Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Loophole That Could Liberate Maryland From Common Core Testing

As millions of students across the nation begin taking Common Core-aligned standardized tests for the first time, Maryland finds itself in a unique position to opt-out.

A loophole discovered by a state lawmaker gives the governor the power to withdraw Maryland from tests created by Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), which are designed to assess how well students are learning under the Common Core standards.

“It’s important for Maryland because the PARCC assessments and the consortium already—in its very short life—has shown clear evidence that it was poorly developed, poorly managed, and crammed down the throats of the states,” said David Vogt III, a Republican member of the state assembly.

The loophole grants the newly elected governor, Republican Larry Hogan, the authority to either recommit or remove Maryland from the PARCC exams within the first five months of holding office.

Maryland’s legislature remains Democratically controlled.

Vogt is rallying a coalition of parents, educators, and administrators to pressure Hogan to pull the state out of PARCC.

“[PARCC’s] not only unconstitutional, but it’s a hindrance to the education system of Maryland,” Vogt said. “Education was built to be a state-managed and operated function and the governor exercising his authority here will put it back in the state of Maryland’s hands.”

The timing of the discovery is significant, because Maryland, along with a number of other states, is officially administering the new Common Core-aligned tests for the very first time, despite protests that have sparked across the nation.

Tony Piacente, the father of an 8th grader who goes to school in Mechanicsville, Md., told The Daily Signal that he’s been battling St. Mary’s County and the State Department of Education for over six weeks trying to refuse his son’s participation in PARCC.

“They are trying to bully me into submission,” he said. “I get contradictory statements from both places and they still have yet to provide me the law or regulation that states my child must participate in the PARCC to graduate.”

Piacente said he opposes PARCC because, “The prep time and test time takes away over 30 plus hours of quality instructional time for students, kids are tested enough in class, and it places undue stress and pressure on kids of all age groups.”

Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Lillian Lowery yesterday spoke out in support of the PARCC assessment, calling it “a tremendous opportunity to gain more insights than ever before into how our students are progressing, and identify where we can all do better.”

But Vogt believes he can garner enough momentum through grassroots organizations to pressure the governor to pull out of the tests.

“It’s fairly uniform across the board [that] everybody’s concerned about the testing problems,” he said. “I’ve had phone calls and letters and emails come in — from parents and teachers who are in the public school system, to members of local school boards across the state.”

Without the PARCC exams, teachers would still be required to follow the Common Core curriculum.

Common Core proponents argue that PARCC and similar assessments are the best way for the federal government to ensure that states are faithfully implementing the standards.

Maryland, along with 45 other states, adopted the Common Core standards in 2010 as a way to ensure that kids are college and career ready, and to track student success in a way that’s comparable state-by-state.

Critics say the exams are too rigorous and detract from local and state control of the classroom. They also argue that states were incentivized by the Obama administration to adopt Common Core and its affiliated exams with $4.35 billion in Race to the Top grants and waivers from the No Child Left Behind law.

Maryland received a four-year, $250 million federal grant for fully implementing the standards by the 2014-2015 academic year.

State lawmakers will formally challenge Common Core this week, when they consider a number of proposals that intend to slow down or halt the process of implementing the standards.

A spokeswoman for Hogan told The Daily Signal that the governor is still deciding what to do about the PARCC tests.

“The governor has major concerns about ‘one-size fits-all’ standards like Common Core and PARCC, and he will be exploring ways to improve or remove them during his term,” Erin Montgomery, the spokeswoman, said.


Fees, philistinism and the future of Higher Education in Britain

The tuition fees debate shows how philistine leaders have become

The UK Labour Party put an end to speculation last week and confirmed its much-touted plan to win over the British electorate. The big, bold move, designed to seduce the undecided, inspire the disillusioned, and convince virgin-voters, is to cut university tuition fees by £3,000 per year. Party leader Ed Miliband appeared in awe of his own ambition as he announced the proposal - his grand rhetoric of promises, faith and change only being undercut by the reality of a plan which amounts to a few graduates potentially having a few quid extra at some point in the future.

Many commentators have been quick to point out the flaws in Miliband’s pledge. When it comes to loans, it’s what you have to pay back that matters, and that’s only partly determined by the amount you borrow: interest rates and the duration of the loan can count for far more. Graduates who go on to earn little will never hit the repayment threshold; however much their loans total is immaterial.

Even with Labour’s proposed price cut, the majority of graduates will continue paying for their ‘student experience’ throughout their working lives. Only those few who leave university for a highly paid job and pay their loans back extra quickly will gain from a cut in the ticket price. School-leavers have done this maths for themselves and have calculated that taking out a loan on the never-never is worth it. Despite much scaremongering, the 2012 leap in tuition fees heralded neither a collapse in student numbers overall, nor a fall in applicants from the poorest families: both have continued to climb.

Miliband has successfully prompted discussion, albeit a frustratingly narrow one, over the current arrangements for funding higher education. At present, almost half of all students will not pay back their loans, meaning government has had to set aside £2 billion this year to write-down unpaid debt. If this continues, £20 billion of student debt a year will be written off by 2048/49, making fees notionally paid by individuals more expensive to the taxpayer than if university was simply free at the point of entry.

There is clearly a need to talk about university funding, and a General Election provides a useful opportunity to do just that. But the current rhetorical bluster over trivial sums of money is a phoney debate played out to create a pretence of difference between the main political parties, while at the same time perpetuating all the same old assumptions that have driven higher-education policy for at least the past three decades.

Politicians of all persuasions seem incapable of moving beyond the philistinism that sees higher education as anything other than a crudely instrumental solution to a range of social and economic problems. The last Labour government, and Peter Mandelson in particular, began in earnest the presentation of education as an individual investment. Students were told to expect a financial return on fees paid (the ‘graduate premium’). University was not about the pursuit of knowledge or learning for its own sake: it was about picking up a few transferable skills that could be cashed in with the degree certificate.

Far from challenging this degraded view of higher education, the Tories’ David Willetts continued to run with the same script. He has gone so far as to suggest that universities whose students go on to better-paid jobs should be able to charge higher fees, thereby making explicit the crude (and in reality only tentative) link between learning and earning.

Last week, the current Conservative universities minister, Greg Clark, took this idea of a financial transaction to its logical conclusion and argued that for young people, going to university was worth it because graduates ‘only pay back the price of a posh cup of coffee each day’. Such political grandstanding over trivial amounts of money serves to degrade both higher education and politics.

Even in its own terms, the current discussion of student finance is limited: no one is pitching the state funding of universities against a completely free market. Despite the critics’ incessant cries of ‘neoliberalism’, today’s higher-education sector is heavily state-subsidised and state-regulated. Limiting financial discussions to comparatively mundane concerns, while taking big issues off the agenda, speaks to a contempt for the electorate and a fear that they might reach the wrong conclusions.

It seems that no prospective universities minister can conceive of engaging with the public over the fundamental question of what higher education should be for. Yet it’s only through debating this issue first and foremost that we can track backwards to ask who should go to university and who should pay.

Amid all the discussion about fee cuts and cups of coffee, the Office For Fair Access, which monitors university admissions (established by the last Labour government in 2004, since continued and supported by the current coalition government), sets universities the goal of doubling their intake of ‘poorer students’ to 40,000 in the next five years. The assumption that higher education is primarily an inclusion project concerned with promoting social mobility through credentialising employability skills is not questioned.

Current political debates that focus exclusively on price completely ignore the value of education. This unedifying spectacle sunk to its seediest nadir with Labour’s announcement that its cut in tuition fees would be funded through raiding pensions. As Tom Slater pointed out on spiked, this promotion of intergenerational conflict does young people themselves no favours.

Just as damaging is the harm such mercenary accounting does to education. As philosophers such as Hannah Arendt and Michael Oakeshott have suggested, education is indeed a contract between the generations; it’s about adults assuming sufficient responsibility for the world to want to pass on to young people their intellectual inheritance. That this vitally important intergenerational concern with knowledge can be so easily reduced to a financial transaction tells us everything we need to know about the philistinism of all involved in the education debate in the run-up to the election.


The nasty nonsense of Israel Apartheid Week

When I was a student there was a popular drinking game called Centurion. Each student taking part is given a shot glass and a sick bucket. The aim is to do one shot of beer per minute for 100 minutes, and the sick bucket is so you can carry on poisoning yourself as fast as your body can reject it.

Yes, students have long been masters of the stupid and pointless. But sadly, in recent years, this grand tradition has seeped beyond the realms of mild alcohol poisoning for self-amusement into the sphere of university politics.

A case in point came last week with the eleventh annual Israel Apartheid Week (IAW). According to the campaign’s website, the aim of IAW is: ‘To educate people about the nature of Israel as an apartheid system and to build Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns.’ What it amounts to on campus is pseudo-Israeli checkpoints, so-called apartheid walls and students wielding fake machine guns at each other. Leaflets on BDS are pushed on to all passing students and a steady stream of anti-Israel speakers and films is given priority in lecture halls and students’ union buildings all week.

It is stupid for many reasons, but the main one is that its premise is simply not true. Whatever you think of the way the Israeli government handles Gaza, Israel is not and never has been an apartheid state. In the upcoming Israeli election, the predominantly Arab party, the Joint Arab List, which includes Palestinian members, stands to win about 12 seats. To label the country an apartheid state does a great injustice to the decades of suffering of black South Africans under Afrikaner National Party rule.

But sadly this (literally) black-and-white thinking on Israel is now widespread among the anti-Israel brigade. It is, after all, much easier to get people onside if you can make them think a highly complex political situation is really just a case of goodies vs baddies. This kind of narrow-minded, one-sided debate is not worthy of the academic institutions in which it takes place, nor does it actually improve the situation for Palestinians. Do deluded IAW promoters really think that boycotting Sainsbury’s because it sells hummus will have any effect on what happens in Israel?

Just last week it was announced that more Israeli companies were listed on the London Stock Exchange in 2014 than of any other foreign country. The Israeli economy is certainly not feeling the BDS pinch.

But, of course, that is not the point. IAW is not about helping Palestinians, or achieving peace in the Middle East; it is about demonising Israel. And numerous campuses across the country are complicit in this.

Anti-Israel thinking on campus has become so prevalent that it is not even restricted to IAW. When the London School of Economics (LSE) invited Israeli ambassador Daniel Taub to speak at a public meeting, protesters blocked students from entering the event, and midway during the talk someone set off the fire alarm. Anti-Israel protesters are notorious for this kind of behaviour. Rather than posing questions and entering into free and open debates with pro-Israel speakers, they heckle, stage walkouts and pull stunts.

At the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), the students’ union has taken its anti-Israel agenda several steps further. To coincide with IAW, it held a school-wide ‘referendum’ for an academic boycott of Israel. The ‘Yes’ campaign was led by the SU chairs themselves, ensuring the alienation of Jewish and pro-Israel students alike – they were isolated by their own union representatives.

For that is the effect of stunts like IAW. By demonising Israel it also demonises people who disagree that Israel is an apartheid state. The message is: if you are pro-Israel you are pro-apartheid, therefore you are a bad person. It is sadly Jewish students who often bear the brunt of this over-simplification. They spend IAW ‘intimidated’, ‘uncomfortable’, and some even avoid going to class.

Ironically, it is often campuses with Safe Space policies, promising zero tolerance of harassment and intimidation, that choose to look the other way when it comes to IAW. A gross double standard is at play within UK students’ unions and student bodies when it comes to Israel. There is no special week on campus dedicated to condemning countries with atrocious human-rights records, like Saudi Arabia or Iran, and foreign students have not so far boycotted the UK for causing far more death and destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan than Israel ever has in Gaza. So why is Israel always singled out?

By promoting stunts like IAW, students are ignoring the grey areas and nuance of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is possible to be pro-Israel, but disagree with prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies, or be pro-Palestinian, but against BDS. There are plenty of people who support Israel’s right to exist and the Palestinians’ right to their own state, yet pro-Israel voices on campus are drowned out by accusations of apartheid and calls for BDS.

IAW promoters are shutting down open debate on Israel and Palestine by shoving their one-sided hyperbole down the throats of other students. Like Centurion, the best place for this poison is the sick bucket.


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