Category Archives: Education / Youth

Word Choices Can Feed Bias

A recent headline in the Indianapolis Star read: “McCormick Calls for LBGTQ Strings on Private School Voucher Money.”  (Jennifer McCormick is Indiana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.)

Strings? Or standards?

The statement by McCormick–with which I entirely agree–was prompted by a local controversy over actions taken by Roncalli High School. Roncalli is an Indianapolis Catholic High School that placed one of its guidance counselors on administrative leave after discovering that she was in a same-sex marriage. The school has evidently threatened to terminate her unless she dissolves her marriage.

Roncalli has received more than $6.5 million in public money over the past five years through Indiana’s most-expansive-in-the-nation school voucher program.

The issue is simple: should public dollars–which come from all Hoosiers, including gay and lesbian taxpayers–support schools that discriminate against some of those Hoosiers?

I would argue that taxpayer dollars ought not support private–and especially religious– schools at all, but that is an argument for another day. In any event, I found the Star’s headline offensive. By characterizing McCormick’s proposed standards for receipt of public dollars as “strings,” it strongly suggested that an unnecessarily picky bureaucracy was trying to make it difficult for religious schools to participate in Indiana’s voucher program. It utterly trivialized a very important issue, which is the use of public money to subsidize discrimination.

As usual, Doug Masson has a more temperate–and eloquent– response to the story, and to the issue.

The issue of inclusiveness appears to be a reference to Roncalli’s decision to terminate a long-time, well-regarded guidance counselor when the school was made aware (or forced to acknowledge) that the counselor had a spouse of the same sex. Roncalli is a private school but it’s funded — in part — with public money. The question becomes whether public money should come with conditions and, if so, what conditions should be attached. Obviously, it should and does come with conditions. Voucher money can’t just go anywhere. The voucher school has to look and act more or less like a school. If it was, for example, a tavern that labeled itself a “school,” then Rep. Behning would likely change his position. He says:

If parents have a problem with the school’s practices, employment or otherwise, Behning said they can send their child elsewhere. In that case their tuition will follow, whether it’s paid by the parent or by the state. “Parents are the ones that should be making those decisions,” he said, “rather than the government.”

Rep. Behning is obviously being a little disingenuous here. The government simply wouldn’t let parents make the tavern decision. So, as the joke goes, we’re just haggling over the price. Is discrimination on that basis against an otherwise well-qualified employee because she has a same-sex spouse something we’re willing to fund or not? I obviously fall on the “not” side of that question, and it sounds like Dr. McCormick does as well. My guess is that the General Assembly will be perfectly willing to continue subsidizing Roncalli, notwithstanding its employment practices. (Because, remember, my view of the three goals of the General Assembly when it comes to school vouchers: 1) Hurt the teacher’s unions; 2) direct education money to friends & well-wishers; and 3) subsidize religious education.)

Before education reformers write me to protest that we need “alternatives” and “choice” and “innovations,” let me suggest that they research the difference between Charter schools, which are public and subject to the Constitution, and schools receiving vouchers, which are private and aren’t.

As usual, I agree completely with Doug’s analysis. (I do think he’s too kind to Rep. Behning…”disingenuous” isn’t the word I’d have chosen.)

Another word I wouldn’t have chosen is “strings.” As the saying goes, one person’s “red tape” is the next person’s accountability.

The Science Of Democracy

“If Scientific Literacy is the Answer, What’s the Question?” is the provocative title of an online article by my friend Eric Meslin. Eric is a native of Canada– a bioethicist who left IUPUI a couple of years ago to become President and CEO of the Council of Canadian Academies. He wrote the article as part of a celebration of Canada’s “Science Literacy Week.”

Canada has a “Science Literacy Week.” Sort of makes an American cry….

I remember when people in the United States respected science. And education. That, of course, was before Trump, Pence and Betsy DeVos scorned bookish “elitists,” elevated religion over science, and job training over education. But I digress.

Eric reported on a 2014 Expert Panel assessment Science Culture: Where Canada Stands that found Canadians having mostly positive attitudes towards science and low levels of apprehension about science compared with citizens of other countries. Nevertheless,

The assessment also found only 53% of Canadians understood that antibiotics were not effective against viruses; only 46% were able to describe what it meant to study something scientifically (that is, using the scientific method); and that around 42% of the population had attained a basic enough level of science literacy that they could grasp general coverage of scientific and technological stories in the media. And yet, these results rated Canada as the most scientifically literate country in the world.

Why should science literacy matter? Eric points to the “tsunami” of information available, and the need to cull what is useful and well-founded from the mountains of speculation, disinformation and conflicting reports (to which I would add outright peddling of snake-oil.)

Maneuvering in a busy world of science information gives one answer to the question, why does science literacy matter? Knowing something about science can help distinguish between claims that are truthful from those that are not, to understand which new information should be heeded and what can be set aside for the moment. Indeed, part of being science literate is knowing where to find the resources to make sense of the scientific evidence.

Perhaps the most important argument for improving science literacy is the connection between a basic understanding of the scientific method and democratic self-governance. As Eric explains that connection:

As important as science literacy is for people to understand science, a science-literate public may also be the best hope for a well-functioning democracy.

This view sees science literacy as an antidote to the many varieties of fundamentalism that undermine pluralistic, cosmopolitan, multicultural democracies. A science literate society not only better understands the science behind a policy (e.g., it is a good idea to know a little bit about stem cell science before deciding whether to fund it), a science literate public also understands how to think carefully about how policy gets made, who decides, and using what criteria. When decisions are made to build bridges, dams or pipelines; to regulate chemicals and food; or to require vaccination, or fluoridate water, a science-literate public is applying its critical thinking skills to policy making in society.

Scientifically-literate citizens won’t always come to the same conclusions, but their debates are far more likely to be illuminating and productive than the arguments between, for example, the scientific community and the troglodytes who use biblical passages to dismiss the threat of climate change.

Eric also quoted a favorite book of mine: Timothy Ferris’ The Science of Liberty. As I wrote a few years ago,

Ferris argues convincingly that the democratic revolution was sparked by the scientific one. The new approach to governing wasn’t merely a function of the embrace of reason, because–as current events keep reminding us–people can reason themselves into all sorts of conclusions that have a tenuous connection to reality. Science was the new ingredient, and while science requires reason, it isn’t just reason. It’s empiricism, experimentation…the same sort of experimentation that is the basis for democratic governance.

It was the advent of science and the scientific method that underscored the importance of decisions based on evidence.  As Ferris notes, dogma ruled the world before science came along, and dogma remains the preference of the majority of people today. (If you doubt the accuracy of that observation, look at Congress. Or Texas. Or, unfortunately, the Indiana Statehouse.) But democracy is not a dogma–it’s a method,a process not unlike the scientific method.

It is well to recognize that when strident anti-intellectual political figures attack scholarship as “elitism,”  when they dismiss scientific consensus on everything from evolution to climate change, when they call for “repealing” the Enlightenment, it isn’t only science they are attacking.

It’s democracy as we understand it.

The U.S. isn’t doing so well in either science or democracy these days. One more reason to envy Canada…

The Dinosaurs On Noah’s ark

Just shoot me now.

A column in the Arizona Republic newspaper reports that the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction has added a member to that state’s panel charged with reviewing science instruction in Arizona’s public schools.

And what eminent scientist or respected academic has been chosen for this important panel?

Here is a bit of instruction from a guy Superintendent Diane Douglas tapped to help review Arizona’s standards on how to teach evolution in science class:

The earth is just 6,000 years old and dinosaurs were present on Noah’s Ark. But only the young ones. The adult ones were too big to fit, don’t you know.

“Plenty of space on the Ark for dinosaurs – no problem,” Joseph Kezele explained to Phoenix New Times’Joseph Flaherty.

Flaherty reports that in August, Arizona’s soon-to-be ex-superintendent appointed Kezele to a working group charged with reviewing and editing the state’s proposed new state science standards on evolution.

Joseph Kezele, it turns out, teaches (his version of) biology at Arizona Christian University, and serves as president of the Arizona Origin Science Association.   The article describes him as “a staunch believer in the idea that enough scientific evidence exists to back up the biblical story of creation.”

Douglas has been working for awhile now to bring a little Sunday school into science class. This spring she took a red pen to the proposed new science standards, striking or qualifying the word “evolution” wherever it occurred.

Douglas wants the theory of Intelligent Design taught alongside the “theory” of evolution–a desire that confirms her total lack of understanding of the scientific method and scientific terminology.

A scientific theory is not the equivalent of a wild-ass guess. Scientific theories grow out of and are based upon groups of hypotheses that have been repeatedly and successfully empirically tested. Only after sufficient evidence has been gathered in support of those hypotheses will a theory be developed to explain the phenomenon in question.

Even then, scientific theories (unlike religious beliefs) remain subject to falsification–continued empirical testing to support or disprove the hypotheses upon which the theory depends. If a theory cannot be rejected, modified or confirmed by such empirical testing, it isn’t science.

Other beliefs may or may not be true (that sunset is beautiful!), but that doesn’t make them science.

Meanwhile, the new appointee to the panel reviewing Arizona’s science standards has already convinced the others to change the description of evolution from “the explanation for the unity and diversity of organisms, living and extinct” to “an” explanation–in other words, one “theory” among others.

As the columnist concluded,

So much for long-established scientific theory.

Kezele told Flaherty that there is enough scientific evidence to back up the biblical account of creation. He says students should be exposed to that evidence. For example, scientific stuff about the human appendix and the Earth’s magnetic field.

“I’m not saying to put the Bible into the classroom, although the real science will confirm the Bible,” Kezele told Flaherty. “Students can draw their own conclusions when they see what the real science actually shows.”

Because, hey, Barney floating around on Noah’s Ark.

Kezele told Flaherty that all land animals – humans and dinosaurs alike — were created on the Sixth Day.

And there was light and the light was, well, a little dim for science class, if you ask me.

The only good news here is that Douglas initially won the Superintendent’s office by a single percentage point, barely survived a recall effort, and decisively lost the 2018 Republican primary.

The bad news is, there were people in Arizona who voted for her.

For-Profit Education Is About Profit, Not Education

It will come as a surprise to exactly no one that Betsy DeVos is a fan of for-profit colleges. After all, she has championed voucher programs that take funding from public schools and send it to private ones, many of which are run or managed as for-profit enterprises. Unfortunately, her support is not shaken either by the data rebutting the belief that such schools actually provide an education (let alone a superior education), or by the documented fraudulent behavior of for-profit “colleges.”

The New York Times editorial board recently weighed in on DeVos’ roll-back of efforts to protect college students against that fraud.

Say this for Betsy DeVos: The secretary of education has shown an impressive commitment to rescuing her friends in the for-profit college business from pesky measures to rein in their predatory behavior. As pet projects go, it lacks the sulfurous originality of her emerging idea to let states use federal dollars to put guns in schools. But it is a scandal nonetheless. Given the choice between protecting low-income students — and, by extension, American taxpayers — and facilitating the buck-raking of a scandal-ridden industry, Ms. DeVos aggressively pursues Option B.

The Obama-era regulations basically required “truth in advertising.” If too many students at the for-profit school racked up massive student debt–financed, after-all, by We the Taxpayers– and then were unable to qualify for decent jobs, and if the ratio of such failures exceeded a certain level for two out of three years, those schools became ineligible to receive taxpayer-backed loans and grants. The regulation also required for-profit programs to include whether or not they meet federal job-placement standards in their promotional materials.

DeVos said the regulation unfairly targeted for-profit schools, even though–as the Times reported-

A recent review of “borrower defense claims” — requests for loan relief filed with the Education Department by students asserting they were defrauded or misled by their schools — found that almost 99 percent involved for-profit institutions.

There is, in fact, plenty of evidence that for-profit educational institutions are much more interested in profit than in education. DeVos herself doesn’t seem very educated about data, education or the department she presumably runs. Nor is she winning many converts.

A federal court has ruled against her effort to delay implementation of the Obama rules, calling it “arbitrary and capricious.” And California just became the first state in the nation to ban for-profit charter schools. The law was inspired by a newspaper investigation confirming allegations of profiteering at the expense of children’s educations. For-profit charter schools currently operating in California “must convert to non-profit management prior to each school’s renewal deadline.”

Although I absolutely support both the regulations DeVos is attacking and California’s  requirement that for-profit institutions become nonprofit,  the problem isn’t limited to institutions that are organized as private, for-profit enterprises. Any business lawyer can explain the ways in which the line between for-profit and non-profit can be blurred. Create a corporation to provide an arguably publicly- beneficial purpose, and distribute what would otherwise be “profits” as salaries, and voila! (Take a look at some of your local “nonprofit” hospitals…)

And that brings me to Purdue University’s recent acquisition of Kaplan University, a for-profit enterprise now re-branded as public.  I think the Century Foundation got it right, when it charged that Purdue University Global Is a For-Profit College Masquerading as a Public University.

In April, the for-profit Kaplan University officially became an arm of Indiana’s public university system. With its new home and new name, Purdue University Global is the first public university to share control with a for-profit company answerable to investors. When the deal was announced last year, Purdue’s president said that critics of for-profit colleges “should be happy” that Purdue was turning Kaplan into a public rather than for-profit institution. Critics, however, wondered whether the for-profit company’s large ongoing role meant, instead, that Kaplan’s history of predatory practices would simply re-emerge under a “public” moniker.

One answer to that question arrived last week, when Purdue faculty members revealed that the online school is requiring instructors to sign a four-page nondisclosure agreement. The pledge, required for Purdue Global employees, prohibits professors and staff from discussing anything they know about the university’s operations with anyone else, including their colleagues (unless those people already have access to the information). Officials at the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) describe the pledge as “unprecedented for a public, non-profit university” and “breathtakingly inappropriate in higher education.”

Now, The Century Foundation has new documents showing that predatory practices at Purdue Global were baked into the plan from the very beginning.

Those documents–described in detail at the linked article–reveal a number of ways in which Purdue Global was designed to be much more of a for-profit college obligated to its investors than a public institution serving students.

I am a big believer in markets, profits, and capitalism…in the economic sectors where markets and profits are appropriate. Education is not one of those sectors.

Rather than strengthening performance of education’s public function, rather than recognizing the critically important role of education in producing a literate and informed polity, the Republicans running our government–and the Republican running Purdue University–are elevating profit over purpose, and moving us in precisely the wrong direction.

 

“I Quit”

Principled people who can do so are fleeing the Trump Administration. Those who cannot afford to take the moral high ground–the government workers with mortgages to pay and children to educate–are valiantly trying to hold their agencies accountable to the rule of law.

Talking Points Memo, among others, has reported on the departure of one who just left: the top watchdog overseeing student loans.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s “Student Loan Ombudsman,” responsible for guarding student borrowers against predatory lenders and scammers, has resigned in a scathing letter aimed at acting CFPB director Mick Mulvaney.

“Unfortunately, under your leadership, the Bureau has abandoned the very consumers it is tasked by Congress with protecting,” Seth Frotman’s resignation letter, obtained by NPR, read. “Instead, you have used the Bureau to serve the wishes of the most powerful financial companies in America.”

Not exactly surprising, in an administration where up is down, failure is success, accurate reporting is “fake news,” and corrupt practices are touted as “good business.”

Frotman’s job was to monitor and review of thousands of complaints from student borrowers. The Obama administration had introduced a number of regulations intended to protect those student borrowers against fraudulent practices; according to Frotman, Mulvaney and Betsy DeVos have worked “diligently” to eliminate those protections.

Frotman’s letter pointed to specific wrongdoing by Mulvaney, NPR reported, including the alleged suppression of a report from his office revealing that big banks were “saddling [students] with legally dubious account fees.”

In May, NPR noted, Mulvaney called for Frotman’s office to be incorporated into the Office of Financial Education, effectively proposing to remove Frotman’s office from direct enforcement actions and shifting it to an educational role.

Regarding another change — the Department of Education’s announcement last year that it would no longer share federal student loan oversight data with the CFPB — Frotman wrote: “The Bureau’s current leadership folded to political pressure… and failed borrowers who depend on independent oversight to halt bad practices.”

NPR has posted a copy of Frotman’s letter here.

My husband often reminds me that–while Americans are distracted by our demented President’s tweets, rages and sundry other embarrassing and destructive behaviors–his administration is busily dismantling the structures of accountable and legitimate governance–stacking the federal courts with right-wing ideologues, eliminating regulations protecting air and water quality, bleeding public schools of the resources needed to educate the country’s children, empowering theocrats, and weakening the rules that restrain the rich and powerful.

Even if November brings the hoped-for “blue wave,” and installs a Congress that takes its oversight responsibilities seriously, it will take years to restore both the rule of law and the American people’s ability to trust that their government is operating on their behalf.