Thursday, July 19, 2012

The accreditation arms race

 Over the last thirty years, the university has replaced the labor union as the most important institution, after the corporation, in American political and economic life. As union jobs have disappeared, participation in the labor force, the political system, and cultural affairs is increasingly regulated by professional guilds that require their members to spend the best years of life paying exorbitant tolls and kissing patrician rings. Whatever modest benefits accreditation offers in signaling attainment of skills, as a ranking mechanism it’s zero-sum: the result is to enrich the accreditors and to discredit those who lack equivalent credentials.

Jean Baudrillard once suggested an important correction to classical Marxism: exchange value is not, as Marx had it, a distortion of a commodity’s underlying use value; use value, instead, is a fiction created by exchange value. In the same way, systems of accreditation do not assess merit; merit is a fiction created by systems of accreditation. Like the market for skin care products, the market for credentials is inexhaustible: as the bachelor’s degree becomes democratized, the master’s degree becomes mandatory for advancement. Our elaborate, expensive system of higher education is first and foremost a system of stratification, and only secondly — and very dimly — a system for imparting knowledge.

The original universities in the Western world organized themselves as guilds, either of students, as in Bologna, or of masters, as in Paris. From the first, their chief mission was to produce not learning but graduates, with teaching subordinated to the process of certification — much as artisans would impose long and wasteful periods of apprenticeship, under the guise of “training,” to keep their numbers scarce and their services expensive. For the contemporary bachelor or master or doctor of this or that, as for the Ming-era scholar–bureaucrat or the medieval European guildsman, income and social position are acquired through affiliation with a cartel. Those who want to join have to pay to play, and many never recover from the entry fee.

Of course, one man’s burden is another man’s opportunity. Student debt in the United States now exceeds $1 trillion. Like cigarette duties or state lotteries, debt-financed accreditation functions as a tax on the poor. But whereas sin taxes at least subsidize social spending, the “graduation tax” is doubly regressive, transferring funds from the young and poor to the old and affluent. The accreditors do well, and the creditors do even better. Student-loan asset-backed securities are far safer than their more famous cousins in the mortgage market: the government guarantees most of the liability, and, crucially, student loans cannot be erased by declaring bankruptcy. Although America’s college graduates are already late on paying nearly $300 billion in loans, they don’t have the option of walking away from these debts, even if their careers have been effectively transformed into underwater assets.

As the credentialism compulsion seeps down the socioeconomic ladder, universities jack up fees and taxi drivers hire $200-an-hour SAT tutors for their children. The collective impact may be ruinous, but for individuals the outlays seem justified. As a consequence, college tuitions are nowhere near their limit; as long as access to the workforce is controlled by the bachelor’s degree, students will pay more and more.

One sort of false consciousness may be involved when a low-income person votes Republican out of mistrust for the credentialed establishment; another occurs when the credentialed establishment denies its own existence. An article in the New Yorker last year demonstrated what might be called the class unconsciousness of the credentialed. There Jeffrey Toobin, a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, profiled the villainous Clarence and Virginia Thomas. Clarence Thomas was born in an impoverished Gullah-speaking community on Georgia’s Atlantic coast, attended Holy Cross and Yale Law School, and eventually became the second African American to sit on the Supreme Court. Thomas’s hatred for the Ivy League is legendary; he felt mistreated at Yale and has claimed that he suffered in the job market because firms assumed he was the beneficiary of affirmative action. Thomas likes to rail against “élites,” a term Toobin smirkingly quarantines in quotation marks, as if the concept to which it referred were a chimera and not a plain reality.

It would be astonishing enough for the New Yorker to cast doubt in any context on the existence of an “élite” — even as it insists on the word’s accent aigu — but it is especially so in the context of the law, where a guild-like structure is more tightly organized around vaporous prestige than in any other field. The confirmation of Elena Kagan marks the first time in history that every single justice on the Supreme Court has attended Harvard or Yale. And Supreme Court justices (with the exception of Thomas) barely consider clerkship candidates who failed to go to a top-five law school. Until the 1980s, Harvard and Yale never accounted for more than half the justices, and until the 1950s, never more than one fifth.

When we ask ourselves whether populist hostility should be directed against the rich or against the professional elite, the answer must be, “Yes, please!” From 1980 to 2007, the financial sector grew from 4 percent of GDP to 8 percent, but it’s shrunk since and may shrink further. The medical sector, on the other hand, grew in the same period from 9 percent to 16 percent — and is expected to account for a full 29 percent of the economy by 2030. Goldman Sachs makes for an attractive monster, but the bigger vampire squid may be the American Medical Association, which has colluded in blocking universal coverage and driving up health costs since World War II.

If not earlier: the AMA owes its authority to America’s most notorious robber barons, who invented philanthropy as we know it by establishing foundations capable of long-term, organized interventions in the country’s political and cultural life. The first foundations poured money into medical schools — but only if those schools followed the example set by Johns Hopkins, which in 1893 had introduced what’s now the standard formula: students attend four years of college, then four years of medical school. Institutions that didn’t follow this model did not get donations, and they also got denounced in a 1910 report sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation. After the Carnegie survey published its “findings,” scores of medical schools — schools whose students could not afford the additional years of study now required, and nearly all of the schools that admitted blacks and women — closed.

Today, we take it for granted that practicing medicine or law requires years of costly credentialing in unrelated fields. In the law, the impact of all this “training” is clear: it supports a legal system that is overly complicated and outrageously expensive, both for high-flying corporate clients who routinely overpay and for small-time criminal defendants who, in the overwhelming majority of cases, can’t afford to secure representation at all (and must surrender their fate to local prosecutors, who often send them to prison). But just as a million-dollar medical training isn’t necessary to perform an abortion, routine legal matters could easily, and cheaply, be handled by noninitiates.

The standardization of these professional guilds benefited undergraduate institutions immensely, a fact that was not lost on university administrators. College presidents endorsed the Hopkins model and the AMA’s consolidation of medical authority for good reason: in the mid-19th century, bachelor’s degrees in the United States were viewed with skepticism by the private sector, and colleges had a hard time finding enough students. The corporate-sponsored consolidation of the medical establishment changed undergraduate education from a choice to a necessity. Where once there was indifference, now there was demand: “I want to be a doctor when I grow up,” the child in the PSA says. “I want to go to college.”

No administration has embodied credentialism as thoroughly as the current one. Of Obama’s first thirty-five cabinet appointments, twenty-two had a degree from an Ivy League university, MIT, Stanford, the University of Chicago, Oxford, or Cambridge. No one would advocate staffing the country’s ministries with wealthy imbeciles, as was the custom under George W. Bush; but the President — a meritocrat himself — has succumbed to what might be called the “complexity complex,” which leads us to assume that public policy is so complicated that you need a stack of degrees to figure it out. But major political questions are rarely complex in that sense. They are much more likely to be complicated, in the Avril Lavigne sense, meaning that they involve reconciling disagreements among competing stakeholders — or, as the situation may demand, ratcheting them up.

Not all the demons identified by the Tea Party have been phantoms. We on our side are right to reject rule by the 1 percent — and so are they right to reject rule by a credentialed elite. Introductory economics courses paint “rent-seekers” as gruesome creatures who amass monopoly privileges; credential-seekers, who sterilize the intellect by pouring time and money into the accumulation of permits, belong in the same circle of hell.

Americans have been affluent enough for long enough that it’s difficult to remember there was once a time when solidarity trumped the compulsion to rank. The inclusive vision that once drove the labor movement has given way to a guild mentality, at times also among unions, that is smug and parochial. To narrow the widening chasm between insiders and outsiders, we must push on both ends. Dignity must be restored to labor, and power and ecumenicism to labor unions. On the other side the reverse must happen: dignity must be drained from the credential. Otherwise, the accreditation arms race will become more fearsome. Yesterday’s medals will become tomorrow’s baubles, and the prizes that remain precious will be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

Quadrupling the supply of gold stickers is one way to devalue the credential; getting rid of the sticker system altogether is another. In our pay-to-play society, many of those toward the bottom of the educational pyramid are getting fleeced; others, though, are getting a leg up. Because it’s callous and unreasonable to ask the disadvantaged to decline opportunities to advance, subverting credentialism must start at the top. What would happen to the price of a bachelor’s degree if the 42,000 high school valedictorians graduating this spring banded together and refused to go to college? And is it too much to ask the Democratic Party to refrain from running any candidate for national office who holds a degree from an Ivy League school?

Then there are our own credentials. Che Guevara once declared that the duty of intellectuals was to commit suicide as a class; a more modest suggestion along the same lines is for the credentialed to join the uncredentialed in shredding the diplomas that paper over the undemocratic infrastructure of American life. A master’s degree, we might find, burns brighter than a draft card.


British teachers spending 60% less time on sport despite pledge to use the Olympics to encourage more children to take part

School sport is in decline despite a pledge to use the Olympics to encourage more children to take part, figures have shown.  Teachers are spending 60 per cent less time organising competitions and after-school clubs since the Coalition cut funding for school sports.

The figures are sensitive for the Government since a key pledge that helped win the Olympics for London was a promise to 'inspire young people around the world to choose sport'.

Figures uncovered by Labour under the Freedom of Information Act suggest a decline in the amount of sport being organised in all English regions following the overhaul.

They show a 60 per cent decrease in days worked per week by PE teachers on release compared with sports co-ordinators working under the old scheme in 2009/10.

Clive Efford, shadow minister for sport, said: 'It is incredible that David Cameron can complain that too many of our top sports people come from private schools when he is damaging the structure of sport in our state education system.'

A Department for Education spokesman said: 'We're spending £65million over the academic years 2011/12 and 2012/13 to release a secondary PE teacher in every school for one day a week so that opportunities in competitive sport are increased.'

Education Secretary Michael Gove drew a storm of criticism from athletes and head teachers two years ago after threatening to axe a national network of School Sports Partnerships.

He was forced into a partial U-turn and agreed to fund a new scheme which allows PE teachers to be released from their schools for one day a week to help co-ordinate local sports provision.  But the budget for the scheme was smaller than funding for sports partnerships as the Coalition implemented austerity measures.

In the West Midlands and North East, the figures were 74 per cent and 72 per cent respectively.

Speaking in Singapore in 2005, Lord Coe said: 'London's vision is to reach young people around the world.  'To connect them with the inspirational power of the Games. So they are inspired to choose sport.'

However the new figures suggest a decline in the amounted of sports being organised by schools, including local tournaments after-school clubs.

The withdrawal of funding for school sports partnerships led to a decline in their numbers of 37 per cent, the data showed. More than a quarter of local authorities no longer have any.

Some areas have managed to keep the networks going but responses from local authorities suggested a decline in sporting participation, with Wokingham reporting that 'a drop-off is evident without whole partnership meetings and limited staffing capacity'.

Harrow, meanwhile, noted 'a drop in children's participation in sport and school's participation in coordinated extra-curricular activity'.

The Coalition has instead focused efforts on creating a new school games aimed at reviving competitive sport.  The tournament has reached more than half of schools.

There has also been lottery funding and investment in encouraging older teenagers and young adults to participate in sport amid evidence youngsters lose interest after leaving school.

But Tessa Jowell, shadow Olympics minister, said: 'When we won the Games, we made a promise to the people of this country and the international community to inspire a generation of young people through sport.

'The Olympic and Paralympic Games are a once in a lifetime event that will get young people excited about sport.  'It is important that schools are able to maintain this momentum and help young people develop sport and exercise as a habit that will keep them healthy and fit for the rest of their lives.'


A Big Picture View of Problems in Australia's Maths Curriculum

Re: Ferrari J.,New maths course inadequate, The Australian, 18/7/12

Dear Professor  Wildberger

I should like to suggest for your consideration that the problems that you have identified in the proposed new national curriculum for Year 11 and 12 maths are likely to have a systemic cause which implies a need for a different curriculum development process. While this will not be immediately obvious, the cause of the problem is likely to be the biases that limit the effectiveness of ‘rational’ centralised decision making.

Your reported criticism was that "The draft national curriculum replaces core material such as algebra, geometry, and applications of calculus with a lot of advanced statistics and, for the higher strand, tertiary-level topics”. As an engineer who has done a lot of work related to the social sciences, it seems to me that the proposed national curriculum is biased towards to needs of (say) social science and medical research in which statistics play a major role, at the expense of the algebra / geometry / calculus needs of the applied sciences and engineering.

It can be noted that the national history curriculum contains a similar dysfunctional bias (see Proposed National History Curriculum: Information without Understanding?, 2010). And, as with the proposed national maths curriculum, this bias reflects a lack of concern for practical issues.
    Explanation: The national history curriculum sought to impart understanding of diverse societies, without ensuring coverage of the societies and ideas that had contributed directly to Australia’s institutions and character. Culture has practical consequences which are significant in causing history – so it is important to ensure that students gain a solid understanding of those that have led to practical success (and why this is so). The national history curriculum does not seem to do this. Though this will not be immediately obvious, the importance of ensuring understanding of what has led to success and failure in history can be seen by considering current unresolved concerns about Australia’s response to asylum seekers (see The Biggest Issue Missing from the Asylum Seeker Debate).

In both these cases the problem is arguably that reform proposals have been developed (and in one case already implemented) on the basis of a particular point of view, and this has not taken account of other considerations that are outside the expertise and experience of the persons involved. In relation to this, it is further noted that:
    There are limits to human rationality that are recognised in management, public administration and economic literature. For example, the inability of central planners to acquire the information required to make appropriate decisions is economists’ primary justification for a market economy;

    The application of reforms to governments and universities which involved an autocratic implementation of particular ideologies has led to severe problems (eg see Toward Good Government in Queensland , 1995 and A Case for Restoring Universities, 2010). In the Queensland Government case (which was replicated in various ways Australia wide - see Decay of Australian Public Administration, 2002) attempts to ‘reform’ government across-the-board on the basis of particular (but narrow) understandings of what was required led to the elimination of much of the knowledge and skills which was vital for practical success in government operations - but which the ‘reformers’ did not appreciate. Crisis prone government administration across Australia over the past couple of decades is the consequence. A general account of the problems facing government in Australia is in Australia's Governance Crisis and the Need for Nation Building (2003+). This emphasises the need for institutional reforms for which one important focus involves enabling complex issues that are beyond simple ‘rational’ prescriptions by potential reformers to be better managed.

A better approach to developing curriculum (as with the other concerns above) would involve a shift away from centralised attempts to make ‘decisions’ towards centralised efforts to identify the issues requiring change while encouraging proposed responses to emerge from existing practitioners. This would ensure that new curriculum would build on existing strengths while taking into account new requirements, rather than being biased towards the central decision maker’s perception of the new requirements while potentially eliminating existing strengths that are not centrally understood.


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