Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Trump wants to merge the US education and labor departments. It isn’t a terrible idea

For decades, Republicans have attempted, and failed, to abolish the US Department of Education. Former president Ronald Reagan was the first to try to take an axe to it in 1981, just two years after it was established by his democratic predecessor Jimmy Carter in 1979. Last year, House Republicans tried again.

Now the Trump administration has announced the latest idea to kill the agency, this time by merging it with the Department of Labor. As first reported by Education Week, the plan is part of the White House’s goal to shrink the federal government by eliminating what it considers inefficient or unwanted programs. Education professionals, already traumatized by the hostile approach of education secretary Betsy DeVos, are reacting with understandable horror.

But there are reasons why merging the departments, or at least some of their functions, makes sense. One of the biggest challenges facing the US is remaining economically competitive in the decades, and centuries, to come. Aligning the two departments charged with developing the workforce under a shared vision and direction could help fix what so far has been a scattershot and ineffective approach.

There are lots of reasons to be wary, however. If Trump’s ambition is simply to reduce spending, it’s hard to imagine any merger would be engineered to protect and enhance the critical role of both departments. The timing is also suspicious. A pledge to merge the Department of Education out of existence would be a gift to conservatives a day after Trump was accused of caving into liberal protests over his administration’s hardline policy of separating families detained at the US-Mexico border. But that doesn’t mean the idea doesn’t have merit, given the extraordinary need for the US to cohere around an educational strategy that prepares its citizens for an uncertain future.

It’s no secret that the US education system isn’t producing workers who can fill the jobs of today, much less tomorrow. In a PwC survey of 104 CEOs (pdf), 32% said they were “extremely concerned” about not being able to find workers with the necessary skills.

A landmark 2007 study commissioned by Congress and produced by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine issued a dark warning that the advantages in science and technology the US had enjoyed since World War II were under threat.

Although many people assume that the United States will always be a world leader in science and technology, this may not continue to be the case inasmuch as great minds and ideas exist throughout the world. We fear the abruptness with which a lead in science and technology can be lost—and the difficulty of recovering a lead once lost, if indeed it can be regained at all.

The study recommended significant investments in education spending and teacher training to improve outcomes in science, technology, engineering, and math. But if anything, the outlook has only worsened since the study was released. The US spends more per student than any other industrialized country, yet its pupils rank in the middle of the pack.

While automation and robots are helping to answer the skills shortage for industry, their adoption is creating further disruption for lower-skilled US workers. There is already a growing crisis of unemployed blue-collar men displaced by technology and international competition. A 2017 McKinsey report (pdf) suggests that without massive investments in re-training, the US could face widespread unemployment and wage depression.

While training has been the purview of the education system, re-training has traditionally fallen to industry, unions, or arrangements cobbled together by local and state job boards and colleges, with results that are mixed at best.

The coming problem is too big for half measures. It’s increasingly clear that a comprehensive national strategy is required, and it needs coordination at the top. Merging the departments of education and labor isn’t the only way to accomplish that goal, but it’s not an idea that should be rejected out of hand, either.

Of course, any merger proposal will need approval from Congress, and given the appropriate skepticism about the administration and its aims, it seems unlikely to give it. It may, however, start a necessary conversation about the future of America’s workforce.


Open Letter to School Boards Everywhere: Stop Renaming Your Schools After Obama

It was bad enough that pretty much within seconds of Barack Obama winning the presidency there seemed to be a rush to rename schools to honor the newly elected first black president. According to Wikipedia, eighteen schools in fourteen states have so far been named or renamed in honor of the 44th president. According to another Wikipedia article (which is incomplete and out-of-date) Obama already has enough schools named after him to rival John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson.

The latest school to jump on the Obama bandwagon is the  J. E. B. Stuart Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia. This week, the school board voted 6-1 to rename the predominantly African-American school named after a Confederate general Barack Obama Elementary School.

When the school board first voted to rename the school, seven options were up for consideration, five of which were named for people. Of the five people considered, all but Obama were local figures, including Oliver Hill, a civil rights attorney who played a significant role in ending “separate but equal”; Barbara Johns, a civil rights leader; Albert Norrell, a long-time educator from a family of educators in Richmond for over a century; and Henry Marsh, another civil rights leader and the first African-American mayor of Richmond. Anyone of these would have been a more fitting and deserving individual to have a school named after them. This community clearly values the contributions of civil rights leaders who have had a positive impact on African-Americans, yet they honored a man whose “positive” impact on African-Americans is largely symbolic, and whose actual impact has been negative. In fact, Barack Obama was perhaps the worst president for African-Americans since Lyndon B. Johnson.

Obama’s election had been seen as a watershed moment in our nation’s history—a post-racial America is what his admirers said we’d have if he was elected. But, a majority of Americans recognize that despite Obama being the first black president, race relations took a huge step back on his watch. Instead of being a symbol of empowerment of black America, Obama reinforced racial animus by supporting Black Lives Matter, selectively enforcing laws on a racial basis, and by often falsely assuming racial motives in high-profile cases of police being accused of excessive force. By doing this, Obama deliberately exacerbated tensions between black communities and law enforcement, causing a huge spike in cop killings.

The Obama economy wasn’t easy for America, but it was disproportionately more difficult for black Americans. The Obama “recovery” was the worst economic recovery since the Great Depression but black Americans saw an even slower recovery than the country as a whole. The Trump economy has done more to lift black America than the Obama economy ever did.

Obama also gave credence to the falsehood that racism motivated his critics, even claiming that he was a victim of racism while in office. Obama’s former senior advisor David Axelrod even said, "It's indisputable that there was a ferocity to the opposition and a lack of respect to him that was a function of race.” Almost any policy disagreement with Obama was met with the play of the race card against his opposition. If the race card wasn’t played by Obama, then it was a member of his administration, Democrats in Congress, Hollywood, or the media.

Obama’s record as president is also hardly deserving of praise. Obama’s spending spree, beginning with the 2009 stimulus, did little for the economy, but added more debt than all his predecessors combined. The Obama economy was plagued with high unemployment, high gas prices, stagnant wages, a decline of entrepreneurship, record poverty, record food stamp usage and much more he wouldn’t want credit for. His foreign policy milestones read like a list of blunders: the Libyan intervention, Iran, Syria, Egypt, the Arab Spring, Israel, the Russian reset, losing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the rise of ISIS.

Contrary to popular belief, Obama’s presidency was plagued by over thirty scandals—many of which would have seen another president impeached. Naming a school after this man is as insulting as awarding him a Nobel Peace Prize despite having done nothing to earn it.

Which brings me back to my point that Obama’s presidency (and legacy) will always be remembered more fondly than it ever deserves to be, not because of any actual positive accomplishment but because of what his election symbolized. The election of the first black president was no small thing, but it was wasted on a man who used his unique status to divide the country instead of unite it. By the time he left office the world was a far more dangerous place than it was before Obama took office.

Whether it’s a school board choosing to honor Obama by naming a school after him, a municipality naming a street for him, or a state honoring him with a holiday… it doesn’t matter, they all honor a failed, corrupt presidency. It sends a terrible message to the students at these schools, who have far better role models whose contributions positively impacted the African-American community and the country as a whole.


Australia needs more private universities

More private universities would introduce diversity into higher education

Pressure is building to allow more private universities into the higher education sector, as the industry begins to rationalise.

Private providers and industry experts say it's time to open up the university sector which has 39 publicly funded universities but only four that are private.

Government data shows three of the four private universities ranked highest on a survey of overall student experience last year. The Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching survey showed the top three also scored above 90 per cent on a ranking of overall educational experience, where the industry average was 78.4 per cent.

Professor of economics and dean of business at Alphacrucis​ College – a private higher education provider in Sydney – Paul Oslington, says the biggest barrier to new private universities is a hostile public policy environment.

And writing in today's Australian Financial Review, Professor Oslington says the public universities are strongly averse to competition from entrants.

"Public universities have campaigned against government funding for students choosing private higher education, even when degrees are accredited by the same body and according to the same standards as degrees offered by the public universities."

Ground shifting

The comments come as the ground shifts under public universities, with Adelaide University and the University of South Australia beginning merger talks, and after the debacle when a public university turned down a multimillion-dollar philanthropic donation from the Ramsay Centre on grounds of autonomy.

National sector leader, education, at consultants KPMG and a former university vice-chancellor, Stephen Parker, says there are restrictions on new entrants to the uni business that protect quality. But they are also prohibiting diversity.

Professor Parker said the sector had reached a size where it warranted reform. "We can't do anything to prejudice our global reputation. But the time has come to carefully free up the system."

He said in the face of disruption the time had come for the uni sector to focus on diversity. New higher education providers, with different business models could offer courses in specialised fields.

Apart from the four private universities (Bond, Notre Dame, University of Divinity and Torrens University) there are more than 140 non-university higher education providers, including religious, business and performing arts colleges.

National education leader at consultants PwC, David Sacks, said the public/private divide was a distraction. Public unis are required to do research, have comprehensive offerings and operate on a big scale.

Private providers are smaller and have the freedom to follow a particular mission and specialise. If government changed the settings the result would be more diversity in higher education.

He said the choice was whether Australia wanted more sustainability by keeping the uni system as it is or whether the settings could be changed to drive growth.

Mr Sacks said anything that made the sector more student-outcome focused was welcome. He noted the government's performance-based funding due to start in 2020 was about outcomes not inputs and that was well intended.

Bond University on the Queensland Gold Coast is a non-profit, private uni and offers degrees in four subjects: design, law, business and health sciences. A typical business degree costs $100,000. The academic year begins in the third week of January, runs over three semesters and ends in mid-December. Most public unis offer two 13-week semesters; start in February and end in early November.

Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham said higher education was a diverse market and any new entrants should meet the "high standard we've set".

"It's one of the reasons there are now three times as many non-university higher education providers as there are universities in Australia and they continue to attract strong enrolment growth," he said.


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