Saturday, January 01, 2005

The American Degree Mania

The 26 November 2004 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education contains a noteworthy essay by Alan Contreras, "A Question of Degrees" (subscribers only). In it, Mr. Contreras, who is the administrator of the Office of Degree Authorization of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, laments the proliferation of college degrees and the extent to which they have become the portals through which everyone desiring success in life must pass. The essay is important because challenges to the prevailing (and assiduously cultivated) idea that college is for everyone are so rare.

Contreras argues that our degree mania is a problem because people often have the ability to perform a job, but won't be considered "until the magic piece of paper is obtained." Compelling people to spend a great deal of time and money to get a degree simply so they can compete for many jobs that demand no great knowledge or skill is very wasteful. Some people just buy their credentials from degree mills and employers often don't care enough about the source of the degree to distinguish between the faux diplomas of degree mills and those of legitimate educational institutions.

That is a point that Paul Taubman and Terence Wales discussed briefly in their 1974 book Higher Education and Earnings:
(I)n the last few years so-called diploma mills have become a matter of concern to the educational community. For a fee, these schools grant diplomas by mail without requiring attendance or much, if any, work. Consequently, it is difficult to see how these schools could be adding much to a person's level of skills. Yet the fact that people are willing to pay the fees suggests that the diploma is useful to them, and clearly one possibility is that it is useful in passing an educational screen. It is also worth noting that the uproar over the diploma mills has come not from businesses that feel cheated, but from the more respectable members of the academic community. (157-8).

So why don't employers bother to kick out applicants whose educational credentials are from diploma mills? Two answers seem plausible. One is that some employers recognize that their degree requirements have little to do with knowledge or skills necessary for the work. These days, it is common to see ads for jobs such as purchasing agent or accounts payable clerk stating that a college degree is a must. But for those and many other jobs, employers are really only interested in evidence of trainability. If they don't much care where an applicant's degree came from, that may be understood as an admission that the degree "requirement" is merely a crude screening device to filter out individuals who have not taken even the smallest step beyond their high school education.

The second plausible explanation is that many employers don't believe that the "real" college experience does much more to enhance a person's employability than does the quick transaction with a diploma mill. Since colleges now grant degrees to many students who read poorly, write poorly, and get stuck on the simplest math problems, it's easy to see why the degree requirement is one that employers don't take very seriously; since they need to evaluate further to see if an individual is capable of handling the work and lots of applicants with "real" degrees are weak, why discriminate against those who have degrees from diploma mills?

Contreras is absolutely correct in writing that "Artificial reliance on degrees does not serve a public interest, and society should stop supporting it." We have a terrible mania for credentials, a mania encouraged by the higher education establishment. The demand for its services grows as the notion spreads that formal college studies are an essential prerequisite for even the most mundane of jobs. Many college degree programs these days consist of a few morsels of occupational training wrapped inside a big burrito of academically dubious courses to fill out the graduation requirements.

If businesses themselves were footing the bill for the training of people to manage hotels (to cite just one of the vocationally-centered degree programs one now finds at many schools), would they come up with such an expensive and time-consuming approach as that? Surely not. But since the costs of the degree credentialing system are borne by others (students, their families, and taxpayers), businesses are willing to go along. That is especially true if they are able to get colleges to "embed" a rigorous training program (for example, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) in a degree program. Most businesses are happy to off-load their costs onto others, whether it's worker training, health care, or anything else.

Why, Contreras asks, should job training be done this way? "Is all job-training learning? Certainly. Should all learning be part of a degree program? Of course not. It is time for colleges and policy makers to take a serious look at what we call degrees, and limit them to learning that is truly worthy of a degree."

The time was -- and not so very long ago -- that job training was thought of as the responsibility of the labor market and college education consisted mostly of work to expand one's mental horizons. Individuals went to college to study "impractical" things such as the history of Rome, the plays of Shakespeare, the philosophy of Aristotle, the symphonies of Beethoven, and so on. Today, that has almost turned completely around. If you want a job, you go to college to get the degree that opens doors for you. If you want to expand your mental horizons, you're better off renting some of the excellent taped lecture series on history, philosophy, the fine arts, etc. that are made available by firms like The Teaching Company.

What to do? Contreras says, "Let's evaluate the labels we give our academic and training credentials and create a meaningful system, rather than simply sending everyone to get degrees, genuine or bogus." I'm with him in spirit, but colleges and universities have grown fat and happy by peddling degrees for everything they can think of. The current degree mania helps to keep classes filled and professors and administrators employed. I suspect that the only way to restore sense in this area is for state and federal government to stop subsidizing higher education.

Post lifted from NAS


Charles Darwin, squeeze over. The school board in this small town in central Pennsylvania has voted to make the theory of evolution share a seat with another theory: God probably designed us. If it survives a legal test, this school district of about 2,800 students could become the first in the nation to require that high school science teachers at least mention the "intelligent design" theory. This theory holds that human biology and evolution are so complex as to require the creative hand of an intelligent force. "The school board has taken the measured step of making students aware that there are other viewpoints on the evolution of species," said Richard Thompson, of the Thomas More Law Center, which represents the board and describes its overall mission as defending "the religious freedom of Christians."

Board members have been less guarded, and their comments go well beyond intelligent design theory. William Buckingham, the board's curriculum chairman, explained at a meeting last June that Jesus died on the cross and "someone has to take a stand" for him. Other board members say they believe that God created Earth and mankind sometime in the past ten thousand years or so. "If the Bible is right, God created us," said John Rowand, an Assemblies of God pastor and a newly appointed school board member. "If God did it, it's history and it's also science."

This strikes some parents and teachers, not to mention most evolutionary biologists, as loopy science. Eleven parents have joined the American Civil Liberties Union and filed suit in federal court in Harrisburg seeking to block mention of intelligent design in high school biology, arguing it is religious belief dressed in the cloth of science. "It's not science; it's a theocratic idea," Bryan Rehm, a former science teacher in Dover and a father of four. "We don't have enough time for science in the classroom as it is -- this is just inappropriate."

This is a battle fought in many corners of the nation. In Charles County, school board members recently suggested discarding biology textbooks "biased towards evolution." In Cobb County, in suburban Atlanta, the local school board ordered that stickers be placed inside the front cover of science textbooks stating: "Evolution is a theory, not a fact." State education boards in Ohio and Kansas have wrestled with this issue, as well....

Dover's modern politics are resolutely Republican -- President Bush polled 65 percent of the vote here -- and its cultural values are Christian, with an evangelical tinge. To drive its rolling back roads is to count dozens of churches, from Lutheran to United Church of Christ, Baptist, Pentecostal and Assemblies of God. Many here speak of a personal relationship with Christ and of their antipathy to evolutionary theory (A Gallup poll found that 35 percent of Americans do not believe in evolution). Steve Farrell, a friendly man and owner of a landscaping business, talked of Darwin and God in the Giant shopping center parking lot. "We are teaching our children a theory that most of us don't believe in." He shook his head. "I don't think God creates everything on a day-to-day basis, like the color of the sky. But I do believe that he created Adam and Eve -- instantly."

More here


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Friday, December 31, 2004

In defence of charter schools

Below are some excerpts from a big defence of charter schools on A Constrained Vision

"Amy Stuart Wells, professor at Teachers College of Columbia University and long-time critic of school choice, tries to dismiss those pesky charter schools once and for all. She blames those evil free-market conservatives and their "well-funded think tanks" for this loser of a reform movement.... Even ignoring her gratuitous swipes at think tanks, conservatives, and free markets, there are a lot of problems with Wells's analysis. Three major points.

One, if charter schools are so terrible, why are they expanding so rapidly? Like Wells says, the Center for Education Reform reports almost 700,000 students in 2,993 charter schools in 40 states and the District of Columbia; this year alone, 405 new charter schools opened. Either all those families have been brainwashed by the evil conservatives or they're stupid enough to send their kids to schools that are bad for them or they have found something about charter schools that they like better than public schools. Since we generally don't assume that people are brainwashed or stupid, this point is difficult for charter school opponents to address and Wells hasn't done it adequately.

Two, Wells misrepresents the recent research on charter schools. Contrary to Wells's quick dismissal of disagreement, the methods used in these studies are hotly contested--see, for example, Joanne Jacobs's summary, Eduwonk's round-up of reaction to the latest NAEP study and William G. Howell and Martin R. West's thorough trashing of the AFT study (just a taste: "[O]n a methodological level, the AFT analyses are sufficiently pedestrian to be laughable.")--but even if we all agreed that the methods were fine, Wells gets the punchline wrong! From the Department of Education's NAEP study:

[T]he mathematics performance of White, Black, and Hispanic fourth-graders in charter schools was not measurably different from the performance of fourth-graders with similar racial/ethnic backgrounds in other public schools.

In reading, there was no measurable difference in performance between charter school students in the fourth grade and their public school counterparts as a whole. This was true even though, on average, charter schools have higher proportions of students from groups that typically perform lower on NAEP than other public schools have. In reading, as in mathematics, the performance of fourth-grade students with similar racial/ethnic backgrounds in charter schools and other public schools was not measurably different.

Because charter school demographics are very different from those of public schools, it is not a fair comparison to look just at overall test scores, as Wells seems to do when she declares unequivocally that "charter schools performed more poorly than public schools on the same tests." When you look at similar types of students, charter schools and public schools perform about the same. Wells and other charter school opponents would probably point out that this is not the magic improvement that advocates promised, but why does that matter? Charter schools are cheaper than regular public schools, parents are happier with charter schools, and bad charter schools can go out of business, unlike regular public schools--if the charter schools aren't doing any harm, why not allow them to exist just for those advantages? Charter school opponents have the burden of proof to show that charter schools are actually harming students, and again, Wells has not met that burden.

Three, evaluating charter school performance is exceptionally difficult. From issues like the one above--what is the proper comparison group?--to nitty-gritty econometric debates, there is very little agreement about what are the proper methods. Given the demographic differences, it does seem wrong to compare overall charter school performance to overall public school performance, as Wells does, and it does seem wrong to look only at one year of data, as the studies she relies on do. And there are many more difficult issues that Wells does not seem to consider. Here's a sampling:

- Charter schools have very different purposes. Some promote studying the arts, some promote studying cultural heritage; some focus on at-risk students, some focus on academically gifted students. Is it right to lump all of these schools into one big study? One study that attempts to address this issue, the Manhattan Institute's "Apples to Apples: An Evaluation of Charter Schools Serving General Student Populations," puts it well: "[C]omparing targeted charter schools to regular public schools is like comparing apples and zebras." When the authors compare "apples to apples," they find that charter schools outperform similar public schools.

- Charter schools with different purposes have different goals. Charter school opponents are some of the same people who vehemently criticize standardized testing for being one-dimensional, yet they now rely on those supposedly one-dimensional tests to malign charter schools. What about evaluating charter schools on other dimensions, such as graduation rates, student discipline problems, parent satisfaction, teacher turnover? Furthermore, should a charter school whose mission is to help students succeed in the arts, for example, be judged on its test scores? Or should charter schools whose students are special education students or high-school dropouts or kids in the juvenile justice system be judged on their test scores?

- Charter school students are different from public school students, if for no other reason than that they chose to leave the public schools. What is that difference and how do we control for it? Without some reliable way to adjust for that difference, we are again comparing apples to zebras.

Evaluating charter schools is difficult, but the schools are clearly popular. They must be doing something right and we owe it to all students to find out what that is. We should study the issue dispassionately and not resort to political cheap shots. We should use the most careful analysis that we can and not rely on simplistic analysis just because it is easy."

Judicial obstructionism again: "In a ruling the dissent characterized as driving 'a semi-truck' through a 'small window' in the U.S. Constitution, the full 1st District Court of Appeals in Florida on November 12 struck down the state's five-year-old Opportunity Scholarship program, ruling it violated a provision in Florida's Constitution barring public funds being used to aid any religious institution. ... Although they will be able to continue in their choice schools while the ruling is appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, the breadth of the appeals court decision places a cloud not only over the future of the Opportunity Scholarship program, but also over similarly funded post-secondary scholarship programs ..."


For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

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Thursday, December 30, 2004


Plugging a few holes in a leaky boat

As a student at New York University, Ruth Zemel dreamed of finding a job that would enable her to change the world. Three years later, she stands in front of a class of high school students in one of Washington's most underprivileged neighborhoods, teaching them mathematics. "I have homeless students, students who have been abused, students who need to take time off to translate for their parents, students who work 40 hours a week on top of school to help support their families," Zemel said.

Zemel is one of 3,000 teachers recruited under the Teach for America program working in some of the nation's poorest and toughest urban and rural schools this year. The private non-profit program seeks to mobilize talented and idealistic young people for two-year teaching stints, but over 60 percent choose to stay in education after their commitment is done. "We've found it is possible to go into a school and create a learning culture in the classroom and it is within a teacher's power to foster success," said Wendy Kopp, who came up for the idea of Teach for America when she herself was an undergraduate at Princeton University in 1989. The program has proved highly popular; only 14 percent of the 13,500 applicants last year were accepted. The program is expanding to 3,800 teachers next fall.

At Bell Multicultural Senior High School where Zemel is teaching, almost two-thirds of the students are Hispanic and another 25 percent are black. Assistant principals Darry Strickland and Dahlia Aguilar both started as Teach for America corps members and continued in education. "Part of my passion now comes from when I saw what was happening to black and brown kids, kids who are poor and those for whom English is a second language," said Strickland. "I fell in love with youth -- with my ghetto kids."

Racial disparities have long been one of the biggest problems facing the U.S. education system. By the fourth grade, students in low-income areas are already three years behind their peers in reading and mathematics. A new book by Harvard University education and social policy professor Gary Orfield finds that only half of minority students in the United States graduate from high school, a figure that is often disguised in official statistics. Among males, the figure is even lower. Orfield said many urban high schools had become "dropout factories" with devastating effects on both students and their communities.

Zemel said among her students truancy was a constant problem. "I do everything in my power to get them here. I always try to convey to my students how important it is for them to be here every day," she said. She raised money from a private donor to pay 10 students $8 an hour to tutor fellow students after school hours and has organized a college trip for nine outstanding students to tour campuses in New York. "We do activities showing how much more money people make if they have gone to college. These kids have the same talent as more privileged ones, but their skills are lower than they should be," Zemel said.

Despite their youth and lack of experience, Teach for America members produce higher test scores among their students than other teachers in the same schools, according to an independent study released last June. As for Zemel, she is staying at Bell for a third year. "It's a surprise to me. I didn't intend to stay in education but now I'm here, I can't see how I can leave," she said.


Must try harder: Confederation of British Industry reports on school standards

THE CBI demanded a renewed government effort yesterday to improve the teaching of English and mathematics after it calculated that two million students have left school with poor skills since Labour came to power. It said that schools should be set a tough new target requiring them to get at least 70 per cent of teenagers to pass GCSEs in English and maths at grade C or better by 2007.

Digby Jones, the CBI's Director-General, said that schools were letting down 130,000 pupils a year by failing to reach this standard. Only 46 per cent of school-leavers have gained at least a grade C in both subjects on average since 1997. The employers' organisation said that this meant that two million students had left school with inadequate levels of literacy and numeracy since Tony Blair took office. Many of them faced a future of unemployment or low-paid work because they could not read, write or add up properly. Mr Jones called on Ruth Kelly, the new Education Secretary, to set the target in a government White Paper expected early next year in response to the Tomlinson report.

Mike Tomlinson, the former Chief Inspector of Schools in England, has proposed replacing GCSEs and A levels with a diploma for students aged 14 to 19.

The CBI opposes the reform, which is predicted to take a decade to implement, because it argues that schools will be distracted from the more pressing task of raising standards of literacy and numeracy. "Business is yet to be convinced that reforming the exam system is the best way to improve basic skills. It wants assurances that reform will change what young people achieve, not just what qualifications are called," Mr Jones said. "The school system must produce people ready for the world of work in the context of a fiercely competitive globalised 21st-century economy. That means the right attitude, an appetite for hard work and at least being able to read, write and count. Our goal is higher standards, not new structures."

The CBI plans to publish its own "basic skills action plan" in the new year, setting out ways to achieve the target.

This will include a call for ministers to extend the literacy and numeracy strategy from the early years of secondary school to cover pupils aged 14 to 16. The CBI said that the strategy should tell teachers what to teach and how best to go about it. "High skill levels are the greatest protection that any of us can have from the challenges of globalisation. That's why it's so worrying that so many youngsters are being condemned to a low-skilled poorly paid future," Mr Jones said. "My fear is that many who cannot read, write or add up properly will find themselves unemployable and the problem is only going to worsen. "This is a scandal but it is not a new scandal. It's not a problem that has been created by this Government. Indeed, ministers have done a lot to chip away at the problem since 1997. But let's be honest, no political party has cracked this one." He said that the CBI intends to make basic skills a key theme of its lobbying with all parties in the run-up to the general election, expected in May. "Business is not interested in the blame game or excuses. What we want is action with cross-party support. Let's get together as a nation, put the illiterate and innumerate at the top of the agenda, and produce tangible results."

The move comes after a CBI survey showed that 47 per cent of companies were unhappy about the level of school leavers' basic skills. A spokesman at the Department for Education and Skills said: "The Tomlinson report proposed that all young people acquire basic skills in literacy, numeracy and ICT as part of a new diploma qualification for 14-19 year olds. The Government will respond in the new year."



For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2004


Thousands more British students are applying to American universities as generous scholarships and top-quality facilities compete with British institutions. With the introduction of university top-up fees in 2006, the US Education Advisory Service (USEAS) says that inquiries from British students have risen sevenfold.

America has more world-class universities than any other country, with 17 in the top 20, according to the annual table compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong university. Britain has the next highest, with Oxford and Cambridge in the top 20. "We can't ignore the introduction of fees to British institutions because, regardless of how much they are, we hear students saying that if they are going to pay, they might as well look at all the options," Anthony Nemecek, director of the USEAS, said. "We've seen a significant rise in interest and we anticipate an astronomical growth next year. Normally we have around 1,800 students attending our open day, this year it was 3,500." Overall more than 350,000 have registered on the USEAS website or called for advice. Next autumn the Fulbright commission is holding fairs in Edinburgh and London to attract British school-leavers.

Although a year at an Ivy League university costs on average more than $40,000 (20,650 pounds), compared with 6,500 pounds in Britain at the moment, Mr Nemecek said that a US degree is great value for students from poorer families. "Everyone has to fill out financial aid forms and, using a formula, universities determine what they consider a family can contribute," he said. "If that is just 200 pounds, that will often be all they pay."

In the past year 8,439 British students attended America's 4,000 universities and colleges. Overseas applications dropped by 28 per cent overall last year, but those from Britain rose by 1.5 per cent. The reasons are simple, according to tutors and students. Three quarters of American universities are private, so the market is competitive and each is under pressure to offer the best facilities and tuition. Also, students have to choose which subjects they "major" in only at the end of the second year.

Chris Conway, a university adviser at Shrewsbury school, said that there is also a perception that standards are falling in Britain. "There is a lot of concern among parents about discrimination, even if we don't see it . . . and a distinct unease about the standards at British universities," he said. Above all, several top institutions offer means-tested scholarships to students who have achieved the academic entry requirements.

Oxford University will pay 6 million pounds annually in bursaries from 2006, but Harvard will distribute $80 million in "direct need-based scholarships" this year alone. Around half of Harvard's students receive some sort of financial aid, which on average amounts to $28,000. The standard cost of attending Harvard based on tuition fees, books and living expenses is estimated to be $42,450. Families earning less than $40,000 pay nothing towards college costs. That compares with Oxford, where students whose parents earn up to 22,499 pounds a year receive 3,000 pounds in their first year and 2,600 pounds in subsequent years.


There is an excellent cartoon here that sums up the curriculum at many American universities.


For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

Comments? Email me here. For times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site (viewable even in China!) here


Tuesday, December 28, 2004


Nine years ago, Karen Feltch lined up overnight and slept on the sidewalk to get her 3-year-old daughter, Katie, into Friends Christian School in Yorba Linda. Katie is now in the seventh grade and hopes to attend a brand new Friends Christian High School, initially projected to open in 2006. Unfortunately, delays caused by the government's unrelenting regulatory process, especially the required environmental study and myriad of permits, mean the new high school may not be finished on time - or finished at all.

The trouble building this high school is just one example illustrating the findings in a new Reason Foundation study: State and local government restrictions are discouraging the construction of new private schools and driving up tuition prices at existing schools.

With more and more parents seeking alternatives to failing public schools, many private schools are filled to capacity, offering long waiting lists and increasingly high tuition prices - the result of high demand and low supply. But entrepreneurs interested in launching new private schools are guaranteed to be engulfed in red tape and bureaucracy. For example, Michael Leahy, founder of the Alsion Montessori Middle/High School in Fremont, estimated that the natural cost of building his school was $400,000, but the total cost came to about $1.2 million because of numerous regulations, like the one requiring that he install a red tile roof.

Ray Youmans, president of Innovative Component Groups Inc. in Sacramento, explained that he hoped to build a 10,000-square-foot roof on a school property, simply a structure without walls, to protect the area from the rain and sun. The government required his company to install a $40,000 sprinkler system even though the structure was made entirely of steel and had no chance of catching fire.

The construction of Friends Christian Church High School should have been straightforward. In 2003, the city of Yorba Linda agreed to lease about 32 acres of public land to the Friends Christian School system for the construction of a 1,200-student high school campus. The lease, projected to generate $80 million for Yorba Linda over 50 years, also allows the city to utilize the private school's facilities for community use. When the lease was signed, the church was expected to make a $400,000 payment by June 2004. However, regulatory roadblocks have pushed the payment back to June 2005. And as a result, the City Council says it will reassess the value of the property and may consider alternative proposals for the land (though council members say they still support the school).

What's the holdup? The initial environmental impact study alone examined more than 80 specific impacts, such as whether the high school would have an adverse impact on the scenic vista, have an adverse impact on federal wetlands, result in an increase in the ambient noise level, or result in inadequate parking capacity. Once those questions are answered to the government's satisfaction, the final report still must be signed off by the California Department of Fish and Game, the local Regional Water Quality Control Board and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Fostering a competitive education market, where private schools can flourish and expand the options for the many children who desperatelyneed them, requires legislators to act. Vouchers have long been debated in California. But even if the state ever awarded vouchers, there wouldn't be anywhere near enough private schools to handle the demand.

At the local level, zoning, parking and building codes, and environmental requirements must be reassessed for merit and streamlined. A performance-based system would replace land-use restrictions with specific performance standards requiring schools to meet guidelines for things such as drainage controls, density, floor area and so on. An approach designed to deal with real and measurable impact would require fewer regulations and less paperwork, resulting in a faster and simpler approval process.

Right now, state and local regulations ensure that many entrepreneurs shy away from even attempting to build or open new schools. The process also guarantees that all school construction, even public school construction (think of Los Angeles' Belmont Learning Center's nearly $300 million price tag), is more expensive and takes longer than necessary.

Parents like Linda Feltch are willing to sleep on sidewalks to get their children into a limited number of private schools. If Feltch's daughter, Katie, doesn't get to attend the new Friends Christian High School because regulators made it impossible for the church to finish the school, it will be one more example of a miserable educational system failing students and parents.



"History is supposed to deliver more than a fanciful tale. The average person who picks up a history book on any topic expects to find within its pages some modicum of truth. That is what sets history apart from fiction. It is a reasoned reconstruction of past events based upon a dispassionate reading of evidence. As a result, people expect to be able use history to make real time, real world decisions.

Unfortunately, some historians have rejected this approach. For them, the spread of the Postmodern Movement transformed historical inquiry. Every form of Postmodernism is based, at some level, on relativism, the idea that there is no knowable, objective truth. In terms of historical study, this means that there is no evidence that can be called true, nor can historians separate themselves from their work and think objectively.

The result is that these newer historians have stopped trying to do good history, and have moved on to promote personal agendas through their work. Since they believe that no evidence is true, it doesn't matter how they use it. For instance, Bellesiles referenced sources destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Are they bothered by the fact that they approach their subjects with preconceived notions that they refuse to test? Certainly not. According to them, objectivity is impossible to attain. So, many newer histories dealing with race or gender, for instance, begin with the unchallenged premise that in any given situation, discrimination has already occurred, no matter what the evidence might say.

The trouble comes to a head when these authors deal with the public. Postmodern historians bank on the well-deserved reputation their more sensible colleagues built and maintain. Though postmodernists themselves know that their work is anything but tested and objective, they allow the public to assume it is. The result? Readers devour a book that in reality is nothing more than creative opinion, and then treat it as the gospel truth of history.

It is only a matter of time before Postmodern history collapses under the weight of its own absurdity. Until that happens, how should we approach history tainted with falsehood? Some basic philosophical commonsense will serve admirably:

1. Ask questions about the author(s). Who are they? Have they written other books? How do they approach the topic? Are there any ideas they are presuming that we should know about? For instance, books by vocal political advocates should be taken with stock in a salt mine.

2. Ask questions about the content. How do they support their arguments? Be certain to use known facts to critically examine their claims. Do their conclusions actually follow from their evidence? Is the book internally coherent? An amazing number of sloppy historians never bother to think through their own positions. Book reviews can be very helpful. maintains a good selection of conservative reviews.

3. Read the footnotes carefully. Are they quoting from firsthand accounts or another historian's book? Do they seem to lean heavily on one particular source? If a book does not provide easy access to sources, it may have something to hide.

4. Read the Preface, Introduction, and Conclusion carefully. Authors are much more open in these sections, and let the readers see a little of their minds (in some cases, a lot). Paying particular attention here will often alert you to danger, as well as reinforcing the point of the entire work.

Of course, the short answer is to read and think carefully about all important truth claims. This habit is more useful now than ever before; when some scholars refuse to think, it is up to the reader to do it for them.

More here


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Monday, December 27, 2004


Furious students and faculty members at the Borough of Manhattan Community College are demanding that the school abandon plans for a certificate program on security management. They view it as an endorsement of the Bush administration's Department of Homeland Security. Like hundreds of other community colleges across the nation since the September 11 attacks, the two-year CUNY school in Lower Manhattan is hoping to take advantage of the surging demand for security training. The school's faculty proposed a program in May that would teach students about threats to homeland security and how to counter them. At a school where the student government headquarters is decorated with a poster of a tortured Abu Ghraib prisoner and another that calls President Bush a "madman," some students and faculty members have reacted to the proposed program with intense suspicion. While those who proposed the program argue that it will offer BMCC students sought-after skills to help them find jobs in the security industry, critics say the program is an oppressive outgrowth of the Department of Homeland Security.

At a meeting Wednesday of the faculty council, tempers flared, according to those who were present, as faculty members shouted questions at the designer of the proposed program, Elinor Garely, a professor in the business management department. The student government is handing out a "fact sheet" on the program with the header: "Stop BMCC 'Homeland' Repression Program Now!" "Faculty members point out that if BMCC becomes known as 'Homeland Security U,' this will intimidate and drive away many present and potential students, especially immigrants," the leaflet states. The president of the student government at BMCC, Jason Negron, said the proposal is "a very scary issue that students are very, very against." He said if the program were to be instituted, students would be exposed to "a lot of right-wing views" and about "a lot of things that other countries have done to America without giving the other side of the story." He said it was the "progressive" faculty members who voiced opposition to the proposal at Wednesday's meeting.

One of the courses proposed for the new certificate program, "Terrorism and Counterterrorism," provides an overview of guerilla warfare, hostage situations, and profiles of terrorists and their organizations. Another course, "Homeland Security," would invite a representative from the New York State Office of Homeland Defense to speak to students and would cover such topics as "The new strategy to secure cyberspace, ""Analysis and discussion of safety and security concerns in high-rise buildings after 9/11," and "How to protect the organization from outside investigators." The proposed curriculum also includes courses on "Travel, Tourism, and Hospital Security," "Crime Prevention through Environmental Design," "Legal and Ethical Issues in Security Management," and "Employment Trends in Security Management." The proposal anticipates first-year enrollment at 35 to 40 students.

It could take months before the college approves the certificate program. After the CUNY central administration reviews it, the proposal would be returned to the faculty for final approval. The senior vice president for academic affairs at BMCC, Sadie Bragg, said the administration at the college has listened to the concerns of those who are objecting to the proposal. "Their concerns will be voiced," she said.

It appears the program has the support of the administration. BMCC's president, Antonio Perez, asked the department of business management to devise a security program, Ms. Garely said. Mr. Perez is a member of a task force that the American Association of Community Colleges recently established to help develop programs related to homeland security at community colleges across the country. Mr. Perez did not return calls from The New York Sun yesterday for comment.

Ms. Garely said the objective of the program is not to promote the Department of Homeland Security but to train students in skills that are in high demand in the workplace. "The need for safety-and-security education is part of every industry," she said. "Whether you look at cruise ships, shopping malls, corporate headquarters, every bank, they all have security," she said. Ms. Garely said the program is geared toward students who want entry-level security positions and to security employees who are seeking promotion. She said the 30-credit program could be transferred to fouryear degree programs offered at such schools as the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, also part of the CUNY system.

According to her proposal, about half of the students at BMCC are employed, with an average income less than $15,000. Ms. Garely said she was taken aback by the angry reaction to the proposal from faculty members, whom she encouraged to read the proposal. "I think that the discussion and viewpoints are what an academic process is about," she said. "That's why we have colleges, so people can speak out."



"Ladies and gentlemen, if you love your children, do not leave them in public schools, unless you have absolutely no choice. If that is the case, make sure you instill in them a love of learning for its own sake. Spend time with them, reading, instead of watching the television or letting them spend all their time playing video games.

The public school system is not doing its job. Rather, it is doing it too well. Our public schools are not teaching our children, but that is not the purpose of the schools. Surprised I would say that? Don't be. Our schools have as their primary purpose indoctrinating our children in socialist obedience. Take a look sometime at some of the textbooks that are used in our schools. Many of them do not include a complete text of the Bill of Rights. Also, look at the lesson plans of the teachers. Is Patrick Henry's famous speech to the Virginia Legislature covered? If not, why not? Are our children taught that the War of Northern Aggression was all about slavery, or are they taught that there were myriad causes of that war, with slavery only a very minor issue, until near the end? Are they taught that the 'great emancipator' used a small army of slaves to remodel and refurbish the White House?

Are our children taught logic and history and philosophy? Are they taught how to analyze problems effectively, wtihout preconceptions? Are our children taught the immense number of connections between history, religion, sociology, geography, and science? Are our children taught why our Founders rebelled against England? Are they taught how tyrants come to power, so they can recognize the signs and take action against such, when or if it occurs? Are they taught why free enterprise is the most efficient economic system, with the greatest benefit for the greatest number, over the long run? Are our children taught how to read? How to obtain information that is freely available, in almost any public library, or on the internet? How to evaluate the data they recieve, so they can assign a value to it, integrate it into their world view?

Do the teachers really teach, or are they just passing along regurgitated crap, going along with the system? How many of them make learning fun, so that the children temporarily in their care want to learn? How many school administrators are petty tyrants, abusing their authority and office? For example, refusing to allow a teacher to give children a copy of the Declaration of Independence, because it mentions god? Or perhaps suspending a high spirited young girl for the stated reason that she does cartwheels? (the real reason was that the school administrator involved in this one said the girl was 'defying authority') Defying authority? Isn't that one of the reasons this country was founded? Washington defied improperly used authority. Jefferson defied improperly used authority. Martin Luther defied improperly used authority. Martin Luther King defied improperly used authority. Jim Bowie, David Crockett, and a host of others, they all became heroes for defying improperly used authority.

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For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

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Some excerpts from a book introduction:

"In the chapters that follow, I will depict the fall of one particular school and the way in which the inherent structure of our public schools made its decline possible. The school in question is the one at which I have worked for the majority of my career. It is called the Eastlands Center (EC) and lies in a suburb that is just slightly north of the city of Chicago. The Eastlands Center is an alternative education facility that meets the needs of about 250 students who were referred to us by one of five general education high schools1 that directly fund our operations. Around 200 of these students are eligible for special education services and the rest are regular education students who were expelled or transferred to our facility due to disciplinary violations. All of our students have one thing in common, which is that they cannot reintegrate to their home schools without meeting general behavioral conditions and requirements. I first began working at Eastlands in August of 1998 and resigned my position in July of 2004.

My school was jokingly referred to as "Gangsta Island" by its employees, but we were no mere island. The individuals who staffed the building were the product of the same education schools that have produced teachers all over the land. Their training differed little from the training of the staff at your local primary and secondary schools. Our staff was exposed to the same contemporary fads and trends that that are now all the rage in facilities across the nation. They never received a segregated "alternative education." Indeed, most of the characters I discuss never even specialized in special education. They are general educators who found themselves as special educators through the transfer or hiring process. Finding teachers with all the right credentials is no small trick, and administrators often have to hire under-qualified personnel just to ensure that there are bodies in the classroom. It used to be that these general educators were allowed to take a few classes and receive "a letter" from the state which allowed them to teach disabled students. Nowadays, they are required to do much more in order for the school to be classified as possessing properly certified personnel.

Since 2000, our own district discovered that a lethal combination of rampant spending and declining tax revenues has placed it firmly in the fiscal red to the tune of ten million dollars per annum. Its solution, although it took them awhile, was to begin cutting programs and staff. We were targeted along with the general education buildings. Every time, the proposed budgetary reductions started out as being very severe, yet, every time, the cuts eventually were reduced to a miniscule amount. This was due to the fact that the high schools quickly found that they couldn't live without us. Last year one teacher was laid off but come November, he suddenly reappeared in his classroom with a fresh group of students before him. Our regular education program is a frequent target for eradication, as it doesn't bring in reimbursement dollars from the state. In February of 2004 it was considered doomed, but by May of 2004, it was restored. In this era of zero tolerance, school principals and deans simply cannot survive without the services offered by an alternative school. How often have I heard, "What would they do with these kids without us?" It is a crucial question, as the home schools have little stomach for arsonists, thieves, batterers, and drug pushers congregating in their hallways. I firmly support the proposition that schools like ours are here to stay. Alternative schools are growing and they'll be in the news more and more in the decades to come.

Another challenge to Gangsta Island's universality is the character of Principal Chin. I readily admit that it is extremely rare to have someone with a full-blown personality disorder working as a principal in the public schools. She is comical, cruel, and unusual, but undeniably she is an aberration. I wish I could state that she is a figment of my imagination, but any of ten employees she ran out of our building this year would avidly testify that she is not. In my nine year career, I have worked under seven other principals, and they in no way were ever, even for a brief period, ever as dysfunctional as Mrs. Chin. Yet, while she stands in notable contrast with most of her administrative peers in the United States, the way in which she was protected by the bureaucrats above her is indicative of much that is wrong in contemporary education, because in countless situations around the country, the educational elite polices itself, which often means that there is no policing at all.

Several sources have thoroughly documented the deficiencies present in today's teachers and also in the teacher unions that represent them, but few address the psychology of the mediocre nobility that oversees the empire. This book showcases a tandem of administrators whose sole goal is to protect their jobs regardless of the harm they inflicted upon students or staff. While such a blatant refusal to act in the interests of others is undoubtedly abnormal, the fact is that, due to the lack of overseeing legal authorities, there is practically no one for whom insiders can appeal when administrators chose to deny that a Chernobyl has transpired on their watch. In the case of school, we were not directly subject to the purview of a school board, as our building was monitored by a gaggle of superintendents who had their own school boards with which to contend. It was highly unlikely that any of the parents on their boards had students at the Eastlands Center, so there would be no reason why any members would take even a casual interest in the specifics of what went on at our location. Yet, even in the case of school boards that represent non-alternative schools, it is sometimes difficult for them to know exactly what is going on behind closed doors. They rely on information that is relayed to them via the administrators who are seated before them during school board meetings, and if they wish to cover up something, it is not very hard for them to do so.

In this story, what is unswervingly transferable to the rest of the educational world is the unaccountability of our managers and leaders. As admittedly absurd as the character of Principal Chin is, what should most appall the average reader is that no one above her seeks to censure or reprimand her for any of the outrageous acts she commits. Her superiors made excuses for her at every opportunity and minimized the severity of the vendettas she directed towards staff. Nearly any person off the street could easily point out that running a couple of motor vehicles in an enclosed gymnasium in the presence of 250 children is a feat of criminal negligence (at the very least) and that Chin's choosing to bring an assault rifle to school as a present for another administrator was "a lawsuit waiting to happen." Yet, our magnates could not be bothered to supervise an individual whose history would enrich many a trial lawyer. In their minds, I suppose the fact that the district has its own legal protections and insurance in place dissuaded them from having to take a personal interest in the unbalanced behaviors of their prot‚g‚. Precious few individuals who I've met have ever worried about being sued personally.

In the chapter "Denial as Religion," we witness the supremos above Chin possessing a plethora of facts and testimony at their fingertips regarding her failures, but they consciously choose to disregard it in its entirety. Why would such highly educated adults purposely evade the truth? I would suggest three reasons. First, if you deny that a problem exists then, by definition, there is absolutely no need to address it because there is nothing for you to address. A second factor is plain and simple human greed. Our directors made over 100 grand every year and were as fat and happy as they could possibly be, so the last thing they would do is risk throwing it all away by uncovering the snake that they had accidentally deposited in the garden they were supposed to be tending. Mr. Ichada is the perfect embodiment of this kind of corrupt mentality. Many individuals are simply pleased to have their own office, but Jorge Ichada inhabited his own building, and it luckily placed him far away from us on the other side of the compound. It was a submarine without a periscope, and that was the way he liked it. A third and final justification for inaction regarding Chin was that she was one of them. She was an administrator, and as such had to be defended. It was not out of love for Louis XVI that the monarchies of Europe waged war against revolutionary France. It was due to their realization that when one dynasty falls, every royal domain is imperiled. Our aristocracy told everyone and anyone who'd listen to them that they were caring, "progressive educators," but, in the final analysis, they had no interest whatsoever in changing a thing. When it became more and more obvious to even disinterested observers that our principal had a bad case of sanity tremens, the ruling cabal sought to defend her against all foes because, if they didn't by that point, then people would wonder what kind of supervision they were performing for the first two years of her reign. Their habitual avoidance and denial of problems is yet another reason why this tale should resonate across educational circles.

Gangsta Island surveys the fall of an alternative school, and the events and characters within it are factually based and not fictitious props that enable the author to prove his point. The fact is that I have few intractable theorems to share regarding public education. My suggestions and solutions are often quite specific, and even when they are not, my tone is never strident. This topic is not like some of the broad-based political topics I mention above. It is apparent that we must work towards bettering the public schools. In my mind there are no simple, magical solutions-i.e., voting for my candidate will not solve the problems of public education. I know of no single partisan answer to the drama that will soon be laid out before you. This tale is true, and while there are lessons to be learned, those lessons do not include always voting for the Republican Party (although I would appreciate it if you did).

Earlier I mentioned the "prevailing sentiment" in education, and what I was referring to there is the reality that most of the educators I have known tend to associate themselves with the Democratic Party and would regard themselves as being "liberals." At one time I was no different from they. It was not until 2000 that I finally formally joined the side I was representing in spirit. Before then, I had voted for Democratic candidates in every election since I was first eligible to vote in 1988. I did so because my mother and father were Democrats and because, at an early age, it was explained to me that Democrats wanted to help the poor while Republicans only wanted to help the rich. This was something I learned from my father, who probably first heard it from his hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. That such a grotesque, fallacious view could remain entrenched in my mind for so many years is absolutely related to my never taking the time to listen to what the opposition was saying. Had I ever done so, I would have probably joined the GOP many years earlier.

I have found that numerous people in education are cognizant of their own political views but are ignorantly blissful as to what others believe. Without knowing what is thought on the other side of the hill, it is all too easy to paint others as extremists or caricatures. I recall being in a Counselors' meeting in December of 2000 and hearing a social worker exclaim, "I sure hope Al Gore wins because if he doesn't, the schools are in big trouble." I asked her why she thought so and she said that George Bush was going to de-fund education. Ironically, between the time he took office and February of 2004, President Bush has increased federal education outlays to the tune of $533 billion. Indeed, Bush seems to allocate vast amounts of money to any federal program that winks or begs in his direction, but many of my peers are unaware of his big government tendencies because they don't read about the specifics.

Unfortunately, sometimes the political ideas of teachers find their way into the classroom. My friend Ari loves to tell the story about the time, while walking down the hallway where he works (Southern High School), that he overheard a teacher inform his class that "Democrats are for the little guy, whereas Republicans support the rich." It was the exact same advice that my father gave to me nearly 30 years ago, but, unlike my father, the teacher had an obligation to keep his biases to himself. Ari, of course, was tactful enough to not interrupt the teacher's class to rebut him, but did try to engage him in a dialogue at a later date.

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"About the same time TIMSS and PISA came out, two reports about charter schools were released. The more prominent of the two was a National Assessment of Educational Performance (NAEP) study, which showed fourth grade charter students performing slightly lower in math and reading assessments than their traditional public school peers -- not bad considering that charters attract students who've struggled in traditional public schools. None of the results, though, were terribly encouraging. Not even one third of students, either in charter or regular public schools, were proficient in math or reading.

In the second report, Harvard University economist Caroline Hoxby showed that elementary charter school kids were 5.2 percent more likely to be proficient in reading, and 3.2 percent more likely to be proficient in math, than children in the nearest public schools with similar racial compositions. Of course, the normal public schools had set a low bar for charters to clear. Despite the importance of these results, numbers can only tell us so much. In his remarks at the NAEP unveiling, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Eugene Hickok acknowledged this, and highlighted an unquantifiable characteristic of charters that sets them apart: a "sense of ownership," a dedication to a school and its mission that charter parents and students have because they've chosen the school.

Unfortunately, a "sense" of ownership is about as close to real ownership as charter schools are likely to get, because in almost every other respect, they are renters, not owners, and their landlord is out for blood. Charter schools can't even exist without the permission of their government landlords: state governments must pass laws permitting them, and once state governments have spoken, other entities must grant the charters. In many states, those other entities are public school districts, which are often charter schools' primary competition - and chief antagonists. In the 2002-03 school year, according to the Center for Education Reform (CER), almost 43 percent of charters were issued by local school boards, and another 28 percent by state boards. So charters often start with their necks already between Dracula's fangs, and they have the teeth marks to prove it: CER reports that on average, charters receive smaller per-pupil allotments than traditional public schools, and, unlike traditional public schools, often must pay for facilities with those funds. Moreover, hostile politicians are constantly threatening to force new standards on charters, to shrink them, or to shut them down completely.

Even under the current, dismal circumstances, many charter schools provide at least some refuge from failed traditional public schools. But that's as far as charters will be allowed to go. As long as the Dracula landlords retain control, and treat competition like so many cloves of garlic, choice will be hobbled, restricted to cash-strapped charter schools or even worse public schools. For truly powerful choice to occur, the dark forces must be circumvented. Parents must be able to select their child's school - charter, private, or traditional public - and schools must be free to operate without the permission of antagonistic landlords. In other words, parents must have real ownership.

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For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

Comments? Email me here. For times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site (viewable even in China!) here