Archive for the Education Category

Victor Davis Hanson

Here in California, students just marched on Sacramento in outrage that state-subsidized tuition at the UC and CSU campuses keeps climbing. It is true that per-unit tuition costs are rising, despite even greater exploitation of poorly paid part-time teachers and graduate-student TAs. But the protests are sort of surreal. The California legislature is overwhelmingly Democratic. The governor is a Democrat. The faculties and administrative classes are largely Democratic. Who then, in the students’ minds, have established these supposedly unfair budget priorities?

Sales, income, and gas taxes are still among the highest in the nation (and are proposed to rise even higher) — prompting one of the largest out-of-state exoduses of upper-income brackets in the nation. The state budget is pretty much entirely committed to K–12 education (whose state-by-state comparative test scores in math and science hover between 45th and 49th in the nation), prisons, social services, and public-employee salaries and pensions. Whom, then, can the students be angry at?

Are students angry at public-union salaries and pensions that are among the highest in the nation? Do they think the many highly compensated retired Highway patrol officers have shorted students at UC Davis? Are they mad at the 50,000 illegal aliens in the California prison system that might have siphoned off scholarship funds from CSU Monterey Bay? Or is the rub the influx of hundreds of thousands of children of illegal aliens who require all sorts of language remediation and extra instruction in the public schools, and so might in theory divert library funds from UC Santa Cruz?

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Chester Finn

The War Against the Common Core

The Common Core State Standards Initiative landed in our midst with four great assets:

  • Its content-and-skill expectations for grades K-12 in English and math are, by almost everyone’s reckoning, about as rigorous as the best state-specific academic standards and superior to most.
  • It was developed outside the federal government, voluntarily by states, using private dollars. (The related assessments are another matter.) And both standards and assessments remain voluntary for states.
  • It opens the way, for the first time, to comparing student, school and district performance across the land on a credible, common metric—and gauging their achievement against that of youngsters in other countries on our shrinking and ever-more-competitive planet.
  • Besides comparability, it brings the possibility that families moving around our highly mobile society will be able to enroll their kids seamlessly in schools that are teaching the same things at the same grade levels.

Ever since it landed, however, the Common Core has been the object of ceaseless attacks from multiple directions. The number of zealous assailants is small and, for a time, it all looked like a tempest in a highly visible teapot. That may yet turn out to be the case. But the attacks are growing fiercer; some recent recruits to the attack squad are people who tend to get taken seriously; and anything can happen in an election year. Remember the classic Peter Sellers movie, The Mouse That Roared? The Duchy of Grand Fenwick ended up triumphing over the United States of America. As you may recall, that happened in large part because the U.S. government contributed to its own defeat. In the present case, something similar could well transpire. Please read on.

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Chester Finn

I’m a huge fan of high-quality liberal-arts education for everybody and really do think it would go far to prepare better citizens, neighbors, and consumer/transmitters of America’s cultural heritage and democratic underpinnings. I’m also an acolyte of E.D. Hirsch and his core point that everyone—especially poor kids—needs to be culturally literate as well as equipped with the 3 R’s (though he emphasizes that his focus is K-8, not high school).

That said, I’m also becoming convinced that the future of our economy and the acquisition of good jobs will hinge as much on well-developed technical prowess as on Aristotle, Shakespeare, Darwin, Rembrandt, and Mozart.

Recent weeks have brought multiple reports of U.S. jobs going unfilled, or being outsourced to distant lands, because too few American workers have the requisite skills to perform them well.

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Bruce Thornton

Nature Fakery

At the turn of the twentieth century, President Theodore Roosevelt became embroiled in a public controversy over how some writers and naturalists described the natural world in overly anthropomorphic and sentimental terms. In a 1907 article attacking Jack London, among other writers, Roosevelt popularized the moniker “nature fakers,” those writers whom Roosevelt called “an object of derision to every scientist worthy of the name, to every real lover of the wilderness, to every faunal naturalist, to every true hunter or nature lover. But it is evident that [the nature faker] completely deceives many good people who are wholly ignorant of wild life.”

The “nature” the sentimentalists described was not the real nature, but one conjured from old myths and imaginative projections of human ideals onto an inhuman natural world. Unfortunately, a century later “nature fakers” are still promoting their sentimental myths about nature, only now with serious repercussions for our national interests and security.

These days “nature fakery” lives on in school curricula and popular culture, from Earth Day celebrations to Disney cartoons like Pocahontas. Only now this myth is renamed “environmentalism” and disguised with a patina of scientific authority. Worse yet, this allegedly scientific information provides the basis for government policies that impact our economic productivity and national security. The furor over global warming illustrates this unholy alliance of ancient myth and misleading science. For years we have heard claims that the evidence for global warming caused by human-generated “greenhouse gas” is “incontrovertible,” as the American Physical Society claimed last year in a policy statement, and that “if no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur.”

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Paul Peterson

In Utah, new legislation has given school districts the opportunity to attract high school students from throughout the state to their online course offerings.

Any time a high school student takes a course from a district other than the one where they live, a portion of Utah’s state aid shifts from the home district to the district providing the course online.

A district with a brilliant slate of online suddenly has the chance to solve its fiscal problems the easy way.

I learned about the Utah experiment at a conference held at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and sponsored by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance. While the details of the Utah experiment were not discussed, the basic idea is certainly intriguing.

No longer must students in rural Utah be denied the opportunity to take physics, chemistry, computer science or an esoteric language simply because the local district cannot afford teachers for courses with small enrollments.

No longer must a student in Utah take a social studies course from a teacher the student finds boring and unhelpful.

No longer must a student who cannot attend school on a daily basis—either because he or she is sick, or pregnant, or feels bullied, or wants to train for an Olympic sport—be denied the opportunity to maintain a regular schedule that will lead to a timely graduation.

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Russell Muirhead

Resuscitating Civic Education

What does being a good citizen require?

According to a new report issued by the Department of Education, Secretary Arne Duncan wants to reboot civic education and upgrade it for the twenty-first century. The future of democracy depends on it, he argues. But the key to improving civic education today is not to make it more like a video game or a summer camp, as Duncan wants to do. It’s to equip students with the tools to sort out the political life unfolding around them. The problem today is not merely that students don’t "know enough" facts. It’s that they lack the basis for forming and holding opinions. And without opinions—ultimately, opinions about the common good—politics will always seem a distant chore best left to others.

Good citizens do things: they speak out, they vote, they volunteer, they organize. But to do those things well, citizens need to know things. Civic action requires civic knowledge.

This might seem so elemental as to need no defense. After all, an ignorant citizenry is easily manipulated by propaganda and the seductions of flattering and over-promising politicians. Only when citizens are knowledgeable are they empowered to resist the self-serving machinations of ambitious elites and act in their own interests. Only a knowledgeable citizenry can preserve its freedoms.

This is why the persistent evidence of citizen ignorance is so hair-raising. Surveys show that almost half of Americans, for instance, think the phrase, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” appears in the United States Constitution (actually, it is from The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels). Speaking of Communists, almost half of Americans believe that Communist Party members cannot run for president. Three-quarters of the population think the Constitution guarantees a high school education.

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How to Reboot K-12

With the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act overdue for reauthorization, the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education recommends a new and powerful strategy for fundamental education reform—and a major makeover of the customary federal role: allow states receiving federal funding to opt out of traditional federal constraints if they create vibrant marketplaces for informed school choice.

In the report, Choice and Federalism: Defining the Federal Role in Education, we the Task Force recommend that Washington limit its education role to what it can do best: encouraging states to create level playing fields that expand school options and competition, along with access to accurate information on school performance, to generate the greatest opportunity for students and their families to make well-informed decisions about where to enroll.

There are three choices for confronting America’s broken public education system:

—continue down a path of increased federal control and top-down accountability with regard to public education;

—devolve power to states and districts, thereby returning to the status quo of the mid-90s when local public school monopolies decided how children were to be educated and only the affluent had choice;

—or rethink the fundamentals and do something different by empowering parental choice.

Based on two guiding principles, we believe the third option is best.

Our first guiding principle is fiscal federalism. It suggests that the federal role in education should be specified strategically and grounded in the laws of economics and on empirical evidence of what actually works. The federal role therefore should be confined to what it clearly does best, while states and locales should focus on what they are best suited to do.

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(photo credit: eduardostuart)

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