Monday, July 13, 2015

Sucking the life out of the academy

The British government’s latest plans for the future of higher education were revealed last week when the newly appointed universities minister made his first speech. Jo Johnson, the less famous brother of London mayor Boris, wants ‘Teaching at the heart of the system’. Johnson minor is not proposing to replicate the elite academic education he benefitted from while at Eton and Oxford. There are no plans to extend access to the ivory towers, the pursuit of knowledge and learning for its own sake to everyone who wants it. Instead, today’s universities are to continue down the intellectually impoverished path they have been treading for at least the past two decades, through a focus on social engineering, training people up for work and ensuring the student-customers get value for money.

Johnson wants universities to renew their focus on widening participation in order to meet the prime minister’s commitment to ‘double the proportion of disadvantaged young people entering higher education by 2020’. While the aim of removing ‘barriers to ambition’ sounds laudable, it’s worth asking exactly what problem is being addressed here. Despite predictions to the contrary, since the introduction of £9,000-per-year tuition fees in 2012, there has been no drop in demand for university places. In fact, the number of students, including those from the most socially disadvantaged backgrounds, has continued to climb. Latest figures show that over 90 per cent of pupils who leave school aged 18 with high A-level scores go on to higher education irrespective of their social-class background.

There are, of course, still inequalities – not all children benefit from an education likely to lead to top exam results and not all those with high marks enter the best universities. However, a crude attempt to drive up the numbers of ‘disadvantaged’ students, irrespective of their prior attainment or their personal choices, is a demand that universities positively discriminate by offering lower-entry criteria to certain applicants. This reinforces the perception that universities are political rather than educational projects, more concerned with social engineering than scholarship.

Whatever their social circumstances, students who have not proven themselves able to work at a high academic level are less likely to be capable of pursuing knowledge independently of their lecturers. Johnson proposes remedying this by putting greater emphasis on teaching in universities. He wants to establish a ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ in order to incentivise universities to devote more time and attention to the quality of teaching. But a university is not a school: students should not require pedagogic tricks to keep them entertained and engaged. Instead, they need access to knowledge, the scholars immersed in and enthused by this knowledge, and the people who are working at the cutting edge of research in specific disciplines. The government’s focus on teaching in universities and its determination to push change through with a crude audit mechanism reveal a complete lack of understanding of the significance of subject knowledge to higher education.

Finally, Johnson has proposed a greater emphasis on ensuring universities offer students and taxpayers value for money. He cites the recent Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and Higher Education Academy 2015 Student Academic Experience Survey, which showed that only around half of students felt their course had provided good value for money. But measuring value for money in relation to education is inherently problematic. Learning is not a tangible product that can be weighed, measured and compared prior to purchase. Each student will take something different from the same educational experience and what that is depends on their interest, prior knowledge and determination to learn.

Johnson’s plan is to use graduate earnings as a crude measure of the value of a degree and to frame such data in league tables that will influence the choices of future applicants and drive the logic of market forces into higher education. The only problem with this is that, in reality, there is little connection between teaching quality, degree classification and earnings. A degree is a ‘positional good’, its value depends on its scarcity. As Johnson notes, ‘between 2006 and 2015, the graduate-earnings premium decreased from around 55 per cent higher to around 45 per cent higher than the earnings of non-graduates’. In other words, as the number of graduates increases, the wages they command drops. A determination to push through a rankings mechanism based on graduate earnings would mean higher education becoming more focused on preparing students for work through teaching generic employability skills.

At the start of his speech last week, Johnson applauded British universities for being among the best in the world. ‘At the root of that success’, he noted, ‘is the autonomy and academic freedom that enables us to attract brilliant people to work in and run our universities and lead our sectoral bodies’. Yet his every proposal runs counter to ensuring the continuation of this autonomy and academic freedom. In the same way as the Research Excellence Framework has degraded genuine scholarship, the planned Teaching Excellence Framework will exacerbate the micromanagement of academics and replace any remaining desire to promote a love of knowledge with a mind-numbing focus on tick-box tricks to promote the future employability of the student-customers.


The Need for Accountability in Education Policy

Education Secretary Arne Duncan doesn't obey the law... because he doesn't have to

Accountability is one of those words that seems to crop up again and again in education policy. Everybody seems to agree that more accountability is a good thing, but as usual, it’s easy for people with different interpretations of the same word to talk past each other.

The accountability I want to talk about isn’t student accountability - a phrase that is typically used as code for “more testing.” Instead, I’m interested in accountability to the people making education policy, a group that has emerged largely unscathed from their numerous collective blunders.

In a recent report, the Pioneer Institute pointed out that the PARCC standardized tests - you know, the ones that states are abandoning like rats fleeing a ship - are funded by a conditional grant that requires fifteen states to participate. Currently, only seven states and the District of Columbia are using PARCC, and many of those are only barely using it.

In a sane world, this would result in the loss of PARCC’s grant. However, as anyone who spends any time politics will no doubt have guessed by now, the funding continues unabated, to the tune of $186 million. The rules are there, but without consequences for breaking them, they might as well not be.

This kind of thing is a systematic problem with the Department of Education. The laws meant to rein in the agency’s power are not enforced and even if someone wanted to enforce them, it’s unclear what kind of penalties these violations carry. Case in point, the provision in the U.S. code relating to federal education standards and curricula.

Title 20, Section 7371 of the U.S. Code states that officers of the federal government or forbidden “to mandate, direct, or control a State, local educational agency, or school’s specific instructional content, academic achievement standards and assessments, curriculum, or program of instruction, as a condition of eligibility to receive funds under this chapter.”

That seems pretty clear, but we know that Education Secretary Arne Duncan has not allowed this to stop him from threatening to pull funding from states that ditch Common Core. Since the law doesn’t stipulate what happens to a Secretary who disobeys it, nothing happens at all, and the prohibition has no teeth.

This is one of the main concerns about current efforts at federal education reform. The anti-Common Core language is being strengthened, but the continued absence of a clear enforcement mechanism calls into question whether these reforms will actually have any meaningful effect. Until the government is actually willing to hold itself accountable for the laws it passes, real progress on reform is going to be slow going.


How We Can Stop the Expansion of the Federal Government Into Our Classrooms

Innovation starts locally—not in Washington.  Yet, over the past few years, we have witnessed the unprecedented expansion of the federal government into our classrooms.

Decades of regulations, mandates and rules have been piling up on our educators, but failing to improve our students’ education.

Congress is set to reconsider, and potentially reauthorize, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

This law outlines federal programs for K-12 education and was last reauthorized in 2002 as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which further expanded Washington’s intrusion in our schools by creating new federal mandates.

No Child Left Behind also expired in 2007.

This means the Obama administration has been able to operate without certain limitations and has strong-armed states into complying with its liberal education agenda.

Thankfully, we have the opportunity to get Uncle Sam out of the business of micromanaging our schools from the top-down and return control to our local families, educators and officials.

This week in the House, my colleagues and I are revisiting the way Washington approaches our K-12 federal education policy with consideration of H.R. 5, the Student Success Act.

This bill repeals and reforms many failed education policies like the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) mandate, but I challenge that we can do even better for our children and future generations.

Conservatives have the largest majority in Congress that we have had in years, and we have a real opportunity to stand against Washington’s culture of bureaucracy and make a difference in our federal approach to education—let’s ensure we truly return education decisions back to the local-level.

We all agree that local communities—and ultimately parents—are best equipped to meet the unique needs of each student. Accordingly, they should be able to decide how best to utilize federal funding.

This is why I introduced the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success (A-PLUS) amendment to the Student Success Act with Rep. Ron DeSantis (FL-06). The A-PLUS amendment would give states maximum flexibility by allowing them to opt-out of federal mandates and programs while retaining federal funding.

We can strengthen the Student Success Act’s goal of removing the federal government from our classrooms with this simple, common sense policy change.

States and taxpayers should be able to keep their dollars, opt-out of federal education programs without repercussion and focus on the needs of their students and communities.

Greater flexibility will yield greater accountability. A-PLUS would truly restore local control of education.

The status quo is failing our children and we need to ensure each child has access to a quality education and the opportunity to achieve their dreams.

Increasing local control of education and empowering parents and children through school choice initiatives is how we break these patterns and foster innovation in our school systems.

A-PLUS would restore state and local control of education and put parents, teachers and school leaders back in the driver’s seat.


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