Saturday, May 30, 2009

Teaching to get the best out of a child: is streaming or mixed ability the best way?

How best to teach children is a question which few people agree on - even though parents, teachers and children would benefit from a definitive answer. One issue which does keep cropping up is whether to set children by ability or to teach them all together. This is a topic on which there is strong disagreement.

On Women's Hour last week, Professor Jo Boaler talked about how she is in favour of mixed ability teaching for her subject, maths. She then followed this up, summing up her thoughts in a letter to the Times where she stated: "The highest maths-achieving countries in the world — countries as diverse as Finland and Japan — teach all students to high levels and communicate to all students that they can do well in maths. In England we do the opposite and assign young children to low groups, which we know they never get out of. We then lament the fact that millions of school children leave school unable to use basic mathematics. Teachers may tell you that it is better to divide children into different levels in order to teach them well, but the reality is that it is easier for teachers to divide and label children in such ways."

I spoke to Professor Boaler this morning to confirm whether she believed in mixed ability teaching for all subjects. She said she did, and is passionate on this subject, particularly when it comes to primary aged pupils. Younger children, she says, should never be grouped by ability. It just turns the ones put into lower ability groups, off learning.

It's ironic that the day I heard Professor Boaler speak on Women's Hour was the same one when I met up with Shadow Schools Minister Nick Gibb. He strongly disagrees with mixed ability teaching, suggesting that even in primary schools "there is some benefit in having separate classes for early literacy and potentially for maths." When it comes to secondary school, he thinks that every subject should be streamed. He also believes that this will help all children. "We believe that every academic subject - including history and geography - should be set by ability in comprehensive schools in each year group," he said.

Mr Gibb refers to research, particularly by Kulik, to back up his point. He also says that the key is to tailor the curriculum to the ability level and that when this happens, there are huge increases in educational attainment amongst the more able pupils and no falls in achievement lower down. He even argues that you see a small RISE in self esteem amongst the least able children and a small fall in self esteem amongst the most able children.

"I also believe that the better and more experienced teachers should be asked to teach the least able sets, which should also have smaller class sizes," he says. "In this way, not only are these children given the space and time to learn they will also have very able teachers. Much research on setting highlights the fact that the lower sets often have the weakest teachers. This is an indictment of the schools involved in the research rather than an objective critique of setting."

It's a fascinating argument. Many private schools use setting and streaming, and so did a lot of state schools in the 70s. It then went out of fashion, but has been used more often in recent years. Many parents of brighter pupils are strongly in favour, as they want to see their children "stretched". How best to do this is a moot point.

I think that people's views on setting depend hugely on which set they were in at school. Those in the bottom sets often argue that it made them feel stupid, and inclined to give up on a subject. Research has suggested that those in the lower sets do lose out in terms of self-esteem, while those in the higher sets benefit. Meanwhile those in the top sets often say they felt inspired to carry on achieving, and were pushed by being surrounded by very able peers.

Both these responses are interesting because they suggest that setting might be good for more able children, and not for the less able. However, Nick Gibb argues that all children benefit from being separated according to ability, as long as they are taught well, and as long as the sets are "fluid." Meanwhile Professor Boaler argues that mixed ability teaching benefits all, including the brightest, as long as it is done properly.

"It's not okay to expect all children to do the same work in these mixed ability groups," she adds. "They need to work at different levels, which is hard for the teacher, but means that achievement levels go up massively."

There has, of course, been a great deal of research into this issue. "Complex instruction" which mixes children of all abilities so that they can help each other, has recently been reported to be a success. Professor Boaler is the woman pioneering this in the UK, and found her experiences of it in the US to be a fair and impressive way of teaching. But the subject is still controversial, and as with so many issues, there seems to be research to prove each side....


Australia: Reading syllabus hijacked by fringe groups as basics ignored

Unbelievable that the battle for phonics still has to be fought anywhere after all the evidence of its supetiority

THE nation's most respected remedial reading experts have criticised the National Curriculum Board for caving in to the demands of a fringe group of university academics and teachers who argue against a back-to-basics emphasis on phonics in teaching reading. The board, which is charged with writing the national guidelines on teaching from kindergarten to Year 12, has been accused of ignoring key players in drafting its latest advice on the shape of the proposed new English curriculum.

Researchers have told federal Education Minister Julia Gillard that the board, headed by chairman Barry McGaw, has failed to consider recommendations of the national inquiry into teaching literacy, which insists that the "explicit and systematic" teaching of the letter-sound relationships is required to learn to read.

The letter to Ms Gillard accuses professional associations representing English teachers and literacy educators of hijacking the national curriculum to remove the emphasis on the teaching of phonics as the essential first step in learning to read. The 20-plus signatories also say no recognised reading researcher or infant-years expert was consulted when the board produced the framing paper.

Among those unhappy with the position of the curriculum board - which will frame a national approach to English, maths, science and history teaching for all students by next year - are the researchers who sparked the national reading inquiry in 2004, including the Macquarie University group that developed the MULTILIT program being used with great success in indigenous communities.

The reading experts say they were locked out of the consultation process and no recognised expert was consulted "despite written requests, which included the names and contact details of recognised reading researchers".

"Any individual who can read themselves can claim to be a reading researcher, but the term 'recognised' reading researcher refers to those academics who have undertaken evidence-based research in the area of learning to read and write and how these skills are best taught," they say.

The letter says the teacher professional associations - the Australian Association for the Teaching of English, the Australian Literacy Educators Association and the Primary English Teachers Association - do not represent classroom teachers but are controlled by academics in university education faculties with little experience in teaching children to read.

All three organisations are members of the international Whole Language Umbrella group of reading and literacy associations run out of the US. "(They) have very limited membership among classroom teachers," the letter says. "According to their own published annual general reports, these associations are better known to politicians and the media than to classroom teachers and their membership base amongst classroom teachers is so low that their existence is threatened. "Executive positions on these associations are mostly held by academics from schools and faculties of education or by individuals with no expertise in basic research on learning to read and write and how these skills are best taught."

National Curriculum Board general manage Rob Randall defended the draft curriculum, saying the the research and findings of the national inquiry into teaching reading would be evident in the curriculum, which was yet to be written.

The framing paper was written by Sydney University education professor Peter Freebody, whose appointment was criticised for his association with the whole-language approach to teaching reading, which holds that phonics are not always necessary in learning to read.

The initial advice paper on English released by the curriculum board last October contains a half-page discussion about the teaching of reading in the early years of school under the subheading "beginnings and basics".

"The explicit and systematic teaching of sound-script correspondences is important, and not just for students who are in their first year or so of schooling, or for whom English is not a first language," it says.

"The explicit teaching of decoding, grammar, spelling and other aspects of the basic codes of written English will be an important and routine aspect of the national English curriculum. It should be planned, put into practice and consolidated as part of a program in English education, and it should be available to students throughout the school years."

In final advice to the curriculum writers released at the beginning of the month, reading is mentioned in the general context of literacy referring to "reading, writing, speaking, viewing and listening effectively in a range of contexts". "Many students when learning to read need systematic attention to fundamentals like phonological and phonemic awareness, and sound-letter correspondences as well as the development of skills in using semantic and syntactic clues to make meaning," the paper says.

The reading researchers argue the reference to the need to develop skills in using semantic and syntactic clues, such as the syntax of the sentence and the picture on the page, "invites confusion" and could be read as supporting the "debunked three-cueing system which confuses the skills needed for reading/decoding and the skills needed for comprehension".

The letter was sent to Ms Gillard and Professor McGaw, with copies to Opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne, NCB director of operations Rose Naughton, Professor Freebody and the NSW representative on the NCB, Tom Alegounaris, who is the newly appointed president of the NSW Board of Studies.


Friday, May 29, 2009

Union has limited success at running NYC charter school

The United Federation of Teachers' own charter school is an oasis of learning in Brooklyn's East New York -- but its students still lag behind kids who attend charters run by other groups, a Post analysis has found.

Unlike other city charters, the UFT's 4-year-old experimental school -- simply called the UFT Charter School -- has a teaching staff that adheres to the same contract rules, with just a few amendments, as conventional schools. As charter schools continue to expand, the UFT and its sister organization, New York State Union Teachers, are trying to exert more control over them while arguing that successful charters and unionization are not mutually exclusive.

Last week, two union-friendly legislators introduced a bill in Albany that would have required all charter schools to have a unionized staff. The New York State Charter Schools Association called the legislation "crippling," and it was yanked from Assembly and Senate committees after The Post made inquiries.

Despite the unions' attempted power grab, city Department of Education data show the union's own charter school has test scores that are lower than nonunion charters. The UFT Charter -- separate elementary and junior-high schools in one building -- has 72.7 percent of its students meeting or exceeding math standards -- impressive, but still far behind the city charter-school average of 87.5 percent. Likewise, charter schools citywide have 81.7 percent of students meeting or exceeding English standards, while the UFT Charter School level was at 67.9 percent.

Still, the UFT Charter School, which has longer school days, is outperforming the surrounding conventional schools in the district. Its 72.7 percent of students meeting or exceeding math standards tops the 67.7 percent for students in the rest of the district. For English, the UFT Charter School's 67.9 percent of students meeting or exceeded standards is far ahead of the 57.6 percent for students in the rest of the district.

Plus, both schools at UFT Charter are improving each year. Combined test scores for sixth-graders last year show 62 percent meeting or exceeding standards. The same kids this year, now seventh-graders, showed 76 percent meeting or exceeding standards. "This is a great improvement and suggests that we are on the right track," said UFT spokesman Ron Davis.

By and large, the UFT Charter School adheres to the teachers' contract. One big difference is in the junior high, where teachers' work schedules are staggered to give students a longer school day. Teachers at the UFT Charter School can also use a 37-minute period for their own professional development or training. Conventional schools devote that time to small-group student instruction.


British school exclusions 'merry-go-round' shows that reforms are failing

Children are being thrown out of school repeatedly in a merry-go-round of exclusions, according to an investigation by The Times that shows that government reforms are not working. Ministers put pressure on schools to reduce the number of permanent expulsions and this figure has fallen by almost a half in the past decade.

However, schools are resorting increasingly to multiple short-term exclusions — frequently removing the same disruptive pupils, who may then be left alone at home or wandering the streets. An estimated 176,000 children were suspended more than once last year, according to a survey of local authorities by The Times. Thousands more were expelled.

Despite claims from ministers that they are doing more to help excluded children, schools and councils are struggling to comply with a new law that means they must provide full-time alternative education on the sixth day of exclusion, rather than the 16th day as required previously. Lack of funding and resources means that some pupil referral units are overwhelmed and can offer only a few hours a week to teenagers. At some units pupils turn up for only a couple of hours, once a week.

Two children in Macclesfield were given four hours’ schoolwork a week to complete at home. A five-year-old in South London was excluded and left without education for six weeks and then went back to the unit for three half-days a week.

New figures show an alarming link between exclusion and prison, and education experts say that expulsion very often leads to a criminal lifestyle. Two fifths of adult male prisoners had been excluded from school, according to figures published recently by the Prison Reform Trust. A Home Office report, released last month, showed that 86 per cent of under-18 male inmates in young offender institutions had been expelled from school. Carl Parsons, a professor of education and an author of books on exclusion, said: “These kids are very often in or on the edge of the criminal justice system before they are excluded. Exclusion will push them further.”

The extent of the problems faced by schools is revealed in our survey of local authorities, which found that many children were excluded for aggressive and even violent behaviour, as well as for being disruptive.

In Durham half of expelled children had assaulted or threatened a teacher or another pupil. Others were removed for theft, sexual misconduct, bullying, damage to property or incidents linked to drugs and alcohol. One local authority said: “Some emerging issues around exclusion include guns, gang issues, weapons and drugs.”

Teachers who have campaigned for greater protection say that such children should be removed from the classroom. John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, said: “People talk about the effect of exclusion on a child, but what they forget is the effect of that child on other children. They are the group of people who get more fed up than anyone with bad behaviour, and end up disrupted and demoralised.”

Nearly 15,000 children were excluded more than five times in 2006-07, according to government figures. The Times survey shows that more than a third of pupils excluded last year were removed from school more than once — a total of 7,023 children in 15 rural, urban and suburban local authorities. When extrapolated across all 375 authorities in England and Wales it equates to almost 176,000 children. In some areas 60 per cent of excluded children went through the experience repeatedly.

This use of numerous fixed-period exclusions reduces the number of permanent exclusions, giving the impression that the problem of disruptive behaviour is being tackled. Steve Turner, a director of UK Youth, which develops alternative provision, said: “There are pupils who go round and round the system. They get stuck in a cycle of attending and being excluded.”

The schools inspectorate Ofsted found recently that only half of the local authorities it surveyed were meeting the target of alternative provision for excluded pupils. It painted a picture of variable funding, poor communication and a lack of capacity in pupil referral units.

This was echoed by respondents to The Times survey. Derbyshire failed to place 11 pupils in alternative provision within six days, and Luton was unable to meet the deadline for two. A Luton Council spokesman said: “Sixth-day provision is an unrealistic expectation since appropriate provision needs to be selected with care.” Sunderland Council said: “An area of challenge continues to be finding a range of quality, appropriate, alternative provision for pupils for whom mainstream education is not appropriate.”

Martin Narey, the head of Barnardo’s and former director-general of the Prison Service, once said that on the day a child is excluded they might as well be given a date for prison. He told The Times: “I’d be astonished if this had changed significantly. We inevitably find that if you take someone out of a class of 30 children, they can prosper and do very well in a smaller class and have a good chance in life. Once a child has been excluded permanently, or repeatedly for a fixed term, it’s very difficult to arrest that.”

The Government says that the fall in permanent expulsions and increase in temporary exclusions is a success because it reflects “early intervention and a reduction in the most serious incidents of bad behaviour”.

Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, admitted last year that a significant minority of referral units were not performing to the required standard and ordered them to improve or close. His department has set up a dozen pilots of alternative provision, including a city farm equestrian centre, a football training school and an arts centre.

Jim Knight, the schools minister, said yesterday: “Fixed-term exclusions and suspensions are an important tool for heads to use in tackling disruptive behaviour and safeguarding the learning of other children. At the same time, repeatedly suspending pupils doesn’t solve the problem. Excluded pupils need a good education and we expect local authorities to meet their legal obligations and ensure that every child is getting a suitable education.”


Thursday, May 28, 2009

Harvard accused of racism after expelling student over campus killing

That good ol' race card again. Harvard would bend over backwards rather than be seen as racist

Harvard University is embroiled in a scandal involving drugs, murder and allegations of racism after a man was shot dead on campus. The murder last week of Justin Cosby, an alleged drug dealer, has stunned America’s oldest Ivy League institution. The expulsion of a female student believed to be linked to the killing has added to the university’s problems after she claimed that she was being targeted because she was black and poor.

Chanequa Campbell, 21, who grew up in a rough, working-class Brooklyn neighbourhood, was admitted to Harvard after winning scholarships from The New York Times and Coca-Cola, and was due to graduate next month. She was ordered off campus last week. “I do believe that I am being singled out . . . the honest answer is I’m black and I’m poor,” Ms Campbell told The Boston Globe. “I’m from New York and I walk in a certain way and I keep my clothes in a certain way. It’s something that labels me as different from everyone else.” A Harvard official said that the university had taken “appropriate steps”.

The case has raised questions about the prevalence of drug use at the university and the ability of alleged dealers to enter campus. Ms Campbell is believed to have been expelled from the university — the alma mater of Barack Obama and seven former US presidents — because of her alleged involvement in the death of Mr Cosby, 21, which prosecutors say was a botched robbery.

Mr Cosby was shot in the stomach in a university dormitory. Jordan Copney, from New York, has been charged with his murder. Mr Copney, 20, who is a professional songwriter and does not study at Harvard, is accused of targeting Mr Cosby because he was carrying a stash of marijuana and $1,000 in cash.

Ms Campbell is a friend of Mr Copney’s long-term girlfriend, another Harvard student. Prosecutors claim that Mr Copney knew Mr Cosby through two female students at Harvard, to whom Mr Cosby allegedly sold drugs.

One issue is how the alleged killer gained access to the dormitory. Officials say that he obtained a security pass from a Harvard student. Ms Campbell said that she lived in Kirkland annex and not in Kirkland House, where Mr Cosby was shot, and insisted that Mr Copney did not use her Harvard card to get in.

Gerard Leone, the district attorney prosecuting the case, said that Mr Copney, the son of a retired New York police officer, had travelled to Harvard with the intent of robbing Mr Cosby, who was unarmed. “During the course of the rip-off, things go bad and Justin Cosby gets shot to death,” Mr Leone said.

Prosecutors said that Mr Cosby was “visiting friends on the campus”. He was confronted by Mr Copney and “during the course of the confrontation, multiple shots were fired. One of those shots struck Cosby, resulting in his death.” After he was shot, the victim ran up a street before collapsing. He died several hours later in hospital.

Ms Campbell said: “I have no knowledge of anything that happened, none whatsoever.” She said that she was taking a final exam on the afternoon of the murder.


British working class children 'alienated' in private schools, says The Sutton Trust

Poor children given free places at top private schools often struggle to fit into the "elite atmosphere", according to research for The Sutton Trust. Bringing back the government-funded Grammar schools, where entrance is limited to those who perform well on an academic aptitude test, would largely solve that problem as many students in such schools are of working-class origin

Many pupils from deprived backgrounds feel "estranged and alienated" from other pupils and teachers if they are given places at leading establishments, it is claimed. In addition, some are unable to take part in cultural visits or foreign exchange trips because their parents cannot afford them.

The Sutton Trust, which commissioned the report, said the findings had serious implications for new rules designed to open independent schools to more children from working class backgrounds. Sir Peter Lampl, the charity's chairman, insisted schools needed to look beyond "the simple question of fees" to make sure pupils succeeded. Private school headmasters backed the conclusions, insisting that "plucking the best and the brightest pupils out of the state sector" was counter-productive.

In the latest study, researchers held in-depth interviews with adults who had been through the Conservatives' assisted places scheme in the 1980s and 90s. The programme - scrapped by Labour in 1997 - gave pupils from poor backgrounds free and subsidised admission to independent schools. Earlier research showed students with assisted places achieved better GCSE and A-level results than pupils remaining in the state sector. They were also much more likely to go onto Oxbridge.

But the latest report - called Embers from the Ashes? - said it was "far from an unqualified success". "Virtually all spoke of the fact that they could not participate in the 'semi-formal' activities in the school curriculum, such as field-trips, cultural visits or foreign exchange trips, because their parents could not afford to finance them," it said. "Also commonly mentioned was a lack of participation in weekend and after-school activities, compounded by very long journeys to and from school."

The report, based on interviews with 25 former pupils, said that "feeling like the poor relation" was the "defining characteristic of their time at school". "It appears that financial hardship combined with cultural discontinuity between the home and the school, contributes to a sense of stigmatisation," the study said.

Under Labour's 2006 Charities Act, fee-paying schools are no longer automatically entitled to charitable status. They must prove they provide "public benefit" to hang on to tax breaks worth an estimated £100m to the sector every year. Official guidance from the Charity Commission suggested the easiest way to pass the new test was "increasing general fee levels in order to offer subsidies to those unable to pay the full cost".

But Sir Peter called for more wholesale Government funding for private day schools - rather than "a few token places" - to break down the barriers between the two sectors. "The chance to democratise entry to 100 or more of our highest-performing academic schools should not be missed and would be a tremendous boost for social mobility," he said.

Anthony Seldon, the master of Wellington College, Berkshire, said: "Plucking the best and the brightest pupils out of state schools may help the odd child but it is completely insufficient as a tool to bridge the gap between the two sectors."


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Fewer taking history GCSE as British pupils abandon traditional subjects

Fewer teenagers are taking GCSEs in history as pupils abandon traditional subjects in favour of new-style skills classes, according to research

Ofsted, the education watchdog, says pupils' knowledge of history - including the Second World War - is 'often very patchy'. Less than a third of students sat history exams last summer - the second-lowest number since Labour came to power. The disclosure - in figures published by the Conservatives - comes amid claims that mainstays of the curriculum are increasingly being marginalised in state schools.

More students have been put onto vocational courses in subjects such as ICT (information and communication technology) - which often count for as many as four GCSEs - to boost schools' positions in national league tables. Last September, the Government also introduced new diploma qualifications in five practical areas, including health, engineering and media, to rival GCSEs and A-levels.

The Conservatives claim entries for traditional subjects are increasingly being dominated by students from private and grammar schools, undermining the chances of comprehensive school pupils getting into top universities. According to Tory figures, 35.4 per cent of 15 and 16-year-olds took a GCSE in history when Labour came to power in 1997. Some 379,280 teenagers missed out on studying the subject, it was revealed. But numbers slumped to a record low in 2007 when only 30.9 per cent of pupils took a history GCSE, meaning 453,679 teenagers left school without studying the subject properly. Numbers increased slightly last summer to 31 per cent. The Conservatives claim the overall slump has left many children without a decent grasp of the past.

According to a 2007 report by Ofsted, the education watchdog, pupils' knowledge of history is "often very patchy and specific; they are unable to sufficiently link discrete historical events to answer big questions".

Michael Gove, the Tory shadow schools secretary, said: "The number of children studying history beyond fourteen has fallen to less than one pupil in three. The Government's league tables encourage schools to push pupils away from harder subjects, even if they are of more long term value."

The Tories also criticised the Government's new primary school curriculum, which was published last month, claiming it would "further water down history" for the youngest pupils. Under plans, traditional subject headings will be removed in place of six broad "areas of learning". History has been merged into new "historical, geographical and social understanding" lessons, which also include a focus on sustainability, climate change, recycling, human rights and a requirement to learn about the role of local authority councillors and MPs. "All these reforms take us completely in the wrong direction," said Mr Gove.

A decline in the number of students taking history at school has already been heavily criticised. Last year, one leading examination board threatened to axe its least popular GCSE subjects, including classical civilisation, following a decline in interest. The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance axed its separate Latin and Ancient Greek languages GCSE courses in 2004.

A DCSF spokesperson said: "All pupils must study History up to the age of 14. Students are offered a range of options for GCSE and history remains a popular choice for young people, both at GCSE and A Level. The proportion of GCSE entrants studying history increased in 2008, of which 68 per cent achieved grades A*–C. "What is clear is that throughout their school careers, pupils gain a wide knowledge of British history – from Roman Britain to World War II."


I'll sue to get my son a proper education, says British father after school limits academic subjects in favour of 'practical' GCSEs

A father is threatening to sue his son's state school for failing to provide a proper academic education. Peter Hills says teenagers are forced to sideline traditional academic subjects in favour of vocational qualifications when choosing GCSE courses. His son Alex, 14, wants to take a full set of academic GCSEs, but his school is making him choose at least one practical course in either Information and Communication Technology (ICT), art or drama. This must take the place of one of his four preferred options: history, geography, French and music.

Mr Hills has written to Children's Secretary Ed Balls to complain that his son faces almost a day a week studying for a qualification in which he has no interest. The transport company director, who lives in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, with his wife Nicky, believes he will be forced to pay for private education for Alex instead - and is consulting solicitors about suing the school for part of the cost.

Alex studies at nearby Eastwood School, which specialises in performing arts and sport. Pupils studying GCSEs there must choose one vocational course - a BTEC in art, a BTEC in performing arts or an OCR National in ICT. This counts as one subject choice, in addition to the compulsory core subjects of English, maths, science and RE. However, it is taught for four periods a week instead of the two allocated to other options.

Mr Hills wrote: 'While I am aware that The Eastwood School has a leaning towards the performing arts and sports, it is surely required to make an equal effort in providing a full academic education for those that require it.

He said the school's specialisms 'appear to be given prominence over all academic subjects, ie history, geography and languages, which surely should be the cornerstone of education in this country'. He added: 'If this matter cannot be resolved, then I feel I will have no option other than to send my child to a private school willing to provide the education best suited to his abilities, and to recover part of the cost from The Eastwood School via the county court.'

Mr Hills said: 'We have sought legal advice to see whether or not it is possible to obtain redress. It is at an early stage. 'What the state is providing, in my opinion and that of just about everyone else I have spoken to, is not suitable.'

The Education Act 2002 says that schools have a legal duty to offer all 14 to 16-year- olds suitable learning challenges and a broad curriculum - including entitlements to study the arts, humanities and languages. Lawyers for Mr Hills are likely to consider if Eastwood School has properly fulfilled these duties.

He said he was very doubtful about the ICT qualification Alex would probably end up taking. He believes the subject matter will soon be obsolete. Ofsted urged the Government to 'evaluate the degree of challenge' the qualification poses, in a report this year. It noted that two major ICT courses, one of which is understood to be the OCR National, count as four GCSEs in school league tables but typically take half the time to teach. 'Students were able to meet the criteria, whether or not they had understood what they had done,' the report said.


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The failures of America's Public High Schools and 'Dropout Factories'

And all that is offered to fix them is hot air. Things that WOULD help, such as a revival of discipline or special classes for the less bright, may not be mentioned. Special classes for the less bright would be heavily populated by blacks but why is that worse than letting blacks drop out altogether? -- which very large numbers of them currently do.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan believes we have what amounts to a "once-in-a-couple-of-generations opportunity" to "push a very, very strong reform agenda" for the nation's schools. His view is based, in part, on the Obama administration's intention to spend billions of additional dollars on public education, though Duncan acknowledges that money alone is not the answer. He also says the country has arrived at a moment when we have the necessary political will to make tough changes.

Not least of the problems that must be addressed can be found in America's high schools, where, Duncan said in a speech last week, "Our expectations for our teenagers in this country are far too low."

In fact, change has never come easily to America's approximately 23,800 public high schools. Since the alarming report A Nation at Risk was published in 1983, we have had "wave after wave of reform"- and little progress, according to Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution.

Among the problems: easing the transition into ninth grade, raising retention rates, and preparing teens for college and/or work. "Our high schools are not organized for today's student," Cindy Brown, of the Center for American Progress, told Politics Daily. "Too many kids are surrounded by technology. (They're) getting information in much more diverse ways" than from a teacher standing in front of a class. "So we need to rethink the ways we're doing high school."

Although many states have upgraded their high school curriculum, resetting the focus on academics and accountability, the consensus among educators is that our secondary schools "are not doing the job they need to do at all," Brown added.

The snapshot below of U.S. high schools and high-school students is loosely drawn from "Can the American High School Become an Avenue of Advancement for All?" an essay by Robert Balfanz, a research scientist at the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. It offers a somewhat contradictory view of their performance. All figures are from current studies.

1. One in four U.S. public high school students drop out before graduating.

2. About 15 percent of the nation's public high schools produce more than half of its dropouts and 75 percent of its minority dropouts, according to the Everyone Graduates Center.

3. The nation's 2,026 "dropout factories," where 40 percent of the freshman class fail to graduate three years later, are found in every state but are concentrated in 17 Midwestern, Northern-industrial, Southern, and Southwestern states, as well as in California.

4. In 2006, America's 15-year-olds scored just ahead of the Slovak Republic and Lithuania in science literacy and on par with Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation in math literacy.

5. More than half of the 81,499 U.S. high school students participating in the 2006 High School Survey of Student Engagement said they spend one hour or less each week reading and studying outside of class.

6. At least 95 percent of students entering high school from the wealthiest communities are proficient in their eighth-grade state exams; in high-poverty, inner-city schools, less than 20 percent of students are proficient, usually possessing fifth- or sixth-grade math and reading skills.

7. Of the class of 2008, 15.2 percent took an Advanced Placement exam and scored a 3 or above-the scores typically required by a college for credit-up from 12.2 percent in 2003. Low-income students made up 13.4 percent of successful examinees, up from 9.8 percent, in five years.

8. Eighty-seven percent of high-school seniors surveyed by the U.S. Department of Education said they expected to go to college. Three-quarters of graduates enroll in college within two years.

9. Approximately 40 percent of college students take remedial courses.

10. The college graduation rate for low-income students is less than 10 percent.

Of course there are pockets of success. Referring to the U.S. education system broadly, Duncan told his audience of educators and reporters, "All of the answers are out there. Adult dysfunction has been at the heart" of the nation's educational ills.

But experts on a Brookings panel last week sounded a more skeptical note about high schools, suggesting the evidence of what works is scant and that we should expect to build on "modest positive effects" rather than to find "a silver bullet."

Still, there's reason for optimism. The good news, one panel member said, is that "people still believe high school improvement is worth investing in." And, the president is poised to do just that. Obama's 2010 budget request includes a High School Graduation Initiative funded at $50 billion, $43.5 billion to fund an Advanced Placement incentive and test fees, and $1.5 billion in Title I grants to turn around low-performing schools.

We have to challenge ourselves to raise the bar, Duncan said. "And I promise you that if we do, our (high school) students will rise to that challenge."


Stupid bureaucratic rigidity about class sizes in Scotland

Why is having 20 kids in a class good but having 21 is completely impossible??

The head of education at a Scottish local authority who was suspended following a row over whether an 11-year-old girl should be allowed to go to the school of her choice has taken early retirement. Ian Fraser, the corporate director of education and social care with Inverclyde Council, announced his decision yesterday, just over a week after disciplinary action was taken against him.

Mr Fraser's suspension centres on the case of Kirstin Airlie, the only one of a 101-strong intake to Gourock High who was refused entry, despite attending a primary in the catchment area. Inverclyde's policy is to cap pupil numbers in S1 classes to a maximum of 20 and, the council argued, allowing 101 pupils into the first year would mean employing an extra teacher.

In order to decide which pupil was excluded, a ballot was held of all 101 applications, which resulted in Kirstin being told she had to go to Greenock Academy. However, her parents successfully appealed the decision. An independent review of the circumstances surrounding the decisions regarding admissions to Gourock High was then put in place and Mr Fraser was suspended.

Mark Airlie, the father of the schoolgirl, said: "I don't have any animosity towards Ian Fraser himself, but we felt the education department acted in an aggressive way. "What is most important to us is to get to the bottom of what happened with the ballot and whether or not it was engineered."

Last year, the council lost another high-profile placing request battle after a sheriff ruled against them, and there has also been controversy over the introduction of a 33-hour school week, different school holidays and plans to cut the role of attendance officers.

However, others pointed to the fact that many of the significant events and internal procedures central to the case involving Kirstin pre-dated his appointment in 2006. In addition, despite dealing with significant issues of poverty and deprivation, Inverclyde schools have regularly outperformed similar schools in exam performance under Mr Fraser's leadership.

More here

An academic arms race

At the Independence Institute, we’re tough on the University of Colorado, questioning excessive spending, censorship in the classroom, and political bias. But now we’d like to praise CU President Bruce Benson for taking a fiscally responsible step by cutting some salaries as a way to help mitigate anticipated tuition increases. Still, much more work needs to be done.

In March, we wrote to Benson, calling on him to cut CU’s six-figure salaries by 5 percent. A similar proposal backed by leading Republican lawmakers, including Senate GOP leader Josh Penry and Sen. Bill Cadman, followed as an effort to alleviate a $1.4 billion state budget gap. The estimated savings to taxpayers: as high as $4.5 million. Unfortunately, the proposal was rejected by Democratic leadership.

As part of Friday’s announcement, Benson presented an alternative plan, saying CU will cut 54 administrative positions, shutter a faculty newspaper, and implement 5 percent cuts to salaries for top officials, including his own. The move will save $6.3 million in administrative costs. But now CU must cut an additional $23 million to balance its books for the coming school year. The weakest part of Benson’s plan is that the 5 percent salary cut is limited to presidential, vice presidential, and chancellor salaries - saving only about $155,000.

In the last three years, CU’s budget has ballooned from $1.9 billion to $2.4 billion, with raises eating up much of the total. Between 2006 and 2009, CU’s three chancellors received a collective annual taxpayer-funded raise of more than $500,000. And even after Friday’s cuts, Denver Chancellor Roy Wilson could still make over $700,000 this year.

Students have been forced to foot the bill through skyrocketing tuition increases. CU-Boulder undergraduates saw an average tuition increase of 9.3 percent this year; in Denver, the average was 8.5 percent; and in Colorado Springs, 7.5 percent. These increases followed 2007-2008 hikes ranging from 7 percent at CU-Colorado Springs and 14.6 at CU-Boulder.

CU Regent Tom Lucero voted against the tuition increases, saying Friday, “we’ve clearly got to cut more waste before we go back to Colorado’s working families and ask for more money. The time is now to get innovative.” Lucero faces an uphill battle.

As economist Richard Vedder, an Ohio University professor who once taught at CU, points out, “There is an academic arms race going on and everyone is trying to stay ahead of their peer institutions; like arms races in the real world, they cost an awful lot of money. Everyone has this vision they want to move to next level and can be the greatest thing between Berkeley and the East Coast.”

Certainly CU is not alone in its aspirations. Other universities have also implemented extravagant raises in recent years. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the average public university president now makes $427,000 a year (more than Benson’s $359,100 base salary).

But times are changing as institutions, both large and small, today pursue meaningful salary cuts. It’s a smart political move. As a recent Business Week report articulates, “Given an economic climate in which tuition is outpacing inflation, endowments are plummeting, and colleges are pleading for more government aid, the public may sour on (high compensation).”

Faculty at the University of North Carolina will take pay cuts after the state legislature cut $150 million from UNC’s budget; Idaho State University anticipates an across-the-board 10 percent pay cut; news reports and blogs suggest that New York University is moving toward a nine-month compensation model that could cut some salaries up to 25 percent.

Voter outrage over Cal State vice presidential salaries averaging $225,000 (below what multiple CU vice presidents make) led Lt. Gov. John Garamendi to call for executive pay freezes.

According to CU’s salary database, just over 2,000 of its 14,901 employees receive an annual base compensation of over $100,000. Tack on fringe benefits, which range from 17 to 27.7 percent, and it’s clear that the total number of individuals compensated in the six figures is more than 3,000 - about one in every five employees.

A few years ago, CU might have been able to effectively argue that it needed to raise salaries to compete with the nation’s best. This just isn’t the case today. As students face the threat of yet another tuition increase, faculty and staff should be expected to do their part by taking modest pay cuts.


Monday, May 25, 2009

Liberty University drops Democrats as official club

Values clash with mission

Liberty University says the school's College Democrats chapter can no longer be recognized as an official club because its principles are anathema to the Lynchburg, Va., school's Christian doctrine and because club officials misled the school. "It's a symbolic thing," said Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. "These are great Christian kids. I sit with them at ball games, they mean well, but they're not doing what they said they were going to do when they formed."

He said club organizers promised to stand for pro-life, pro-family causes and to work to move the Democratic Party in that direction, but have instead supported pro-choice candidates who work at cross-purposes to the school's Christian beliefs.

In the week since the decision, the club has become a cause celebre, being mentioned in Virginia's Democratic primary for governor and becoming the subject of a fundraising campaign. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, who is also chairman of the Democratic National Committee, urged the school to reconsider.

"Americans understand the wisdom of being evenhanded when it comes to matters of expression of political opinion," Mr. Kaine said in a statement issued by the DNC. "For Liberty University to deprive the College Democrats of the same opportunity as College Republicans to associate and be a recognized as a campus organization violates that fundamental principle of fairness and teaches the students the wrong message about civil life as they move from college into the broader world."

Terry McAuliffe, one of the candidates running for the Democratic nomination to succeed Mr. Kaine, held a conference call with reporters Friday to criticize the school's action.

Liberty removed the official designation May 15. The club is not being disbanded, but may not use the school's name or receive school funding. Students can still meet as a group at the school and use some school facilities.

"We are unable to lend support to a club whose parent organization stands against the moral principles held by Liberty University," wrote Mark Hine, vice president for student affairs, in an e-mail to club members. "We are removing the club from the Liberty Web site and you will need to cease using Liberty University's name, including any logo, seal or mark of Liberty University," Mr. Hine wrote. "They are not to be used in any of your publications, electronic or Internet, including but not limited to, any Web site, Facebook, Twitter or any other such publication."

About 30 students belong to the chapter.


Top British High Schools boycott ‘biased’ Durham University

The leading university's "affirmative action" entry system handicaps high performers.

I must say that Australian students have it a lot simpler. If you get a high enough mark in your final High School exam you get in wherever you apply and that is that. But each faculty has its own cutoff. You have to get REALLY high marks to get into Medicine, for instance, but the Arts faculty is pretty undemanding. Both my son and I are graduates of the University of Queensland, for instance, which was established in 1909 and does very well in international rankings. But if my son's final High School marks had been a bit low, he would probably have got into one of the newer universities around the place, which have lower cutoff points for student acceptance. Except perhaps for medicine there are no interviews or letters of self-promotion or any of that crap.

SOME of the country’s most academic schools are discouraging pupils from applying to popular courses at Durham University in protest at what they see as an admissions system “fixed” against them. The pupils are being told that they are likely to be overlooked for some courses because Durham uses a handicap system, based on mathematical formulae, to favour candidates from schools with poor grades. As a result, candidates from high-performing schools - whether state or independent - are penalised.

Durham, Oxford and Cambridge are among those universities that have adopted formulae that use GCSE results data specially compiled by Ed Balls’s Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF). The system gives a rating to the GCSE performance of every school in the country which is used to “weight” the scores of university applicants. The thinking is that because candidates from low-scoring schools have outstripped their peers, they deserve more credit than pupils who score a string of A* grades at a school where most pupils do so.

The extra points can be decisive in “tie breakers” for some of Durham’s most heavily oversubscribed courses, such as English and history, with more than 20 applicants per place.

Andrew Grant, chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference of independent schools and headmaster of St Albans school, Hertfordshire, said he had sympathy with the plight of the university, which has to reject about 3,500 applicants a year predicted to score at least three As at A-level. “None of us has any quarrel with making an allowance for serious disadvantage in individual cases,” he said. “What all of us object to is some spurious mathematical formula being applied across the board as if some kind of genuine accuracy is achievable. “The message I and some colleagues are getting from Durham is that however brilliant your students are in English and history, send them somewhere else - we don’t want them.”

Barnaby Lenon, headmaster of Harrow school, London, said he was warning his brightest pupils they may not get offers for these subjects at Durham “because this year we have had a letter from them saying they are giving preference to pupils from low-achieving schools”.

The concern is spreading to the state sector. Martin Post, headmaster of Watford Grammar School for Boys - a comprehensive, despite its name - said the mathematical approach was flawed. “How can you weight a school on the basis of these GCSE results? Do they take into account, for example, vocational courses for which the government often gives the same value as four GCSEs? Bless them, these people in higher education are probably unaware of the wangles that go on to improve league positions.”

Universities have been under strong pressure from the government to raise the proportions of students from state schools and deprived families. Use of the formulae is only one of the techniques used.

Durham has said its system was introduced partly in response to a report last year by the National Council for Educational Excellence, which was endorsed by Gordon Brown, Balls and John Denham, the universities secretary.

Sir Martin Harris, the government’s director of fair access, said he expected the GCSE points method to spread. “Will it help fairer access if universities bear in mind average performance of the school? . . . I imagine universities will go down that path,” he said.

However, Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said the methods were “antieducational”. He added: “The operation of these formulae is crude and unfair. Universities should be looking for those with the most talent. The country is making a grave mistake.”

Other universities using formulae include Cambridge, which uses government data to award variable points based on GCSEs. The university says no candidates win places solely on their modified GCSEs, but that it is “unarguable” that a candidate’s grades are affected by the school they attended.

Oxford also uses weighted GCSEs for admissions to medical degrees. On the course, which traditionally had a public school “rugger bugger” image, 50% of a candidate’s chances of being shortlisted for an interview depends on GCSE score, marked up if they attend a poorly performing school.

The Durham formula allows each candidate a maximum eight points for GCSEs. An A* scores one, with 0.6 for an A. The score is “modified” with up to 5.5 points to help candidates who have outperformed the average for their school.

Other universities that have requested GCSE figures include Leeds, Manchester, Bristol and Warwick. Some departments at Bristol, including history, give extra points to candidates from poorly performing schools, although the government data are used only for research.

Some sixth formers believe they may have already been hit by formulae or similar methods. Jack Harman, 19, attended King’s College school, Wimbledon, a high-performing school in south London. Even though he was predicted to gain three As at A-level, he was rejected by all five British universities to which he applied to read history - Oxford, Edinburgh, York, Warwick and King’s College London. He will now study in America instead. His mother Emma Duncan said: “I cannot say the British universities are definitely biased . . . [but] calibrating the children’s results with the school record may be one reason Jack was turned down.It is bonkers he does not have a place in a good university here.”

Universities said weighted GCSE scores were vital to see a candidate’s grades in context. A Durham spokesman said: “For some courses, competition is so fierce our selectors have to make choices between applicants who present themselves with identical credentials. “The DCSF standardisation measurement allows selectors to see how an applicant has performed in relation to their school’s average. The results have been used to inform decisions in favour of fee [paying] as well as nonfee paying schools.”

A threat to excellence

The government formula used to analyse GCSE results, adopted by Durham and Oxford, is obviously flawed. It is flawed for two reasons. First, because it assumes that all GCSE results signify an equal level of intellectual achievement. They do not. Many state schools enter their pupils for vocational qualifications which, if passed, are said to count as four good GCSE grades. This is a scam and it renders the whole concept of this government formula ridiculous.

Why, moreover, should a girl from a highly performing school who does slightly worse in her GCSE examinations than her peers, achieving, say, eight A grades against a school average of nine, be judged a weaker candidate than the boy from a less successful school who achieves five A grades against a school average of two or three? The latter candidate may be the stronger, but no mechanistic formula is going to establish the fact.

Ministers, rightly, want more bright young people from disadvantaged homes to win places at top universities. They think, wrongly, that this can be achieved by forcing universities to implement admissions policies that discriminate against candidates from independent and highly performing schools.

In fact, of course, the solution lies in the schools disadvantaged children attend. Labour has failed to raise standards in such schools and now wants us to believe that the problem is the elitism of our best universities. Great universities are, by definition, elitist. They are institutions that exist in order to promote academic excellence. That excellence will survive if the best candidates compete with another for the limited places available. Social engineering will destroy it.


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Homosexual Curriculum Proposal Riles Elementary School Parents

A group of parents in a California school district say they are being bullied by school administrators into accepting a new curriculum that addresses bullying, respect and acceptance -- and that includes compulsory lessons about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community that will be taught to children as young as 5 years old.

The parents from the Unified School District in Alameda, a suburb of San Francisco and Oakland, say these issues are best learned at home and most definitely are not age-appropriate for elementary school children.

The parents are also angry that they will not be allowed to keep their children out of the classes.

“I believe these children are far too young to be learning about what these issues mean,” said Alaina Stewart, who has three children who attend elementary school in Alameda. “These are adult issues and they are being thrust upon the children.”

But the school board says otherwise, and its attorneys say that if the curriculum is adopted, the parents will have no legal right to remove their children from class when the lessons are being taught. "By not allowing kids to opt out," says David Kirwin, who has two children in the system, "the school district is violating a First Amendment right for those who have a religion that doesn't support homosexuality."

The proposed curriculum will include a 45-minute LGBT lesson, once a year from kindergarten through fifth grade. The kindergartners will focus on the harms of teasing, while the fifth graders will study sexual orientation stereotypes.

The move toward the new curriculum began two years ago, when teachers noticed that even kindergarten students were using derogatory words about sexuality, such as “fag.” “Students reported feeling bullied,” said Kirsten Vital, superintendent of the Alameda Unified School District. “This work is in response to teachers asking for tools to combat name-calling and bullying at school.”

Among the course materials that could be added to the curriculum is "And Tango Makes Three," a children’s book about gay penguins struggling to create a family. The book has been banned in some areas of the country.

In response to the controversy surrounding the proposed curriculum, the school board has held two public debates this month. One parent told an “overwhelming” majority of parents spoke out against LGBT instruction at one of the meetings, but that public opinion had little impact. “The chairman of the school board repeatedly claimed to the audience that the curriculum is evenly supported and opposed,” said a parent named David, who asked that his last name be withheld. “I am beginning to lose confidence of the board, as it seems to have a preconceived political agenda and not truly represent their constituent’s opposition to the curriculum,” he said.

But other parents say they are in full support of the proposed curriculum. “Our schools are a reflection of our community and world,” said Marianne Bartholomew-Couts. “From a very early age, children should see what exists in the world.” Michael Williams, another parent, thinks LGBT issues will come up anyway, and that teachers should be prepared. “The teachers would have the tools under the new curriculum to help kids respond appropriately,” he said.

California is no stranger to the controversy surrounding gay issues. Last November, voters passed Proposal 8, which overturned a Supreme Court ruling and banned gay marriage in the state.

The situation in Alameda is no different from the statewide ballot initiative: it has caught the attention of several organizations on both sides of the issue. Ryan Schwartz, National Outreach Manager for GroundSpark—a non-profit organization that seeks justice in education—told that teachers are responsible for creating an environment where students can feel comfortable and learn. Teaching the golden rule won’t cut it, he said. “Instead of having to police the schoolyard for bullying,” said Schwartz, “this curriculum is designed to prevent it from the beginning.”

But other groups think the new curriculum is not balanced in whom it protects. “Under law, there are five categories of protected classes when it comes to discrimination,” explained Karen England, a spokeswoman for the Capitol Resource Institute, an organization that advocates conservative policy on social issues. "The curriculum focuses on only one subgroup protected under anti-discrimination laws: sexual orientation.”

England said she believes Alameda's curriculum committee has purposely excluded religion, even though it is one of the protected classes. “This indicates an agenda is being pushed, as opposed to an altruistic attempt to teach tolerance,” she said.

Members of the school board will vote on Tuesday whether to adopt the new curriculum. Vital, the superintendent, would not comment on the expected outcome. “No matter what the outcome is, we need to do some work as a community to come together around issues of diversity, acceptance and understanding of one another,” she said.

Samples of the curriculum can be found here and here.


Rural sociology fading away

After 12 years of teaching in a sociology school, I have little time for any form of sociology but from what little I have seen of it, rural sociology was the most practical and is hence sometimes useful to people -- a lot more useful than studying the differences between the theories of Miliband and Althusser, for instance

Scan the list of academic departments at land grant universities, and you'll find units like animal science and horticulture and entomology and soil science -- units that reflect areas of study that take place elsewhere, but typically not with the cohort of scholars or depth of institutional commitment that a program signifies. There was an era when that list of departments at land grant universities also frequently included rural sociology.

These days it's far from a sure thing that you'll find rural sociology. It has been combined on many land grant campuses with other social science departments, and the name is gone from other programs. While there are many sociologists doing research on rural communities, and much of that research takes place in departments that aren't rural sociology departments, many professors in the field say that they have seen a slow erosion in support and expertise as retiring professors in these departments are replaced with sociologists who focus on other areas.

These concerns are nothing compared to the anger that has spread through the rural sociology world in the last few weeks, however, as word spread that Washington State University wasn't planning to merge its rural sociology program with another unit, but to simply eliminate it.

That a land grant university would simply abolish the discipline -- and in particular a rare freestanding program that is well respected nationally -- stunned rural sociologists. Many have come to expect that sociology departments (general ones) will be more occupied with issues of criminology and sexuality and suburban youth than with aging populations in rural towns or the new immigration that is changing those communities.

And they say they have seen agriculture colleges focus more of their research on genomics and biotechnology and less on family farms. So Washington State's decision has come to be seen as mattering nationally -- and is galvanizing scholars who have no particular ties to the university and whose frustration extends beyond that one institution.

"We are deeply concerned for the personal welfare of the department’s faculty members and staff, but we also believe that this action sends a powerful negative message to the land grant university system that applied research and outreach focused on problems and opportunities experienced by rural people and communities is expendable," says an advertisement published in two newspapers in Washington State Friday and signed by the president, president-elect and 19 past presidents of the Rural Sociological Society.

"The Department of Community and Rural Sociology at WSU provides trusted, empirically based information to local communities that enhances public and private decision making. What could be more consistent with the university’s land grant mission? How can this program be considered expendable? How will other land grant institutions interpret these radical actions when considering their own situations?" (Similar questions are being raised on blogs about sociology and rural life and, of course for any campus issue, on Facebook.)

Washington State -- like many public universities these days -- is engaged in the process of making deep budget cuts. The plan that would eliminate rural sociology would also cut a total of 370 jobs and several other departments -- sports management, theater and dance, and the German major. In total, the university needs to cut about 10 percent of its biennial budget. University officials have said that they respect the various departments being eliminated, and hope to continue relevant scholarship, but that choices had to be made to preserve other programs and not to water down every program.

In this period in which many colleges are cutting programs, the reaction is frequently intense on campus, and off-campus reaction depends in part on universities' larger missions. Last year, for example, foreign language professors nationwide decried the decision of the University of Southern California to eliminate German, noting that the university defined itself as an international institution.

And thus the reaction to Washington State relates very much to concerns about land grants generally. "There aren't very many rural sociology programs around. There's a general perception that rural doesn't matter anymore. Whenever financial problems arise and administrators get a little touchy about how they are going to manage budgets, this is the sort of thing that happens," said Kenneth Pigg, a rural sociologist at the University of Missouri at Columbia, one institution that still has a freestanding program.

Pigg said that social sciences were once viewed as central to the land grant mission -- that departments of rural sociology (or agriculture economics) were applying research to help rural communities. "Now, with the emphasis on life sciences generally, you don't see that at a lot of universities," he said. Pigg's work currently focuses on the impact of technological change in rural areas. While many have said that the Internet is "a savior" for rural life, Pigg said that there's not nearly enough attention paid to the impact it has and the lack of real access to technology of many people outside of urban areas.

He said that there is nothing theoretically wrong with having rural sociology as part of other departments, but that the discipline in its entirety doesn't pay much attention. A list of sections of the American Sociological Association includes on on urban sociology, but nothing specifically on rural areas. And while there is a section on animals and society, paper and book topics there appear more focused on pets than on farms.

The focus of Washington State's program is "problem-directed social science," said Raymond A. Jussaume Jr., the chair. The department's research priorities have been "the human dimensions of sustainability issues," efforts to promote conflict resolution dealing with environmental questions, and outreach to the growing Latino rural population in the state. "There are other people in the Pacific Northwest looking at these issues, but we are the last full program," he said. There are five tenured and two tenure-track faculty members -- all of whom would lose their jobs one year after formal notice is given.

David L. Brown, one of those who organized the advertisements protesting the decision, said that he's been asking himself why he is so concerned, given that "I've never been to Pullman, Washington, and I don't have any close colleagues on the faculty there." Brown is a rural sociologist who works in one of those renamed departments -- in his case developmental sociology at Cornell University, which has a strong international focus. Brown is a demographer, and he said he remains proud of the contributions his department makes to farmers and agricultural areas in New York State. He has written extensively about issues of aging in rural areas and is currently conducting a study supported by the Commerce Department about how young people decide where to live.

While sociologists generally could explore those issues, there is a perspective in rural sociology (or equivalent but renamed) departments that reflects the idea of "what have you done to help New York State today," Brown said. Having that central to the agenda is different from what happens in a general sociology department, he said. "Our work is always grounded in these places," he said. "I think these issues are devalued" without specific programs.

The people who are the focus of rural sociologists "are those who are easily overlooked in the higher education system, in which the land grant universities are the only ones with a clear brief to focus on them," Brown said.

James J. Zuiches, vice chancellor for extension, engagement and economic development at North Carolina State University, was among those who signed the advertisement. A sociologist, and a former dean at Washington State, he knows the program there well. In contrast to the mergers or reductions faced by the field nationally, "I do think this is really without precedent -- to shut down a very distinguished program like this," he said.

Zuiches said he sees rural sociology as similar to the discipline of sociology as a whole in the emphasis on issues of power and class. But he said that the practical emphasis of rural sociology can't just be replicated elsewhere. "It's a very people-oriented, community-oriented discipline," he said. Zuiches compared the sociology/rural sociology divide to an agriculture college having "a molecular biologist thinking about the science of genetics, and a plant breeder thinking about feeding people." Agriculture colleges need both, he said.

Still others, however, think that the emphasis on the special situation of rural sociology may miss the larger challenge facing many public universities today (land grant and otherwise): finding a way to keep some programs outstanding when money is in short supply.

David E. Shulenburger, vice president for academic affairs of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, said that he would distinguish between "having adequate capacity to understand rural sociology," which he said should matter to a land grant institution, and "having a department," which he said is not necessarily needed.

"Any time you for budgetary or other reasons decide to eliminate a department, you run into tremendous constituencies that a department has and that's exactly what is happening in this case," he said. "You can't judge whether those constituencies are right or wrong" from afar, he said, but it's important to know that "any department one chooses to eliminate, you will get this kind of reaction."

Shulenberger said it was important to consider the alternative to keeping all departments. Then every department becomes weaker, he said. "And that is a pretty costly decision when you are losing significant pieces of your budget," he said.