usual liberal bank-rolling suspects: the Hewlett Foundation donated $51,698,880 to educational institutions and advocacy groups, the Ford Foundation gave almost $40,000,000, Goldman Sachs Foundation: $13,068,822.  The Boston Foundation donated at least $7.5 million and George Soros’ Foundation to Promote Open Society donated a little over five million as well.  Liberal funding giant Tides granted out $2,393,748 to educational interests in 2010, according to tax records.

This tie between high levels of politically motivated funding and highly biased faculty is blatantly obvious in the U.S. university system.   According to tax records, 16 of the top 18 most liberal universities are heavily funded by progressive bankrollers — most receiving yearly gifts in the millions of dollars.  The entire Ivy League is heavily subsidized by progressive funders and all 8 schools rank among the most liberal universities in the county.  In 2010 Brown received $1,392,500, Columbia: $3,424,830, Cornell: $138,000, Harvard: $6,532,062, University of Pennsylvania: $350,000, Yale: $7,333,405.  Similarly prestigious colleges Stanford, John Hopkins, MIT, and UC Berkeley received a combined $29,437,251.

The University of California (UC) System, whose member universities are considered to employ some of the most liberal faculty in the U.S. and regularly rank among the most liberal colleges in the country, received over $37.5 million dollars from progressive funders in 2010, according to tax records.  This in a year that state funding for the UC system fell by about 9 percent.

And state funding is falling across the county — leaving colleges increasingly dependent on the support of liberal ideologues like Pew, Hewlett, Tides, Open Society, and Ford.  The UC system alone received a staggering $1,381,580 from Pew, $20,444,181 from Hewlett, $11,868,241 from the Sandler Foundation, and $3,596,983 from the Ford Foundation in 2010 (according to 990 tax records).

And it’s not just top-tier schools that are affected by these prejudiced donations.  In 2010 almost every state university system received grants from progressive bankrolling organizations, according to tax records.

Of course, no one has a problem with the private sector investing in education.  But these donations aren’t coming from individuals supporting their alma mater, favorite athletic program, or even from genuine philanthropies — they come from organizations who use their money to push their political agenda, and it’s naïve to think that their donations ever come without a caveat.

In fact, all of the top environmental science and climate change studies programs in the U.S. (according to receive extensive support from environmental funders.  Harvard, UC Berkeley, MIT, Stanford, Princeton, UCLA, Yale, Cornell, UC San Diego, Duke, University of Chicago, Columbia, University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins, UC Santa Barbara, and Carnegie Mellon have some of the top climate-change studies programs worldwide and all received at least $1,000,000 donations from environmental extremists in 2010, with many receiving tens of millions in that year alone (according to 990 tax records).

In early 2011 the Koch Foundation donated a controversial $150,000 to re-evaluate climate change data at UC Berkeley, chump change compared to the $18,896,597 that the university received from vocal climate change activists in the previous year (according to 2010 990 tax forms).

In fact, the top supporters of environmental extremism (Hewlett, Pew, and Tides Foundations) also happen to be the top private funders of secondary education in America.  Not only are these political donors bankrolling the organizations distributing controversial environmental studies, but it turns out they are also funding (some might say “buying off”) the very scientists creating the supporting evidence for global warming alarmism and paying for the brainwashing of the next generation to boot.

Given the glut of biased, liberal money in education, one has to wonder if all climate change research is truly “inconvenient truth” or rather pure propaganda, bought and paid for by environmental extremists.

The connection between the funding of education and the disproportionate leftist bias that permeates our entire school system goes a long way in explaining a progressive cultural phenomenon that appears to have been bought by the monied elite — through liberal subsidizing of propaganda, media, and (perhaps most dangerously) education in the United States.


Top British universities forced to introduce remedial maths classes

Top universities are being forced to give remedial lessons to maths students as A-levels and GCSEs have failed to prepare them for the rigours of degree courses, an official report has found.

Standards in schools have slipped so low that GCSE maths now amounts to little more than "glorified numeracy" while even those with top grades at A-level are woefully ill-equipped to study maths and science at university.

A combination of the "modular" A-level system, which allows pupils to bypass certain fields such as calculus, and a "race to the bottom" between competing exam boards are driving the problem, the House of Lords report has said.

Many pupils are even applying to study scientific subjects such as engineering and chemistry at university despite dropping maths at 16, meaning they arrive without even a basic knowledge of key fields like mechanics and statistics.

Some seventy per cent of first-year undergraduates studying biology, 38 per cent reading chemistry and economics and 20 per cent on engineering courses in 2009 had not completed an A level in maths.

In their evidence to the committee, Vice Chancellors including Prof Sir Leszek Borysiewicz of Cambridge reported that many maths and science students had to be given "remedial" classes upon arrival at university.

Lord Willis of Knaresborough, chairman of the Lords science and technology select committee which commissioned the report, said he was "absolutely gobsmacked" by the figures.

The calibre of maths students and general school leavers is so dire that all pupils should now be required to study maths to some level after the age of 16, he added.

"If we are talking about a world-class system, where mathematics is the cornerstone of virtually every science programme, then it is really quite amazing that we have so few students who have studied maths, literally, beyond GCSE and often, not even with a grade A.

"Part of [the problem] is the modulisation of A level, whereby there is no interlinking between the different elements of maths, but it is also because there is a race to the bottom at A-level by exam boards competing with each other about the ease with which students can achieve their grades."

Prof Brian Cantor, Vice Chancellor of York University, told the committee: "We have to give maths remedial classes, often even to triple-A students."

Professor Sir Christopher Snowden, vice-chancellor of Surrey University, added: "I think that in pretty much every university the issues over maths skills apply.

"This has been an issue now for many years within universities, partly due to the increase in the breadth of maths that is studied at schools but with a lack of depth. In some cases, for example, there is a complete absence of calculus, which is an issue in many subjects."

Those wishing to study science, engineering or maths at university should be required to take a maths A-level, while those focusing on humanities subjects like English or classics should still study the subject to AS level, the committee said.

Pupils who leave school at 16 to enrol in apprenticeships or other educational programmes should take courses in maths appropriate to their vocation, for example a basic accounting course for people who may become self-employed, they added.

The report also recommended that universities shoulder some of the responsibility by introducing stricter entry criteria for science and maths degrees, making certain courses and key modules obligatory.

Lord Willis said: "When you have got the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge saying we have got young, bright, A* students coming in and we have to do remedial maths to get them to engage with engineering and physics, there is something seriously wrong with the system.


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