Friday, July 27, 2012

Moral formation and the school choice movement

Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum summed up the problem with public schooling in America when he repeatedly called it an “outdated factory model.” Part of Santorum’s purpose was to draw greater attention to the simple fact that parents bear the primary responsibility for the education of their children.

Mississippi State Senator Michael Watson, an advocate for school choice, notes that when it comes to education, “Government does not take responsibility without taking power.” Over time, the government has superseded the parental role in education. The effects are disastrous, not just for education but for moral formation too.

The battle for meaningful reform in public education has been a long and protracted one spanning decades, but states, not the federal government, are turning the tide.

In 2011 at least a half dozen states enacted school choice reforms. In Louisiana, over half of public school students will now be eligible for vouchers. The school choice movement has been steadily making inroads because parents are demanding options and greater control over the moral formation and education of their children. The groundswell of support for reform has come from families and not elected officials or the political class.

Reformers have argued that greater choice -- meaning open enrollment in public school districts -- vouchers, and charter schools, will provide competition for students, thus improving the quality of education. Virtually every study that has tested that theory has backed up the claim that schools that compete for students and tax dollars improve.

There has been a substantial shift away from the thinking that only substantial spending increases in the status quo public education model will improve education. Jay Greene in Education Myths cuts to the heart of the issue, “If money were the solution, the problem would already be solved . . . . We’ve doubled the per pupil spending, adjusting for inflation, over the last 30 years, and yet the schools aren’t better.”

U.S. courts have also ruled in favor of voucher and school choice initiatives. Some opponents have tried to argue that tax credits allowing for school choice violate the First Amendment, which protects religious freedom. However, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of religious liberty, as parents, not government, end up endorsing the religious schools of their choosing.

Education, moral formation, and religious expression are in need of greater space from government instead of further secularized encroachment. It is not the government’s role to inhibit the free exercise of faith; rather it has a duty to encourage and uphold it.

Separation of school and state provides greater educational opportunities for an increasing complex global economy. The “factory model” has not adequately educated millions of public school students. Walter Russell Mead commented on the factory model of education: “Don’t we want to teach our children to do something smarter than move in large groups by the clock and the bell, follow directions and always color between the lines?”

Defenders of educational reform and school choice know there are still miles to go given the entrenched opposition from the National Education Association (NEA) and other powerful special interests committed to doubling down on reform-blocking campaigns.

Politicians and elected officials like to talk about equity and fairness, but millions of students with socio-economic disadvantages are denied fairness of opportunity when it comes to education. This is true simply because of the neighborhoods and school districts where they live. It is no wonder that school choice is often referred to as the “civil rights issue of our time.” However, it is also an important religious issue. Educational reform allows for parents to play a greater role in their child’s education, but it will also help strengthen the moral formation of a society in disarray.


Obama quietly implements Common Core

New standards for math and English called Common Core are poised to hit public schools across the nation. Some schools will begin implementing them as early as this fall, before parents have any inkling what has happened to their children’s classroom instruction.

Parents will not know how or why the nationally prescribed curriculum came about or how to change it if they don’t like it.

That undoubtedly sounds similar to the famous assertion of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that Congress would have to pass the Affordable Care Act for people to know what’s in it. The nationalized Common Core for education is like Obamacare in ripping control over critical, life-altering decisions from those most affected.

Achieve, a band of like-minded corporate moguls that formed in 1996 to push national education standards, had to report rather sheepishly last month that its own poll showed Americans are almost totally in the dark about the Common Core juggernaut.

A remarkable 79 percent of registered voters know “nothing” or “not much” about what Achieve calls the Common Core State Standards. Another 14 percent said they knew “some,” and just 7 percent claimed to know “a lot.”

None of that is surprising: Those standards for teaching English and mathematics were put together behind closed doors starting in 2009 by “experts” assembled by resident bureaucrats of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association.

In 2010, even before a final draft had been made public, the Obama administration began pressuring states to commit to the Common Core in order to be eligible for a slice of the $4.5 billion Race to the Top fund carved out of the federal stimulus.

More recently, the U.S. Department of Education made adoption of such “college- and career-ready standards” one of its many conditions for granting states No Child Left Behind waivers.

Thus, any pretense of these being voluntary “state standards” went out the window long ago — all the more so because the Common Core now is linked to mandatory national tests that are being paid for by another $350 million in Obama stimulus bucks.

Achieve had a headache remedy handy for the embarrassing lack of public knowledge revealed by its own pollsters: Write a glowing description of the Common Core and then ask folks again what they thought. After reading it, 77 percent of respondents said they supported implementation of the Common Core, a finding Achieve then touted. This was the description the pollster spoon-fed them: “These new standards have been set to internationally competitive levels in English and math. This means that students may be more challenged by the material they study, and the tests they take will measure more advanced concepts and require students to show their work.”

That’s a classic example of a pollster manipulating questions to obtain a result desired by an advocacy group. Remember, the description was for folks who confessed to knowing basically nothing about the Common Core.

Suppose respondents had before them instead the following description:

“Your local schools are about to start implementing standards and assessments developed by Washington-based interest groups and pushed by the federal government. These standards, known as the Common Core, have never been field-tested, and your local school board has been unable to put them to a public hearing or vote.

“The national standards provide no process for states or localities to amend them. They will require students to take four federally subsidized tests a year, all of them via computer, and the results will be a factor in evaluating local teachers.”

Given that factual statement, it is doubtful the desire to push forward with immediate implementation would have reached 25 percent.
Would parents really trust behind-the-scenes forces to have total sway over their children’s education if they knew they would be powerless to monitor the content of lessons or the online testing?

Forty-six states are on board with the Common Core. Only Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia have chosen to stick completely to their own standards and thereby safeguard the rights of their citizens. In the compliant 46, local school systems are dutifully beginning the process of retraining their teachers to conform to the centralized system.

When 90 percent of parents, taxpayers and voters learn what is going on, perhaps the “repeal and replace” battle cry won’t refer only to Obamacare.


NINETY British primary pupils sent home every day for attacks in class: Shocking figures reveal rising school violence

A Rising tide of violent indiscipline in primary schools was laid bare yesterday.  Official figures revealed that 90 children are sent home every day for attacking teachers or classmates.

And the worst deterioration in behaviour is being seen in the most affluent parts of the country. Teachers blamed parents for failing to equip children with the social skills they need to cope in the classroom.

Last year primary schools expelled nearly 300 pupils aged 11 and under for violence and handed out almost 17,000 suspensions. This means that on any given school day in 2010/11, 90 pupils were ordered out of school for attacking a member of staff or fellow pupil.

Primaries were forced to bar pupils more than 10,000 times for persistent disruption in lessons and 6,390 times for verbal abuse.

Hundreds more pupils were sent home for other serious breaches of school rules such as bullying, racist abuse, sexual misconduct, theft, drugs or alcohol offences and damage to property.

Figures issued by the Department for Education shows that while the number of secondary pupils being suspended or expelled is falling, there is a worsening picture at primary level – especially in the most affluent parts of the country.

The number of suspensions has increased most sharply in the country’s wealthiest areas.

The trend follows claims from teachers that spoilt middle-class children are just as likely to challenge authority at school.

Earlier this year, Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: ‘A minority of children are very aware of their rights, have a total disregard of school rules and are rather less aware of their responsibility for their own learning and how to show respect to staff and other students.

‘This can apply as much to over-indulged middle class children as those from challenging families.’

The latest data emerged days after a psychologist warned that parents who are afraid to discipline their children are creating an unruly generation. Dr Tanya Byron, who featured in BBC TV’s The House of Tiny Tearaways, described the rise of the ‘friend-parent’ who tries to be the child’s equal rather than an authority figure.

Teachers’ leaders said yesterday that a lack of parental support was to blame for discipline problems.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said a recent survey had shown that two-thirds of teachers highlighted poor support from parents.  ‘Sending children to school on time, with basic equipment and clear expectations of how they are expected to behave is a critical part of the job of all parents,’ she said.

‘Parents must understand that their responsibility for their child’s behaviour does not end at the school gate.’

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: ‘Some children are arriving unprepared for what it means to be in a large group of people.’

The figures show that boys are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than girls.  The average suspension was for 2.4 days but 2,900 lasted more than two weeks.

The fall in numbers being barred from lessons in secondary schools is partly due to schools’ increasing use of unofficial exclusions – or ‘managed moves’ – which transfer disruptive pupils to other secondaries.

Primary pupils perpetrate more assaults on teachers than secondary. Some 42 primary pupils are sent home every day for assaults on teachers, compared with 32 secondary pupils.

The Department for Education said the figures justified Coalition moves to strengthen teachers’ powers to keep order in the classroom.


Thursday, July 26, 2012

What if public schools were abolished?

In American culture, public schools are praised in public and criticized in private, which is roughly the opposite of how we tend to treat large-scale enterprises like Walmart. In public, everyone says that Walmart is awful, filled with shoddy foreign products and exploiting workers. But in private, we buy the well-priced, quality goods, and long lines of people hope to be hired.

Why is this? It has something to do with the fact that public schools are part of our civic religion, the primary evidence that people cite to show that local government serves us. And there is a psychological element. Most of us turn our kids over to them, so surely they must have our best interest at heart!

But do they? Murray N. Rothbard's Education: Free and Compulsory explains that the true origin and purpose of public education is not so much education as we think of it, but indoctrination in the civic religion. This explains why the civic elite is so suspicious of homeschooling and private schooling: it's not fear of low test scores that is driving this, but the worry that these kids aren't learning the values that the state considers important.

But to blast public schools is not the purpose of this article. There are decent public schools and terrible ones, so there is no use generalizing. Nor is there a need to trot out data on test scores. Let me just deal with economics. All studies have shown that average cost per pupil for public schools is twice that of private schools (here is a sample studyDownload PDF).

This runs contrary to intuition, since people think of public schools as free and private schools as expensive. But once you consider the source of funding (tax dollars vs. market tuition or donation), the private alternative is much cheaper. In fact, the public schools cost as much as the most expensive and elite private schools in the country. The difference is that the cost of public schooling is spread out over the entire population, whereas the private school cost is borne only by the families with students who attend them.

In short, if we could abolish public schools and compulsory schooling laws, and replace it all with market-provided education, we would have better schools at half the price, and be freer too. We would also be a more just society, with only the customers of education bearing the costs.

What's not to like? Well, there is the problem of the transition. There are obvious and grave political difficulties. We might say that public education enjoys a political advantage here due to network effects. A significant number of "subscriptions," etc. have been piled up in the status quo, and it is very difficult to change those.

But let's pretend. Let's say that a single town decided that the costs of public schooling are too vast relative to private schooling, and the city council decided to abolish public schools outright. The first thing to notice is that this would be illegal, since every state requires localities to provide education on a public basis. I don't know what would happen to the city council. Would they be jailed? Who knows? Certainly they would be sued.

But let's say we somehow get past that problem, thanks to, say, a special amendment in the state constitution that exempts certain localities if the city council approves. Then there is the problem of federal legislation and regulation. I am purely speculating since I don't know the relevant laws, but we can guess that the Department of Education would take notice, and a national hysteria of some sort would follow. But let's say we miraculously get past that problem too, and the federal government lets this locality go its own way.

There will be two stages to the transition. In the first stage, many seemingly bad things will happen. How are the physical buildings handled in our example? They are sold to the highest bidder, whether that be to new school owners, businesses, or housing developers. And the teachers and administrators? All let go. You can imagine the outcry.

With property taxes abolished, people with kids in public schools might move away. There will be no premium for houses in school districts that are considered good. There will be anger about this. For the parents that remain, there is a major problem of what to do with the kids during the day.

With property taxes gone, there is extra money to pay for schools, but their assets have just fallen in market value (even without the Fed), which is a serious problem when it comes to shelling out for school tuition. There will, of course, be widespread hysteria about the poor too, who will find themselves without any schooling choices other than homeschool.

Now, all that sounds pretty catastrophic, doesn't it? Indeed. But it is only phase one. If we can somehow make it to phase two, something completely different will emerge. The existing private schools will be filled to capacity and there will be a crying need for new ones. Entrepreneurs will quickly flood into the area to provide schools on a competitive basis. Churches and other civic institutions will gather the money to provide education.

At first, the new schools will be modeled on the public school idea. Kids will be there from 8 to 4 or 5, and all classes will be covered. But in short order, new alternatives will appear. There will be schools for half-day classes. There will be large, medium, and small schools. Some will have 40 kids per class, and others 4 or 1. Private tutoring will boom. Sectarian schools of all kinds will appear. Micro-schools will open to serve niche interests: science, classics, music, theater, computers, agriculture, etc. There will be single-sex schools. Whether sports would be part of school or something completely independent is for the market to decide.

And no longer will the "elementary, middle school, high school" model be the only one. Classes will not necessarily be grouped by age alone. Some will be based on ability and level of advancement too. Tuition would range from free to super expensive. The key thing is that the customer would be in charge.

Transportation services would spring up to replace the old school-bus system. People would be able to make money by buying vans and providing transportation. In all areas related to education, profit opportunities would abound.

In short, the market for education would operate the same as any other market. Groceries, for example. Where there is a demand, and obviously people demand education for their kids, there is supply. There are large grocery stores, small ones, discount ones, premium ones, and stores for groceries on the run. It is the same for other goods, and it would be the same for education. Again, the customer would rule. In the end, what would emerge is not entirely predictable — the market never is — but whatever happened would be in accord with the wishes of the public.

After this phase two, this town would emerge as one of the most desirable in the country. Educational alternatives would be unlimited. It would be the source of enormous progress, and a model for the nation. It could cause the entire country to rethink education. And then those who moved away would move back to enjoy the best schools in the country at half the price of the public schools, and those without children in the house wouldn't have to pay a dime for education. Talk about attractive!

So which town will be the first to try it and show us all the way?


What hope for Britain's faith schools?

The Roman Catholic primary school with a 90 per cent Muslim intake raises questions about immigration and the future of our church schools

'We’ve only the one family who insist on taking their children out of RE lessons,” says Father Bernard Kelly, the long-serving chairman of the governors at the Rosary School at Saltley in inner-city Birmingham.

Thirty years ago, its 400 pupils were all Catholics, many of them first or second-generation Irish. Now all but 10 per cent are Muslims, yet their parents are apparently happy for them to sit through lessons taught by a largely Christian staff and taken from a Catholic syllabus that includes subjects such as the Pope, the Virgin Mary, the Mass and Jesus.

“What can I say?” exclaims 72-year-old Fr Kelly. “It’s their choice. We make no imposition on them to change their religion.”

Saltley itself, he reports, has altered dramatically even in his 17 years in the parish “and now there are certainly Muslim schools nearby that these children could go to. We’re right next door to a local authority, non-denominational primary, but still Muslim parents keep choosing our Catholic school. It’s a revelation to me.”

He means it in the best possible sense of word – so much so that he insists that the 80-year-old Rosary School will be here “for another eight decades”. Others, though, might use the same word in a different spirit. For this Catholic primary has been making headlines on account of its unusual intake, and has in the process reignited the fierce debate about immigration and the role and purpose of state-funded faith schools.

If these, critics ask, are to continue to be funded by the taxpayer to the tune of 100 per cent of their wage bills and 90 per cent of their capital costs (the other 10 per cent has to be raised by members of the church or denomination), then shouldn’t the logic of the system be that Catholic schools cater for Catholic children, Jewish ones for Jewish children and so on? Why should the state pay the Catholic Church to educate Muslims?

The question takes on a greater urgency when we consider the first fruits of the 2011 census, which was unveiled last week. These show the largest growth in population in England and Wales (by 3.7 million) in any 10-year period since records began in 1810, with one principal cause being a rise in immigration.

That brings a new diversity to our population, in ethnic and religious terms, but also places fresh strains on the compact between government and churches, sealed by the 1944 Education Act, which allows for children in particular faith groups to attend taxpayer-funded “voluntary-controlled” and “voluntary-aided” schools, such as the Rosary Primary.

There are currently about 6,500 such primaries and secondaries in the state system – 65 per cent of them Anglican, 33 per cent Catholic, and smaller numbers of Jewish and Methodist. In recent years, Whitehall has extended this concession to other faiths. The most recent figures from the Department for Education list one Hindu, one Seventh Day Adventist, four Sikh and 11 Muslim voluntary-aided schools.

But numbers have not kept pace with our rapidly rising and diverse population, leading to anomalies such as that seen at the Rosary School. Indeed, the influx has been so fast that, as we can see from the Rosary School, some of society’s institutions no longer explicitly reflect the communities they serve.

The response to this challenge has been attempts to agree an upper and lower cap on admissions from the sponsoring faith group to ensure that the school lives up to its own denominational mission and justifies the allocation of state funds. But there is little agreement on what those limits should be – or even if they are necessary.

The Rt Rev John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford, head of the Church of England’s Education Board, caused headlines last year by suggesting his schools should admit only one in 10 Anglican church-goers because their “primary function” is “to serve the wider community”. Otherwise, he warned, C of E schools risked operating only to collect “nice Christians into safe places”.

As well as highlighting concerns about community cohesion, the bishop’s remarks were also interpreted as addressing the widespread perception that church schools too often attract ambitious but irreligious middle-class parents because of their better-than-average academic records.

Current practice in most Anglican schools is to admit about 50 per cent of churchgoers (real or otherwise). But the Church of England, as the Established Church, has a unique view of itself as serving everyone in local communities, regardless of their denominational attachment or absence of one. And so the balancing act it tries to pull off is to try to make its schools sufficiently different from their secular counterparts – without ever making them so Christian that they put off the godless and those of other faiths.

The Church School of the Future, published in March under the auspices of Bishop Pritchard, addressed this conundrum directly. It advocated no softening of the commitment to the teaching of RE or to a collective act of Christian worship, but also promoted “distinctiveness within an inclusive community framework”.

Worthy sentiments, but hardly a blueprint for headteachers on how to proceed day to day. The reality is that in most schools they make their own decisions. Some, for example, allow Muslim pupils to wear veils or skullcaps, others don’t. At the Rosary, it is permitted, but Fr Kelly reports that most choose to wear the standard uniform instead. Some schools insist all attend acts of worship, others don’t. Again, it is optional at the Rosary. And some allow children to finish early to attend faith-formation classes at their local temple or mosque. Others don’t.

Michael Gove has often spoken of his admiration for faith schools. But the Secretary of State’s views on the question of a cap may be judged by a leaked letter he wrote earlier this year concerning a planned Catholic comprehensive in Richmond. A high-profile local campaign group, claiming that non-Catholics in the area faced religious discrimination by being excluded from the school, had been pressing for only half of the places at the new school to be reserved for Catholics. In his letter, Mr Gove described this suggestion as seeming “very sensible to me”.

This 50 per cent mark seems to represent the direction of travel for Whitehall and Westminster in the wider debate. But it is fiercely resisted by those running long-standing denominational schools. The Catholic bishops, for instance, defeated a 2008 proposal from the Labour government to impose a 25 per cent non-Catholic intake.

With hindsight, it feels like a curious victory. While some of the most popular and high-achieving Catholic schools can happily fill their classes with Mass-goers, overall figures produced by the Catholic Education Service in 2011 show that nationwide the level of Catholic pupils in Catholic schools stands at 70 per cent – that is, lower than the Labour government had proposed. In Catholic sixth forms, the figure falls to 50 per cent.

However, there seems little appetite right now to revisit the issue, but cases such as the Rosary Primary continue to highlight the apparent absurdities of the present policy of muddling through. The Catholic weekly, the Tablet, reported in 2011 that there were about 25 other schools in similar situations – mainly in the North West and the Midlands, and specifically areas that once had large immigrant Catholic populations, but where the next generation had moved out to be replaced by Muslim families.

The situation varies around the country. In some large cities, the recent influx of Poles and other eastern Europeans has seen Catholic parishes and schools rejuvenated and filled to the limit. And so different dioceses adopt different approaches.

In Salford diocese – which serves Catholics in the Manchester region – the bishop decided in September 2010 to close Sacred Heart Primary in Blackburn when the percentage of Catholics fell to 3 per cent, and to sell the premises to the local education authority. Among those keen to take it over was the local mosque that wanted to run it as a Muslim voluntary-aided school.

“We want to make sure the educational needs of the community are met,” said the diocesan director of education, Geraldine Bradbury, at the time. “We would not be serving the local community by insisting that we run the school. It means having a Catholic headteacher [all Catholic schools must have a Catholic head] and 10 per cent of the timetable on RE. It would be very wrong of us.”

In Birmingham, by contrast, faced by similar statistics at the Rosary School, there is a commitment to keep it open as long as local parents want it. Fr Kelly insists that the work it is doing today in its classrooms with its 90 per cent Muslim intake is “living the gospel in a wider context” and therefore absolutely central to the “witness” of the Church in a multicultural society.

In the space between his unbridled enthusiasm, the Anglican Bishop of Oxford’s controversial talk of distinctiveness and inclusion, and Bradbury’s straightforward pragmatism lies the heart of an unresolved debate about the direction of faith schools funded by the public purse. In an age where immigration is profoundly changing the very fabric of our society, is it whom these schools serve in the denominational sense or how they go about it that justifies their continued existence?


Australia: State of secrecy over University of Queensland job loss

They fired a whistleblower but bribed him to stay silent about his job loss.  Big Bucks, no doubt!  Taxpayer bucks

THE University of Queensland will have us believe that Phil Procopis, the whistleblower in the uni's nepotism scandal, was made redundant simply because his department was restructured.

Procopis was the director of a unit known on campus as ARMS, an acronym for Assurance and Risk Management Services. ARMS no longer exists.

Procopis's position was abolished and he signed a confidentially agreement to receive his payout. Restructures happen. So does nepotism. So does secrecy.

Vice-chancellor Professor Paul Greenfield and his deputy Michael Keniger left the university after The Courier-Mail revealed a "close family member" [his daughter] of Greenfield had gained entry to the medical faculty without the proper entry requirements.

Greenfield denied any wrongdoing, saying the relative was admitted to the medical school as the result of a misunderstanding.

Procopis is central to the story because The Courier-Mail recently revealed he was the mysterious whistleblower who raised concerns about the improper admission with Chancellor John Story.

The scandal got a head of steam, I believe, because it shattered our perceptions that post-Fitzgerald Queensland was relatively free of cronyism and that our society had at last become a (cliche alert) "level playing field".  In a broader sense, it also challenged national ideals of egalitarianism and the fair go.

Until the university scandal, most of us naively believed Queenslanders were rewarded on merit. The truth was a little different. Now we know it will not harm your prospects to have friends or relatives in high places.

Nepotism exists in Queensland across business, the arts, law, medicine and even the media.  Premier Campbell Newman admitted it existed in government and shrugged his shoulders when asked what he was going to do about it.

The university controversy also got a head of steam because the venerable institution at first issued misleading press releases about Greenfield and Keniger leaving. Greenfield was forced out after the university commissioned an investigation by Tim Carmody, SC. Carmody's report remains secret and we don't even know for sure the name of the student at the heart of the affair.

The university made a mockery of the the new regulatory body, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, by refusing to hand over the Carmody report.

TEQSA chief commissioner Dr Carol Nicoll told a Senate estimates hearing the uni would not release the document, claiming confidentiality and privilege.

Tertiary Education Minister Senator Chris Evans was cryptic, telling the hearing it was a "complex case", and not as "straightforward" as some suggest.  Was he suggesting universities are beyond the reach of Federal Cabinet?

Greenfield walked away with a payout of $952,000, reports tabled in Parliament revealed. His deputy, Keniger, a key figure in the imbroglio, also quit. He got $695,000.

The Crime and Misconduct Commission has completed its investigations into the scandal and its brief of evidence is in the hands of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Meanwhile, the university has not released all the details surrounding the exit of Procopis. It should.

The academic committee set up to evaluate ARMS was chaired by Dr Len Gainsford from Victoria. It praised Procopis's unit and gave it seven "commendations".

"ARMS is widely respected by managers across UQ," it reported. "The unit consists of a committed and dedicated team." It said ARMS "responded well to governance initiatives" and its audits were "well regarded".

It added: "The introduction of a risk-management framework and development of commitment towards its progress has been effective."  Despite the glowing report card ARMS was abolished.

Vice-Chancellor Deborah Terry says the restructuring was the result of a "routine, cyclical" review initiated before the admissions scandal.

Terry says "it would be inaccurate and wrong" to link the role of Procopis in unearthing the scandal to his redundancy.

Procopis's redundancy and the disbanding of his department happened despite Terry announcing on May 17 that Procopis would have a central role in misconduct matters under a package of governance reforms.

Terry told The Courier-Mail recently that at the time of her May announcement, "the proposed reorganisation ... had not been finalised".

In a letter to staff she added: "The review and the re-organisation were unrelated to the fact that Mr Procopis communicated to the Chancellor information he had received (about the scandal). It was entirely appropriate for Mr Procopis to do this, as UQ policy identified his position as a receiver for disclosures of this nature."

As the only ARMS employee made redundant, Procopis must be feeling unlucky. An insider tells me Procopis never wanted to be a whistleblower. He was just doing his duty.

Until recently he was also chair of the Crime and Misconduct Commission's audit committee.

Who tipped him off remains a mystery. "The university will not disclose their identity," says Terry.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A vision of a truly liberal ideal in education

To date, many of the arguments for increasing parental choice in education and allowing a diversity of provision have focused on a number of practical arguments such as the need to improve the performance of failing government schools, the need for additional school places and the general desire to ensure that all children can benefit from the best schools available, irrespective of income or location. These arguments originate from the “what matters, is what works” school of politics where ideological principles are no longer relevant.

However, while this evidence, results or outcomes-based approach can be very persuasive, it may not be sufficient if the proposed reforms are to win widespread support amongst both politicians and the general public. According to Nobel Laureate James Buchanan, evidence of “what works” must be supplemented with a vision of the liberal ideal that attempts to capture the minds of people.

Consider, for example, the suffragettes who were campaigning for the right to vote at the start of the twentieth century. Their case for reform was not based on any evidence which showed that extending the right to vote to women would guarantee a better election result than the existing voting system. In fact, many opponents of the reforms (mostly men, but not exclusively) warned of the perverse consequences and the chaos that would follow if women were allowed to vote on the important and complicated matters of national government.  Instead the suffragette movement were campaigning for a fundamental freedom and a basic human right – the freedom and right of women to vote. A voting system based upon universal franchise was therefore deemed to be superior to one which was based upon a restricted franchise, irrespective of the results or outcomes of subsequent elections. In this example the evidence-based approach was clearly of limited use and, in fact, it could be argued that those who attempted to appeal to evidence had completely misunderstood the nature of the problem and the key issues at stake.

This same line of reasoning could also be applied to the current debate in education. An education system in which all parents have the freedom to choose would be deemed to be superior to the current system which continues to restrict these freedoms. Any appeal to evidence or what works would therefore be dismissed as irrelevant.  Buchanan refers to the repeal of the corn laws in the 19th century as a successful example of when evidence was supplemented with a vision of the liberal ideal to help gain support for proposed reforms. If we were to heed his advice then a national campaign for the repeal of the school laws, which restrict freedom in education is now required.

A campaign for freedom in education would be based on the principle that it is parents and not politicians who are ultimately responsible for their children’s education - a responsibility which can only be carried out if parents are free to choose the nature, form and content of education which their children receive. Parental choice or freedom in education therefore is not desirable simply because it may help to improve the efficiency of failing government schools. Nor is parental choice in education simply the latest policy reform that will go out of fashion in a few years’ time. Instead, it is important for the same reasons that religious freedom or freedom of the press are important - because they are both recognised as basic human rights or fundamental freedoms, which deserve to be respected and protected at all costs.

A vision of the liberal ideal in education would therefore recognise that the responsibility for educating children cannot be transferred to others; nor can it be side-lined or placed behind other considerations. Instead, it is the key principle upon which the whole education system is based. This means that governments must not in any way restrict, undermine or distort this important relationship between parent and child and the natural growth and development of education. As a result, it will not be the role of politicians to dictate which schools children should or should not attend or how much parents should invest in their children’s education.  This will, once again, be the responsibility of parents. Nor will it be the role of politicians to dictate who can and cannot set up and manage a school.

The liberty to teach and the freedom to educate must be respected and it will ultimately be parents who decide if a new school will flourish or not.

While politicians have previously argued that education was far too important to be left to ignorant parents and the chaos of the market, they must now be prepared to admit that education is far too important to be left to politicians. Politicians must have the humility to recognise that their own personal views on what works on education are completely irrelevant. After all, what does any politician know about the detailed and very specific circumstances of each and every pupil and parent across the UK?

Therefore, a future education sector where the rights and responsibilities of parents are both respected and protected will not be planned or directed by central government, nor will it be used to achieve any “national” objectives. Instead, it will consist of a variety of different national and international private, independent, autonomous, for-profit and not for-profit institutions, each with their own specific missions. The needs and desires of parents (and not politicians or governments) will be supreme and the government will be restricted to establishing a regulatory framework that will encourage a variety of different institutions to compete and flourish on a level playing field.

According to Buchanan a vision of the liberal ideal would also be based upon our desire to be free from the coercive power of others, combined with the absence of a desire to exert power over others.  Another Nobel Laureate, Milton Friedman, helps to explain:
Willingness to permit free speech to people with whom one agrees is hardly evidence of devotion to the principle of free speech; the relevant test is willingness to permit free speech to people with whom one thoroughly disagrees. Similarly, the relevant test of the belief in individual freedom is the willingness to oppose state intervention even when it is designed to prevent individual activity of a kind one thoroughly dislikes.

Therefore, this provides a useful test to all those who continue to view parental choice or increasing diversity in the provision of education as an unnecessary evil. Do they have the discipline to place their personal views to one side and recognise that the rights and responsibilities of individual parents must always come first? If they do, then they should be willing to oppose the existing government restrictions which prevent profit-making companies from managing state-funded schools, despite the fact that they may not want their children to attend such a school. From this perspective, a vision of the liberal ideal should be seen as much less self-obsessed and instead much more compassionate towards the private beliefs and the opinions of those who are directly responsible for children’s education – their parents.

For those politicians concerned with the “vote motive”, the fact that most parents are also voters might imply that reforms that increase parents’ freedom to choose in education have a good chance of gaining electoral support if the case for reform is communicated and presented in the correct way.  The time may also be right to launch a campaign for freedom in education because a vision which is based upon liberty and democracy is currently a common denominator of both the Conservative and Liberal Democratic Party. There can be nothing more liberal and democratic than extending the right to choose to all parents, irrespective of their income or location. The following advice from Bastiat should therefore appeal to both parties:
Away, then, with quacks and organizers! Away with their rings, chains, hooks, and pincers! Away with their artificial systems! Away with the whims of governmental administrators, their socialized projects, their centralization, their tariffs, their government schools, their state religions, their free credit, their bank monopolies, their regulations, their restrictions, their equalization by taxation, and their pious moralizations!

And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty.


Ideas: up for auction?

It’s no secret that the American educational system has a political bias.  The left-of-center prejudice is most blatant in the university system, but also permeates throughout the entire public school system via skewed history books, science lessons, and woefully inadequate politics and civics requirements.

The big question is: are our nation’s academicians for hire?  Is it really the “inconvenient truth” that is spewing from the mouths of our educators, administrators, and textbook editors?  Are “conservatives” of all varieties simply a misinformed minority whose children must be purged of extremist nonsense? Doubtful.  In fact, there is most definitely a less noble impetus influencing education (and, therefore, ideas) in America — cold hard cash.

According to tax records, in 2010 progressive, liberal, and generally left-leaning organizations donated at least $69,000,000 to politically active groups involved with education in America — these include public school advocacy, teacher support organizations, and student achievement groups.  Sound like a hefty chunk of change?  Hardly.  In fact, it pales in comparison to the $142,000,000 donated by similar funders to Universities and Colleges that same year (according to tax records).

The majority of this funding came from the usual liberal bank-rolling suspects: the Hewlett Foundation donated $51,698,880 to educational institutions and advocacy groups, the Ford Foundation gave almost $40,000,000, Goldman Sachs Foundation: $13,068,822.  The Boston Foundation donated at least $7.5 million and George Soros’ Foundation to Promote Open Society donated a little over five million as well.  Liberal funding giant Tides granted out $2,393,748 to educational interests in 2010, according to tax records.

This tie between high levels of politically motivated funding and highly biased faculty is blatantly obvious in the U.S. university system.   According to tax records, 16 of the top 18 most liberal universities are heavily funded by progressive bankrollers — most receiving yearly gifts in the millions of dollars.  The entire Ivy League is heavily subsidized by progressive funders and all 8 schools rank among the most liberal universities in the county.  In 2010 Brown received $1,392,500, Columbia: $3,424,830, Cornell: $138,000, Harvard: $6,532,062, University of Pennsylvania: $350,000, Yale: $7,333,405.  Similarly prestigious colleges Stanford, John Hopkins, MIT, and UC Berkeley received a combined $29,437,251.

The University of California (UC) System, whose member universities are considered to employ some of the most liberal faculty in the U.S. and regularly rank among the most liberal colleges in the country, received over $37.5 million dollars from progressive funders in 2010, according to tax records.  This in a year that state funding for the UC system fell by about 9 percent.

And state funding is falling across the county — leaving colleges increasingly dependent on the support of liberal ideologues like Pew, Hewlett, Tides, Open Society, and Ford.  The UC system alone received a staggering $1,381,580 from Pew, $20,444,181 from Hewlett, $11,868,241 from the Sandler Foundation, and $3,596,983 from the Ford Foundation in 2010 (according to 990 tax records).

And it’s not just top-tier schools that are affected by these prejudiced donations.  In 2010 almost every state university system received grants from progressive bankrolling organizations, according to tax records.

Of course, no one has a problem with the private sector investing in education.  But these donations aren’t coming from individuals supporting their alma mater, favorite athletic program, or even from genuine philanthropies — they come from organizations who use their money to push their political agenda, and it’s naïve to think that their donations ever come without a caveat.

In fact, all of the top environmental science and climate change studies programs in the U.S. (according to receive extensive support from environmental funders.  Harvard, UC Berkeley, MIT, Stanford, Princeton, UCLA, Yale, Cornell, UC San Diego, Duke, University of Chicago, Columbia, University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins, UC Santa Barbara, and Carnegie Mellon have some of the top climate-change studies programs worldwide and all received at least $1,000,000 donations from environmental extremists in 2010, with many receiving tens of millions in that year alone (according to 990 tax records).

In early 2011 the Koch Foundation donated a controversial $150,000 to re-evaluate climate change data at UC Berkeley, chump change compared to the $18,896,597 that the university received from vocal climate change activists in the previous year (according to 2010 990 tax forms).

In fact, the top supporters of environmental extremism (Hewlett, Pew, and Tides Foundations) also happen to be the top private funders of secondary education in America.  Not only are these political donors bankrolling the organizations distributing controversial environmental studies, but it turns out they are also funding (some might say “buying off”) the very scientists creating the supporting evidence for global warming alarmism and paying for the brainwashing of the next generation to boot.

Given the glut of biased, liberal money in education, one has to wonder if all climate change research is truly “inconvenient truth” or rather pure propaganda, bought and paid for by environmental extremists.

The connection between the funding of education and the disproportionate leftist bias that permeates our entire school system goes a long way in explaining a progressive cultural phenomenon that appears to have been bought by the monied elite — through liberal subsidizing of propaganda, media, and (perhaps most dangerously) education in the United States.


Top British universities forced to introduce remedial maths classes

Top universities are being forced to give remedial lessons to maths students as A-levels and GCSEs have failed to prepare them for the rigours of degree courses, an official report has found.

Standards in schools have slipped so low that GCSE maths now amounts to little more than "glorified numeracy" while even those with top grades at A-level are woefully ill-equipped to study maths and science at university.

A combination of the "modular" A-level system, which allows pupils to bypass certain fields such as calculus, and a "race to the bottom" between competing exam boards are driving the problem, the House of Lords report has said.

Many pupils are even applying to study scientific subjects such as engineering and chemistry at university despite dropping maths at 16, meaning they arrive without even a basic knowledge of key fields like mechanics and statistics.

Some seventy per cent of first-year undergraduates studying biology, 38 per cent reading chemistry and economics and 20 per cent on engineering courses in 2009 had not completed an A level in maths.

In their evidence to the committee, Vice Chancellors including Prof Sir Leszek Borysiewicz of Cambridge reported that many maths and science students had to be given "remedial" classes upon arrival at university.

Lord Willis of Knaresborough, chairman of the Lords science and technology select committee which commissioned the report, said he was "absolutely gobsmacked" by the figures.

The calibre of maths students and general school leavers is so dire that all pupils should now be required to study maths to some level after the age of 16, he added.

"If we are talking about a world-class system, where mathematics is the cornerstone of virtually every science programme, then it is really quite amazing that we have so few students who have studied maths, literally, beyond GCSE and often, not even with a grade A.

"Part of [the problem] is the modulisation of A level, whereby there is no interlinking between the different elements of maths, but it is also because there is a race to the bottom at A-level by exam boards competing with each other about the ease with which students can achieve their grades."

Prof Brian Cantor, Vice Chancellor of York University, told the committee: "We have to give maths remedial classes, often even to triple-A students."

Professor Sir Christopher Snowden, vice-chancellor of Surrey University, added: "I think that in pretty much every university the issues over maths skills apply.

"This has been an issue now for many years within universities, partly due to the increase in the breadth of maths that is studied at schools but with a lack of depth. In some cases, for example, there is a complete absence of calculus, which is an issue in many subjects."

Those wishing to study science, engineering or maths at university should be required to take a maths A-level, while those focusing on humanities subjects like English or classics should still study the subject to AS level, the committee said.

Pupils who leave school at 16 to enrol in apprenticeships or other educational programmes should take courses in maths appropriate to their vocation, for example a basic accounting course for people who may become self-employed, they added.

The report also recommended that universities shoulder some of the responsibility by introducing stricter entry criteria for science and maths degrees, making certain courses and key modules obligatory.

Lord Willis said: "When you have got the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge saying we have got young, bright, A* students coming in and we have to do remedial maths to get them to engage with engineering and physics, there is something seriously wrong with the system.


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The student loan bubble

The left-leaning web site ProPublica specializes in long-form journalism — labor-intensive, 3,000-plus-word articles dedicated to serious treatments of big subjects. Think of the long pieces that appeared in The New Yorker during the 1970s and early 1980s and you get the idea. While I find ProPublica’s reflexive and unexamined bias in favor of statist schemes irritating, I do read its articles. They are usually earnest and sometimes worthy efforts.

Lately, a ProPublica article about a semiliterate gardener’s struggles to manage his dead son’s unpaid college loans got some traction in the mainstream media. (While I don’t understand ProPublica’s business model completely, it seems to involve licensing its long stories to other news organizations.)

This gardener’s woes fit neatly into the mainstream media’s narrative that student loans are an evil, evil thing about which Good King Barack needs to do something. And, by “do something,” moronic opinion-shapers mean without saying: subsidize borrowers’ bad choices with capital redistributed from taxpayers.

This proposition is wrong on many levels. It also reflects faulty assumptions and bits of specious logic that are worth some examination — because they explain many of the problems that plague America today.

First, a quick review of ProPublica’s telling of the gardener’s tale.

Francisco Reynoso lives in Palmdale, California — a dusty far suburb, north of Los Angeles. He doesn’t speak much English (though he is a naturalized citizen) and earns about $20,000 a year from his labors. While the story doesn’t offer many details about Reynoso’s work, in southern California “gardener” is often a euphemistic way to describe a causal day laborer — the kind of guys you see milling around Home Depots and such outlets, looking for work.

On this meager income, Reynoso supports his wife and daughter. He used to support a son, too. But, in a tragic turn, that son — Freddy — died in a one-car accident in September 2008.

Freddy had recently graduated from Berklee College of Music, a school in Boston that combines elements of a conservatory with the rigors of a traditional four-year college.

It was a bit strange that a gardener’s son had matriculated to a place like Berklee. It’s no community college . . . or even a state university. Rather, its reputation has long been as a pricey second-tier Julliard. The school’s comprehensive fee is nearly $50,000 each academic year.

A lazy person might describe Freddy’s enrollment at Berklee as a version of “the American Dream.” The son of a laborer enters a world traditionally reserved for the elite, etc. But it sounds like Freddy never really entered that world. In 2005, after he’d been admitted to Berklee, the young man needed to borrow significantly to enroll. Reynoso cosigned on a series of student loans that allowed Freddy to attend. By 2008, when Freddy was finished at Berklee, he moved back to Palmdale and was driving into Los Angeles most days. Trying to find work. According to his family, Freddy was driving back from the city on the night that he ran off the highway, rolled the car, and died.

The principal amount of the money Freddy and his father had borrowed was nearly $170,000. With interest and fees added, the amount they’d have to repay would be closer to $300,000. The lenders didn’t mind much that Reynoso didn’t have the means to repay those amounts because, as we’ll see in more detail later, various government subsidies that support the student-loan market make rigorous underwriting unnecessary.

So, lenders lend. But why do borrowers borrow? Why did a gardener making little more than minimum wage agree to guarantee so much in college loans? His answer: “As a father, you’ll do anything for your child.”

It may not seem sporting to criticize a simple man’s devotion to his son . . . but what if that devotion is ignorant and misguided? According to a survey of music industry salaries produced by Berklee itself (and based — tellingly — in the “Parent Questions” section of its web site), most of the jobs its graduates pursue offer starting pay of less than $25,000 a year. That’s not enough income to support the debt service on nearly $200,000 in student loans.

As a father, perhaps Reynoso should have told Freddy that borrowing hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a degree in music was a bad financial decision. Some people are poor because they make bad financial choices. An unintended consequence of government programs that give material support to such poor people is that they’re free to make more bad choices. In the hands of Francisco Reynoso, Freddy’s government-subsidized student loans were a loaded gun . . . or a hangman’s rope.

A few months after Freddy’s fatal accident, collectors started calling Reynoso to demand payment on the student loans for which he’d cosigned.

The loans that allowed Freddy to attend Berklee fell into several categories — as they do for most borrowing students. There were some direct government loans, which carry the lowest interest rates and most favorable terms for the borrower. In most situations, they don’t require parents to cosign. But there are limits to the amounts available on these favorable terms; in most cases, a student can only get a few thousand dollars each academic year in this “cheap” money.

After that, a borrowing student needs to go to so-called “private” lenders. These are banks and specialized finance companies that offer loans with higher interest rates and less-favorable terms for borrowers. But the “private” loans are still subsidized heavily by the government and share unique traits with the direct government loans — most importantly, the loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.

This is the major reason why the “private” student-loan lenders don’t bother with rigorous underwriting. Since the loans can’t be discharged in bankruptcy, the lenders or their agents can hound borrowers and cosigners for repayment endlessly.

In Freddy’s case, he borrowed about $8,000 in private money from Bank of America and about $160,000 from a company called Education Finance Partners. Neither lender kept the loans for long; as is typical in the market, the “loan originators” sold Freddy’s paper to other firms that focus on servicing debt or bundling it with other student loans and “securitizing” those bundles.

According to ProPublica, Bank of America sold the loan it made to Freddy to a student-loan financing specialist called First Marblehead Corp.; Education Finance Partners, which has since declared bankruptcy, sold the loans it made to Freddy to a unit of the Swiss banking giant UBS.

The loans purchased by UBS may have been sold, in turn, to the Swiss National Bank (analogous to the U.S. Federal Reserve) when the National Bank made a Fed-style bailout of UBS in 2009. Details are sketchy because of Swiss privacy laws.

So, if the ownership of the debt was unclear, who were the collectors calling Reynoso for repayment? A separate company, called ACS Education Services, which owns some student debt and contracts with other lenders to manage and collect on their loans for a fee. ACS is a unit of Xerox Corp. and one of the bigger players in the student-loan servicing market.

But Freddy was dead — and one might think that that fact would have an effect on the lenders’ collection efforts. Some student loan companies have a policy of canceling loan balances when a borrower dies. (Direct student loans from the government are generally cancelled if the borrower dies.) But, since Reynoso had cosigned for his son’s “private” loans, the lenders have the legal right to pursue payment from him.

It’s easy — and emotionally satisfying, perhaps — to focus outrage at lenders like Bank of America and Education Finance Partners, or behind-the-scenes operators like First Marblehead or ACS Education Services. The establishment Left and media outlets like ProPublica certainly focus on them.

But these lenders and finance outfits are really just service providers, working the levers of government to find ways to make a few points here or there while helping to facilitate state-sponsored transactions.

The core transaction in the ProPublica story was between Freddy Reynoso and the Berklee College of Music. Freddy was pursuing a dream of being a professional musician and Berklee was selling an expensive credential that might help in that pursuit.

Freddy died. But Berklee is doing well. It has an endowment of nearly $200 million and is in the midst of an ambitious expansion of its campus — which at present comprises of some 21 buildings in the Back Bay area of Boston.


The decline and fall of clear thinking

One of the myths that helps to sustain our vertically-structured culture is that academia houses the clear-headed, rational thinking necessary for an intelligently run society. Since at least the days in which Plato created the blueprint for a world managed by "philosopher kings," this premise has been embraced – particularly by academicians who fashion themselves such intellectual monarchs. FDR reinforced such thinking during the New Deal, as Ivy League "experts" constituted his "Brain Trust" to formulate state-imposed rules for bringing society to order.

The idea that academia is comprised of men and women who employ focused reason – rather than fear-driven reaction – in addressing social problems is an article of faith embraced by most people who have never spent much time on university campuses. The reality is that a PhD confers upon its recipient no greater capacity for wisdom and thoughtful reflection than is to be found off-campus.

The truth of this observation was revealed in a newspaper story informing us that the Big Ten Conference – a group of twelve of some of the most prestigious universities in America – is considering a proposal that would give its commissioner the power to fire coaches at any of the conference’s schools. The proposition is being advanced, of course, as a knee-jerk response to the recent scandal at Penn State University. Some may object to coalescing athletics and scholarly pursuits; that sports programs are not synonymous with what goes on in academic departments. But the reality is that such extra-curricular activity – particularly the football team – brings far greater amounts of attention, money, and alumni support to the school than do research botanists or fine arts professors. The concern underlying all of this is, as the news story informs us, to punish schools whose behavior harms the conference’s reputation. In our institutionalized world of false-front affectation, the image of those who sit atop the pyramid must be protected at all costs.

Among other thoughts being considered by some Big Ten officials is that Penn State be kicked out of the conference. Should Penn State be prohibited from playing football games in this, or any subsequent season, is another idea that might help restore the desired shine to the Big Ten name. Should those who participated in the sexual abuse of boys be punished for their actions? Among decent and intelligent persons, such a question contains its own answer. The more telling inquiry, however, has to do with what kind of response is appropriate. In a world driven by dark-side forces and reptilian reactions to events, clear thinking is too often confused with trying to justify the wrongdoing. Once the reptilian-brain has been aroused, the response of "see, act!" is all that is allowed.

The idea that the sanctity of a contract between a university and one of its coaches should be disregarded and that one who is not a party to the agreement could terminate it, is so goofy that one would have to suspect its academic origins! Perhaps such power should be bestowed upon usurped by the President of the United States. But is this enough of a sanction? Why not go further, and require Penn State alums to tear up their diplomas and, perhaps, have the rest of the academic community in America shove Penn State down the memory hole? Another option to consider is to have Penn State retroactively forfeit all of its football victories going all the way back to its first season! Do you find such suggestions troubling? What’s the matter with you: are you in favor of molesting young boys?

As I am writing this, news of the shooting at a Colorado movie theater is being brought to my attention. A dozen people have been killed and fifty-nine more wounded, allegedly by a young man now in custody. We are also being informed that he was an honor college graduate with a degree in the sciences. The television networks are bringing academicians and other "expert professionals" on camera, not so much to help Boobus understand the underlying causes of such violent behavior, but to provide him with the "official" explanation he is to internalize as his understanding.

This shooting occurred in Aurora, a suburb of Denver. In 1999, in another Denver suburb, two students at Columbine High School, murdered thirteen young people before committing suicide. The failure to ask the right questions in 1999 led some to seek causal explanations in such factors as teenage bullying, teenagers wearing long coats and, of course, guns. I can only wonder how many lives might have been saved in Aurora, last night, if just one of the other movie patrons had also been armed! But clear, rational thinking will not be heard in the mainstream media; we shall have more of the nitwitted commentary such as was expressed by one network newscaster who referred to the alleged shooter as a "gentleman." Another news channel provided details about how this young man had dyed his hair red and wore black clothing, while another voiced the Hollywood concern that this might discourage people from going to movies. (Do you really wonder whether Western Civilization is in collapse?)

President Obama’s former chief adviser – and now Chicago mayor – Rahm Emanuel once declared "you never want a serious crisis to go to waste." This is a premise upon which political behavior has long relied. To illustrate the point, Obama rushed to network television cameras to inform America that, yes, he was against these killings and, yes, he is against the terrorism and rampant violence that is destroying the sanctity of life. That neither he nor media voices suggested that America’s wars against the rest of the world; wars whose casualties include many American soldiers who, like the Columbine killers, end up committing suicide; wars whose bipartisan enthusiasm is nothing if not an all-out exercise in terror and war against life itself; that all of this might provide troubled young minds with a role model for the destruction of themselves and others.

But, alas, there was no such introspection from anyone in the political establishment; nor will there be. Mr. Obama stated that now is the time for “reflection,” but the reflection he has in mind is of the narcissistic form, not an examination of the assumptions underlying one’s thinking. How convenient it is for the Aurora killings to take place just as Congress is considering an international arms control treaty, and as federal and state gun-control efforts continue. Indeed, no "serious crisis" will be allowed "to go to waste" in our world.

On the other hand, perhaps there is something to be learned from the Big Ten Conference’s current musings. The idea that Penn State might be thrown out of the conference because of its alleged wrongdoings, might also be considered as an appropriate response to the latest Colorado mass-shootings. This is the second time the deadly violence of young people has resulted in so many deaths in that state. Perhaps President Obama could stand up for the principles he pretends to embrace, by kicking Colorado out of the Union!


Why Western Australia teachers exit 'toxic' system

SWAMPED teachers who quit the classroom say their passion has been "killed off" and they feel "overwhelmed and undervalued".  And the profession has been described as "toxic" with a possible "crisis" looming.

The damning descriptions are part of exit surveys of 261 teachers and staff who resigned from the Education Department between January 2011 and January 2012, outlined in a report obtained by The Sunday Times this week.

The report also shows:

* More teachers blame poor work-life balance and workload pressures for their decision to quit, with those reasons cited in 13.4 per cent of resignations.

* Eleven per cent cited family reasons and just under one in 10 said they wanted to pursue other interests.

* Health issues were blamed by 8 per cent of those who quit in the past year.

* Staff said the department's methods for dealing with disruptive students needed the greatest attention.

* Seven out of 10 teachers leaving the department said they would consider returning in the future, indicating most were generally happy.

One experienced teacher, who described the first 10 years of teaching as "very rewarding", said the passion had been "killed off".

"Over the past four years, I have seen a steady decline by the department on the importance of children's self-esteem and social and emotional wellbeing only to be replaced by ridiculous tests (NAPLAN)," the teacher wrote.

"The children at my school need help to develop as a whole child as they have many home- life issues.

"I believe the department is only interested in achieving results and running schools like a business rather than thinking about what is important the children.

"I want my children to have fun while learning, develop skills and be happy. Not to just be able to spew out useless information so that their school 'looks good'."

Another employee called for a "closer look at schools with extreme behaviour management problems" because the administration was "encouraged to hide/cover up the behaviour management issues in their school to look better".

"If students are swearing, bullying and attacking other students and staff, they should have consequences," the employee wrote.

A qualified teacher told the department to "get your act together" after being told to "reapply for the same job every year, offering no job security" despite forecasts of teacher shortages in the coming years.

Another leaving employee said the department "should hang its head in shame" for the way it managed its restructure, from 14 districts to 75 school networks in eight regions.

"The last six months in this department have been terrible," they wrote.  "It is such a toxic work environment in here that it has affected me physically and emotionally. It upsets me greatly to sit back and watch such hard-working, dedicated officers treated so appallingly.

Another employee said "after many years of teaching", they felt workload pressures had become a "forgotten issue".

"Morale in schools is very low and as the baby boomers retire I fear a crisis will happen as younger teachers will not put up with the demands that are increasingly placed on teachers' time and efforts," they wrote.  "Much of the goodwill that teachers used to have has gone as they feel overwhelmed and undervalued."

Another teacher said they had simply "run out of steam to keep going" when they saw the "debacle with the national curriculum".

Some said they wanted more job security, better pay and greater recognition, while others said they loved their job and seeing the children flourish.

"My days at work were very happy and rewarding ones," one wrote. "I felt true achievement when in the classroom teaching students," another said.

Education Department workforce executive director Cliff Gillam said "only a tiny proportion" of leaving staff completed the voluntary survey, with 978 resignations, including 366 retirements.


Monday, July 23, 2012

Adults Who Say the Kids Are Alright Get It Wrong

Former New York City Board of Education Chancellor Joel Klein recently penned a compelling Time editorial lamenting the prevailing—and apparently growing—complacency about American students’ lackluster academic performance. He rightly points to research showing the failure to improve basic skills among students hurts their future earning potential, U.S. GDP, and even national security.

While some so-called experts struggle to justify why average performance scores are good enough, students make no excuses for why they don’t do better: they’re bored.

A new report from the Center from American Progress finds that more than one-third of fourth graders say that their math assignments are too easy. More than one-third of high school seniors report that they seldom write about what they read in class. And, close to three out of four eighth grade science students say engineering and technology aren’t being taught. (See here also.). In brief, students are not being challenged in school.

This conclusion squares with previous surveys that found almost nine out of 10 high school students said they would work harder if their schools demanded more, set higher standards, and raised expectations. Ninety percent of students want opportunities to take challenging classes, and four out of five students think passing graduation exams in English and math would improve American high schools.

Other surveys have found that the overwhelming majority of high school dropouts left school because they were failing—to be challenged. Most students said they might not have dropped out if their schools offered better instruction (81 percent) and fostered an academic climate (65 percent). Not being challenged increased student boredom and absenteeism levels. As one respondent put it, “They just let you pass, anything you got.” (See p.6 here.)

Results from international reading, math, and science assessments appear to substantiate that claim. Math and science results over the past 15 years, and reading results over the past decade, reveal that American primary school students (ages 9 and 13) and secondary school students (age 15) have consistently performed near—or slightly below—the various international averages.

American 9-year-olds perform above the international averages in reading, math, and science by as much as 8 percent, 6 percent, and 8 percent higher, respectively.

American 13-year-olds generally perform above the international averages as well, up to nearly 2 percent higher in math, and up to 5 percent higher in science. They are not assessed in reading.

American 15-year-olds, however, generally perform at or below the international averages. In reading, they score up to about 1 percent higher than the international average, but they perform as much as 5 percent below the international math average, and as much as 2 percent below in science

However popular it may be to accept average performance as good enough, a more sobering picture emerges when American students’ internationally average performance is considered alongside the country’s above-average per-pupil spending.

The United States spends far more per student than the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average at both the primary and secondary levels. As of 2008, the latest year available, the United States spent more than $10,000 per primary student and more than $12,000 per secondary student. In contrast, the average OECD country spent about $3,000 less, at about $7,000 per primary student and $9,000 per secondary student. In terms of real percentage differences, the United States spends over 40 percent more than the average OECD country at the primary level, and over a third more per student at the secondary level. (All figures and percentages are based on inflation-adjusted 2010 dollar amounts.)

There are a handful of countries that currently spend more than theUnited States (See table 429). Luxembourg now spends the most of any OECD country, $13,807 per primary student and $20,130 per secondary student. Compared to the U.S. expenditure of $10,099 per primary student, Norway spends $11,206; Iceland spends $10,723; and Denmark spends $10,198.

At the secondary level, the U.S.spends $12,238 per student compared to Switzerland, which spends $18,034, and Norway, which spends $13,223. None of those countries, however, has been a top performing country over the past 10 to 15 years.

Top-performers over the years include Chinese Taipei, Finland, Hong Kong, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation, Singapore, and Sweden, depending on the subject, assessment year, and student age level.

Compared to these top-performing countries the United States spends nearly a third more on average (32.2 percent) at the primary level and close to a third more on average (30.8 percent) at the secondary level.

Close to 80 developed and developing countries now regularly participate in international assessments. It is worth considering how much longer we can afford to pay more for more of the same. However change-averse some adults in the American public-schooling system may be students and taxpayers are clamoring for better.


Subverting American Education One Lawsuit at a Time

There is an old Chinese saying "death from a thousand cuts" and, sad to say, America is now suffering such a death. How, you ask? The answer is seemingly well-intentioned litigation that will only exacerbate an already bad situation while further draining depleted budgets. And rest assured, while we only highlight one of such "cut," the disorder is everywhere and few Americans even recognize this slow death. By the time we wake up, it will be too late.

This specific "cut" concerns a recent lawsuit filed by the ACLU to force Michigan's Highland Park School District to improve the education of its academically struggling students. This is only one of several similar lawsuits filed in New York, New Jersey among other states.

The facts are straightforward. According to a little known 1993 Michigan state law, all children have a right to literacy and the Highland Park students in grades 4 and 7 are doing poorly on standardized reading tests-65% of 4th graders are not proficient and 75% of 7th graders likewise failed to reach proficiency. Many 7th graders are, in fact, barely literate so a high school dropout rate of 46% is hardly surprising. The state law requires special assistance in such instances, and while the schools offer a program targeting strugglers, it obviously fails to impress the ACLU.

The second set of facts is that Highland Park already verges on bankruptcy. Schools are losing pupils (which means less state aid) and the city faces an $11.3 million deficit. Meanwhile, major employers and middle class residents are fleeing so the tax base is rapidly shrinking. To make matters worse, the school's record keeping is so inept that nobody really knows the problem's full extent.

Can litigation help? Extremely unlikely, and given that there are hundreds (if not thousands) of Highland Parks across America, this well-intentioned "rescue" effort may well bring a national plague.

Begin by acknowledging that Highland Park educators are undoubtedly trying their best or, alternatively, problems of home life and poverty are just overwhelming. Surely teachers want to educate children and any success with these lagging kids would be career boosting. Michigan is likewise making a major remedial effort by assumed responsibility for three schools with plans to transfer them to a charter school operator in the fall. In the meantime the city's debt is being restructured.

So, why does the ACLU's intervention, a little extra kick in the pants, so to speak portend a possible national disaster? Let me be blunt: despite endless research on this question and billions for almost every alleged cure imaginable, there are no solutions and the problems are, in all likelihood, intractable. Conceivably, the limited native ability of many of these children makes "proficiency" unrealistic, no different than a law requiring 7th graders to run a 100 yard dash in under 12 seconds. The unmentionable source of the problem, then, is the unrealistic state law, not pedagogical inadequacy. A more practical ready standard might be "adequacy" and with that small legal alteration, the ACLU's suit vanishes.

Now let's assume that the ACLU wins its case, and the judge issues an edict: proficiency for all in five years, or else!!  The disaster now begins. First, though experts are clueless on a cure, rest assured that more spending will be ordered, taxes raised, and with higher taxes, an already struggling state economy will languish. Highland Park may well slide into bankruptcy. The only beneficiaries will be those profiting from already bloated, and unproductive "education industry."

To be impolite, more quacks will be hired to implement schemes that have never worked and will never work. The Kansas City experiment is the poster child-gargantuan expenses for overseas field trips, lavish athletic facilities, new expensive buildings, smaller classes, armies of special counselors and on and on, and nothing worked. The more recent "Abbott schools" experiment in New Jersey confirmed this foolishness-massive court-ordered spending increases for low-performing schools financed by taxpayers and zero improvement. Remember, faced with a court order to "do something," it is pointless to heed experts who demonstrate that "nothing works." Instead, those who insist that their schemes that "might work" will carry the day.

It will get worse. As expenditures soar, and results remain flat, the pressure to cheat will be inevitable. School officials, not students, will lead the way and recent newspaper accounts of such top-down cheating suggest that this is becoming the response to impossible-to-meeting demands (see here). In a year or two this cheating may resemble publicly tolerated tax evasion in countries like Greece and Italy. That is, since "everyone does it" only a fool remains honest, and cheaters will now dominate schools.

Unrealistic court-ordered pressure may also bring dumbed-down standards. After all, only a few bureaucrats actually know what goes into the reading test, and too difficult questions can invisibly be eliminated. Now, almost overnight, proficiency soars. (This jimmy-the-test solution is especially tempting since it relieves educators of the hands-on cheating that risks termination.)  Yes, many "proficient" students will still be semi-literate but that may not be apparent for years when employees discover the ruse. And rest assured, city and even state officials will turn a blind eye towards this dishonesty since this bogus newly achieved "proficiency" will satisfy the judge and this means no tax hikes. 
Finally, this episode will teach a horrific lesson to Highland Park students and parents: why study hard, wait until the ACLU and a sympathetic judge arrive, and thanks to their intervention, you will know how to read. Salvation via litigation, a terrific recipe for sloth and dependency.

This damage will not, however, be uniform. Smart middle class parents hardly welcome scarce educational resources being directed at the bottom of the bottom (plus dumbed-down standards), often to no avail, and will personally remedy the situation with extra tutoring, enrolling junior in a no-nonsense private school or just re-locating to an upscale school distinct immune to an ACLU lawsuit. Now, the chasm between the rich and poor will further widen. Schools in poor areas will only get worse. Advocates of America's poor now can say that with friends like the litigation prone ACLU, who needs enemies? 

Multiply this scenario across dozens of states and thousands of school districts, even those not sued by the ACLU, and you have a perfect recipe for undermining America's public schools. Those not sued will be preemptive and "ACLU-proof" the test results or while conveniently ignoring cheating. Who would have imagined the nefarious impact of such "high-minded litigation to improve our nation's schools"?  Teachers and administers as well as many public officials who once honestly struggled against great odds to impart learning will now re-focus their effort to avoid a court orders bringing unemployment and higher taxes.

Obviously, the collapse of public education in Highland Park is not a crisis threatening America. But, this tale is about death by a thousand cuts, and this is just one cut. Bit by bit, almost invisibly, scores of American schools will slide towards mediocrity to avoid judicial orders that will accomplish nothing other than raising taxes to enrich the ineffectual education industry. This is no different than what occurred under George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind-intense pressure to uplift the bottom while that brought zero academic gain. And, for good measure, eliminating classes for the gifted.

To put this into a larger perspective, recall Voltaire's adage: the perfect is the enemy of the good. Our incessant efforts to uplift the bottom incur costs well beyond wasted billions. The pursuit may well destroy what we already have-a good though hardly stellar educational system-- so as to achieve the egalitarian fantasy of everyone being "proficient." Better to acknowledge intractability, no matter how painful or politically incorrect, than slide into bankruptcy and a culture of mendacity.



Is a College Education a Prerequisite for Personal Economic Success?

After the 112th Congress effectively struck a deal last year preventing interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans from almost doubling to 6.8 percent from 3.4 percent for another year, many students from across the country were exultant. Not surprisingly, they deemed this bipartisan compromise (a rarity in Washington these days) as step towards lowering higher education costs and alleviating the crushing burden of debt threatening the futures of so many American college graduates. But this eleventh hour resolution, although widely praised by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, is nothing more than a temporary fix to a longstanding problem; one that cannot be addressed without painful and systemic reforms.

On Thursday night, I attended “Bursting the College Bubble: The Status of Higher Education Today,” hosted by America’s Future Foundation and the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. Moderated by Lindsey Burke, an education scholar at the Heritage Foundation who focuses on state and local issues, the four-person panel expounded on the value of a college degree, discussed why college costs are rising exponentially, and reviewed the government’s pernicious role in the American higher education system.

Conventional wisdom dictates that obtaining a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university is a golden ticket to the American Dream. Indeed, as the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy’s Jenna Robinson explains, “70 percent of high school graduates go on to [pursue] some kind of [postsecondary] academic degree” for this explicit purpose. But despite this seemingly positive trend, students are dropping out of college at unprecedented and alarming rates.

Andrew Gillen, a fellow at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, explained this phenomenon in simplistic terms: “For every 100 students who attend college [only] 58 graduate,” he said. And of those 50 student who graduate, “only 38 use their degree in some meaningful sense.”

Let those numbers sink in.

In other words, only a small percentage of Americans attend college, graduate, and use their degree in a relevant field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as Burke explained during her opening remarks, “there are 115,000 janitors, 83,000 bartenders…and 80,000 truck drivers [in the United States] with bachelor’s degrees.”

Not only have recent college graduates earned degrees they don’t use (after having taken out hundreds of thousands dollars in loans to pay for them) but the labor market is moving in a surprising and perhaps unanticipated direction.

“The economy is not demanding the degrees we’re using anymore,” Robinson intoned, referring to a different Bureau of Labor Statistics study estimating that only 3 of the 30 jobs projected to have the most growth by the end of the decade will require a four-year bachelor’s degree or higher. “[And thus the Obama administration’s] push for universal enrollment is a step in the wrong direction.

Put simply, the Obama administration’s “push for universal enrollment” is a code-phrase for making college an entitlement directed to every American. In fact, the White House is publicly pursuing policies that would give the United States the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. Unfortunately, as each panelist pointed out, this initiative is merely driving up administrative costs and making college increasingly less accessible to millions of young Americans.

According to the Heritage Foundation, the cost of attending college has increased 475 percent since 1982. Last June, I had the opportunity to speak to Lindsey Burke by phone about this trend. (The interview was subsequently published in Student Groans, an article printed in the July issue of Townhall Magazine, available for purchase here). Here’s an excerpt:

    “Part of the reason [government intervention] has led to an increase in tuition and fees is because universities have zero incentive to lower costs,” she said. “They’ll spend as much money as they take in. And so there’s been no outward pressure on universities; they don’t have to worry about their bottom line because they know students can just go back, request more federal financial aid, [request] more federal subsidies, and they’ll have what they need to pay these increases in tuition.”

Given the inflated price tag of college, the panelists suggest Americans should seriously consider whether or not college is (a) needed at all for certain career paths and (b) worth the time and money invested. Bill Glod, a researcher and mentor at the Institute for Humane Studies, went a step further and praised innovator Peter Thiel, an entrepreneur who has long advocated that college is not only a waste of time, but can hinder hard working and industrious young Americans who would otherwise benefit from entering the workplace immediately after high school. His eponymous fellowship gives “20 people under 20” a one-time, $100,000 check every year to start their own companies, effectively encouraging these individuals not to go to college.

In short, a college education is not necessarily a prerequisite for personal economic success anymore. Let’s hope the next generation of Americans figures this out before it's too late.


Sunday, July 22, 2012

'Story of Stuff’ Videos Aim Stealth Indoctrination at Students

Yesterday, I noted a sure sign that summer is nearly over: There were commercials on TV for ingredients to make school lunches.

Already, the folks at Oscar Mayer are offering suggestions for how to make a lunch that kids will find nutritious and delicious, though they don’t offer any advice in the ads on how to keep school administrators from pitching your homemade lunch and force-feeding your kid chicken nuggets.

Advertisers aren’t the only ones looking ahead to the coming academic year. Yesterday, the prolific folks at the Story of Stuff Project released yet another short video that is sure to become part of the stealth curriculum meant to indoctrinate our children into an anti-capitalist worldview.

This time, it’s “The Story of Change,” and the message is alarmingly clear: America needs a “new economic system” that is more environmentally friendly, more “fair,” and more democratic (with a small “d”).

Perhaps you are not one of the 15 million people who have viewed the original film that launched this agitprop empire: “The Story of Stuff.”

“The Story of Stuff” uses simplistic animation and sweeping generalizations to “educate” viewers, especially the nation’s schoolchildren, about anti-capitalism and eco-radicalism. It was funded by the Tides Center.

In this documentary, creator Annie Leonard convicts Americans of hyper-consumerism and U.S. corporations of essentially raping the land and exploiting all the citizens of the world. I’ll synopsize, in case you don’t have 20 minutes to spare: All companies are bad, everything contains toxins, all governments are corrupt, but “democracy” will save the day. And the planet.

Between YouTube and DVD sales to schools and churches, an estimated 15 million people have seen “The Story of Stuff.” It routinely is assigned as part of science and social studies curricula. There’s even a faith-based program — “Let There Be Stuff?” — to inculcate the film’s message via religious education classes and Bible-study groups.

In fact, the dissemination and proliferation of “The Story of Stuff” has spawned a veritable cottage industry of left-wing cartoons, including “The Story of Bottled Water,” “The Story of Cosmetics,” “The Story of Cap and Trade,” and “The Story of Electronics.” And last year Ms. Leonard was quick to produce “The Story of Citizens United v. FEC,” to explain why our Supreme Court got it wrong.

Now comes “The Story of Change.” Ms. Leonard’s premise is that personal behavior — while admirable — won’t solve our environmental “crisis.” It’s not enough to replace your light bulbs or carry your green cleaning products home in a reusable shopping bag.

Only a systemic change in our economy will produce the result we need, Ms. Leonard says. Just what would that change entail? For starters, an end to free markets and the adoption of a “new economy” as outlined by the

This radical group says the purpose of an economic system is “to organize human activities in ways that support healthy and resilient human communities and ecosystems for both present and future generations.”

That’s a far cry from the vision of our nation’s founders.

The purpose of our American economic system is to permit the free participation of free people in whatever economic activity they choose. It’s the vehicle through which people realize their hopes and dreams, provide for themselves and their families, and yes, accumulate property. (Gasp.)

Ms. Leonard’s new film, sure to be a hit with social studies teachers across the country, promotes the notion that economic measurement ought not be based on growth, but on “those things that really matter: public wellbeing, environmental health and social equity.”

It’s the sort of lofty language that makes for a breezy civics class and gets children talking about what’s “fair” and “not fair.”

What’s really not fair? That millions more children will be taught that capitalism is inherently immoral, while socialism (disguised as “democracy”) will make everyone happy.

Because as we all know, socialist economic systems are never corrupt, right?


Why teachers should aspire to know something about the subject  they teach -- and maybe even have a devotion to it!

Too many educationalists today believe an intellectually informed curriculum is only suitable for the elites and not the masses

Frank Furedi

One of the central characters in Glee, the American musical comedy-drama series, is high-school Spanish teacher Mr Schue. In one episode, he is reported by a student of his for being a poor teacher. It turns out that he doesn’t speak Spanish and only took the job because no other teaching positions were available. Towards the end of the episode, Mr Schue resigns so that a genuine Spanish speaker can take over. We learn that he will now teach history, since there is an open position available in this subject. Presumably Mr Schue’s lack of expertise in history is not an obstacle to his teaching it.

Sadly, Mr Schue is not simply an invention of a TV show. Nor is the phenomenon of the unqualified secondary-school teacher confined to the United States. According to the UK Department of Education, tens of thousands of teachers have no qualification in the subject they teach. Is it any surprise that young people leaving school often lack basic knowledge of maths when more than a quarter of mathematics teachers have no qualification in their subject? More than 20 per cent of English teachers have no higher than an A-level in their subject and the situation is far worse in subjects like physics and geography. The teaching of languages is particularly affected by the absence of qualified teachers. The majority of Spanish teachers and a third of German teachers do not possess a relevant university degree.

Of course, it could be argued that you do not need a first-class degree in mathematics or history or French to be an effective and inspiring teacher of that subject. There are many teachers of physics and biology who, because of their intellectual interest in their subject, have become self-taught masters of their discipline. But a high-quality system of education depends on a cohort of teachers who have mastered their subject to the point that they can use their scholarship to guide their pupils through difficult intellectual terrain.

What the figures suggest is that far too many teachers in English schools lack the academic knowledge required to develop intellectually their pupils. This is not a minor problem. The act of learning and the very pursuit of knowledge require pupils to accept the authority of the subject through its representative in the classroom, namely, the teacher. When children go to school, they rely on their teachers to help them comprehend new forms of knowledge.

Not taking scholarship seriously

The trouble with England’s school system is not simply the relative absence of qualified teachers, but the fact that this is not seen as a problem by the education establishment. Sadly, the education establishment finds it difficult to believe in the power of ideas. Instead of encouraging teachers to gain a mastery of their subjects so that they can go on to inspire their students with the quality of their ideas, pedagogues prefer to put their faith in motivational techniques to manage classroom behaviour.

Most of the so-called reforms and educational innovations of the past three decades have side-stepped the question of how best to cultivate the intellectual development of young people. Instead they draw upon market and psychological research to devise schemes that promise to motivate students.  Hope is invested in the capacity of this new psycho-pedagogy – learning styles, brain functioning, thinking skills, emotional intelligence or multiple intelligence – to engage students.

This pedagogy is fixated on learning styles but cares little for the knowledge to be learnt. The minor status assigned to knowledge by current pedagogy reflects its studied indifference towards the intellectual content of education. Worse still, schools are influenced by a pedagogy that has little faith in the potential of academic education to transform and develop children. That is why teaching without having demonstrated mastery of an academic subject is not seen as a big deal.

Education may serve a variety of different purposes, but unless a central role is assigned to the acquisition of subject-based knowledge, it is not really education. Only through the acquisition of such knowledge can children transcend the limits of their experience and gain the intellectual independence required to make their way in the world. It is regrettable that in the twenty-first century it is not always possible to assume that schools are prepared to uphold this sentiment. One reason why the central role of the acquisition of subject-based knowledge needs to be upheld is because so much of what goes by the name of ‘pedagogic innovation’ has been frequently designed to undermine pedagogy.

Most parents and non-specialists would be surprised to discover that many educationalists have a very low opinion of a subject-based curriculum devoted to the cultivation of children’s knowledge of history, literature, maths or science. These days, professional educators frequently refer to an academic curriculum as an irrelevant, elitist, nineteenth-century relic. They take the view that a subject-based curriculum belongs to the Victorian past. Since intellectual and scientific development occurred, and continues to occur, through distinct academic subjects, it is far from evident why a curriculum based on these disciplines should be outdated. The knowledge that children gain through the study of these subjects is no more outdated today than it was a 100 or 200 years ago.

The charge that an academic curriculum is outdated is rarely informed by a serious reflection on the content of subjects. The justification for this hostility to a subject-based curriculum is not that maths, science, history and literature have become less relevant to life today than in the nineteenth century. Rather such criticisms are usually justified on political or social-engineering grounds. More specifically, a subject-based curriculum is blamed for perpetuating an elitist culture of schooling. It is frequently asserted that a subject-led education discriminates against children from poor homes because they are likely to struggle with its intellectual content.

There is little doubt that children from poor homes are likely to face difficulties when they engage with a school culture informed by an ethos of scholarship. Indeed most children – including those from the middle classes – are likely to be stretched by an academic school culture. However, the role of educators is to establish an environment where children are helped to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of attaining a good academic education.

Decrying the value of such an education avoids confronting the challenge of how to provide quality education to everyone regardless of their social circumstances. It also significantly underestimates the human capacity for learning. Sadly, the currently fashionable pedagogy of limits distracts society’s energies from realising the formidable potential that education has in inspiring young people to develop their intellectual powers.

There was a time when radical educational reformers sought to provide working-class people with the opportunity to gain access to a curriculum with a high level of intellectual content. As the academic Harold Entwistle recalls, the issue for these reformers was ‘discovering ways of bringing to the socially and economically disadvantaged the benefits of the kind of education which has traditionally been reserved to the ruling class’ (1). This approach was forcefully argued by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci who believed that the problem with the kind of education monopolised by the elites was that the rest of society was prevented from gaining access to it (2). In contrast to Gramsci’s valuation of the ‘great works of European culture’, today’s reformers assume that such a classical education is elitist and therefore not suitable for a national curriculum.

It is hardly surprising that in an age where education was the ‘property of the privileged, the subjects thought worthy of inclusion in a curriculum were intellectual’, states a report hostile to knowledge-led schooling. Instead of proposing that this kind of education ought to be available to everyone, the authors of the report acquiesce to the age-old prejudice that an academic education is not suitable for the mass of students. They insist that ‘the classical and elite model containing a narrow range of intellectual knowledge and skill is inappropriate for an age of universal education’ (3).

Typically, intellectual knowledge, which has a unique capacity to expand the mind and the imagination, is caricatured as narrow. But, paradoxically, this polemic against the classical model is based on assumptions that are surprisingly similar to those held by the elites that they criticise. For today’s anti-subjects crusaders implicitly agree with traditional hierarchical educators on one important point: an intellectually informed curriculum is only suitable for the elites and not for the education of the masses.

Criticism of the ‘knowledge model’ of education is often expressed through statements that explicitly question the authority of knowledge. One recurring argument used to contest the knowledge-led curriculum is that it is quickly outdated in an ever-changing world. It appears that since ‘what is known to be true changes by the hour’, the ‘rote learning of facts must give way to the nurturing through education of essential transferable skills’ (4).

Typically, ‘truth’ is represented as a momentary epiphenomenon and knowledge acquisition is caricatured as the ‘rote learning of facts’. The representation of truth and of knowledge as an unstable and transitory phenomenon has become an unstated, core assumption of opponents of an academically based school curriculum. A position statement by a teachers’ union asserts that ‘a twenty-first century curriculum cannot have the transfer of knowledge at its core for the simple reason that the selection of what is required has become problematic in an information-rich age’.

The claim that transmitting knowledge to children loses its relevance in an information-rich age fails to understand the distinction between knowledge and information. A society’s knowledge gives meaning to new information. It allows people to interpret new facts and helps society to understand what significance to attach to new information. Through the appropriation of new experience, knowledge itself develops. But the latest knowledge is organically linked to what preceded it.

Scepticism towards the authority of knowledge implicitly calls into question the meaning of education itself. Once the knowledge of the past is rendered obsolete, what can education mean? If ‘what is known to be true changes by the hour’, what is there left to teach? The alternative offered to the knowledge-based curriculum is an agenda that encourages students to acquire skills that allow them to adapt to a constantly changing environment. From this perspective, what’s important is not what students know but their ability to adapt to new circumstances.

And this is where we come back to Mr Schue. He is an adaptable classroom manager whose lack of knowledge does not inhibit him from teaching a language he does not understand. After all, from the perspective of current, throwaway pedagogy, what is there to teach in our information-rich environment?

But there is no point in blaming Mr Schue. The real problem lies not with unqualified teachers, but with an ethos that discourages them from aspiring to the status of scholars.

The current debates among policymakers regarding the examination system and the content of the curriculum need to shift focus on to the teacher. Restoring the intellectual authority of teachers, and encouraging them to gain academic depth in their subject, is the precondition for improving education. That requires an almighty challenge to the philistine attitude prevailing in the educational establishment today.


Schools are adopting a new 'tough love' teaching initiative

SCHOOLS are clamouring to adopt a revolutionary "tough love" teaching initiative - replacing empty praise and gold stars for coming last.

KidsMatter is a radical shift from three decades of enhancing student self-esteem through positive reinforcement and rewards.

Students are now getting lessons in reality and learning self-management, responsible decision-making, and coping with difficulties and mistakes.

Adolescent psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg said it was time for all teachers and parents to focus on social and emotional competencies.

"Young people in Sydney would be far better off if we spent time teaching them anger management, problem solving, decision making, conflict resolution, and how to name and recognise not just their own thoughts and feelings but those of other people, too," Mr Carr-Gregg said.

Carlton Public School in Sydney's south this week introduced the social and emotional learning skills.

Principal Stephen Cooper said it emphasised personal and social development and relationship skills.

"I think the modern generation of kids are protected and they need to be exposed to situations that challenge them," he said.

Despite a successful pilot in 2006, the take-up of KidsMatter remained slow. Of the 800 primary schools across Australia implementing the program. the majority have signed up this year.

It was developed in collaboration with Principals Australia, the Australian Psychological Society, and BeyondBlue. The federal government and BeyondBlue will fund rollout to another 1400 schools by 2014.

Psychology professor Dr Helen McGrath said schools were rethinking the emphasis on self-esteem.

"Change in any sector such as education can be slow but I think there are an enormous amount of schools aware of what is happening," she said.

However, one western Sydney principal said some parents pressured schools to recognise their child with awards.

"I think it's come generally from society in that you can't fail any more," he said.

Dr Carr-Gregg said the self-esteem movement protected children from failure, robbed them of loss and grief and created a spate of anxiety disorders in young people unable to cope when they leave the protective cocoon of school or home.

"The idea of not actually allowing kids to be inspired by misfortune and the terrible things that can happen to them from time to time is almost cruel," he said.