Sunday, July 20, 2014

What does FFUC stand for?

Fossil Free UC is a group that wants UC to divest its endowment fund of fossil fuel investments. Ophir Bruck from the group sent me this article to explain his group’s thinking. The author explains that fossil fuel investments aren’t really money makers in the long haul, so there’s no real sacrifice from staying out of that market.

Nice try, but the real reason that students are pushing UC to divest in fossil fuels is apparent: UC is an easy target. UC will not fight back. The worst thing that could happen to these activists is that administrators will pat them on the head and praise them for caring so much.

The worst outcome for students, however, would be less money for the endowment. Past disinvestment decisions — for tobacco and Sudan– have cost the endowment $471 million and $6 million respectively.

After my Sunday column appeared, I received this email from Daniel J.B. Mitchell, Professor-Emeritus of the UCLA Anderson Graduate School of Management and UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

    "Actually, UC Academic Senate members who have looked at this matter are not keen on divestment, in part because if applied to the pension fund, it might worsen the underfunding problem.  (The anti-fossil fuel group has amended its proposal to exclude the pension – for now – as a result.  But there is no guarantee it wouldn’t be included at some later date.  Note that if excluded, UC could sell its fossil fuel holdings to the pension and technically meet the demands of the divestment folks.)  The fossil fuel divestment push is also potentially entangled with proposals for anti-Israel divestment, something the regents won’t go for."

One final note: I try not to over-use the word “hypocrisy” in my column. Everyone with standards is a hypocrite about something.

But also, the anger people feel toward hypocrisy often looks silly next to the offense to which it is attached. As the late Washington Post editorial page editor Meg Greenfield once said, if a politician murdered his mother, the media’s first response  likely would be “not that it was a terrible thing to do, but rather that in a statement made six years before, he had gone on record as being opposed to matricide.”

With that caveat, liberal plutocrat Tom Steyer is a hypocrite. He made a fortune in part by investing in fossil fuels. You can read about his Australian and Indonesian coal investments in the New York Times here. The Washington Post writes about his investments in tar sands and coal  here. His opposition to the Keystone pipeline notwithstanding, you can read about his ties to an oil sands pipeline to Canada in this Reuters story.

Now Steyer’s pressuring universities to not make money the way he made it.

I understand how UC lefties believe that disinvestment makes sense. But Tom Steyer didn’t try it until he was a billionaire. Why would anyone heed his “moral” teachings?


British education boss should read this (plagiarised) letter – and then fire the headteacher who wrote it

A headteacher of a primary school in Lancashire has been widely praised on Twitter for a letter she sent home to children, with lots of people suggesting that the letter should be the first thing Nicky Morgan reads in her new capacity as the Secretary of State for Education.

I agree with this sentiment. Nicky Morgan should read this. It will give her a good idea of just how much more work there is to do when it comes to improving England's state schools.

The first thing to note is that the KS2 results which the letter is referring to – the Sats results passed on to local authorities and which are included in the school league tables – are comprised of two components: teacher assessments and standardised tests.

Consequently, it's not true to say the people who "score" the children don't know them. When it comes to reading, writing and speaking and listening, for instance, the pupils are scored by their classroom teachers. Almost everything the letter says in the second paragraph is therefore complete guff.

But let's give the author of the letter – Rachael Tomlinson, the headteacher of Barrowford Primary School – the benefit of the doubt. Let's assume she's just referring to the small handful of Key Stage 2 results that are externally assessed. The letter seems to be addressed to those children who did poorly in those tests and offers them a number of excuses. You may not have done well in the externally-marked tests, she's saying, but, hey, it doesn't really matter, because you can "dance or paint a picture" and "your laughter can brighten the dreariest day".

The assumption the headteacher is making here is that these children will feel bad about not doing well and she's providing them with reasons why they shouldn't. But the reasons she gives are all bogus. Yes, they shouldn't feel bad about their poor test results, but not because they do other things well – such as laughing. Rather, it's because the fault lies with the school. As countless high-performing primary schools across the country have demonstrated, it's possible for all children to do well in the externally assessed Key Stage 2 tests, regardless of the challenges they face when they arrive in Reception. Yes, Ms Tomlinson, even those who speak two languages. If the teachers at Barrowford Primary School really know the pupils as well as the headteacher claims, then the school has no excuse for poor Key Stage 2 test results.

The third thing to note about this letter are the final words: "… there are many ways of being smart." Well, yes, maybe, but they certainly don't include things like being someone your friends can rely on or being able to take care of a little brother or enjoying "spending time with special family members and friends". Those are all admirable qualities, but they're not evidence of intelligence. Ms Tomlinson seems to be redefining the word "smart" here to denote almost any human trait – even the ability to travel from A to B – in order to give false comfort to those children at her school who've under-performed in the externally moderated tests. Is that really a useful lesson? That if a child performs badly in a test, they should tell themselves it doesn't matter because they already possess the quality the test was trying to measure in abundance and the reason they can tell themselves that is because it's perfectly all right for them to define that quality to mean absolutely anything whatsoever?

There may be "many ways of being smart" but the fact is that sixth forms and universities tend to measure smartness in the same way that these tests do and teaching children that such measures are unimportant will mean they're less likely to get into them. That won't have much of an impact on middle-class children – the children of parents who profess to be "touched" and "moved" by sentiments like this, but, in reality, make damn sure their little darlings know how important test results are – but it will have an impact on children from under-privileged backgrounds. If their teachers tell them that being able to "wonder about the future" is achievement enough, and they don't have to worry about learning to read, write or do maths, they're unlikely to be able to compete with their middle-class peers.

The fourth thing to note about this letter – and you've probably spotted it by now – is the use of the word "neat" as a synonym for "great". Why is a headteacher at a school in Lancashire using this Americanism? The answer, it turns out, is because she copied it – virtually word for word – from a letter sent to students at an American elementary school last year. Here is the text of that letter, taken from the blog of Diane Ravitch, an American education reformer:

    "We are concerned that these tests do not always assess all of what it is that make each of you special and unique. The people who create these tests and score them do not know each of you– the way your teachers do, the way I hope to, and certainly not the way your families do. They do not know that many of you speak two languages. They do not know that you can play a musical instrument or that you can dance or paint a picture. They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them or that your laughter can brighten the dreariest day. They do not know that you write poetry or songs, play or participate in sports, wonder about the future, or that sometimes you take care of your little brother or sister after school. They do not know that you have traveled to a really neat place or that you know how to tell a great story or that you really love spending time with special family members and friends. They do not know that you can be trustworthy, kind or thoughtful, and that you try, every day, to be your very best… the scores you get will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything. There are many ways of being smart."

Now, Ms Tomlinson has subsequently admitted she copied the letter – "Mrs Tomlinson said she found the letter on a blog from the US posted on the internet," reports the BBC – but she certainly didn't say that in the original letter home to parents. On the contrary, she tried to pass the letter off as all her own work. That's appalling on numerous levels. It's plagiarism, to begin with, and that's bad enough. But, worse, all the qualities Ms Tomlinson identifies as belonging to the children in her school – because she and her teachers "know" them so well, unlike those heartless external examiners – don't, in fact, belong to them at all. They belong to the children at an American elementary school.

The thrust of the letter is that all children are unique, and therefore can't be properly measured by a standardised test. It's the age old romantic objection to tests of any kind – boiler-plate anti-intellectual mumbo jumbo. But Ms Tomlinson clearly doesn't have much faith in this progressive shibboleth if she thinks the children at her primary school in Lancashire are completely interchangeable with children over 3,000 miles away. Not quite so unique after all.

Yes, Nicky Morgan, you should read this letter – and then encourage the local education authority in Lancashire to sack Ms Tomlinson. She doesn't have any confidence in externally-moderated Key Stage 2 tests. She thinks if children don't do well in them it's their fault, not hers. She's encouraging practices at her school that will entrench inequality. And she's a plagiarist.


OK: Supreme Court upholds Common Core repeal

The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the Legislature had the authority to repeal Common Core education standards for English and math in the state's public schools.

The state's highest court took the action a little more than four hours after attorneys presented oral arguments in a lawsuit that challenged the Legislature's action.

The lawsuit alleged lawmakers violated the state Board of Education's constitutional authority over the "supervision of instruction in the public schools" when they repealed Common Core standards earlier this year. But the Supreme Court's 8-1 decision said the Legislature's action was not unconstitutional.

The case was argued about a month before public school students across the state are scheduled to return to classrooms. The standards were scheduled to go into effect in the upcoming school year.

Attorney Robert McCampbell, who represents parents, teachers and four members of the seven-member Oklahoma Board of Education in the lawsuit, said he was "disappointed with the result" but respected the court's decision. McCampbell said he was not surprised the court ruled so quickly.

"We had asked for it to be placed on the expedited docket and they granted that request," he said.

House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, said he was pleased with the decision. The legislation that repealed the standards also instructed the board to revert to educational standards in place before June 2010 and develop new state educational standards by 2016.

"I look forward to the adoption of new standards for education in Oklahoma which will challenge our students and prepare them for the future," Hickman said.

During oral arguments, McCampbell argued the Legislature's repeal of Common Core was unconstitutional and represented and "unprecedented expansion" of its powers.

"Supervision of instruction is vested in the Board of Education," McCampbell said.

Solicitor General Patrick Wyrick argued that the Legislature, which in 2010 instructed the board to adopt Common Core instructional standards also adopted by more than 40 other states, has supreme authority to pass laws and that public school education standards are subject to legislative review.

"This court has always held that rulemaking is a legislative function," Wyrick said.

The legislation that repealed Common Core standards for English and math did not include standards for science and social studies. Other states that have repealed or formally withdrawn from Common Core standards are Indiana and South Carolina.

Conservative groups maintained that the standards represented federal intrusion into Oklahoma's public education system, and Gov. Mary Fallin signed into law legislation repealing the standards last month. Some Common Core standards have expressed concern that Oklahoma students will fall behind those in other states because of their repeal.

McCampbell said the Legislature has broad authority to set education policy in the state. But the Board of Education, not lawmakers, should decide what math problems are taught in public schools and whether the Gettysburg Address should be taught in the 10th grade or the 11th grade, he said.

"They are reaching into the classroom," McCampbell said. "That's supervision of instruction in the public schools."

But some parents and teachers who were present for the oral arguments expressed support for repeal of the Common Core standards.

Nikki Fate, who attended the hearing with her 7- and 9-year-old daughters, said she believes Common Core standards are developmentally inappropriate.

"It is cognitive abuse on our children," Fate said. "They're learning way too much at a fast pace and their brains aren't developed for it."


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