Tuesday, June 07, 2016

The knowledge economy is a myth. We don’t need more universities to feed it

Andre Spicer

Most new jobs now do not require degree-level qualifications. Encouraging more young people to graduate will create only debt and disappointment

Governments around the world believe that to remain competitive in a global economy they must become smarter. In an attempt to boost its knowledge intensiveness, the UK government has just launched a plan to overhaul the university sector. It aims to transform universities by creating many more of them. The hope is that this will increase the number of people with degrees, and the UK will be a more competitive economy.

The idea of the knowledge economy is appealing. The only problem is it is largely a myth. Developed western economies such as the UK and the US are not brimming with jobs that require degree-level qualifications. For every job as a skilled computer programmer, there are three jobs flipping burgers. The fastest-growing jobs are low-skilled repetitive ones in the service sector. One-third of the US labour market is made up of three types of work: office and administrative support, sales and food preparation.

The majority of jobs being created today do not require degree-level qualifications. In the US in 2010, 20% of jobs required a bachelor’s degree, 43% required a high-school education, and 26% did not even require that. Meanwhile, 40% of young people study for degrees. This means over half the people gaining degrees today will find themselves working in jobs that don’t require one.

This bleak picture could get worse. There has been a decline in demand for knowledge-intensive workers requiring a degree since 2000. Over 47% of existing jobs are under threat of being automated. The occupations most likely to be automated out of existence are knowledge-intensive ones such as auditor, insurance underwriter and credit analyst. Those least at risk of automation are hands-on jobs such as masseuse and fire fighter.

The stark mismatch between the number of people with degrees and the number of jobs requiring degrees has created a generation of bored employees who feel like they are working “bullshit jobs”. It’s no surprise 37% of UK employees think their jobs make no meaningful contribution to the world at all.

As people with degree-level education take lower-skilled jobs, the less educated are pushed further down the labour market. In some cases they are pushed out altogether. Often their only route back in is an expensive degree that will enable them to get a job that actually only requires a high-school level education to do. We might think that as the cost of higher education goes up, people will be put off studying. Not the case. Higher education is a luxury good: as the price goes up, demand does not decline. Two US economists found that as prices went up for university degrees, there was only a very small fall in demand. According to some calculations, the cost of a degree in the US has gone up 500% since 1985. Over the same timeframe, demand has continued to rise rapidly.

The huge increase in demand for education coupled with large price hikes has created massive income streams for universities. Most of this income has not gone towards teaching, research or engaging the wider public. Instead it has been spent on expanding administration. In the UK, more than two-thirds of universities now have more administrators than they do faculty members. Today, universities routinely invest in attractive buildings, launch impressive brand-building campaigns, employ armies of professional managers and create excellent gym and spa facilities. Meanwhile faculty staff report feeling like they are “being asked to do more with less”.

It’s uncertain whether universities are delivering on their core purpose. One recent study tracked thousands of students during their time at university. It uncovered a rather disturbing picture: after two years at university, 45% of the students showed no significant improvement in their cognitive skills. After four years, 36% of students had not improved in their ability to think and analyse problems. In some courses – such as business administration – students’ cognitive abilities actually declined in the first few years.

Expanding universities and encouraging increasing numbers of young people to study for degrees may not be the smartest thing to do. It means educating more people who aren’t that interested, for jobs that don’t exist, in a way that has little impact on their intellectual ability. These students will emerge from their few years of education saddled with tens of thousands of pounds of debt. Many will not be able to pay it off and that debt will become the responsibility of the taxpayer. The government’s plan of opening even more universities and offering ever more degrees could easily make matters worse. Attempts to create an intelligent economy could end up being a rather stupid idea.


Anti-Semitic incidents are soaring, group says

Reports of anti-Semitic incidents are soaring this year across New England, an increase fueled by vandalism, harassment, and other acts at schools and colleges, according to statistics released Wednesday by the Anti-Defamation League.

According to the ADL, there have already been 56 anti-Semitic acts in the region this year, nearly as many as for all of 2015, when 61 were reported.

The data alarmed Jewish clergy and academics, who said the incidents suggest a rising level of intolerance that may feed on the rhetoric from the contentious political season.

“Clearly, people are acting out on some long-held stereotypes and hatred toward Jews, and it’s designed to send a message of intimidation,” said Robert Trestan, director of the New England Regional Office of the ADL. “We’re increasingly living in an environment where incivility is becoming common and accepted practice.”

Massachusetts recorded the vast majority of the New England incidents this year, with 47 events. Schools have been hardest hit in the state, with incidents reported at 23 public and private schools and college campuses.

In Newton, hateful graffiti and a swastika were scrawled on school grounds earlier this year. At a basketball game in March, Catholic Memorial High School fans taunted Newton students with chants of “You killed Jesus.”

North of Boston, swastikas were recently painted at a Swampscott school, on Georgetown’s football field, and on a basketball court in Marblehead. Elsewhere, college students have seen swastikas at Brandeis University, and anti-Semitic fliers have been sent to students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Northeastern University.

In April, former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni was berated at Harvard and called “smelly” by a student at a lecture. In May, an 18-year-old Winthrop man broke into the town’s high school and drew swastikas in a classroom, according to published reports.

Also last month, a large dollar sign and the words “Merry Christmas” were painted on a synagogue in Beverly, and a swastika was discovered at a Andover synagogue.

Brandeis professor Jonathan Sarna said he believes a combination of social media, anti-Israel sentiment, and rhetoric from politicians has led to a sense of public acceptance of some anti-Semitism.

“There is a sense today that this kind of hatred is more acceptable and that the public square has become coarser than it had been in the past, and indeed, one senses that even in presidential politics that there is often a relationship,” Sarna said.

“We look to a candidate as role models. When they employ very coarse speech, and people take notice, it’s not a surprise that other folks do the same thing.’’

Amid the rise in incidents, clergy have strongly spoken out against hateful acts.

Rabbi Yossi Lipsker, who leads Chabad Lubavitch of the North Shore, helped organize an interfaith solidarity event near the Swampscott Town Hall and also held a healing service last May after raw pork was found at the base of a Holocaust memorial at a Lynn Jewish cemetery.

Lipsker said the leadership in the Jewish community ultimately bears the responsibility to set a tough tone.

“Anything less sends a message that we are somehow guilty of something just by virtue of our Jewish identity,” he said Wednesday. “This tacit green light might be a serious contributing factor to this rising phenomenon.

“Whether the anti-Jewish bigotry comes in the form of ignorance or sheer hatred masquerading as human rights on college campuses, they must both be negated with the same steadfast vociferousness,” Lipsker added.

Trestan, the ADL director, said the organization has implemented antibias educational programs in more than 60 schools in New England and plans to add more in the fall.

Among the schools scheduled to take part are all four middle schools in Newton. At Newton’s F.A. Day Middle School, three anti-Semitic incidents were reported this academic year, including graffiti reading “Burn the Jews” scrawled in a boy’s bathroom.

The incidents prompted Newton officials to hold a public meeting, which in itself became a divisive event.

Newton Mayor Setti Warren said Wednesday that he was not surprised to hear about the uptick in anti-Semitic incidents.

“It’s clear in Newton that the incidents uncovered the fact that we have a lot of work to do,” Warren said. “We can’t rest on our reputation of being a welcoming community, we have to work at it.”

Warren has hired a civil rights educator to clarify guidelines that identify hate crimes in schools and has met with community leaders who have agreed to establish antibias programs that would push back against all forms of prejudice and racism.

Harvard Law School emeritus professor Alan Dershowitz said it was hard to measure the current state of anti-Semitism in statistics since many incidents go unreported.

He said he receives around 50 anti-Semitic e-mails, letters, and phone calls each year but does not report them to law enforcement.

Still, he said, the current uptick reflects a culture where hate is becoming more acceptable.

“I think the moratorium on anti-Semitism that began after the Holocaust is beginning to end. And I think that we’re seeing more and more acceptance of it, of anti-Semitic tropes,” he said.

Attorney General Maura Healey, who has yet to see the full data, called hate crimes an “egregious” type of an attack.

“Even a single incident of bias and hate is one too many. Discrimination is unacceptable in any form, and we will continue to work to foster an environment of inclusion and respect in all communities across our state,” Healey said in a statement.


Phonics check

One of the policy announcements in the 2016-17 Australian federal budget is a Year 1 phonics check

Why do a phonics check?

Three major reviews of the research on effective literacy teaching methods found there are five essential elements to a high quality, comprehensive for initial reading instruction. They are phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

The most contested of these is phonics – the relationship between sounds in speech and letters in writing. There is ongoing debate about the need for explicit phonics instruction, with arguments against phonics often based on misinformation and misconceptions. Many teachers say they teach phonics, but reading specialists argue it is often not taught in the most effective way – with dire consequences for later reading development.

What is a ‘phonics check’?

If a phonics check in Australian schools is modelled on the Phonics Screening Check in England, it is a teacher-administered, oral assessment consisting of 40 decodable words. Twenty of the words are real words like ‘shelf’, twenty are pseudo-words like ‘wep’. The pseudo-words are included because students will not have learned them as sight words.

A phonics check would reveal which schools are teaching phonics well and which need to strengthen their teaching in this area. It would also show which children need extra support

Why is explicit phonics instruction so important?

Phonics instruction is one of the most researched aspects of education, in terms of both the volume of studies over the last few decades and the consistency of the evidence. Numerous studies show that reading programs with a well-developed phonics component routinely and consistently have greater effectiveness for children learning to read than programs without a good phonics component.

Some children need more training in phonics than others, but all students benefit to some extent ¾whether it’s for learning to read or learning to spell. Sometimes when people dismiss phonics and say phonics programs are unnecessary or don’t work, it’s because they haven’t used a good phonics program.

Is English a phonetic language?

English is less phonetically regular than other languages; it is more accurately described as a morphophonemic language. This is arguably why a good phonics program is so important for teaching reading—if the relationship between written and spoken words is complex, it requires more explicit and careful teaching.

Research cited by Louisa Cook Moats in Speech to Print says approximately 50% of English words are easily decodable, another 34% have one exception to the rules of simple letter sound correspondences, and another 10% or so can be read accurately if morphology is taken into account. That leaves only a small proportion of words that have to learned as whole words.

Although the rules required in order to decode English words are more numerous than in other more ‘transparent’ languages like Finnish, it’s certainly much easier to remember the rules than it is to memorise what every single word in the English language looks like.

Another reason we know English is a phonetically decodable language is because good readers can read words they have never seen before. For example, when science fiction and fantasy authors make up names of characters and places, they usually make them phonetically decodable. If you are reading Game of Thrones for the first time and you come across the name Targaryen, you can decode it. You don’t need to have watched the show, you don’t need someone to tell you­―you can work it out using the basic rules of written language.

How do parents know whether their child’s school is providing good phonics instruction?

Parents will know if their child is getting good phonics instruction if, at the end of their first ‘foundation’ year of school, they know all the single letter sounds. They will know how to put them together to make simple words that use regular straightforward letter-sound correspondences, and they will be starting to be able to read bigger unknown words using diagraphs (combinations of two letters that makes a single sound). If their children can’t do these things after a year of good initial reading instruction, they may need some extra support with a reading intervention.

Is phonics all there is to reading?

While decoding is important, so is comprehension. The ‘simple view’ of reading is that it is made up of two elements―decoding/word recognition and comprehension. Reading for meaning requires both those things. People who have difficulty learning to read will have trouble in one or both those domains. Some people are good decoders but poor on comprehension, some vice versa, and some students who really struggle can have problems in both areas.

What is a good phonics program?

Programs developed by people with specialist knowledge of the way that the English language is constructed are likely to be more effective than others. It is also important that phonics programs be evidence-based; that is: to have been proven to be effective using rigorous scientific research methods.

At present the model known as systematic synthetic phonics has the strongest research support. In synthetic phonics, teachers build up phonic skills from their smallest unit (graphemes). The processes of blending and segmenting are also taught.

Three of the key elements of a good phonics program are: the sequence in which letters and sounds are taught; early introduction of blending and segmenting; and use of decodable text.

For children who are learning the alphabet for the first time, the method and order of introducing letters and letter combinations (graphemes) and sounds (phonemes) need to be carefully planned. In explicit and systematic phonics programs, a small number of letters and sounds are introduced at a time and children learn those before moving on to the next ones. Letters that look similar are not introduced at the same time, for example, b and d. The aim is to minimise confusion and maximise success for children.

In a good phonics program, blending is taught shortly after sounds are introduced. Students do not learn all the letter sounds and then learn how to put them together into words; each group of letters selected can be made into simple words. If the letters s, m, a, t, and i are taught as a group, children can learn to blend them into words like sit and am. Children learn that if they take the ‘i’ out of the middle of ‘sit’ and put an ‘a’ in its place, it makes the word ‘sat’.

By this process, children begin to understand that written words are a code, and it’s a code they can break. And when they do understand that―some children will pick this up much more quickly than others, of course―the rest comes much more easily. After a period of time, once they’ve learned grapheme-phoneme correspondences and are able to blend them, they can read almost any word they come across.

The third element is practising reading using decodable text. As children learn how to put letters and sounds into blends, and start to be able to read whole words, they should also be taught some common sight words that don’t follow the normal sort of rules¾like ‘was’ and ‘of’, for example. Sentences or short stories composed of decodable words and common simple sight words give students the opportunity to use the phonics skills they have acquired and learn about print conventions and punctuation.

Of course, a comprehensive reading program will also use real children’s books to develop vocabulary and comprehension, but novice readers benefit from reading material that allows them to successfully read independently as early as possible.

‘I wasn’t taught phonics but I learned to read’

Skilled reading is unconscious and automatic­―most people are not aware of the complex cognitive processes taking place. Few people remember how they learned to read. That’s why research and evidence are so important: so assumptions are not made that what might have worked for one person will probably work for everyone else.

The question research seeks to answer is ‘what is the most effective strategy for the largest number of students’? There is a lot of research showing what that strategy is―a well-developed, comprehensive reading instruction program that includes an evidence-based, explicit phonics component.


No comments: