Friday, July 11, 2014

I will send my children private if I can't get them into a grammar

The latest row to embroil the Education Secretary, Michael Gove - whether he did or didn’t want Of Mice and Men taken off the GCSE syllabus - took me juddering back to my schooldays.

That slender volume was a standard text at my comprehensive. I’d always had the suspicion that, being a novella, it was chosen because it was easier to read than, say, a weighty Dickens tome. And far easier to teach, too, when it was common for staff to spend up to two-thirds of a 50-minute lesson performing crowd control.

But reading Steinbeck was a tremendous leap forward from the texts I’d been given in my pre-GCSE year. Aged 14, I was staggered to be handed a brightly-coloured Roald Dahl book. Now I had adored and devoured Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - but at the age of seven. At 14, I craved something a little more challenging.

My comp, in rural Suffolk, wasn’t even particularly bog-standard. But it suffered, like so many mixed-ability schools, from the crushing and pervasive air of mediocrity. Poverty of ambition was the norm.

When my mother asked if I could sit an extra GCSE, in music, with the support of that teacher (I played two instruments to Grade VIII level, but had wanted to focus on languages), she was slapped down by the headmistress. “We do nine GCSEs here,” she was told. “There is no reason for anyone to do more.”

At 16 my parents got me into a girls’ grammar, over the border in Essex - one of the 14 local authorities in England that still operates a selective system. It was the biggest shock of my life.

No one did nine GCSEs there — 12, 13, 14, even 15 was not unusual. And the subjects! They studied Latin, Classics, even Mandarin. Shakespeare was on the curriculum from start. At my comp, Macbeth didn’t crop up until the final year.

Suddenly, the world was full of clever girls all gunning for places at top universities. Academic prowess was something to be envied and emulated. Most refreshingly of all, there was no disruption to lessons.

Since then, I’ve watched the attacks on grammar schools over the years with bemusement, frustration and growing anger. Last year Ofsted head Sir Michael Wilshaw declared that they “failed to improve social mobility”. Really, Michael? Grammar schools are - sorry, that should be were - the reason a grocer’s daughter from the Midlands ended up in Number 10. Those who bemoan that the Cabinet is a cabal of ex-public schoolboys would do well to remember that.

The latest attack this week comes in the form of a study by academics from Bristol, Bath and London. They have found that grammar school pupils go on to earn more than their peers at comprehensives. Grammars, they say, create “an unequal society”, the implication being that they are a Bad Thing.

Twenty years on from studying Of Mice and Men, I see that “unequal society” in action all the time. The CVs I receive from young people who’ve attended comprehensives are invariably so badly punctuated that they go straight in the bin. One grammar school-educated friend, a barrister, would dearly love to give the annual pupillage at his chambers to someone from a state school. But when they so often lack the poise, confidence and oratory skills of their public school peers, that just isn’t possible.

The clamour for grammar school places has never been greater. My alma mater, Colchester County High School for Girls, received around six applicants per place when I was a child. Now, it is closer to 20. Last December 2,600 parents in Sevenoaks, Kent signed a petition demanding the creation of a new academically selective school in the town. But the school was blocked because it failed to clear legal obstacles put in place by the last Labour government.

The solution to improving social mobility, which shuddered to a halt some time ago in this country, is not, as the head of Ofsted would have it, to stymie the creation of more grammar schools. Far from it: let us have one in every town. But nor must children be written off at 11 as was so horribly common in the days of secondary moderns; standards must improve throughout the system.

Our neighbours in London have just sold up and moved to a village near Tunbridge Wells. They have no particular links or affinity with that town but, with two young children, they have been lured there by its excellent grammars.

With a new baby, my husband and I may be following them in a few years. Otherwise, we’ve agreed that we will have to pay.

We are extraordinarily fortunate that we are able to do so. That is what a grammar school education does for you.


Defending the freedom to choose an education

All schools promote certain values – parents must be free to choose the school which best reflects theirs

The ‘Trojan Horse’ allegations, in which some English schools were accused of being infiltrated by Islamic extremists who then used the schools to promote religious fundamentalism, have sparked debates about the degree of freedom schools should have to determine their own curriculum and values, and the extent to which parents should be free to choose schools for their children.

Even though the accused schools were supposedly secular, in recent weeks there have been a flurry of arguments against faith schools, which, it is assumed, hoodwink children into a lifetime of worship. Many of the Trojan Horse schools were academies, which meant they attracted particular ire for not being under the direct control of local education authorities. This enables governors to influence the running of the schools and, to a limited extent, the focus of the curriculum. Education secretary Michael Gove’s main project, free schools, which receive state funding but are, in all other respects, independent, have long been attacked by teachers’ unions and crusading journalists alike. Now the government is proposing that private schools should be subjected to Ofsted inspections to bring them in-line with state provision.

The suspicion that, if left to their own devices, schools will abuse their influence over children, and parents will choose the wrong type of school, runs against three decades of national education policy which has trumpeted ‘parental choice’. Successive government ministers have argued that the best way to drive up standards is to create competition between schools, with the best schools attracting the most pupils and the most funding. If the creation of different types of schools made parental choice meaningful, it also served a useful purpose in loosening the grip of the powerful local education authorities. These previously had control over every element of schooling, from creating pedagogical resources and employing teachers to managing pupil admissions.

However, the tension in national education policy between liberating schools from local authority control and giving them complete independence has long been apparent. The 1988 Education Reform Act enshrined in law parents’ rights to choose a school place at the same time as it established the national curriculum. Parents could choose which school to send their children to, but all schools would teach children the same state-approved and examined content at the same age.

The 1988 national curriculum, as set out by then education secretary Kenneth Baker, had two main aims: to provide pupils with an entitlement to broad and balanced content, and to set expected standards for pupil attainment. The curriculum specified bodies of knowledge that should be covered through the teaching of traditional academic subjects. It was built on a positive aspiration to discern and pass on the most significant knowledge in each subject area to every child in the country.

The fact that this curriculum was determined and controlled by government ministers, rather than teachers and subject associations, meant it immediately faced charges of political bias. Indeed, while the idea of a national curriculum that provides every child with access to the best that has been thought and said is to be welcomed, the role of the government in determining this curriculum is questionable. Responsibility for the national curriculum should have been left with subject specialists and teachers. From 1988 onwards, ministers came under pressure to reduce the academic content of the curriculum and to use it as a short-cut solution to a range of social, political and economic problems that have little or nothing to do with education.

New subjects such as citizenship have been given a place in the national curriculum, and the knowledge base of other subjects, such as science, geography and English, has been diluted to make room for the promotion of issues such as sustainability, Fairtrade, anti-racism and anti-bullying. The national curriculum has moved away from its founding liberal-humanist values to become an instrumental tool for inculcating state-sanctioned political priorities in children. Just the most recent example of this trend is prime minister David Cameron’s demand that all schools should teach children about the Magna Carta as an explicit means of promoting British values.

While all children should undoubtedly learn about the Magna Carta, it would perhaps be better placed within the broader context of the history curriculum, rather than being treated as a quick and easy means to promote Britishness. This example illustrates the difference between schooling and education. Schools have long since stood accused of having a ‘hidden curriculum’, an implicit agenda to get children to conform to rules and to prepare them to accept their place in society, as determined by their race, class and gender.

Today, there’s nothing remotely hidden about the teaching of values rather than knowledge. Schools are keen to advertise their therapeutic promotion of meditation, mindfulness and yoga, and the Fairtrade fortnights, walk-to-school Wednesdays and healthy eating projects they run. But such campaigns are about schooling children to behave in a particular way rather than teaching them knowledge. Children today receive an excess of schooling when what they really need is to be better educated.

When the content of the national curriculum is explicitly politicised to meet the priorities of politicians, the child-centred fads of teacher trainers and the values of pressure groups and charities, then the power of some schools to opt out of all or part of it, and the right of parents to choose which schools to send their children to, becomes increasingly significant. Many parents chose a school that best reflects their values, rather than those of the state, and one that is going to offer their child the most access to a knowledge-based curriculum.

Unfortunately, for members of the educational establishment, this means that some parents choose faith, grammar, free or independent schools, all of which offer an alternative to the political and value-laden government-approved norm.

When access to a liberal-humanist curriculum determined by subject specialists is not even a theoretical entitlement for all children, there is little to be gained from criticising parents who attempt to secure the best education they can for their child and criticising the schools that promote the values parents hold. Of course, being able to choose a school does not permit parents to interfere in the running of that school or the content of the curriculum. Some things really are best left to teachers.


Australian students score well in PISA financial literacy test

The PISA 2012 Financial Literacy assessment is the first large scale international study to assess the financial literacy, learned in and outside of school, of 15-year-olds nearing the end of compulsory education.  In this study, financial literacy is defined as “…knowledge and understanding of financial concepts and risks, and the skills, motivation and confidence to apply such knowledge and understanding in order to make effective decisions across a range of financial contexts, to improve the financial well-being of individuals and society, and to enable participation in economic life”. For a full explanation, see the PISA 2012 Assessment and Analytical Framework.

This is the first time that financial literacy has been a part of the OECD’s PISA, a triennial international survey which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-olds.

Eighteen countries and economies participated in the assessment of financial literacy, including 13 OECD countries and economies: Australia, the Flemish Community of Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Israel, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain and the United States; and five partner countries and economies: Colombia, Croatia, Latvia, the Russian Federation and Shanghai-China.  A total of 29,000 students participated in the assessment, including approximately 3,300 Australian students from 768 schools.

Some of the study findings relating to Australian students' performance include:

·         16% of Australian students performed at the top level of proficiency (level 5), compared with 10% of students across the OECD;

·         10% of Australian students were low performers in financial literacy (level 1);

·         Male and female students scored at the same level in financial literacy on average;

·         Some 11% of the variation in student performance in financial literacy is associated with socioeconomic status, about the same as the OECD average;

·         Students in metropolitan schools performed significantly better than students with similar socioeconomic status who attend schools in rural areas;

·         82% of students have a bank account and 73% earn money from work, including working outside school hours, working in a family business or performing occasional informal jobs.

As the Australian Government agency responsible for financial literacy, ASIC facilitated Australia’s participation in the PISA 2012 Financial Literacy assessment in partnership with states and territories. The research was conducted by ACER.  The next PISA financial literacy assessment will take place in 2015.


Thursday, July 10, 2014

ACLU, ADF Call "Foul" Over University's Treatment Of The First Amendment

Idaho's Boise State University ("BSU") is world-famous for its telegenic "blue turf" football field and a roster of impressive bowl game appearances. But if current trends continue, the school might be on its way to fame of a different sort: on the same weekend that Americans celebrate their nation's founding and their liberties, BSU is simultaneously under fire from three separate legal defense groups all of which are alleging violations of students' free speech rights.

The concerns have emerged from two nationwide organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union ("ACLU") and the Alliance Defending Freedom ("ADF"), as well as from the Idaho-based Center for Defense of Liberty ("CDL"). They involve the activites of two on-campus clubs.

"We believe that Boise State University violated the First Amendment when it assessed ‘security fees’ against the 'Young Americans for Liberty at Boise State University’ student group” notes Geoffrey Talmon, Attorney with the CDL. Talmon sent a letter ealier this week to BSU President Dr. Bob Kustra, requesting that the university refund money that it charged to the student’s involved with BSU’s chapter of “Young Americans for Liberty” (“YAL”), a club with college campus chapters nationwide. Talmon is also requesting that BSU revise its policies over the assessment of “security fees” at speaking events.

Talmon cites a YAL-sponsored event at BSU on May 16, 2014, which featured Dick Heller as a keynote speaker. Heller was at the epicenter of the US Supreme Court's landmark 2008 “District of Columbia versus Heller” case, wherein a lower court ruling which determined that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution applies to individuals living in a federal enclave was upheld. The high court's ruling resulted in the overturning of a restrictive gun law in Washington, D.C.

“Despite the Heller event having been planned for over six weeks, YAL was not informed until approximately 24 hours before the event that BSU had decided that additional security would be required at the event, and that YAL would have to pay an additional $465.00 for such security” Talmon states in his letter. “This charge increased the facilities cost for the Heller Event by approximately 820% over the previously-quoted total. Furthermore, the webpage containing the details of the Heller Event was removed from the BSU website prior to the event, and the event was also removed from the ‘This Week At Boise State’ section of the BSU website.”

In the letter Talmon references local news reports wherein BSU staffers alleged that the YAL event posed a campus security risk and, thus, required additional security measures to be taken. He also cites what he describes as “BSU’s vocal opposition to the expansion of the 2nd Amendment,” and then states that, even if the university was genuinely concerned about campus safety at the YAL event, “that does not permit the University to put a pricetag on Mr. Heller’s speech, itself.”

Calls to Kustra’s office seeking comment about the incident, and Talmon's requests, were not immediately returned.

“It is troubling to read about what it seems that the university has done” Ritchie Eppink, Attorney with the ACLU, told local news outlet IdahoReporter.Com about the YAL case. “In particular it is troubling to read about the policies under which these additional costs were imposed on YAL. Based on what I know now, this seems unfair, and unconstitutional.”

In addition to its troubles with YAL, last week BSU and Kustra were both named in a lawsuit filed by the non-profit “Alliance Defending Freedom” organization. ADF alleges that BSU officials required an on-campus pro-life club to post “warning signs” for two pro-life events that campus officials deemed to be “controversial.” The lawsuit also alleges that BSU prohibited the pro-life group from distributing fliers outside one of the school’s eight officially designated “speech zones.”

“University policies that suppress free speech are completely at odds with what a university is: a marketplace of ideas,” ADF Attorney David Hacker said of the lawsuit in a written statement.

Prior to his service as BSU's President, Kustra served as both a legislator, and as Lieutenant Governor in the state of Illinois. According to reports from the Chicago Tribune, in 1996 Kustra sought the Republican nomination for a seat in the U.S. Senate running as a "moderate Republican" in that state who championed both gun control and abortion rights.

Whether by Kustra's influence or not, BSU's stances with the pro-life and pro-liberty organizations on campus bear a striking contrast to the policies of the otherwise "pro-life" and 2nd Amendment-friendly state. Idaho officially requires parental consent for under-age minors seeking abortions, prohibits public funding for abortion services, and as of this month allows students who are licensed to posess concealed firearms to carry those weapons on college campuses.

Spokesperson Greg Hahn said that Kustra's office will likely issue a public response to the YAL conflict next week.


UK: Children held back by 'vested interests' in education, says Michael Gove

Education standards risk being undermined “by vested interests determined to hold back reform”, Michael Gove has said on the eve of a major national teachers' strike.

In a swipe at classroom unions, the Education Secretary says attempts to reform schools have “not always been easy” because too many teachers believe “things must stay the same”.

Writing for The Telegraph, Mr Gove says large numbers of pupils across Europe – including England – are facing a bleak future unless extra effort is made to raise standards and create more equal access to good schools.

He says teaching standards must improve because too many children are still attending schools that “aren’t good enough”.

The comments are made in a joint article with education ministers from Spain and Portugal as a major international conference is staged in London on Wednesday – just a day before Britain’s biggest teaching union prepares for a national strike over Coalition education reforms.

Education ministers, teachers and school leaders from seven countries are expected to attend the summit co-hosted by the Department for Education.

It is expected to place renewed focus on a series of Government education policies including the creation of a new generation academies and free schools, more freedom for head teachers, an overhaul of the curriculum and a new-style league tables focusing on achievement in core subjects.

Mr Gove has also introduced a wave of reforms aimed at teachers including raising the bar on entry to the profession and a new system of performance-related pay.

The reforms have been met with furious opposition from classroom unions who claim Mr Gove has turned teaching into one of the worst jobs in the world.

On Thursday, the National Union of Teachers will stage a one-day strike across England and Wales in protest over performance-related pay and escalating workload.

It threatens to shut around a quarter of state schools and lead to the partial closure of many more – forcing millions of parents to take the day off work or seek emergency childcare.

But writing in the Telegraph, Mr Gove said the Coalition’s reforms were typical of those being pursued across Europe and the developed world.

He also criticises the education establishment for failing to support change.

“Our struggle has not always been easy,” he says. “All of us have been opposed by vested interests determined to hold back reform, insisting that things must stay the same.

“We understand that change can be difficult. But it must happen.”

In an article written jointly with Nuno Crato, minister for education in Portugal, and Lucía Figar, a regional minister for education in Spain, he said: “A child’s education is only ever as good as their teacher. So all of us are focusing on driving up the quality of teaching in our classrooms.”

“In England, we’re raising the bar for entry to the profession, expanding elite recruitment routes and offering new incentives to attract the brightest and best into teaching,” he said. “It’s already working – we now have the best qualified teachers in a generation, and Ofsted’s impartial inspectors report that schools improved faster last year than at any time in Ofsted’s history.”

The article says that England, Spain and Portugal have “long traditions of educational excellence, but we know that too few of our children are guaranteed an excellent education”.

“Too many children across Europe – especially those from poorer communities – still attend schools which just aren't good enough,” it is claimed. “And the nature of economic and technological change means those children, and our societies, face bleaker futures unless we can improve their education and make opportunity more equal.”

The Education Reform Summit – jointly hosted by The Education Foundation think-tank – will take place on Wednesday and Thursday. It has been billed as the most “high-profile example yet of global interest in the Government’s school reforms”.

Mr Gove has said that education reform experts are “coming here to share their ideas and see what we are doing in this country”.

But the conference threatens to be overshadowed by the biggest public sector strike since the Coalition came to power. As many as a million workers are set to strike as members of the NUT walk out alongside the Fire Brigades Union, the GMB, the Public and Commercial Services Union, Unison and Unite.

The NUT has been locked in an ongoing dispute over a series of controversial reforms, including the introduction of a system of performance related pay, which will see future salary rises linked to pupils' results and behaviour.

They have also been angered by mounting workloads and reforms to pensions which will see staff work for longer and retire with a smaller fund.

Christine Blower, NUT general secretary, said ministers were “refusing point blank to accept the damage their reforms are doing to the teaching profession”.

“The consequences of turning teaching into a totally unattractive career choice will most certainly lead to teacher shortages,” she said. “Teaching is one of the best jobs in the world but is being made one of the worst under Michael Gove and the Coalition.”


FIRE Vows to Keep Filing Lawsuits Against Campus Speech Codes

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has unveiled its Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project, a new initiative supporting the free speech rights of college students nationwide.

The plan consists of filing consecutive lawsuits “against public colleges maintaining unconstitutional speech codes in each federal circuit.”

“After each victory by ruling or settlement, FIRE will target another school in the same circuit—sending a message that unless public colleges obey the law, they will be sued,” FIRE said.

“In 1989, the first of the modern generation of speech codes was defeated in federal court in a case called Doe v. Michigan….But amazingly, all these years later, campus speech codes are still alive and thriving,” FIRE president Greg Lukianoff said at a press conference last week at the National Press Club in Washington.

“The half-dozen lawsuits we have already filed are just the beginning,” Lukianoff continued. “More suits are already in the pipeline, and we’re confident that after this announcement more students and faculty members will come forward to challenge speech codes in court.”

“Many universities maintain their speech codes not just because they may actually believe in a mythical ‘right not to be offended’ on campus, but because they believe that there is no ‘downside’….In this amoral calculus, free speech loses,” Lukianoff noted.

“FIRE has therefore decided that we need to change the incentive structure to one that favors freedom of speech on college campuses rather than the suppression of dissent.”

FIRE's initial lawsuits were filed against:

Chicago State University (CSU):  Some faculty are suing the administration for trying to shut down a blog that is critical of CSU’s policies. The Chicago Tribune reports that CSU’s attorneys claim the website violates school policies and unlawfully uses university trademarks

Citrus College in Glendora, CA:  An official told a student in 2013 that he would be expelled if he did not stay inside the school’s free-speech zone while gathering signatures for a petition against the National Security Agency (NSA).

Iowa State University:  Students affiliated with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) had their t-shirt design rejected by university staff. According to court documents, this was because the shirts seemed to link the school with illegal drug activity.

Ohio State University: Court documents claim that members of Students Defending Students could not wear their shirts saying, “We get you off for free,” after officials associated the phrase with prostitution and objectifying women. Students, though, claim that this phrase continues to be a long-standing joke from the 1970s.

However, university officials previously targeted by FIRE claim that the group inaccurately portrays their free speech policies.

In March, Joan Smith, chancellor of the Yosemite Community College District (YCCD), wrote in the Modesto Bee about an incident in which YCCD paid $50,000 and changed its speech code after Robert Van Tuinen, a U.S. Army veteran and Modesto Junior College (MJC) student, gave FIRE a series of videos documenting that he was not allowed to distribute copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus on Constitution Day in 2013.

“Unfortunately, the way our legal system works, sometimes institutions of higher education are forced to settle, even when they are being misrepresented, to avoid spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees,” Smith said. “Either way, it’s a losing proposition for the college.”

But FIRE responded with a June video stating that the case was part of a larger problem, and that two MJC professors had also been censured for criticizing the school administration.

“Even after censoring Van Tuinen, having its act caught on camera and watched by hundreds of thousands of viewers, being sued, and ultimately agreeing to revise its policies and pay a $50,000 settlement, MJC apparently couldn’t see what it had done wrong,” declared Peter Bonilla, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program.

“For that matter, even after having its unconstitutional policies and practices thrust into the spotlight, MJC took more than two months after being sued to agree to suspend its free speech zone policies—on whose constitutionality there really was no question.”


Wednesday, July 09, 2014

British watchdog says universities should take pupils 'on potential' to help poorer students

But how do you judge potential?  Any objective test will just end up measuring IQ  -- and we can't have that.  Or can we?  We did once

A university watchdog has told campuses to help poorer pupils win more places by looking beyond would-be students’ qualifications when recruiting.

Professor Les Ebdon said they should admit undergraduates according to ‘academic potential’ rather than simply totting up their GCSEs and A-levels.

The head of the Office for Fair Access (Offa) also revealed he had intervened at 26 universities to insist they make targets for recruiting poorer pupils more ambitious.

He said the most privileged fifth of pupils were eight times more likely to be offered a place at a leading university than the most disadvantaged fifth.

Professor Ebdon added: ‘Fair access is about searching out academic potential wherever it is – in every type of neighbourhood, every type of school and every age group, ethnic group and gender.

‘It’s about acknowledging that a wide range of people have the potential to become the excellent graduates who will later run our businesses and lead our country – not just the privileged few.’

Labour will siphon public funding from elite universities towards those providing vocational education, it will announce today.

Ed Miliband wants to introduce ‘technical degrees’ and will put universities that offer them on the priority list for expansion.

The Labour leader believes the degrees will help the ‘forgotten 50 per cent’ who do not go to university.


Obama's new plan to get better teachers in poor schools

But will great teachers be willing to teach in chaotic black schools?  Not for all the tea in China, I suspect

The US Department of Education launched a new initiative to ensure that poor and minority students have higher quality teachers.

More equitable teacher distribution – making sure that poor and minority students have teachers that are as qualified as those teaching their wealthier peers – has long been an outcome that federal education officials have held out as a goal.

On Monday, the US Department of Education released its latest strategy to ensure some movement, the Excellent Educators for All Initiative. The plan calls for states to submit new, comprehensive plans for improving equity and getting great teachers into classrooms with disadvantaged students, and creates several support structures to help states follow through.

“All children are entitled to a high-quality education regardless of their race, ZIP code, or family income,” US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. “Despite the excellent work and deep commitment of our nation's teachers and principals, systemic inequities exist that shortchange students in high-poverty, high-minority schools across our country. We have to do better.”

Ensuring that poor and minority students aren’t taught by less-qualified teachers has actually been a federal requirement for states since 2002, when No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was signed into law, but few states have taken much action.

The last time the Department of Education asked states to create a plan to improve teacher equity was in 2006, and with no real accountability tied to the request, not much came of it, says Deborah Veney Robinson, vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust in Washington, which is dedicated to closing achievement gaps for low-income students and students of color.

A 2010 Education Trust survey of teachers found that core classes in high poverty schools were twice as likely to be taught by out-of-field teachers as classes in low-poverty schools. And an analysis in the Los Angeles Unified School District showed that Latino and African-American students were two to three times more likely to have low-performing teachers than their white and Asian peers.

“We’re talking about millions of low-income student and students of color who are not getting their share of high performing teachers,” says Ms. Robinson, noting that she believes this is one of the most important – and unaddressed – issues in education today.

“It’s long overdue that this issue is being addressed again, but I think the proof is going to be in whether or not states actually do anything meaningfuI," she added. "I remain hopeful that with some accountability measures to put some teeth on this, we can actually begin to move the needle.”

In the plan Secretary Duncan announced, states will need to submit new “educator equity” plans by next April. The Education Department will also launch a $4.2 million technical assistance network to support states in developing those plans and begin publishing educator equity profiles in the fall to help states identify gaps, access data, and see promising practices.

At a press conference, Duncan refused to say whether tying states’ NCLB waivers to their teacher equity plan – the accountability measure many advocates, including Robinson, say may be necessary to have an impact – is an option he will pursue.

He said that the department won’t require that states pursue any one approach to improve equity but cited certain practices, such as improving pay and improving time for teacher collaboration, that can help.

Robinson also says there’s no silver bullet for the issue, but notes that Delaware conducted a rigorous analysis, took a serious look at the problem of teacher retention, and then created the Delaware Talent Cooperative, which works to attract and retain strong teachers in high-needs schools through improved compensation, recognition, professional development, and leadership opportunities.

North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg district has had similar success with its Strategic Staffing Initiative, which has worked to get the most effective teachers and principals into the highest poverty schools. And Florida took steps to prohibit districts from assigning poor performing or out-of-field teachers to the lowest performing schools.

Many educational equity advocates greeted Duncan’s announcement with cautious support, and the heads of the two biggest teachers unions also issued support for the initiative and its goals, while emphasizing that it’s just one step toward achieving a real solution.

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, called attention to what he calls a loophole in current federal law that allows teachers still in training to be labeled “highly qualified.”

“We must create accountability for the whole system that drives greater equity in every school, and an important first step is that every new teacher be profession-ready before ever stepping foot into a classroom and becoming the teacher of record for students,” Van Roekel said in a statement.


'Trigger warnings' shackle free flow of ideas vital to higher education

Free-speech controversy is riveting higher education again. Major schools recently dis-invited graduation speakers whom activists deemed "improper" to their notions of justice. And many institutions have begun formally to institute - or consider instituting - "trigger warnings."

"Trigger warnings" are verbal or written warnings instructors provide about material that might trigger "trauma" in students who have experienced or witnessed traumatic events, including forms of assault and war, and are sensitive about such topics as race, gender, sexual orientation, colonialism and imperialism - to name a few.

The humane case for trigger warnings is that they allegedly help protect students from re-experiencing the past trauma, which can emotionally harm the student and interfere with his or her ability to learn.

What could be wrong with that? Warnings might make outright censorship less likely, much like the movie industry avoided government censorship by agreeing to use ratings labels for films. This could even enhance freedom of inquiry while protecting emotional wellbeing. And have not many instructors quietly and informally engaged in such practice in the past?

Alas, many substantial problems lurk just beneath the surface - especially when one considers the intellectual climate at many colleges and universities, of which the fate of recent graduation speakers is symptomatic. Let me touch on a few.

First, as critics from across the political spectrum have averred, it is impossible to determine in advance what material merits a warning. To avoid complaints, threats and possible lawsuits because they failed to warn of some potentially offensive material, many instructors, given the general pressures at play in higher education, would likely extend warnings to large amounts of material, sending the misguided message that learning is traumatic per se.

Or they could bowdlerize the course material in the name of sensitivity. If ever the concept of the slippery slope applied, it would apply here.

Already, trigger warnings have been applied to such works as "The Great Gatsby," "The Merchant of Venice" and other classics.

"Gatsby?" Really?! What's next? "Hamlet?" And what if a student refuses to read the flagged material, however important it is to the class? Do not trigger warnings imply the right of refusal, which would open yet another Pandora's Box?

Another danger waits: formalizing trigger warnings would further empower the higher-ed sensitivity bureaucracies that are often as voracious and omnipresent as they are ignorant of basic academic freedom principles.

Most important, the rationale for formal trigger warnings is inimical to the purposes of education.

Liberal education should expose students to the depths of the human condition, which unavoidably entails matters of good and evil, life and death - what the German philosopher Nietzsche called "uncomfortable truths."

And civic education must prepare students to be mentally strong enough to handle the rigors associated with the clash of ideas that is paramount to a free society. As the great educational philosopher Alexander Meiklejohn remarked, "To be afraid of ideas, any idea, is to be unfit for self-government."

Born from the tenets of the controversial "trauma movement" in psychology, trigger warnings assume that many students are not capable of handling the responsibilities of adult citizenship.

In the name of sensitivity, the movement undermines the very equal respect it ostensibly supports, while also fostering the mentality of in loco parentis that universities properly abandoned decades ago.

To deal with occasional cases of extreme material, leave the matter where it has always resided: at the considered informal discretion of instructors.

If a formal trigger warning must be had, place these words atop a university's main webpage: "Education necessarily exposes students to ideas and experiences that are new, challenging, and sometimes painful. To be properly educated, you must learn to handle and welcome such challenges."


Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Vancouver Schools' New LGBTTQ+ Policy Includes Gender-Free Pronouns Xe, Xem and Xyr

The Vancouver (British Columbia) Board of Education has approved a sweeping new policy for accommodating lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirit, queer, questioning and “all sexual and gender identities,” including the creation of three pronouns, replacing masculine and feminine with xe, xem and xyr (pronounced ze, zem and zur).

Two spirit is an Aboriginal term which means having both feminine and masculine spirits. It's not limited to gender expression or sexuality, but encompasses them both while incorporating a spiritual element. It's a standalone identity, not an Aboriginal term for gay lesbian.

The Vancouver Board of Education's policy also includes making restroom and sports activities accessible to all transgender students, regardless of their biological sex.

“Absolutely,” Mike Lombardi, vice chairman of the board told when asked about the new policy as reported by the Vancouver Sun. “We’ve been very, very progressive.”

Lombardi said the new LGBTTQ+ policy is designed “to create a safe learning environment for every child.”

The new policy, Lombardi said, will allow children of every sexual orientation “to learn and thrive.”

The June 17 article in the Sun said the policy angered many parents who protested at meetings leading up to the vote on the new policy, a fact Lombardi acknowledged.

“It has not been without controversy,” Lombardi told “The Christian right opposed it, but we got tremendous support from most people.”

The documents describing the new policy, provided to by Lombardi, provide details about the board’s commitment to “establishing and maintaining a safe, inclusive, equitable and welcoming learning and working environment regardless of real or perceived sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions.”

Under the heading “Names and Pronouns,” the policy states: “Trans students will be addressed by the names and pronouns [they] prefer to use.”

Under the heading “Sex-Segregated Activities,” the policy states: "Schools will reduce or eliminate the practice of segregating students by sex. In situations where students are segregated by sex, trans students will have the option to be included in the group that corresponds to their gender identity.”

Under the heading “Access to Physical Education and Sports,” the policy states: “Where possible, students will be permitted to participate in any sex-segregated recreational and competitive athletic activities, in accordance with their gender identity.”

Under the heading “Washroom and Change Room Accessibility,” the policy states: “Trans students shall have access to the washroom and change room that corresponds with the gender identity.” It also calls on all schools and worksites to “make available a single stall gender-neutral washroom.”

Under the heading “Counseling and School Support,” the policy states: “Elementary and secondary schools appoint at least one staff person to be a Safe Contact who is able to act as a resource person for LGBTTQ+ students, staff and families.” It also states that “all secondary schools are supported in establishing and maintaining Gay Queer/Straight Alliance Clubs” on campuses.

Under the heading “Leadership,” the board states it will “consult with the Pride Advisory Committee to ensure that policy directions, priorities and implementation of programs and services are consistent with the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identities Policy.”

The section also states that “staff will not refer students to programs or services that attempt to change a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”

The policy document also includes a glossary of LBGTTQ+ terms. In it, homophobia is defined as “The fear, ignorance and mistreatment of people who are, or are perceived to be, lesbian, gay or bisexual.”

“I am so proud to support these policy revisions,” Patti Bacchus, chairwoman of the board, is quoted as saying in the Sun article. “I had no idea how important they were until what we went through with this process ... I didn’t realize how much opposition there was out there in our communities to keeping kids safe and included and welcome.”


British Middle-classes 'forced out of private schools' as fees soar

Private education is becoming “increasingly unaffordable” for the middle-classes following a four-fold rise in school fees in little over 20 years, according to a major study.

Parents in traditionally well-paid careers such as accountancy, law, finance and academia are now less likely to afford an independent education than plumbers were in the early 90s, it emerged.

In a report, it was claimed that the rise in school fees had outstripped wages by such an extent that private schools were increasingly becoming the preserve of super-rich foreigners.

Figures suggest that an infant enrolled at a private day school this September will ultimately cost their parents £271,000 in fees and added extras by the time they take their A-levels in 13 years’ time – more than the average house price.

A boarding education will stand at some £435,000, it was claimed, and approach close to £1m for two children.

The disclosure – in a study commissioned by the stockbroker Killik & Co – will prompt fresh concerns that independent education is becoming out of reach for the average family.

It comes just days after the Sutton Trust, a social mobility charity, called on the government to invest around £215m a year to subsidise fees and enable private schools to take pupils from a broader range of social backgrounds.

The action is needed to help schools shake off their image as “bastions of privilege”, it was claimed.

The Independent Schools Council defended the system, insisting fee rises had slowed in recent years and record sums – £320m – were being spent on means-tested bursaries.

They also pointed to figures showing that the UK’s private schools were among the best in the world.

But the Killik Private Education Index said the type of family that could afford private school fees “has changed dramatically since 1990”.

It added: “It is less likely to be the archetypal middle-class professional and more likely to be high net worth individuals, increasingly international. Many established independent schools like Eton and Harrow educate the children of some of China’s wealthiest multimillionaires.

“The average doctor, accountant or professional is not the typical private-school parent – at least, not any longer.”

The Killik study, carried out by the Centre for Economics and Business Research, analysed data on school fees and average earnings over the last 24 years. It also estimated rises to be expected over the next 14 years.

The study found that average annual day fees had more than quadrupled since 1990 – from £2,985 to £12,700 in 2014. Boarding fees soared from £6,800 to £28,800.

It said that overall fees have increased by more than 300 per cent while wages have risen by just 76 per cent over the same period.

The study suggested that spending on teachers’ pay combined with investment in expensive buildings and equipment may have driven some of the rise.

Researchers compared fees – and other costs – with wages to find how much of parents’ disposable income would be taken up by private schooling.

In 1990, average day fees, plus extras, for one child would have taken up 19 per cent of the average doctors’ salary, compared with 23 per cent for solicitors, 30 per cent for academics and 29 per cent for accountants. A plumber would have been required to put aside 39 per cent while fees would have taken 47.5 per cent of a construction worker’s salary.

But by 2014, fees for one child accounted for 36 per cent of a doctor’s disposable income, 47 per cent for a fund manager, 50 per cent for a solicitor, 51 per cent for an academic and 59 per cent for an accountant.

For most professional occupations listed, the proportion of income spent on school fees in 2014 was higher than the rate for a plumber and even a construction worker 24 years ago.

By 2027, researchers estimate that day fees will more than double again to £27,400, with a further £3,000-a-year needed for extras such as music lessons, uniforms and school trips.

It would result in a total price tag of £271,000, or £526,000 for two children.

The study suggests that a parent sending one child to boarding school from the age of 13 – after eight years at a day school – would be required to pay £435,000 or £831,000 for two children.

It suggests that fees for a single child will account for more than 50 per cent of a doctor’s disposable income, rising to 66 per cent for fund managers, 70.5 per cent for solicitors, 72 per cent for academics, 83 per cent for accountants. Costs would exceed the total amount of disposal income for a plumber – 102 per cent – and stand at 114 per cent for construction workers and 128 per cent for members of the clergy.

“Most people associate the professional classes with the main clientele of private schools," the study said. “We find that was perhaps true in 1990, when an average professional salary could cover the cost of private education. But professional salaries have not risen at the same rate that private school fees have since.

“Across a number of occupations, over time, a progressively bigger chunk of an average salary goes on school bills and the ‘educational extras’.”

The study said it will be all but impossible for single-earner families to cover fees, adding: “The rise of two-earner households may be supporting private school affordability.”

Researchers added that parents would increasingly be forced to consider a mixed economy of state and fee-paying schooling in the future. Families taking the “state till eight” route – with pupils enrolled in state primary schools for the first three or four years – will save £94,000, the report said. The “state till 11” option would save almost £175,000.

But Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council, said: “Independent schools recognise the pressures that parents are under and work hard to keep fees as low as possible. Last year annual fee rises were therefore the lowest for almost 20 years. This has helped to ensure that independent schools remain very popular with parents.

“There are now more pupils at ISC schools than there were last year, and more than there were in 2008 at the start of the economic downturn.

“Schools remain affordable to a wide range of families via our incredibly strong bursary programmes. Over a third of all pupils at ISC schools receive help with their fees. Last year, ISC schools provided over £320 million in means-tested bursaries and the total value of bursaries at ISC schools has risen by 27 per cent since 2010, well above the rate of any fee rises.

“Most independent schools are charities and their fees therefore reflect their costs. Schools have faced substantial increases in their costs in recent years, well above the rate of CPI inflation, including rising management and administration costs, welfare costs, staffing costs and food and energy costs.


Academia and the people without jobs

The 1960s are over. When are we going to wake up and realize that it’s 2014 and our academic paradise is a smoldering ash heap, a sad leftover from thirty something years of complete and utter demolition? We no longer have a booming economy and tons of federal money going into the university system. The days of cheap, accessible higher ed are done and gone. And yet, we keep churning out graduate students as if they, too, are going to end up as university professors. As if each and every one of them will soon have their own hip little office full of books, dedicated students, and bright, starry-eyed careers ahead of them. It’s not happening. Paradise. In. Ashes.

In other words: there are no jobs in academia.

I’m a graduate student in anthropology. Ya, the discipline that Forbes rated as the “least valued” in all of the land. Lucky me. Over the years, people have often asked me: “Anthropology eh? So what are you going to do with that?” My response was invariably a version of something like “Well, there’s a LOT I can do with anthropology.” That usually followed with me thinking—hoping—that there actually was something on the other side.

There may not be anything on the other side.

Me, and thousands of others learned that lesson the hard way. We spent about a decade learning how to become academics, only to realize the dream has already passed. We’re all trained for positions that don’t exist. We’ve been prepared for a way of life that is rapidly vanishing before our eyes (the secure, tenured academic). We go into debt because of a strange “loyalty oath to an imagined employer” (as Sarah Kendzior recently put it) that certainly doesn’t come knocking the day you graduate.

We’ve been had. And we walked right into it.

I realized how bad things were when I was about half way through my PhD program—and it didn’t help that the global economy was literally crashing right when I started. You know, the whole “Great Recession” thing. After one year, I nearly dropped out. Looking back, maybe that would have been the better decision. But, for some reason, I kept going…in part because of a vague hope that things would somehow “work out.” I too pinned my hopes on that imagined employer.

No prospects yet. But I persist. I keep pushing forward, telling myself that it will be better if I just finish this damn degree. So many of us keep going. Why?

Maybe we’re all in denial. Or perhaps we believe so strongly in the potential of higher education that we choose to look the other way when we start hearing all those rumors about the dreaded, desperate job market. We believe in some idealistic, romantic version of higher education so deeply that we ignore the hard truths that stare us right in the face. Maybe our faith in the idea that learning is about more than just “getting a job” has blinded us to the fact that deeply indebted graduates with few job prospects are hardly going to be able to be those “few caring people” who can change the world.

We have to open our eyes. Because it’s pretty much impossible to change the world when you have the weight of compound interest grinding into your soul. When the debt collection letters flood you mailbox. When the phone calls won’t stop.

The reality is this: maybe we don’t want to accept reality. Maybe we simply don’t want to admit how bad things are. We don’t want to acknowledge that our prized possession—higher education—has run off the rails. We tell ourselves that the institution of higher ed is still doing fine, thank you very much. But it’s not. Imagine applying for graduate school and getting an acceptance letter that actually told you how it is in grad school:

Dear Esteemed Applicant,

We, the faculty at the University of the Real World, want to formally congratulate you and inform you that you have been accepted into our doctoral program. You will be provided funding, but unless you have a lot of financial resources, you’re more than likely going to end up with debilitating debt. Your living costs and other expenses may be overwhelming, so you’ll need credit cards and student loans to shore up your finances. We cannot guarantee any sort of employment after you spend 5-10 years of your life working your ass off in our program. In fact, getting a job in academia is beyond a long shot for most people. But hey, you could get lucky. Regardless, we’re still training students as if it’s still the 1960s. But don’t despair—you might be able to land an adjunct gig. Welcome aboard. Please pay your tuition promptly or you will not be able to register for classes. We accept Visa, Mastercard, and American Express.
Faculty of URW

What would you do if you got a letter like that? Would you accept? Hell no you wouldn’t. Yes, of course the above letter is satirical and stupid and ridiculous—but it’s not far from the truth for many students currently trying to plow through graduate school before they reach the point of complete economic and emotional devastation. Things are that bad. But you’re not going to see universities and academic departments speaking to the situation. They keep reeling those students in with stories about “career opportunities” and other good PR. Ya, right.

The job market in academia isn’t just lukewarm. It’s not “Well, it could be better.” It is, as Karen Kelsky once said, imploding. Meanwhile, many tenured faculty members continue to stand on the sidelines, safe in their own positions, as the collapse ensues:

today’s tenured professors indeed accrued privilege by virtue of birth: they were born early enough to enter the job market and rise through its ranks before the total implosion of the university hiring economy. Yes, the academic job market was tight in the 1980s and 1990s. Sure it was; I was there! But tight is not the same thing as decimated. The tenured may have struggled mightily to find work, but there was still work to find, when universities had not yet begun the aggressive process of downsizing, shrinking the faculty, and eradicating lines.
Megan McArdle’s piece on Bloomberg builds off Kelsky’s argument, and puts the brutality of the situation into sharp relief:

"academia is now one of the most exploitative labor markets in the world. It’s not quite up there with Hollywood and Broadway in taking kids with a dream and encouraging them to waste the formative decade(s) of their work life chasing after a brass ring that they’re vanishingly unlikely to get, then dumping them on the job market with fewer employment prospects than they had at 22. But it certainly seems to be trying to catch up."

Ok, sure, there are some jobs in academia. But the chance of getting one of them is so infinitesimally small that grad students might be better off buying quick-picks at the local 7-11 than spending 6-10 years of their lives slogging away at a PhD that doesn’t even lead to anything remotely worth the time and effort. It seems that everyone knows about the bad job market. We all know. But for some reason the grad students keep trudging forward. Behind them, legions of new graduate students send in applications and willingly join the whole fiasco. It all begins to look like The Grapes of Wrath, when thousands and thousands of people made their way to the golden hills of California…only to find out that all of the promised jobs didn’t exist and people were so desperate they were willing to work for almost anything. We all know how that turned out. Can anyone say “cheap labor source”? Yet we keep going. Hoping.

This isn’t a new story. Early in 2013, Sarah Kendzior highlighted the role that faith—or hope—plays in maintaining the current status quo:

The most unnerving thing I see in the job market nowadays—academic or otherwise—is people working in terrible conditions in the hope of a future that never comes. Hope is something you should have for other people, not for yourself. Hope holds you down and blinds you to possibilities.
The future that never comes. That’s what keeps us all going. So we work harder, hoping to be the one who makes it through. Hoping that just one more grant, paper, or presentation will be the magic bullet that leads to success. Despite all the evidence, despite the odds, we push forward. We all push—and we end up crushing ourselves like a frenzied crowd.

The numbers are not on our side. If you don’t believe me, have a look at this chart. Do you see? That’s approximately 36,000 new PhDs each year, and only around 3,000 new positions created.


Monday, July 07, 2014

LA Schools Realize Giving Every Kid an iPad Was a Costly Disaster, Will Give Every Kid a Laptop Instead

The Los Angeles Unified School District's plan to give every child an iPad—at a cost of $1 billion to taxpayers—drew universal criticism after numerous problems arose. For one thing, when the devices were broken, lost, or stolen, it wasn't clear whether parents, the schools, or the kids themselves were responsible. Tech-savy students easily broke through the firewalls administrators had installed to keep them from using the devices to visit social media websites. This prompted some schools to prohibit the use of the iPads at home, when students are away from teacher supervision, even though one of the major intended functions of the iPad program was to give kids a homework aid.

The entire thing was an unmitigated disaster—a clear example of real life trumping the good intentions of bureaucrats

But LAUSD has clearly learned its lesson, right? Wrong:

Los Angeles school district officials have allowed a group of high schools to choose from among six different laptop computers for their students — a marked contrast to last year's decision to give every pupil an iPad.

Contracts that will come under final review by the Board of Education on Tuesday would authorize the purchase of one of six devices for each of the 27 high schools at a cost not to exceed $40 million.

This story in the Los Angeles Times highlights that the new approach emphasizes choosing the devices that are right for each school, rather than expecting an iPad to be the answer to every kid's educational needs. Still, it's an awfully expensive plan, given that most of the options actually cost more than the iPad:

The initial money to pay for the technology is coming from voter-approved bonds. Officials have not yet identified funding to sustain the $1-billion-plus effort. Three of the laptops being tried in the high schools are likely to cost more than the iPads. A different style of laptop, called a Chromebook, would cost less.

Teachers and students at the high schools sent delegations to try out devices and meet with vendors at district headquarters.

It wasn't a perfect process. The curriculum, for example, was hard to assess in a process akin to speed dating, said one participant.

If I were an LA public school student, I would be pretty excited to get an iPad or a Chromebook or whatever. But if I were an LA voter, I would be skeptical that such things serve a worthwhile educational purpose and are a good use of my tax dollars.


A $2 million boondoggle—er, "security system"—placed in New Jersey's Belleville High School proved its merit and unerring wisdom when it locked a teacher in a bathroom

 According to

"Since school policy is to not allow the use of cell phones, no one knew where she was, or what happened to her until they went looking for her. Luckily, the teacher was carrying her purse, with her phone inside. When her co-workers retrieved their phones to try to call her, they found that she had been frantically trying to call and text people to come help her.

By the way, this is the same RFID system that the Board of Education pushed through as part of their controversial surveillance system, installed and managed by Clarity Technologies Group, at a cost of $2 million.

Even worse, when they actually discovered that she was locked in the bathroom, they could not open the door by swiping with their own RFID cards because the system had malfunctioned. Apparently someone had to come and pry open the door to finally get her out.

While this particular incident occurred in April, it was apparently just one of several such mishaps. The system was ostensibly put in place to prevent another Newtown, though how it would actually accomplish that, I have no idea. A gunman bursting into the school would show up on the monitors, yes, but would also be pretty visible even without monitors.

A malfunctioning security system is a danger in and of itself, as NutleyWatch pointed out:

What if this had been a child locked in a bathroom late on a Friday afternoon, just before everyone left for the weekend? Just imagine the fear and the trauma that child might endure as a result, not to mention the ensuing lawsuit.

What if this system locked 30 kids inside their own classroom during a fire?

What happens to all the doors in the school when a fire knocks out the network, or melts some of the cabling? Does the entire building become a deathtrap for everyone now locked inside?

It seems like this is what happens when a school suddenly decides it needs a security system and signs a contract with a particular company—the only one that managed to get in a bid—two weeks later. (You can read about that hasty business decision here.)

Note that while the school district managed to find $2 million for the safety of its dear children, the history books it provides those same kids are so old, they don't even cover 9/11.

Odd for a school so focused on terror, isn't it?


How Teacher Tenure Hurts Students

“Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program,” quipped Milton Friedman. The same could be said of teachers with tenure. Last year, just two – that’s right, two – teachers in California were dismissed because of performance issues, according to Parent Revolution’s Ben Austin. While it’s likely only a small minority of teachers is grossly ineffective, tenure protects those who are and prevents school leaders from making personnel decisions that are in the best interests of students.

That issue was at the heart of the June ruling in Vergara v. State of California, a decision which ultimately held that policies like tenure create barriers to equal education options for disadvantaged children.In Vergara, Judge Rolf M. Treu struck down five state laws governing school personnel decisions, including hiring and dismissal. Grossly ineffective teachers, Treu noted, have a “real and appreciable” impact on children. Disadvantaged students attending low-income schools are far more likely to find themselves in a classroom with an ineffective teacher than children from more affluent families.

Empowering school leaders to make personnel decisions can help ensure students have access to quality teachers – something that could pay off significantly, not only for the student but also for U.S. economic and educational standing. Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek found that replacing the lowest-performing five to eight percent of teachers with an average teacher would enable American students to catch up with students in higher-performing nations. Harvard economist Raj Chetty, along with colleagues at Harvard and Columbia, found that replacing an underperforming teacher with a teacher of average performance would increase the lifetime earnings of students in the average classroom by about $250,000.

It is difficult to encourage excellence in teaching when tenure is awarded in many cases after just three years of service, and step increases in pay are based on time worked, not the quality of instruction. Compounding the problem, “last-in-first-out” policies dictate that, in the event of staffing reductions, seniority, not performance, determines who receives pink slips.

The teaching profession is also constrained by union-supported policies that mandate aspiring teachers obtain paper credentials, often at a substantial cost. Requiring several years of certification work can be a significant deterrent for certain individuals, such as mid-career professionals who want to change jobs or an engineer who would like to teach later in life.

Once a teacher has obtained that paper credential and enters the classroom, policies like tenure effectively end that teacher’s evaluation process. This is exactly the opposite of how the teaching profession should manage personnel. Paper credentials are a poor indicator of future teacher performance. “The current system, which focuses on credentials at the time of hire and grants tenure as a matter of course, is at odds with decades of evidence on teacher effectiveness,” argue economists Douglas O. Staiger and Jonah E. Rockoff in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

How can we ensure excellent teachers find their way to the classroom and are encouraged to stay? By making it easy to enter the profession, but rigorously evaluating teachers once they’re in the there.

States and local school districts should eliminate inflexible tenure policies that keep ineffective teachers in the classroom. Additionally, states and school districts should remove many of the barriers to entering the classroom – namely, requirements for certification – but should demand excellent performance of teachers in the classroom (measured in part by student growth on assessments). If performance is found to be lacking, principals should have the autonomy to consider whether that teacher is a good fit for their school.


Sunday, July 06, 2014

University should never be a ‘safe space’

The obsession with safety has undermined academic freedom

When I began my undergraduate course in politics and sociology in September 2010, I was looking forward to getting stuck in to some serious ideas and discussions with my peers. The opening core module for the politics side of my degree dealt with ‘essentially contested concepts’. After a few weeks of discussing liberalism, Marxism, conservatism and power, we moved on to some more contemporary issues.

Following a discussion on porn, the professor leading the module declared that the following week we would be discussing rape – that is, the policy pertaining to the offence and academic scholarship concerned with the concept. Good, I thought: that sounds interesting and not something I’ve thought about much before. However, he then went on to tell the lecture hall that if anyone did not want to attend the lecture and the seminar, that would be fine. After several weeks of it being drummed into us that all seminars and lectures were compulsory, I was a bit stunned.

At that point in my university career, I was still a bit naive about the role the students’ unions and university management played in managing discussion on ‘dangerous’ or controversial issues. Looking back now, it is quite clear what was happening. The professor was concerned for the safety of me and my peers; he was concerned that discussing an issue such as rape could be potentially damaging and harmful to certain students enrolled on the course. It might appear a well-meaning consideration to have, but it masked a wider phenomenon which anyone concerned with free speech and intellectual inquiry should be worried about.

The recent obsession with ‘safety’ at universities presents a clear threat to academic freedom. The National Union of Students’ (NUS) ‘safe space’ policy is perhaps the most worrying manifestation of this trend. The University of Bristol students’ union is one of many UK universities to adopt the policy in an effort to provide ‘an accessible environment in which every student feels comfortable, safe and able to get involved in all aspects of the organisation free from intimidation or judgement’. The provisions of such policies range from ensuring freedom from physical and criminal activity to being ‘free’ from hearing phrases such as ‘it’s so gay’ and words like ‘schizo’ and ‘insane’. In some cases, students’ unions have even encouraged students to consider how ‘appropriate’ their choice of clothing is.

What this policy is expressly concerned with is ensuring that students feel ‘comfortable’. But what this means in practice is ensuring they are not exposed to judgemental language, opinions and arguments. It’s a far cry from the serious and grown-up world of debate that many students wish to get involved in at university; being argued with, judged on the strength of your arguments and critically assessed are essential to any discussion of ideas.

The extent to which ideas themselves are increasingly seen as ‘dangerous’ is another worrying trend. Recently, the University College London Union (UCLU) banned a Nietzsche reading group, arguing that it was ‘promoting a far-right, fascist ideology at UCL’ which threatened the ‘safety of the UCL student body and UCLU members’. A few weeks later, at Warwick University, Alex Davies, the leader of a far-right student group called National Action, ‘voluntarily’ withdrew from his studies following a campaign fronted by Warwick Anti-Racist Society (WARSoc) to have him expelled. This call was bolstered by the University College Union (UCU), which passed a motion in support of WARSoc, calling on university management to protect the safety of students and staff on campuses across the UK in light of the supposed ‘rise’ of this new far-right group.

Safe-space policies present a real and present threat to the prospects of free speech, free inquiry and academic development on campuses across the UK. The idea that students are in need of a ‘safe space’ in which to carry out their studies presents them as fragile and vulnerable. And, when you think students are too fragile even to take part in reasoned debate, and their welfare must be upheld above all other concerns, then academic freedom will inevitably wither away; cast aside in the name of a comfortable, unchallenging and, above all, ‘safe’ education.


Student Rights and the intolerance of the NUS

Last month, a UK anti-extremist student organisation, Student Rights, was banned by seven students’ unions and condemned by the National Union of Students (NUS). Student Rights describes itself as a ‘non-partisan group dedicated to supporting equality, democracy and freedom from extremism on university campuses’. However, it has faced criticism due to its links to the Henry Jackson Society, a think-tank led by such loathed ‘neocons’ as Douglas Murray.

Some suggest that Student Rights’ links to the Henry Jackson Society have shaped its campaigns, and led it intentionally to target Muslim students. Critics of Student Rights substantiate this claim by arguing that a report published by the group in 2013 regarding gender segregation at student society meetings deliberately demonised Muslim students. Pete Mercer, former vice-president of the NUS, even called the report a ‘witch hunt’.

A spokesman for the London School of Economics Students’ Union (LSESU), one of the unions that banned Student Rights, suggested that the report was flawed, since it did not state whether the gender segregation was enforced or voluntary. A fair point, but if LSESU was that eager to take on the findings of this report, one would have thought it could carry out its own research and take on Student Rights point-by-point. Instead, the nominally left-wing union took such offence at a right-leaning organisation commenting on university affairs that it decided simply to silence them.

Calling Student Rights ‘Islamophobic’ seems a little strong. Indeed, in the past, Student Rights has condemned the defacement of Muslim prayer rooms at King’s College London. The intolerant zeal with which students’ unions have clamped down on this organisation is far more disturbing. This is not the healthy, free-thinking intellectualism that students are supposed to aspire to. Instead, it’s another attempt by students’ unions to monopolise political thinking on campus. All students who wish to uphold the truly liberal values of free speech and pluralism should do all they can to stop this – we are the only people who can reverse this disturbing trend.


The school leavers who aren't ready for work: One in three British business executives are concerned about young people's attitude

One in three business executives are concerned that school leavers do not have the right attitude for the world of work, according to a new survey.

Many businesses see a young person’s mindset and general aptitude for the workplace as more important than academic results, but fear school leavers are lacking these vital skills, the CBI/Pearson annual education survey found.

It also warned there are continuing concerns about the literacy and numeracy skills of workers, with many firms admitting that they have had to laid on remedial classes for employees.

And it suggests that while many employers are looking for staff with degrees in science and maths-based subjects, some have reservations about both the quantity and quality of these graduates.

The CBI’s survey is based on responses from 291 companies collectively employing nearly 1.5 million people.

The findings show that around three fifths (61 per cent) are concerned about the resilience and self-management of school leavers, while a third (33 per cent) are worried about attitudes to work.

At the same time, employers rate attitudes to work and a young person’s general aptitude as their top priority when recruiting (85 per cent  and 63 per cent respectively), ahead of literacy and numeracy (44 per cent) and academic results (30 per cent).

The report suggests that since attitude is the 'single most important consideration' when young people are seeking their first job, 'developing a constructive attitude during their schooling is fundamental to working life'.

CBI director-general John Cridland said: 'We’re looking for young people that are rigorous, rounded and grounded. The Government has spent a lot of time improving the rigour of studies and qualifications, which is something we support.

'But businesses put more emphasis on attitudes than academic results. It’s the rounded and grounded part that isn’t always there.

'Young people today are more streetwise than my generation, they’ve been to more places, seen more things, their view of life is very streetwise. What’s lacking is those skills you need to be able to work with people effectively - working as a team, self-confidence, self-discipline.

'We think young people are leaving school unprepared for the fact that the world of work is a very different environment to school.'

Mr Cridland said that youngsters should not be given lessons on work skills, but should learn them as a general part of their education.

'The worst thing schools could do is teach it as a separate subject,' he said.  'The last thing we need is a GCSE in employability.'

He argued that young people do not have access to decent work experience that would teach them about the working world and a problem still exists with school careers advice, which is failing to give young people the help and support they need.

Just over half (52 per cent) of firms want schools to improve awareness of the working world among 14 to 19-year-olds with support from businesses.

Two thirds (66 per cent) of employers said they were willing to play a bigger part in the school careers system.

The CBI said it was calling for Ofsted to be overhauled to ensure that both academic progress and 'development of character' are a priority in schools.

The report goes on to say that while most employers rate the overall skill levels of their employees as satisfactory, over half (54 per cent) are aware of weaknesses in literacy among at least some of their staff, while 53 per cent said the same about numeracy and 61 per cent said the same of IT skills.

Around 44 per cent of those questioned have organised remedial training for adult employees in at least one basic skills area in the last year, while 28 per cent have done so for young people joining them from school or college.

Mr Cridland said: 'This summer, as every summer, around 30 per cent will leave the education system without the literacy and numeracy they need to get them through what could be 55 years of working life. They have been failed by the system.'

He suggested that the problem starts early on, with children who are behind at the end of primary school less likely to gain good GCSEs at age 16, while some pupils are starting school already behind in areas such as vocabulary.

'We are trying to put things right that have already gone wrong,' he said.  'We need to get them right in the early days.'

Some 85 per cent of those questioned said they want primary schools to focus on developing pupils literacy and numeracy skills (85 per cent), the survey found.

The survey also found that 48 per cent of firms prefer graduates with STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) degrees, but 46 per cent have concerns about the quantity of these graduates and 48% are worried about the quality.

Mr Cridland added that there are concerns that not enough people are studying science and maths, adding that schools and universities need to make sure that their courses keep pace with the world of work and technology.