Monday, September 30, 2013

The College Board’s False Alarm about SAT Scores 

It’s time again for the yearly ritual: The College Board releases data on recent SAT scores, which show some large percentage of American students are not “college ready.” The alarm is sounded. Much hand-wringing follows. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The Atlantic has helped move things along this time with an article entitled “This Year’s SAT Scores Are Out, and They’re Grim.” The article warns, “For the fifth year in a row, fewer than half of SAT-takers received scores that qualified them as ‘college-ready.’”

Absent from the article is any discussion of what percentage of students should be college-ready. How can the results be “grim” without some a priori understanding of what constitutes success?

In reality, there is a substantial fraction of students for whom “college ready” is not an appropriate goal. The costly four-year-college track simply does not suit the interests and abilities of many young people who are pushed into it.

Rather than gnashing teeth about college readiness each year, a more productive activity would be to analyze the degree to which our school system is tailoring instruction to individual student needs. For example, is vocational training available to kids who want it? Are two-year technical degrees advertised properly? Are gifted students challenged enough? These are much more important topics than tabulating what percentage of students pass an arbitrary test-score threshold.

It would also be nice if more media outlets noted the College Board’s conflict of interest here. In releasing the data, the College Board issued a “call to action,” saying, “These scores can and must change — and the College Board feels a sense of responsibility to help make that happen.” And, coincidentally, ensuring these scores go up will require everyone to purchase College Board exams for years to come!

It gets worse. The College Board offers some speculative reasons about why some students are college-ready and others are not. One is that more college-ready students took the PSAT. (Guess who sells the PSAT.) Another is that college-ready students took more AP tests. (Guess who sells AP tests.) Still another is that more college-ready students completed a “core curriculum.” (Guess who will be selling tests based on the Common Core national standards.)

Ginning up alarm may be lucrative business, but education policy requires a more mature discourse.


Australia: New broom Pyne ready to reshape curriculum

Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne has warned he will take a much more hands-on approach to what is taught in the nation's schools, as he prepares to overhaul the government body in charge of the curriculum and NAPLAN tests.

In an ominous sign for the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, Mr Pyne vowed not to outsource his ministerial responsibilities and declared the agency was "not the final arbiter on everything that is good in education".

And Mr Pyne was not worried about sparking a fresh round of "history wars" by claiming the national curriculum favoured progressive causes, saying he did not mind if the left wanted to fight the Coalition on the topic.

"People need to understand that the government has changed in Canberra, that we're not simply administering the previous government's policies or views," Mr Pyne said.  "I know that the left will find that rather galling and, while we govern for everyone, there is a new management in town."

Mr Pyne signalled the interventionist approach in an interview in which he also failed to spell out a clear way forward on school funding.

The new system of needs-based funding is due to begin in most states in January, but it remains unclear how the Abbott government will treat cash-strapped Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory, the places that did not strike agreements with the Commonwealth before the election.

Pressed on the school funding issue, Mr Pyne repeatedly said Labor had "left us a mess" and he would consult with the states and territories on how "to fix that mess".

If the new government were to offer more favourable concessions to the hold-out jurisdictions it could open itself to demands by the early adopters - NSW, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT - to pass on the concessions.

NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli vowed to defend his state's rights, saying the agreement Premier Barry O'Farrell signed with then prime minister Julia Gillard in April ensured no state would receive a greater share of additional funding or more beneficial annual increases.

"We signed an agreement that had a 'no disadvantage' clause in it and that was signed with the Commonwealth government, not with the Labor Party," Mr Piccoli said. "Yes, we would seek to use that clause."

Mr Piccoli said he had not spoken to Mr Pyne since the election but was confident the new government would be much more co-operative than its Labor predecessor.

One of Mr Pyne's immediate priorities is to set up a ministerial advisory group to look at improving teacher training. He said universities should take a more practical approach to training teachers and focus less on theory so graduates left classroom-ready.

Mr Pyne also confirmed plans to reform one of the government's key education authorities by ensuring it was focused only on curriculum development.  ACARA now publishes the My School website, administers national literacy and numeracy tests known as NAPLAN and collects performance data.

Under Mr Pyne's plan all non-curriculum-related roles will move into the Department of Education, suggesting ACARA will relinquish much of its testing and ranking activities.

Mr Pyne said he had not yet started work on the agency's overhaul as it was not a priority, but the Coalition's election-eve costings document factored in $23 million in savings from ACARA's four-year budget, including $7 million this financial year.

Mr Pyne said the review of the national curriculum was needed to ensure "that it is achieving the outcomes that we believe it should be" and hinted he may not accept ACARA's advice.

"I don't believe in handing over responsibility for government policy to third parties," Mr Pyne said. "The Westminster system of government requires ministers to take a hands-on approach to matters within their portfolio.  "ACARA has an important role but ACARA is not the final arbiter on everything that is good in education."

Mr Pyne said the national history curriculum played down "the non-Labor side of our history" despite the Coalition governing for two-thirds of the past 60 years.

In a statement to Fairfax Media, ACARA - which has 117 full-time and 22 part-time staff - said the curriculum for English, mathematics, science, history and geography had been "signed off by all state and territory ministers".  It vowed to continue to perform its current roles, which had been agreed by a standing council of state, territory and federal education ministers.

"We will prepare advice for Minister Pyne on current activities as well as matters that have been raised in policy statements," it said.


The abolition of the U.S. playground

How both Federal and State Regulation Stifles Spontaneous Order and Play

The Bobcat tractor was working its way through a pile of mulch as big as an office building, dragging it from the alley to the playground of a private daycare facility. I asked the crew foreman about the sheer vastness of this mulch pile.

“It’s about the state regulations. There has to be 8 inches of this stuff underneath every play structure.”

“The State regulates even things like this?” I asked.

“The regulations on playgrounds are 15 miles long,” he said. “They mandate every fastener and bolt, the distance and height of every structure, and, especially, the drainage. Just getting the drainage right takes up most of the time and money.”

“But don’t these regulations inhibit others from opening daycare facilities?” I asked. “You would have to be super-well capitalized just to get one going.”

“I can tell you this. I would never do it.”

Hmm. Maybe stifling regulations partially account for the shortage of childcare facilities, the high prices of tuition to put your child in them, and the constant political pressure for the government to provide more preschool solutions for parents.

But where do these regulations come from? Of course the safety Nazis have never met a regulation they didn’t like, but I’m willing to bet they weren’t responsible for a regulatory panoply that extends way beyond safety concerns. The real origin of these regulations stems from the largest providers, who have every incentive to lock out new entrants and make sure every project they land is pricey.

The higher the barriers to entry, the easier life is for the established firms.

The whole scene confirmed all my worst fears. There should be something sacrosanct about the playground. It should be off limits to regimentation and central dictate. And yet the simplified federal manual about every aspect of the playground is 60 pages long, every paragraph presuming that without such guidelines the rest of us would be completely clueless and uncaring about the well-being of children.

Just think about it. Before the first guidelines were issued in 1981, playgrounds for the whole of human history existed in a state of terrifying anarchy. Since then, the federal government has been all over this sector of life. Each state has its own regulations, so they differ across state lines. In Alabama, wood chips are considered fine, but next door in Georgia, chips have to be made of rubber, so that they heat up like burning hot coals in the summer and ruin the playground experience for everyone.

Then, of course, there is the overriding hysteria over safety. A child has to be able to fling himself off the highest point straight to the ground and land as if on a giant bed of marshmallows. Here is a question you're not supposed to ask: If there is no real danger, how can kids really learn about safety? Do we really want kids to come to believe that there is no way you can ever hurt yourself, no matter what you do?

And there’s another complicating factor we aren’t supposed to think about: The safer the environment, the more reckless we are encouraged to be. Drive by any playground that offers those huge tubular structures over old-fashioned slides and monkey bars. What you do you see? Kids are dangerously perched atop the tubes, creating their own derring-do tricks so long as they are allowed to get away with it.

There’s another cost to all these regulations. They codify and ossify the playground, preventing innovation outside the rules. What kinds of play structures might exist if the regulations didn’t codify all existing reality? We’ll never know. Law, legislation, and regulations freeze creativity and innovation. They override entrepreneurship and discovery. They presume that the government has all the answers and there is nothing more to learn or try.

In a digital age in which most of us carry around a magic question-and-answer box in our pocket, consumer ratings of everything are inescapable, and innovation in things we use every day is a feature we’ve come to expect, such laws and regulations really amount to a ridiculous anachronism. How can far-distant bureaucrats know better than producers, owners, parents, insurers, and kids what achieves the right balance between fun and safety on the playground? That is really something the market should be left to discover.

What does a good playground have? Rules? Absolutely. But within those rules, there is freedom and choice about most everything else. That’s why the playground is a child’s delight.

In fact, have you thought of the kids’ playground as a metaphor and preparation for life itself? In the absence of the application of human energy, the structures sit there motionless, lifeless, and static. What makes them fun is the application of human action inspired by the creative imagination. When that element is added, the imagination takes over and you come to play in a world of your own making. The fun you have is human built, and it stems from the beautiful combination of the limitlessness of fantasy and the bounds of physical reality that are impossible to ignore.

Everyone knows that playgrounds are not fun if you are the only one there. A person sitting alone at a playground is a sad sight indeed, a scene you see in movies when a person is sulky or suicidal. No, the point of the playground is the teeming activity of many individuals that somehow emerges into a micro social order without direction from above. You play with others, each child contributing to the joy of every other child. You learn from others. You are inspired by others. You cooperate with others. And you compete with others.

Those who can’t do these things peacefully end up being shunned and lonely and are inspired to improve the next day. Those who do this well grow more popular and successful and are looked upon as leaders and emulated. And so evolves the social structure of the playground.

I’m guessing that you remember some playground experiences from your early years with greater poignancy than classroom time from those same years. Maybe they are bad memories from public school, where there were no owners to work toward the maximum value for everyone. But in a good private playground, with clear rules and maximum choice within the rules, you have an early experience of freedom itself.

On the playground, we were free. We made stuff up. We made our own decisions. We could excel in what we were great at and eschew what we were bad at. It’s the venue in which we really learned about ourselves and discovered the radical heterogeneity of the human population. It’s where we made and kept friends and discovered how to have disagreements that didn’t result in violence.

It really is preparation for real life in a free society. Consider the greatest innovations of our time. The smartphone, the world of computer games, the app economy, and even such technologies as oil fracking all result in the impulse to play and the trial-and-error process that is an inherent part of mixing imagination with the physical world. The bailouts, the welfare, the debt that government creates all stand in stark contrast, a huge pile of mulch under us that purports to cushion our fall but really only ends up robbing us of the sweet adventure of life itself.

Rules, yes, but local ones, private ones, adaptable ones. The new playground environment of centralized rules, public ownership, imposed safety, and regimentation abolishes all play. And in this, it too serves as a metaphor for life under all-around state control.


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