Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Ivy league reality

Below is just one excerpt from a very comprehensive article by Steven Pinker

Like many observers of American universities, I used to believe the following story. Once upon a time Harvard was a finishing school for the plutocracy, where preppies and Kennedy scions earned gentleman’s Cs while playing football, singing in choral groups, and male-bonding at final clubs, while the blackballed Jews at CCNY founded left-wing magazines and slogged away in labs that prepared them for their Nobel prizes in science. Then came Sputnik, the '60s, and the decline of genteel racism and anti-Semitism, and Harvard had to retool itself as a meritocracy, whose best-and-brightest gifts to America would include recombinant DNA, Wall Street quants, The Simpsons, Facebook, and the masthead of The New Republic.

This story has a grain of truth in it: Hoxby has documented that the academic standards for admission to elite universities have risen over the decades. But entrenched cultures die hard, and the ghost of Oliver Barrett IV still haunts every segment of the Harvard pipeline.

At the admissions end, it’s common knowledge that Harvard selects at most 10 percent (some say 5 percent) of its students on the basis of academic merit. At an orientation session for new faculty, we were told that Harvard “wants to train the future leaders of the world, not the future academics of the world,” and that “We want to read about our student in Newsweek 20 years hence” (prompting the woman next to me to mutter, “Like the Unabomer”). The rest are selected “holistically,” based also on participation in athletics, the arts, charity, activism, travel, and, we inferred (Not in front of the children!), race, donations, and legacy status (since anything can be hidden behind the holistic fig leaf).

The lucky students who squeeze through this murky bottleneck find themselves in an institution that is single-mindedly and expensively dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. It has an astonishing library system that pays through the nose for rare manuscripts, obscure tomes, and extortionately priced journals; exotic laboratories at the frontiers of neuroscience, regenerative medicine, cosmology, and other thrilling pursuits; and a professoriate with erudition in an astonishing range of topics, including many celebrity teachers and academic rock stars. The benefits of matching this intellectual empyrean with the world’s smartest students are obvious. So why should an ability to play the bassoon or chuck a lacrosse ball be given any weight in the selection process?

The answer, ironically enough, makes the admissocrats and Deresiewicz strange bedfellows: the fear of selecting a class of zombies, sheep, and grinds. But as with much in the Ivies’ admission policies, little thought has given to the consequences of acting on this assumption. Jerome Karabel has unearthed a damning paper trail showing that in the first half of the twentieth century, holistic admissions were explicitly engineered to cap the number of Jewish students. Ron Unz, in an exposé even more scathing than Deresiewicz’s, has assembled impressive circumstantial evidence that the same thing is happening today with Asians.

Just as troublingly, why are elite universities, of all institutions, perpetuating the destructive stereotype that smart people are one-dimensional dweebs? It would be an occasion for hilarity if anyone suggested that Harvard pick its graduate students, faculty, or president for their prowess in athletics or music, yet these people are certainly no shallower than our undergraduates. In any case, the stereotype is provably false. Camilla Benbow and David Lubinski have tracked a large sample of precocious teenagers identified solely by high performance on the SAT, and found that when they grew up, they not only excelled in academia, technology, medicine, and business, but won outsize recognition for their novels, plays, poems, paintings, sculptures, and productions in dance, music, and theater. A comparison to a Harvard freshman class would be like a match between the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals.

What about the rationalization that charitable extracurricular activities teach kids important lessons of moral engagement? There are reasons to be skeptical. A skilled professional I know had to turn down an important freelance assignment because of a recurring commitment to chauffeur her son to a resumé-building “social action” assignment required by his high school. This involved driving the boy for 45 minutes to a community center, cooling her heels while he sorted used clothing for charity, and driving him back—forgoing income which, judiciously donated, could have fed, clothed, and inoculated an African village. The dubious “lessons” of this forced labor as an overqualified ragpicker are that children are entitled to treat their mothers’ time as worth nothing, that you can make the world a better place by destroying economic value, and that the moral worth of an action should be measured by the conspicuousness of the sacrifice rather than the gain to the beneficiary.

Knowing how our students are selected, I should not have been surprised when I discovered how they treat their educational windfall once they get here. A few weeks into every semester, I face a lecture hall that is half-empty, despite the fact that I am repeatedly voted a Harvard Yearbook Favorite Professor, that the lectures are not video-recorded, and that they are the only source of certain material that will be on the exam. I don’t take it personally; it’s common knowledge that Harvard students stay away from lectures in droves, burning a fifty-dollar bill from their parents’ wallets every time they do. Obviously they’re not slackers; the reason is that they are crazy-busy. Since they’re not punching a clock at Safeway or picking up kids at day-care, what could they be doing that is more important than learning in class? The answer is that they are consumed by the same kinds of extracurricular activities that got them here in the first place.

Some of these activities, like writing for the campus newspaper, are clearly educational, but most would be classified in any other setting as recreation: sports, dance, improv comedy, and music, music, music (many students perform in more than one ensemble). The commitments can be draconian: a member of the crew might pull an oar four hours a day, seven days a week, and musical ensembles can be just as demanding. Many students have told me that the camaraderie, teamwork, and sense of accomplishment made these activities their most important experiences at Harvard. But it’s not clear why they could not have had the same experiences at Tailgate State, or, for that matter, the local YMCA, opening up places for less “well-rounded” students who could take better advantage of the libraries, labs, and lectures.

The anti-intellectualism of Ivy League undergraduate education is by no means indigenous to the student culture. It’s reinforced by the administration, which treats academics as just one option in the college activity list. Though students are flooded with hortatory messages from deans and counselors, “Don’t cut class” is not among them, and professors are commonly discouraged from getting in the way of the students’ fun. Deans have asked me not to schedule a midterm on a big party day, and to make it easy for students to sell their textbooks before the ink is dry on their final exams. A failing grade is like a death sentence: just the first step in a mandatory appeal process.

It’s not that students are unconditionally pampered. They may be disciplined by an administrative board with medieval standards of jurisprudence, pressured to sign a kindness pledge suitable for kindergarten, muzzled by speech codes that would not pass the giggle test if challenged on First Amendment grounds, and publicly shamed for private emails that express controversial opinions. The common denominator (belying any hope that an elite university education helps students develop a self) is that they are not treated as competent grown-ups, starting with the first law of adulthood: first attend to your priorities, then you get to play.


New York Rallies Against Common Core

New York is a deep blue state but having a liberal voter base is not translating into automatic support for Common Core.

In fact, the political momentum in the Empire State is rapidly shifting against the education standards.

The growing resistance to Common Core in New York was summarized by Slate’s political reporter David Weigel after he analyzed a recent Siena poll:

    In a very short time, opposition to Common Core has evolved from a fringe Republican position that blue-staters laugh at to a position that clearly wins out in blue New York. When independents break against something by a 14-point margin, politicians generally look awkwardly for the escape hatches.

The Siena poll found 60 percent of conservatives, 53 percent of Independents, and 40 percent of Democrats support stopping the implementation of Common Core standards.

The poll results reflect the growing rage against Common Core from disparate ideological groups ranging from the Tea Party to teachers.

The right is opposed to one size fits all and the command and control approach to education and some teacher union members are outraged over the overbearing testing requirements, as well as the revenue generating motive for the companies that cash-in on student testing.

Last month, a group of members with the New York State United Teachers Union protested at the State Education Department building in Albany, New York, about the huge profits generated by Common Core testing company Pearson PLC. According to The Times Union, Pearson has a $33 million contract from the state for testing and teacher training.

Most important, supporting Common Core is becoming a political liability as the education standards are now part of the state’s governor race.

Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) is facing a long shot primary challenge from Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout. Among other issues, the extremely progressive Teachout is promising to “…slam the brakes on the barrage of high-stakes testing” that is central to Common Core.

Republican challenger Rob Astorino is promising to end Common Core. In an extremely creative effort, Astorino led a successful strategy that got thousands of petition signatures to add ”Stop Common Core” as a third party line to November’s ballot.

If approved by state election officials, the "Stop Common Core" ballot line would allow Astorino to get Independents and Democrats to vote for him without voting “Republican.”

Facing increasing pressure over Common Core, Cuomo has criticized the testing and he supported a delay in using the test results to evaluate students and teachers.

The fact that Common Core is under pressure in liberal New York shows the momentum is growing to stop Common Core.


British secondary schools 'may be forced to segregate pupils by ability'

Secondary schools could be forced to set pupils by ability under controversial plans being considered by the Conservatives.

New rules may be introduced that would prevent state schools in England running mixed-ability lessons as part of the 2015 Tory general election manifesto.

According to reports, the policy could be implemented by overhauling the Ofsted inspection system, with schools unable to win “outstanding” status without separating pupils by ability.

It is not clear whether the reforms would be applied to all subjects or just the core disciplines such as English and maths.

The Telegraph was told that the idea was under consideration by the Tories but was at an early stage with nothing decided.

But Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, personally distanced herself from the plans, saying in the Commons that there was "absolutely no truth" in the "rumours". She insisted political opponents had a “rather unhealthy interest sometimes in speculating about what I am or am not about to announce”.

Speaking later, she said: “It is not something I am looking at.”

The Liberal Democrats also insisted it would not become Coalition government policy.

Setting involves placing pupils into a number of ability groups for different lessons – allowing them to move up and down levels as they progress. It is seen as more acceptable than streaming where children remain in the same band for all classes.

The proposed policy – which would affect almost 3,500 schools – follows warnings from Ofsted last year that bright children were often failed in mixed-ability lessons, receiving “mediocre” and “insufficiently challenging” work.

Figures from the watchdog suggest at least a third of schools currently use mixed-ability groups for the majority of lessons aimed at 11- to 14-year-olds, while others employ them for some subjects.

Supporters of setting claim that it allows the brightest children to progress at their own pace while allowing those at the bottom of the ability range to get specialist help to catch up.

But the proposed reforms have prompted a furious backlash from teachers who claimed they threatened to undermine schools’ autonomy.

There are also concerns that setting hits pupils from poor backgrounds who are more likely to be consigned to lower groupings.

The Department for Education refused to comment on the proposals today but it is believed that the plan has been considered by the Conservatives in the run up to next year's election. The 2010 manifesto also said schools would be encouraged to set by ability.

No further announcement on the reforms will be made this week. Sources also denied the involvement of Ofsted was under active consideration.

Addressing the Commons, Mrs Morgan said: “There are some people outside this House who have a rather unhealthy interest sometimes in speculating about what I am or am not about to announce.

"Frankly, I think they would be better served if they spent less time on Twitter and talking to journalists and more time reflecting on the importance of the policies and the reforms that have already been implemented by this government."

A source close to David Laws, the Lib Dem Schools Minister, said: “This has not been agreed with the Liberal Democrats and is not government policy.

“We don’t believe it would be appropriate to tie schools hands in this way. There is nothing wrong with setting per se, but in an autonomous system schools should be judged on their pupils’ outcomes not on how they organise themselves.”

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “If Nicky Morgan is committed to closing the gap for disadvantaged children the last thing she should do is to divide children into ability sets and to use Ofsted to enforce this.

“This is educationally unjustifiable."

Brian Lightman, head of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We cannot agree with this... If schools are already achieving high standards within a mixed ability context, it is surely wrong to make them change because of a political whim.”

Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, said it represented an attempt to “place a cap on aspiration and confine some children to a second rate education”.

“We thought there was political consensus on the importance of school autonomy,” he said. “It is worrying to see an Education Secretary two months in the job thinking she knows best how every school should teach every subject.”

Setting has long been a supported by both Labour and the Conservatives.

While in Opposition in 2006, David Cameron called for a “grammar stream” in every school to give the brightest pupils extra help.

But politicians have so far refrained from making the system a compulsory requirement in schools, with a number of research projects casting serious doubts over the system.

One study by the government-funded Education Endowment Foundation found that "ability grouping appears to benefit higher-attaining pupils and be detrimental to the learning of mid-range and lower-attaining learners”.

Another report commissioned by the DfE showed that setting in maths had a negative effect on results and motivation levels.

However, other research has appeared to back the system. A study published two years ago by the Royal Economic Society showed that a higher proportion of “low-achieving pupils” in each class had a “negative and significant effect on the academic achievements of regular pupils” because they monopolised teachers’ attention.


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