Sunday, October 12, 2014

The great credential race

One of the most deplorable features of modern  education is the great credentials race.  Competition for the best jobs has led to job applicants trying to trump one another by offering higher and higher levels of education.  The end result is that many jobs which were once perfectly well-handled by people with just high school -- or even grade school -- education now require a college degree and may even require graduate qualifications.  This has become hugely expensive for students in both time and money, with no clear benefit to the community.

Teaching is a prime example.  Grade school and even high school teachers used to became competent in teaching simply by doing an apprenticeship.  No college work at all was required.  They learned on the job.  And standards were high then.  Some of the exam papers from that era would stump most graduates today.

As the credential race went on, however, the requirements stiffened.  A degree of some kind became the norm for teachers.  And that stiffened again when the degree was expected to be in the  field that was going to be taught.

I was a teacher in that era so it is not as long ago as you might think.  I had a degree majoring in psychology but with some qualifications in economics also.  So I was hired to teach economics in a Catholic girl's school.  That was a time when Catholic schools still had nuns and the nuns concerned were very dedicated and very competent.  My students got exceptional results in their final high school exams so there was no deficiency in my teaching.

But I had NO teaching qualifications.  I did not do one minute of teacher training.  Already in government schools at the time a one-year teaching diploma was required for appointment as a teacher.  And even one-year diplomas are normally now old hat -- with four-year qualifications being required.  For what gain?  None that I can see.

And the push for mass acquisition of degrees has had a most pernicious effect on High School standards.  Because everyone now has to have the opportunity of getting a degree, High School standards have been dumbed down to the lowest common denominator.  If the old standards had been retained, only a small minority of students would have graduated from High School with the passes required for university entry.  So we now have dumbed-down high school courses providing entry to dumbed down degrees.  And we even have now the phenomenon of people with doctorates being unemployable.  So the credential race has now reached a pinnacle of absurdity.

Let me close by telling what a junior High School education was like in the 50s, when I was at school.  We of course got a grounding in Latin, physics, chemistry, history and geography -- and a modern language such as French or German.  And even at the primary school level we learnt grammar and parsing as part of our English studies.

And in High School English we even tackled Chaucer -- to my great delight.  Chaucer of course wrote in Middle English, not readily  understandable to those who know only modern English.  Chaucer wrote in the language of London 600 years ago and reading his wonderful Canterbury Tales gives a great insight into an era that was very civilized -- and even cynical -- but greatly different from our own.  Losing Chaucer has been a very great loss indeed

And where did I get this wonderful education?  In some great private school?  Not at all.  It was in a government school in an obscure Australian country town.  But even government schools in those days took the great British private schools -- such as Eton -- as their model.  How times have changed!  People in those days wanted the highest possible standards for their children's education.  They probably still do but they don't get anything like it now.

Toughening up of entry requirements for Oxbridge

Students will be required to score two elite A* grades to get on to sought-after courses at Oxford and Cambridge this year amid mounting competition for places.

Just days before the deadline to apply for 2015, it was revealed that almost half of degrees at Cambridge and three at Oxford will require two A*s and an A as a minimum entry requirement.

The move will affect all science, maths and medicine courses at Cambridge for the first time in the largest wholesale reform of entrance thresholds at the institution for five years.

Admissions experts said move reflected the sheer level of competition to get into Britain’s top two universities in recent years. This summer, a record 34,000 students applied for around 6,400 Oxbridge places.

Entry grades are increasingly seen as an initial entry requirement, with both universities making extensive use of interviews and admissions tests to screen candidates.

Oxford, in particular, uses subject-specific aptitude tests to dictate entry to degrees, with more than three-quarters of courses requiring a written exam, including classics, geography, history, law, maths, medicine, modern languages and philosophy, politics and economics (PPE).

The university said the system was employed because more than a third of students now applied holding qualifications other than A-levels and tests were needed to accurately compare candidates.

Lucinda Fraser, managing director of the consultants Oxbridge Applications, said: “Many straight A students miss out every year on the interview because they don’t realise how important the admissions test is, do not prepare for it as well as their counterparts, and fall down on timing or unfamiliarity with the questions.”

She added: “We’ve had students with 13 A*s at GCSE and a full complement of A*s at A-level who don’t get beyond the admissions test.”

Applications for Oxford and Cambridge – and most medicine, dentistry and veterinary science courses at other universities – must be made by 6pm next Wednesday.

For the first time, Cambridge will ask students to gain at least A*A*A in their sixth-form exams to get places on science-related courses. The change will cover biology, chemistry, physics, medicine, veterinary medicine, maths, computer science, genetics, psychology, zoology and engineering. Psychological and behavioural sciences will remain as an A*AA course alongside all arts degrees.

Oxford is demanding A*A*A for three courses – maths, maths and philosophy and maths and statistics. Most other science courses require one A* but the elite grade is not employed in the arts.

It represents the first wholesale increase of entry requirements at Cambridge since the A* grade was first awarded in the summer of 2010 to mark out the brightest students. Previously, the university’s standard offer was A*AA.

To receive the grade, students must score at least 90 per cent on papers in the second year of their A-level course.

The university instead the change did not “raise the bar” for students because more than nine-in-10 successful science applicants already achieved A*A*A or better. On average, most students who gain places apply with three A*s, it emerged.

"The university believes that the revised offer gives applicants a clearer indication of the level of attainment realistically required to compete for a place, and to thrive on science courses,” the university said.

On its website, one Cambridge college – Churchill – said it normally asked for four A-levels, including two A*s, as a requirement to study law. It also said that “virtually everyone admitted during the last decade” had gained at least nine A*s at GCSE.

A spokesman for Oxford said: “Any decision to change conditional offer requirements is up to individual subjects, who carefully consider the impact such a change might have on the admissions process.

“Oxford University also uses subject-specific aptitude tests as a fair way of benchmarking the subject aptitude of all candidates, whether they take A levels or not.”

Both universities are also making extensive use of entrance tests this year, although no new exams have been imposed for the first time.

Some Cambridge colleges require students to sit a “thinking skills assessment” in computer science, economics, engineering, social and political sciences, land economy and natural sciences.

All medicine and dentistry students take the Bio-Medical Admissions Test (BMAT) and law students take the Cambridge Law Test.

Some 36 out of 46 courses at Oxford require an entrance exam

Entrance exams are seen as an attempt to create a more equal playing field between candidates, particularly among those applying with different sixth-form qualifications.

But research suggests pupils from private schools are more likely to perform well in tests. A survey by Oxbridge Applications found that 66 per cent of independently-educated students were coached for tests in 2013 compared with just 36 per cent from the state system.


Schools Ban Swings Because Everything Is Dangerous

Schools in Richland, Washington, are phasing out playground swing sets. Swings are blamed for the most injuries of any play equipment.

Richland School District already removed them from some campuses and will phase them out of the rest.

"As schools get modernized or renovated or as we're doing work on the playground equipment, we'll take out the swings, it's just really a safety issue, swings have been determined to be the most unsafe of all the playground equipment on a playground," said Richland School District's Steve Aagard.

Before your head explodes, remember that the school district has some very compelling argu... oh wait. It doesn't. Of course some kids get hit by swings and of course there are some injuries—even awful ones—but that does not automatically mean we must ban swings. If it did, we would have to ban all solid food because some kids choke. We would have to ban all bikes because some kids wipe out and hurt themselves. We would have to chop down all of America's trees as well—at least in parks and playgrounds—because some children climb them and fall off.

The school district says "pressure from insurance companies over the liability is part of the issue." The only sane thing to do is push back. Heck, most insurance companies would like to keep children seatbelted to their chairs and strapped to blood pressure cuffs, just in case of any heart conditions. Can't be too careful!

In any case, schools that eviscerate their playgrounds are actually putting their kids at risk—just a different kind of risk. Think obesity. Depression. Diabetes. One thing we know that combats all three is playing outdoors: an activity that has included swinging since Tarzan's time.

Insurance agents look at life through the lens of risk. Nothing looks safe to them. But there's no reason for the rest of us to think like Allstate. Citizens of Richland: Unite! You've nothing to lose but your chains (with swings at the bottom of them).


Middle Schoolers Bored by Common Core’s One-Size-Fits-All Approach

Seventh grader Kayla Gillman loves math. She doesn’t love Common Core math.

Thanks to Common Core, her Sacramento, Calif., middle school, Turlock Junior High, only offers one one math course for seventh grade students and one math class for eighth grade students.

Gillman says it’s not challenging enough, and parents are requesting additional classes that allow children to learn at different levels.  “When has a one-size-fits-all approach ever worked?” parent Jennifer Carlsen told Turlock City News.

Another parent and former math teacher, Marie Guerrero, started a petition on for an additional math class. She’s worried the students who excel at math will lose interest if they aren’t challenged.  “It didn’t seem right,” Guerrero told CBS Sacramento, “because I know that kids are at all different levels in math, especially by the time they get to middle school.”

According to CBS, Turlock Unified School District will continue to implement the Common Core math classes until they have substantial data to plan differently. 


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