Monday, July 15, 2013

A Student Loan Faceoff

Ever get the feeling that Washington sees every issue as a hockey puck in a rink with no nets? There's just a constant back-and-forth between two teams with big elbows and pointed fingers -- but no real resolution.

That's how a battle over federal student loans played out in Congress last week -- lots of news conferences but no legislation.

The two parties faced off after Congress failed to act before a July 1 deadline. Rates for subsidized Stafford loans doubled, from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.

"Most people would see that rate, especially for borrowing with no collateral, and think that's awfully, awfully good," critic Neal McCluskey of the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute observed.

But in a town in fierce competition to win the student-parent vote, neither party wanted to be seen as doubling the price of student borrowing, even if the program is unsustainable. The Congressional Budget Office expects student loans to cost taxpayers $95 billion over the next decade.

Those loans, many voters have come to realize, do not make college affordable as politicians suggested they would. To the contrary, McCluskey argues, federal aid has fueled tuition hikes and encouraged students to borrow more than they will be able to pay back.

Last year, when the subsidized Stafford rate was scheduled to rise, President Barack Obama launched a "#DontDoubleMyRate" Twitter campaign. Young voters swooned. In the heat of the 2012 election season, Congress voted to delay the slated rate increase for a year.

Call it spendthrift gridlock. When both parties cannot agree on anything, they can always agree to dump all reform and keep on spending.

This year, there was every reason to expect a repeat. Then, to his credit and Washington's surprise, President Obama proposed tying federal student loans to the 10-year Treasury yield. With interest rates expected to rise, it was a smart and bold move.

"When he did that," McCluskey told me, "it really signaled to Republicans you can do something that is more responsible, and you have political cover for it."

House Republicans passed a measure The New York Times described as "similar enough to the White House proposal to give Republicans solid political cover against Democratic attacks."

Alas, neither the White House nor Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wanted to give House Republicans a win. The president and Reid vigorously opposed the House measure.

For their part, House Repubs seemed all too pleased with an opportunity to needle Obama for failing to lead and the Senate for not passing their measure and allowing subsidized Stafford rates to double. (The House bill would limit this year's increase to below 5 percent and cap rates at 8.5 percent if interest rates rise.) House Speaker John Boehner gamely proclaimed, "The White House and Senate Democrats have let these students down."

On Wednesday, Reid tried to ram through a bill to prevent the rate increase for yet another year. Even as he hectored Boehner for blocking the passage of bipartisan measures on such issues as immigration, Reid would not allow a Senate floor vote on a bipartisan measure by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats, and Richard Burr, R-N.C. It took guts for these three senators to oppose Reid and Washington's usual game of pandering and deficit spending -- and never fixing a problem.

After Manchin and King joined a GOP filibuster Wednesday, Reid's pet bill failed.

The rate for new loans is 6.8 percent. That's not a bad thing, but there was a better way to solve the problem. Obama suggested it himself. Tie interest rates to the market; let the increase be more gradual. Because House Republicans, Senate Democrats and the White House cared more about blaming the other guys for doubling loans, it didn't happen.

To Washington's elected class, taxpayers and students are just two hockey pucks in an endless, netless game of gotcha.


"Genes" a reason poor kids struggle at school, says Australian government report

Rather amazing to see the unspeakable spoken, albeit with a lot of hedging

RICH kids do better at school and poor children struggle due to genetic "inherited abilities", the Federal Government's top policy research agency says.

In a controversial new report released today, the Productivity Commission cites "parents' cognitive abilities and inherited genes" as one of five main reasons why kids from low-income families lag behind those from wealthy homes.

Genes are listed before access to books and computers, parental attention and aspirations, and even schools.

In a section entitled "inherited abilities", the 246-page staff working paper states that "one explanation for differences in educational attainment between children of low and high socio-economic backgrounds is parents' cognitive abilities and inherited genes".

Citing a British study, it suggests that "inherited cognitive abilities" explain one-fifth of the gap in test scores between children from the richest and poorest families, once environmental factors are taken into account.

"Genetic explanations for children's success at school is a controversial and complex area because of interactions between genes and the environment," the report says.

"Evidence is now emerging that the same genetic endowment can result in different outcomes depending on the environment".

The Productivity Commission notes that Australia has one of the highest rates of joblessness among families in the developed world, with nearly one in five families unemployed.

It cites two research studies showing that unemployed parents have "poorer parenting skills", with their children 13.4 per cent more likely to lie or fight, and 7.6 per cent more likely to be bullied.

The Productivity Commission also links learning success to "character traits such as perseverance, motivation and self-esteem".

The report on "Deep and Persistent Disadvantage in Australia", made public today, says poor children are "behind the eight-ball" when they start school and the gap widens as they grow older.

Poorer children may have less access to books, computers or study space than kids from well-off families, it says.

And parents' aspirations and attitudes to education "vary strongly with socio-economic position".

Better educated parents tend to spend more time reading to children and helping with homework, the report says.

"Evidence on why some disadvantaged children 'buck the trend' to succeed in later life suggests that the level of parental interest and parents' behaviour are important," it says.

"Attending school with higher-achieving or more advantaged peers seemed to be associated with a higher probability of bucking the trend.

"While inherited genes influence their development, the quality of family environments, and the availability of appropriate experiences at various stages of development, are crucial for building capabilities."

The Productivity Commission cites the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) international PISA tests of 15-year-olds in reading, maths and science.

"Results from the PISA show that economically advantaged parents are more likely to have read to their children regularly, sung songs, talked about what they had done during the day, and read signs aloud to their children," the report says.


British schools 'playing the system' to boost high school exam grades

Children are being forced to sit exams in the same subject as many as seven times as part of an elaborate ploy to boost GCSE results, a Government investigation has found.

Rising numbers of schools are entering pupils for a series of different tests in English and maths but only registering the best score to improve their position in league tables.

In many cases, children are taking exams a year or two early and then re-sitting the test after failing to get good scores at the first attempt.

But an analysis by the Department for Education found widespread evidence of schools going to more extreme lengths to play the system.

This includes allowing pupils to sit the same subject with multiple examination boards in the same year to maximise their chances of doing well.

It emerged that the number of pupils sitting both GCSEs and International GCSEs – an alternative version of the qualification created for schools overseas – at the same time has soared 10-fold in just 12 months.

In 2012, some 5,700 pupils took GCSE and IGCSE exams in maths at the same time – up from just 600 a year earlier.

For English, numbers soared from 300 to 4,000 over the same period.

The DfE report warned that “continually sitting examinations” was harmful to children’s education and had serious “consequences for pupils’ progression to A-level and beyond”.

In an alarming conclusion, it emerged that 400 pupils took maths exams at least seven times in 2012 – a four-fold rise in 12 months.

The DfE insisted it was reforming school league tables and moving towards end-of-course exams to crack down on the practice.

But a spokesman said: "We are increasingly concerned about this. The evidence shows that entering exams early, and then re-sitting, or sitting another exam in the same subject, is not good for pupils.

"The changes we have made to GCSEs and reforms to the accountability system will help address this. We are considering further action to discourage this practice."

The cross-party Commons Education Select Committee published a report last year that criticised the extent to which the exams system skewed pupils’ education.

As part of the report, MPs asked the DfE to investigate the problem of multiple exam entry and what action was needed to limit the practice.

This week, officials published new research into the issue.

It emerged that seven per cent of pupils sat GCSEs in English more than once in 2012, down from 25 per cent a year earlier. But in maths, numbers were as high as 41 per cent, compared with just 28 per cent a year earlier.

Some 4,500 pupils sat maths exams five times in 2012, up from just 800 in 2011. A further 400 took exams in the subject at least seven times – a significant increase on the 100 pupils doing so a year earlier.

The DfE report found that many cases involved children who took “different specifications” – test papers in the same subject drawn up by competing exam boards.

“Of the 63,800 pupils who took mathematics three times in 2012, 50,000 – 78 per cent – included more than one specification in their entries,” the study said.

“The use of multiple specifications in mathematics in 2012 represented a significant increase when compared to 2011 [when it accounted for only 14 per cent]”.


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