Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Aiming High

Mona Charen

There's an MRCTV video circulating on the Internet that features a man with a microphone asking college students in Washington, D.C., to name just one member of the United States Senate. At least half a dozen are stumped. When he asks how many senators each state has, the same crew is equally flummoxed. One hundred percent of the students could name the hit song from the movie "Frozen," though.

These surveys about how ignorant Americans are have become hardy perennials. Survey data confirm that large numbers of Americans lack even rudimentary knowledge of what used to be called "eighth-grade civics." A survey by Common Core found that 25 percent of American high school students thought Christopher Columbus sailed after the year 1750, and about a third of them did not know the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of speech and religion.

We can all have a good laugh at the expense of the ignorant kids, but, of course, if they are truly undereducated (and these surveys can exaggerate), it's largely the fault of our schools.

It's nice to be reminded, from time to time, about what good schools and good teachers can achieve.

In McLean, Va., a suburb of the District of Columbia, Langley High School has for the past 22 years conducted a program called "Case Day." The brainchild of teacher Steven Catlett and former clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court General William Suter, Case Day involves the entire school (but most intensively the seniors in government class) in studying a pending Supreme Court case. Government teachers Allison Cohen and Micah Herzig, both former lawyers, try to choose cases that will engage teenagers. In past years, students have argued District of Columbia v. Heller (the gun control challenge), Morse v. Frederick (the "bong hits for Jesus" case), and Grutter v. Bollinger (an affirmative action question).

Four students were assigned to argue the cases before a panel of nine "justices," which included two students and also law professors, practicing lawyers and members of the school board. Suter played the role of chief justice.

This year's oral argument was Riley v. California, a Fourth Amendment case contesting the police search of a cellphone. The students familiarized themselves with a dozen or so Supreme Court precedents. As one explained, "We were told that in six weeks we were going to get a crash course in college, law school, and 20 years of practice." All agreed that studying the precedents changed their initial impression of the proper outcome of the case. They were also unanimous in saying that they now hope to be lawyers -- with their teacher acknowledging a little sheepishly that she may have conveyed the misimpression that law school is fun.

Before the drama of the mock oral argument, guest speakers elucidated the issues by offering some context on common law privacy, search-and-seizure cases and the facts of Riley v. California. Then, as the robed justices entered the chamber (well, school library), all rose. A student clerk intoned the "oyez," saying, "All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting ... "

Sparks flew! The arguments featured exactly the sort of thrust and parry that characterizes the actual Supreme Court. Student advocates were challenged by justices attempting to probe the weaknesses of their arguments (while much of the school watched on monitors). Grace Sununu and Anna Cox, representing Riley, were asked why the digital contents of a phone deserve any different consideration from ordinary papers that the court has held may be searched incident to arrest. Was it the sheer amount of data? What if someone were carrying a paper diary with tiny printing? Of William Miner and Ben Parker, appearing for California, it was demanded, "Suppose someone is arrested for jaywalking? Does that mean their entire private life (which can be accessed on a cellphone) is open to search?"

Though they could scarcely complete a full sentence without being interrupted, the students dropped case names and legal doctrines with impressive poise and confidence. The student justices (Natalie Fahlberg and Myunghoon Kim) drilled their colleagues mercilessly.

The Langley court ruled 5-4 in favor of Riley. That other court a few miles east will hear oral argument in the case on April 29, when the six students who participated will sit in the audience as the guests of Justice Antonin Scalia, a loyal supporter of Case Day.

This is not a high-tech, expensive program. Any school with good teachers and access to a library could do it -- and should. It's amazing what students are capable of, when asked.


CA: Schoolkids compare MLK to Mumia Abu-Jamal

A lesson plan asking students to draw parallels between late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal is an “absolute disgrace,” the widow of the fallen officer told

Maureen Faulkner, whose husband Daniel was gunned down in Philadelphia on Dec. 9, 1981, said the latest effort to glorify Abu-Jamal’s past using a lesson plan posted on the Oakland (Calif.) Unified School District’s website is akin to advocating violence to young students.

“It’s a travesty,” Faulkner told by phone early Thursday. “You’re going to teach children about a man who murdered a police officer? That’s not a good lesson to be teaching children. He was a radical, a militant. My question is: Are our tax dollars paying for this?”

The lesson plan, which was authored by teacher Craig Gordon for 11th-graders  within the 37,000-student district, suggests to “critically examine a possible parallel” between King and “someone else many believe is currently targeted by the U.S. government, Mumia Abu-Jamal.”

It also asks students to consider the following statement: “The media, prison system and law enforcement organizations have censored Mumia Abu-Jamal. On one hand, there have been occasional stories in print and broadcast media about Mumia Abu-Jamal. On the other, despite the widespread support for Abu-Jamal that has made his case the most renown and controversial of death penalty cases in the world today, these stories are extremely rare and always refer to him as a ‘convicted cop-killer.’”

Despite Abu-Jamal’s “prolific writings” in several books, none of his work can be found in mainstream media, according to the lesson plan.

“My first take on this was: There’s a lot more educational things you could be teaching children about than a cold-blooded murderer,” Faulkner told “It’s an absolute disgrace that they’re trying to make any comparison.”

Faulkner noted that Abu-Jamal — a former Black Panther who has garnered worldwide support by some who believe he was victimized by a biased judicial system — will turn 60 later this month while imprisoned in Pennsylvania. Faulkner's late husband, however, won’t be so fortunate.

“What about my husband’s 60th birthday? He’s been in the ground for the past 32 years,” Faulkner said. “My husband has missed 32 birthdays, 32 Christmases and 32 anniversaries. It’s an abomination.”

Troy Flint, director of public relations for the Oakland Unified School District, said the lesson plan is no longer part of the district's curriculum and was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

"The fact that a website documenting Urban Dreams remains accessible is an oversight related to technology management; it does not speak to current instructional practice in OUSD," Flint wrote in an e-mail. "To avoid any confusion in the future, we will conduct an inventory of the numerous websites created to support learning districtwide to ensure they conform with our present academic philosophy and do not inadvertently misrepresent Oakland schools."

Some academics contacted by, however, said King and Abu-Jamal are “fundamentally similar” since both have committed their lives to challenging systemic racism in the United States.

Mark Lewis Taylor, a professor of theology and culture at the Princeton Theological Seminary and a longtime Mumia supporter, identified two major differences between Abu-Jamal and King, saying the former radio journalist has worked more obviously than the assassinated civil rights leader within an “international framework of justice struggle.”

Abu-Jamal, according to Taylor, also worked more than King to “mobilize grassroots organizations” and movements. King had a tendency, Taylor said, to privilege black church organizations and, at times, espouse a certain sense of black middle-class advantage and leadership.

“But what King and Abu-Jamal shared should not be overlooked,” Taylor wrote in an email. “One shouldn’t juxtapose a respectable ‘cuddly’ Martin Luther King over and against a more radical and supposedly ‘villainous’ Abu-Jamal — as the media hype often has it when they relentlessly misrepresent him as a ‘cop-killer.’ In fact, authorities have had the wrong man on death row and in prison these 32 years, not the man who actually shot Officer Faulkner.”

In 2011, Philadelphia’s district attorney announced that prosecutors would no longer pursue the death penalty against Abu-Jamal. Instead, he will spend the rest of his life in prison for killing Faulkner, a 25-year-old patrolman who scuffled with Abu-Jamal’s brother during an early morning traffic stop. Abu-Jamal, whose real name is Wesley Cook, was wounded by a round from Faulkner’s gun and a .38-caliber revolver registered to Abu-Jamal was found at the scene with five spent shell casings, according to trial testimony.

In 1995, Abu-Jamal authored “Live From Death Row” and has been the subject of numerous documentaries and books. The onetime journalist has also enjoyed support from, among others, actor Tim Robbins and from as far away as France, where a street bears his name in a Paris suburb.

Most recently, Abu-Jamal appeared in national headlines in February when his link to President Obama's nominee for a top Justice Department post, Debo Adegbile, was revealed. Adegbile faced criticism for his role in getting Abu-Jamal's death sentence overturned during his time as acting director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Adebile's confirmation was blocked in early March.

King’s niece, Alveda, said she wasn’t very familiar with Abu-Jamal’s case, but said any comparison to her uncle should begin with a thorough understanding of his nonviolent philosophy.

“Students should be required to know Martin Luther King, Jr., before comparing anyone to him,” she told by phone. “I believe that law enforcement officials, those who find themselves at odds with the law, and anyone who has a conflict for any reason would be best served by embracing the nonviolent philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr.”


Universities are not Walmart

Just recently, the e-zine ran a piece bearing the provocative title, “The Walmart-ization of higher education: How young professors are getting screwed.” It wins my prize for the most bizarre think-piece of the year.

The author, Keith Hoeller, considers the move in higher education to replace tenure-track professors with lowly adjuncts. To him, this is apparently as shocking as it is surprising.

He begins by noting that various surveys of workers show that tenured professors are a pretty happy bunch. They average over $90,000 a year in total compensation, for only nine months work, and they report low levels of job stress, high levels of job satisfaction, and so on. This is hardly a surprise. Getting tenure means never having to hear “you’re fired.” Tenured professors are virtually immune from termination, no matter how poor their job performance.

The first strange thing about Hoeller’s article is that it isn’t reporting anything new. The shift from highly-paid tenured professors to lowly-paid adjuncts has been going on for decades. The article’s deeper flaw its author’s use of Walmart as a slur.

Yes, Walmart uses a lot of part-time labor, as do most other retail and service industries. (The frequency of part-time work is increasing rapidly as the full implementation of that crazy-quilt law called ObamaCare grows nigh). But the resemblance ends there. Walmart, so despised by bien pensant literati, has succeeded in lowering its prices dramatically, on a vast array of consumer goods, and has done so since its inception. Walmart saves the average American family — all American families, including those of elitists who refuse to shop there — something like $2,300 per year. Its costcutting measures, including of course labor-saving measures — which go way beyond using part-time labor — have benefitted all consumers with lower prices and better goods, and Walmart investors with a good return on their money.

In stark contrast, colleges have systematically screwed their consumers and investors. Consider first the consumers, i.e. students. During the past few decades, they have seen their tuition rise much faster than inflation — while the service rendered has steadily deteriorated. The deterioration takes the form of watered-down courses, degrees in vacuous subjects, and rampant grade inflation. Over the past decade in particular, students have had to run up huge amounts of loan debt getting degrees that have proven worthless in terms of career placement.

The investors in these colleges, the taxpayers (for public schools) and the donors (for private ones), who have seen graduation rates dwindle and the employability of recent college grads — only 56% of whom are in jobs appropriate to their training — plummet, are also being swindled.

The Hoeller piece doesn’t address the damning context of the increased use of academic part-timers: the fact that such savings in labor costs have not even slowed the explosion of costs to the students, and the fact that the services rendered have dropped in quality. The proximate cause is, of course, administrative bloat.

Bloat is the focus of a recent article by Jon Marcus of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. Marcus reviews a report from the Delta Cost Project (also reviewed by the Chronicle of Higher Education) on the rapid growth in college administrative staff. Marcus reports that the growth in the number of college administrators has greatly exceeded the growth in both the number of students and the number of faculty. Over the past 25 years, colleges and universities have increased the number of their administrative staff by 517,636. During that time, the ratio of nonacademic employees to faculty has doubled. We now see two non-academics for every tenure-track or tenured professor at public universities, and a ratio of two and a half to one at private colleges.

Growth in this area is especially strong at the central offices of public college and university systems. For example, the headquarters of the California State University system has a separate budget that exceeds the budget of three of its campuses!

Marcus cites economist Robert Martin making the point that so eluded Hoeller: “While the rest of the economy was shrinking overhead, higher education was investing heavily in more overhead.” Walmart, Target, Costco and so on continue to deliver more for less, while the higher education system business only continues to deliver less for more.

Marcus notes that in constant dollars, tuition and fees have nearly doubled at private four-colleges, and nearly tripled at public four-year colleges, over the last quarter-century. And during this period, the ratio of part-time to full-time faculty has gone from about one-third to about one-half.

Naturally, administrators have a reply: they claim they are delivering more value to the consumers (students) and principals (taxpayers and donors) by creating and expanding offices for security, counseling, technology services, “sustainability,” disabled student services, and especially “diversity.” But skeptics rightly reply that these services don’t seem to have resulted in objectively measurable favorable outcomes. For example, over the past decade, Marcus notes, the percentage of students pursuing bachelor’s degrees — which can be completed in four years — and actually getting their degrees within six years has risen only slightly (from 55% in 2002 to 58% in 2012).

And several economists cited in Marcus’ piece made the obvious point that universities, to the extent they even need many of these services, could easily outsource them. As Robert Martin put it, “You can hire outside firms, on a contract basis, with competitive bidding. All these activities are a distraction from what the institution is supposed to be doing.”

What is causing the exploitation of adjuncts and the explosion in student fees is at base the same thing: a severe case of the principal-agent problem.

The managerial agents at American universities — the administrators — have achieved virtually total power over the institutions they manage, so much so that they view themselves as the true principals (owners). Of course, they’re not — the principals are the taxpayers, the donors, and the tuition-payers. But the administrators seldom see it that way.

Until this problem is solved, you can expect to see administrative bloat continue apace, enabled by the burgeoning ranks of the adjuncts — and by higher tuition, which is in turn fueled by the federal student loan program, a government program run amuck.

In fine, the American university system is as dissimilar to Walmart as you can get. Walmart has not been shafting its customers through management bloat, higher prices, poorer service, and lousier products, all fueled by massive federal subsidies. The American university system has.



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