Sunday, July 10, 2016

The limited efficacy of education

The report was so “seismic” — Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s word — that Lyndon Johnson’s administration released it on the Fourth of July weekend, 1966, hoping it would not be noticed. But the Coleman report did disturb various dogmatic slumbers and vested interests. And 50 years on, it is pertinent to today’s political debates about class and social mobility. So, let us now praise an insufficiently famous man, sociologist James Coleman, author of the study “Equality of Educational Opportunity.”

In 1966, postwar liberalism’s confidence reached its apogee. From 1938, when the electorate rebuked Franklin Roosevelt for his plan to “pack” the Supreme Court, through 1964, congressional Republicans and conservative Democrats prevented a liberal legislating majority. But Johnson’s 44-state victory that year gave Democrats 68 Senate seats and a majority of 155 in the House. Effortless and uninterrupted prosperity seemed assured as the economy grew in 1965 and 1966 by 10.7 percent and 7.99 percent, respectively. So, a gusher of tax revenues coincided with liberalism’s pent-up demand for large projects. It hoped to meld two American traits — egalitarian aspirations and faith in education’s transformative power.

The consensus then was that the best predictor of a school’s performance was the amount of money spent on it: Increase financial inputs and cognitive outputs would increase proportionately. As the postwar baby boom moved through public schools like a pig through a python, almost everything improved — school buildings, teachers' salaries, class sizes, per pupil expenditures — except outcomes measured by standardized tests.

Enter Coleman, and the colleagues he directed, to puncture complacency with the dagger of evidence — data from more than 3,000 schools and 600,000 primary and secondary school students. His report vindicated the axiom that social science cannot tell us what to do, it can tell us the results of what we are doing. He found that the best predictor of a school’s outcomes is the quality of the children’s families. And students' achievements are influenced by the social capital (habits, mores, educational ambitions) their classmates bring to school:

“One implication stands out above all: That schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of an independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school.”

Coleman’s report came exactly one year after — and as an explosive coda to — what is known as the Moynihan Report, which was leaked in July 1965. Moynihan, then a 37-year-old social scientist in Johnson’s Labor Department, presented in “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” what then counted as shocking news: 23.6 percent of African-American births were to unmarried women.

Today 71 percent are. Almost 47 percent of all first births are to unmarried women, and a majority of all mothers under 30 are not living with the fathers of their children.

The causes of family disintegration remain unclear, but 51 years ago Moynihan and then Coleman foresaw the consequences. Moynihan said the “tangle” of pathologies associated with the absence of fathers produces a continually renewed cohort of inadequately socialized adolescent males. Socializing them is society’s urgent business if it is to avoid chaotic neighborhoods and schools where maintaining discipline displaces teaching. Coleman documented how schools are reflections of, rather than cures for, the failure of families to function as the primary transmitters of social capital.

The extraordinary synergy between Moynihan and Coleman was serendipitous. Today, their baton of brave and useful sociology has passed to Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute. His “Losing Ground” (1984) was an autopsy of 1960s aspirations. His “Coming Apart” (2012) explores the social consequences — we are wallowing in the political consequences — of a bifurcated society in which many do very well while many others are unable to reach even the lowest rungs on the ladder of upward mobility.

Coleman’s evidence that cultural rather than financial variables matter most was not welcomed by education bureaucracies and unions. Similarly, we now have more than half a century of awkward, and often ignored, evidence about the mostly small and evanescent effects of early childhood education. Today’s Democratic Party fancies itself “the party of science”; Barack Obama pledged, in his first inaugural address, to “restore science to its rightful place.” Social science, however, is respected by Democrats only when it validates policies congenial to the interests of favored factions.


Mother: My Third-Grade Son Talked about Brownies, and Someone Called the Race Police

An elementary school in New Jersey allegedly called the police on a third grader for talking about brownies — yes, as in the baked good — over concerns that the word “brownies” may have been a racial slur.

According to the student’s mother, her nine-year-old son was participating in a conversation about the bakery treat during his end-of-the-year class party at William P. Tatem Elementary School on June 16 when another student remarked that his comment was racist.

Rather than explain to the accusing student that the name of the baked good is a generally accepted term and not racially charged whatsoever, the school actually called the police. Yes — the police.

“He was intimidated, obviously,” the mother, Stacy dos Santos, said, according to “There was a police officer with a gun in the holster talking to my son, saying, ‘Tell me what you said,’” she continued. “He didn’t have anybody on his side.”

According to, the police department also contacted the boy’s father, and the incident was referred to the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency — because after all, hearing a nine-year-old talking about snacks definitely makes you wonder how he could possibly be safe living in a home with people who raised him to behave that way.

According to dos Santos, her son spent his last day of third grade at home because of the incident, and he feels so “traumatized” over it that they’re hoping to send him to a different public school in the fall.


‘Significant challenges’ ahead for Scottish higher education as graduate debt set to almost double

The once-envied higher education system of Scotland is facing “significant challenges” with the revelation debt levels are set to almost double as it becomes more difficult for Scottish students to get into university.

Over the next three years, university debt in the country is set to rise from £11,281 per student to around £20,000.

However, the cost north of the border pales in comparison to that of graduates in England who are now leaving with estimated debts of almost £45,000 since the tripling of tuition fees. Before the increase five years ago, the level was at just £16,200 per student, making England the nation with the highest level of graduate debt when compared with any other anglophone country.

The startling news has come following a major review, the first of its kind, by Audit Scotland which has also revealed how it has become more difficult in recent years for Scottish and EU undergrads to gain a place at a Scottish university.

With the number of students studying at Scottish universities having increased by five per cent over the last decade, the main reason for this is that applications have increased at a greater rate than increases in the number of funded places available for Scottish and EU students; applications have increased by 23 per cent since 2010, yet the number of offers made by universities has increased by only nine per cent.

The Scottish higher education system has long been looked at with envy from other parts of the UK - and further afield - for its top-class institutions, student funding system, and no tuition fees. However, the auditors’ report seems to have dealt another blow to the country’s universities following another recent report from social mobility charity, the Sutton Trust.

In May, the Trust found that, despite offering free tuition, Scotland has the worst record than anywhere else in the UK when it comes to getting students from poorer backgrounds into university.

Caroline Gardner, Auditor General for Scotland, described how Scottish universities benefit individuals, communities and economies both at home and abroad. However, she added: “It’s a complex sector which receives significant amounts of public money, both in the form of direct funding to universities and in financial support to students.

“Given the growing pressures on public finances, the Scottish Government must be clear about its priorities for higher education and how it will target public funding to support those aims. It also needs to work with the Scottish Funding Council and universities to plan for addressing the challenges ahead.”

Politicians have been quick to blame the SNP for the report’s stark findings. Labour education spokesman, Iain Gray, described how it “lays bare...the SNP’s refusal to protect education budgets,” reports the Daily Record, while Tory education spokeswoman, Liz Smith, added the it sends “a very stark warning to the Scottish Government about the funding crisis the SNP have created.”

The SNP, however, has said Scotland’s free tuition means the country has the lowest student loan debt amount than anywhere else in the UK, with a spokesperson saying the Scottish Government will consider all the report has found.

However, despite the largely less-than-positive findings, Audit Scotland did find the majority of Scottish students have a positive experience of higher education, and 90 per cent progressed from university to employment or further study in 2014.

Audit Scotland’s report has come in the same week it was also revealed around 70 per cent of students who left university last year are expected never to finish repaying their loans.

According to analysis provided to the Financial Times by NatWest, they will, instead, have to make repayments for 30 years before having the unpaid loan written off, something which is highly likely to affect an entire generation of potential homebuyers.

Sebastian Burnside, an economist at NatWest, told the Financial Times: “Compared to previous generations of homebuyers, it will take longer for them to have the income necessary to fund the homes they want to buy.”

New Hesa stats have also shown an overall increase in first degree leavers entering employment or further study last year, yet big gaps still remain at some universities and among certain ethnic groups.

Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, said: “It’s welcome news that graduate employment rates are continuing to rise, showing the value of our world-class universities in helping people into rewarding careers.

“But there is always more to do, particularly with variations in job prospects depending on a student’s background, ethnic group, or what course they studied. That’s why we are delivering on our manifesto commitment to introduce a new teaching excellence framework that will help ensure all students get the higher education experience they deserve.”


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