Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Education: Debating the Scope of Federal Control

Technically it’s been dead since a Democrat Congress failed to reauthorize it in 2007, but the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has been a useful whipping boy for the Obama administration and Democrats ever since it replaced the old Great Society-era Elementary and Secondary School Act in 2001. An attempt to revamp it two years ago failed in Harry Reid’s Senate.

With the GOP takeover of Congress last year, conservatives were convinced that reforms were finally possible. Adding to their concerns was the Obama administration’s use of federal funding to bribe states to adopt unpopular Common Core standards as well as other federal encroachments on what used to be exclusively a state and local issue.

But as with most of the highly sought agenda items on the conservative platform, getting rid of the waste and duplicity within the Department of Education has run into roadblocks from both sides of the aisle.

While the House version, called the Student Success Act, is somewhat better than its NCLB predecessor, it still falls well short of the goals conservatives set. Explains Rep. John Kline (R-MN), who heads the House Committee on Education and the Workforce: “If we expect to really get rid of No Child Left Behind, that means what we pass has to be signed into law, and that means it has to be bipartisan.” However, the House bill won by a narrow 218-213 margin with nary a Democrat vote. Several more conservative amendments failed to make it into the House bill, leading some Republicans to reject the package.

On the Senate side, though, the NCLB re-authorization bill — which doesn’t have a fancy name — has what education unions term “a lot of things going for it.” As a stricter re-authorization, it better maintains the status quo — although it’s certain that Democrats will demonize the legislation should it miraculously win approval from the House. Barack Obama has already pledged a veto of either bill unless accountability standards for failing schools are enhanced.

Again, though, Republicans seem to have the impression that they must do something, lest they be accused of doing nothing. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) declared, “We want the president’s signature. We want to fix No Child Left Behind, not just make a political statement.” Alexander chairs the Senate committee working on the bill and is negotiating with Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) on something both sides can support. Getting the Democrats on board means discarding common-sense reforms, like allowing states more latitude in setting standards and granting Title I funding portability, which would allow low-income parents more choice in which public or charter school their child can attend. Murray deemed the latter provision a “non-starter.”

With both bills facing an uncertain future, it seems the status quo will continue for at least another two years. And while several GOP presidential candidates have vowed to dismantle the Department of Education — which hasn’t educated a single child since its inception in 1980 under Jimmy Carter — the process won’t occur unless Republicans secure a filibuster-proof Senate majority.

No one said returning the federal government to its constitutionally authorized role in education — which is to say no role whatsoever — is going to be easy. But it’s a worthwhile endeavor, and one that really is for the children.


Senate Democrats Move to Fund Universal Pre-Kindergarten

A Democratic senator has introduced an amendment to a rewritten version of the No Child Left Behind Act that would fund universal pre-kindergarten.

According to Sen. Bob Casey’s office, the amendment, the Strong Start for America’s Children Act of 2015, would fund universal pre-kindergarten by “ending the corporate inversions tax loophole.”

Under the legislation, companies would need to be 50 percent foreign-owned rather than the current 20 percent in order “to escape U.S. tax jurisdiction.”

“Investing in pre-k is good for our nation’s children and for our nation’s economy,” Casey, D-Pa., said in a statement:

“One of the best steps we can take in the long run to boost wages is to invest in early learning so that every child has a fair shot to achieve his or her dreams. The research into the benefits of early learning is overwhelming. If children learn more early in life they earn more later in life. This amendment is an opportunity to invest in our children and the long-term foundation of our economy while ending an egregious tax loophole that both parties agree needs to go.”

Lindsey Burke, an education expert at The Heritage Foundation, argues that “an expansion of preschool subsidies or programs as part of a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would further entangle Washington in the education and care of the youngest Americans.”

“Moreover, data on child care use in the United States show that between two-thirds and three-fourths of 4-year-old children are already enrolled in some form of preschool, suggesting that a new federal subsidy would simply offset the costs for middle-income and upper-income families,” Burke said.

According to a press release from Casey’s office, the senator has introduced a universal pre-kindergarten bill in each Congress since 2008.


No, science doesn’t have a ‘woman problem’

The seemingly interminable dissection of Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt’s remarks about women scientists falling in love and crying in labs raises important questions about academic freedom, women in the workplace, and the influence of Twittermob feminism. Does academic freedom permit scholars to speak beyond their own narrow areas of expertise? Weren’t Hunt’s comments simply a bad joke, and shouldn’t he be judged on his academic record, rather than his sense of humour? Given he met his wife, the leading immunologist Professor Mary Collins, in a lab, is there some truth in his statement?

A growing band of Nobel Prize winners and high-profile scientists, including Richard Dawkins and Brian Cox, has come out in support of Hunt and publicly criticised University College London (UCL) for putting him under pressure to resign his honorary professorship. In turn, this group has been sneeringly written off as a bunch of ‘privileged men’. The lecturer and self-proclaimed award-winning broadcaster, Connie St Louis, who revealed Hunt’s faux pas to the world, has had her own credentials exposed as bearing only a vague resemblance to reality. Meanwhile, Channel 4 newsreader Cathy Newman quickly defended St Louis from this ‘right-wing smear campaign’.

Despite the discussion generating more heat than light so far, there is one point on which nearly everyone seems to agree: science has a problem with women. It was science’s presumed inability to recruit and retain women, and the supposedly precarious employment and promotion prospects of female scientists, that provoked the initial outrage around Hunt’s off-the-cuff remark. In a public statement, the provost of UCL, Professor Michael Arthur, justified his acceptance of Hunt’s resignation and revealingly declared, ‘Equality and diversity is not just an aspiration at UCL, but informs our everyday thinking and our actions. It was for this very reason that Sir Tim’s remarks struck such a discordant note. Our ambition is to create a working environment in which women feel supported and valued at work.’ In other words, one of the greatest academic institutions in the world now considers the promotion of equality to be more important than the pursuit of knowledge, and prompting the resignation of eminent scientists to be legitimate if it might make women feel more valued.

The assumption that promoting gender equality should be a major concern for university science departments is reflected in the considerable amounts of institutional time and money spent on promoting initiatives such as Athena SWAN and Women in Science and Engineering (WISE). WISE is a longstanding campaign which aims to ‘inspire girls and women to study and build careers in science, technology, engineering and manufacturing’. The Athena SWAN award was established in 2005 by the largely government-funded Equality Challenge Unit. Universities that can demonstrate they have met ‘10 principles that focus on the advancement of gender equality in academia, addressing unequal gender representation across academic disciplines, professional and support functions and removing the obstacles faced by women in particular, at major points of career development and progression’ are awarded a coveted Athena SWAN award.

The achievement of such awards is vitally important to universities because many major grant-funding bodies now only give money to chartered institutions. Indeed, UCL’s short statement about Tim Hunt noted: ‘We have adopted the Athena SWAN methodology widely across the institution and have now achieved more Athena SWAN silver awards than any other university, and have just submitted our application for an institutional silver award.’ Athena SWAN is considered so ideologically central to the promotion of gender equality and pragmatically vital for maintaining institutional revenue streams that it is rarely criticised. But it is disastrous for universities to attach such high stakes to gender-equality awards. Time and money that should be spent on medical research, technological advance and the pursuit of pure knowledge is instead channelled into form-filling and box-ticking. Appointments are made and resources invested with gender balance and team diversity, rather than intellectual gains, in mind. Furthermore, such awards seem to be a solution in search of a problem.

In reality, women have made huge strides in science in recent decades. Today, girls aged 16, outperform boys in all the major science examinations. Aged 18, boys perform marginally better (under one per cent) at maths and chemistry, but girls do better in further maths, biology, computer science and physics. It is at university that women students appear to reject some science subjects. In physics and electrical engineering, women comprise under 20 per cent of students. However, across a broader sweep of subjects, the difference is less stark: roughly 55 per cent of science students studying for a first degree are men, 45 per cent are women. Even this statistic understates the impact women have had on university science, as it does not include the two most competitive science subjects: in subjects allied to medicine and veterinary science, women comprise over 75 per cent of students.

This growth in the number of women taking science subjects at university is beginning to have an impact on the labour market. By 2017, it is predicted that more doctors will be women than men, and there are already substantially more female vets. Women are clearly not put off studying science or entering some scientific careers. It is lab-based research jobs that women are choosing not to pursue, and the proportion of female doctors who choose general practice rather than surgery provides a good indication as to why this should be the case. Careers in scientific research and medical surgery demand long and unpredictable hours. Such commitment might be fine when women are young, but when they begin thinking about having children they are presented with difficult choices. Although angry Twitter feminists might not like it, many women opt for careers in science that are also compatible with family life.

Ironically, in all the recent outrage, it has emerged that Sir Tim Hunt ‘fought for seven years to have creche facilities at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology – and was ultimately successful’. He says he will continue to push for a creche at the new Francis Crick Institute in London. The handful of journalists who ruthlessly and gleefully exposed Hunt’s slip-up to the world have done women no favours whatsoever. Instead of asking why combining work and parenthood can still be difficult for women today, and tackling the issue as Hunt has, they are demanding that the workplace be increasingly regulated. They want academic freedom to be curtailed and scholars to be judged, not on their work and intellectual contribution to science, but on whether or not they hold the attitudes and values that a small and self-appointed group of Twitter busybodies deem to be correct. While dressed up as a feminist crusade, the increased regulation and constant self-monitoring such twitch-hunts instigate are actually eroding the camaraderie and intellectual collaboration that make working far more exciting than being at home with a baby.


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