Category Archives: Education

Does Australia want the P-TECH model?

Corporate highs: the US P-TECH model for schools in Australia?

[Article originally published in The Conversation here]

Prime Minister Tony Abbott visited a P-TECH (Pathways in Technology Early Career High) school in New York last week, hinting it’s a model of education we should consider implementing in Australia. The school, partly funded by IBM and training students to suit the company’s needs, is different to anything we have in Australia. While the P-TECH model would be feasible here, the model risks confusing economic needs with educational ones.

The P-TECH model in the US

The approach taken by P-TECH has generated a lot of interest since it was opened in 2011. It already has a name, the P-TECH model, and is being copied in cities around the US. New York State, for example, has developed partnerships for a further 16 schools like the original.

The P-TECH model sounds a little confusing at first: both private and public money is used to fund high schools that also give university degrees. P-TECH schools are situated in low socio-economic areas and have a stated aim of helping students to become “job ready” for a particular sector of employment that has a shortage of workers. Existing schools in the US have focused on training for the technology sector and new schools are also looking to train workers for manufacturing and health care.

During Abbott’s recent US visit, he hinted these private P-TECH schools are something Australia would think about adopting.
AAP

The school that Abbott visited, for example, was funded by the NYC Department of Education, the City University of New York and the private company IBM. The school goes for two years beyond the equivalent of our Year 12. Graduates receive corporate mentoring during their study, an associate degree in technology (similar to a diploma) upon graduation, as well as a job interview with IBM.

“The school that will get you a job.”
Time Magazine

Politicians in particular are big proponents of the P-TECH model because it looks like a win-win situation. The nation’s economy gets a supply of workers in sectors where there are perceived shortages. The private business entering into the partnership gets positive publicity and a supply of qualified labour. The state gets to have the cost of education significantly subsidised by private enterprise. And the student gets a qualification for the cost of just two years’ extra study.

While the ideas in these schools are not new, their integration in the P-TECH model is generating a buzz in the US to the point that the latest version in Chicago made the front page of TIME magazine. The question is now being asked whether the model might have a place in Australia.

Is it feasible in Australia?

While we don’t have anything like the culture of philanthropy seen in the US, businesses see this model as much more of an investment (in publicity, recruitment and training) than charity. There would likely be interested parties, especially given the huge positive coverage received by IBM in the US.

The challenge for implementing these schools is in the grey area they occupy between high schools and universities. In Australia, only accredited institutions can award degrees. Any P-TECH type school would require either accreditation or exemption – this would be difficult for a school to obtain without significant political willpower.

Perhaps more to the point, it is difficult to see the need for schools that give degrees in Australia, where the separation of school and further education still serves the needs of both students and the national interest.

Does the P-TECH model have educational merit?

We’ve been talking about a new type of school, yet still have not mentioned educational value. This is partly because the first cohort at P-TECH hasn’t graduated yet so not much is known about outcomes. Yet we can consider likely implications.

Those arguing for these schools point out the advantages to students in gaining employment and higher starting salaries. This comes from an unstated belief that the goal of education is to create graduates who meet the economic needs of the country, and that those graduates can thus fulfil their own need for gainful employment. From this perspective there is no problem with inclusion of private companies in educational partnerships.

The view of the PM is typical of this notion of education:

What we want to do is ensure that youngsters are getting an education which is relevant to their needs and that we are investing in education and training systems that are going to have appropriate economic pay-offs for our country.

What this perspective neglects is that the next generation has needs much broader than gaining employment and being a part of the economic life of the country. For example, they need to leave school with the ability to think critically, to have the broad range of skills for leading a fulfilling and creative life – no matter their circumstances. This view is summed up by Richard Shaull in his foreword to educational theorist Paulo Freire’s book:

Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity, or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.

The P-TECH schools, with their involvement of the private sector and focus upon vocational training, are likely to be a step backwards in achieving this. It is entirely possible for these schools to succeed in their own terms and achieve high rates of graduate employment, yet still to fail their students.

The Conversation

Nick Kelly does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

The United States Model for Higher Education in Australia

I’ve just had an article published in the conversation, which is the short-form version of a longer piece that I wrote. It’s about the proposed changes to the Australian system of Higher Education, why this looks a lot like the model used in the US and the research into likely impacts from the proposed changes.

Here’s the long form version:
The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Students protest the “American Model” for higher education

If you wondered why a few thousand students were marching around Melbourne and Sydney yesterday, it’s because of the government’s plans to emulate the United States in the way that our university system runs. Education Minister Christopher Pyne makes no secret of his admiration for the American higher education model, saying three weeks ago to a London audience that “we have much to learn about universities competing for students and focussing on our students. Not least, we have much to learn about this from our friends in the United States.”

Yesterday’s marches were organised by the National Union of Students using the tag line “say no to deregulation and the American model”. They are a response to last week’s budget which proposes a move towards students taking on more debt and universities competing directly for students on the basis of price as well as quality – the hallmarks of the American model. What does this mean for the future of Australia’s higher education, why are students up in arms, and why would the government want to do this?

What are the changes that have got students into the streets?

The government has proposed three big changes to higher education that have got students onto their feet and out on the streets: deregulating fees, lowering government subsidies for student places and charging real interest on HELP loans.

As has been written about extensively, deregulating fees means universities can charge what students are willing to pay. This means that they will go up on average (even the government forecast is 14% although nobody really knows by quite how much), especially in elite universities where they will go up significantly more than this. Lowering the government subsidy to university places by 20% makes sure that the rise is fees will be at least this much.

Finally, the government is raising the interest on student loans (which, remember, will be larger than in the past). Previously loans were indexed to inflation meaning that there was no real interest. The proposed change is to use the government 10-year Treasury rate (currently at 3.76% but which has an average of 5.54% over the past 16 years). This means that loans (which often take decades to pay back) will be growing through the effects of compound interest, multiplying the effect of any rises to university fees.

What is the “American Model” and will these changes really take us there?

Looking at Australian and US universities in 2014, the clear differences that can be summarised by two words: diversity and debt.

In Australia, all of our universities are funded under a single model and student fees are capped through regulation. As a result there are only modest differences between our institutions.

In contrast, the American model has been deregulated to allow vast differences between universities. To give an idea of the disparity, annual tuition fees at elite universities can be enormous (e.g. $44,000 at Harvard) whilst the lower tier of regional universities charge significantly less (e.g. $4,500 at New Mexico Highlands University).

Mr Pyne continues to tout the American model to his London audience on the basis of exactly this diversity: “they have developed a diverse array of institutions encouraging prospective students to pick and choose their futures and where they are going to study, immerse themselves in enriching extra-curricular activities, and make life-long friends.” This desire for “more diversity” is Pyne’s way of saying that he wants our top universities to be better and compete with the Harvard’s of the world, even if the cost is that our other universities are worse off.

The government has made it clear that one of its main priorities for higher education is “not getting left behind” by having more of our universities in the top 50 in the world (indeed, Pyne litters many of his speeches with commentary on our status within the university world rankings, despite significant criticisms of how meaningful they are). Deregulating fees is designed to create the disparity that will enable this, creating the virtuous cycles that will allow universities with a strong reputation to charge higher fees and increase quality – and the less-discussed vicious cycles that will see other universities have to compete on price rather than quality. The clearly stated goal is to bring about the kind of ‘diversity’ seen in the US system.

The second part of the US model is in regard to student debt. In Australia in 2014, students are given loans by the government through the HECS-HELP scheme. Students pay the loan back at a compulsory rate that varies from 4-8% of income, rising along with salary – however these payments only kick in once loan holders are earning over a certain threshold (currently $53,345). The public purse contributes significantly to the cost of higher education in the form of this below-market rate of interest as well as debts that do not get paid back.

In 2014 students in the US are eligible for a “federal loan”, mostly through the Stafford loan scheme that has an interest rate linked to the US Federal 10-year Treasury rate plus a small margin. This is currently at 3.86%, although students who have financial need have this interest subsidised by the government. In addition, all students taking out loans pay a 1% loan fee and government subsidies have strict conditions on them.

The 2014-15 budget proposal to link student debt to government 10-year Treasury bonds would bring Australia directly in line with interest in the US model. Pyne’s claim that profits used from the loans will subsidize students with financial need is yet to be fully described, but also appears to be in line with the US model of subsidies for students in need. Like the US system the changes move towards a “user pays” model, in which the combination of higher fees and the introduction of real interest on debts will move the cost of studying onto individual students.

Taken with Pyne’s comments, it seems clear that the changes being proposed to Australia’s higher education system are aimed at making the Australian system more like the US system. If that’s the case, what can we learn from the US system before we start to go down this path?

The American student debt problem

Whilst the government’s main concern is raising the quality of our top universities, the priorities of the students marching yesterday was a concern about the social and economic problems that the US model has been seen to cause.

There is much evidence from around the world that higher fees disproportionately affect students from a low SES background. Firstly the prospect of high levels of debt discourages these students from attending university. Put simply, the idea of taking on a $100,000 dollar debt for a law degree looks very different depending on whether your parents are earning twice that or half that. Secondly, students from a low SES background end up paying more fees overall (e.g. not having parents helping leads to longer time to pay off the debt which with real interest means that they simply pay more). Professor Bruce Chapman, who designed the current HECS system to combat exactly these factors, is one of the many critics of the shift towards a US model on the basis that it will hit women and students from low SES backgrounds the hardest.

Shifting the burden of paying for education away from the public purse (coming from taxes on those with a higher income, generally the previous generation) and onto individual students (the next generation) is something that a nation can only do once. The government that implements such a change can claim many ‘savings’ but it has many hidden negative consequences.

Student debt in the US is causing what some academics have called a “crisis of justice”, affecting the everyday lives of students who for years after graduating are required to use their disposable income to service their student debt. One group that suffers most from higher fees are those students that for a range of reasons drop out of university before completing their degree.

The level of debt in the US has not just led to social inequality but also widespread economic problems. For example, high levels of student debt directly correlate with the decreasing number of loans for homes and cars being taken out by young adults. High levels of personal debt are having a negative impact upon the national economy as a whole.

And in case there is any doubt that fees will rise, the US example shows that fees have risen at a rate that far outstrips inflation. In the ten years to August 2013 the CPI (inflation) was 26.1% whilst the cost of tuition rose 79.5%. In other words, opening fees up to unregulated competition has led to everyone paying more.

One reason for higher fees is that deregulating universities opens them up to market forces, obliging them to do what it takes to stay competitive. For example, based on the US model we can expect to see our universities vastly increase the amount of their budget used for marketing. A US senate committee into for-profit universities found that on average 23% of the budget was being spent on marketing.

The reason why students were out marching in the streets yesterday should not simply be seen as a knee-jerk reaction to being asked to pay more. Rather it should be taken as a response to having heard the words and seen the actions of the current government in their desire to emulate the American model. The students protesting, supported by a host of academics similarly critical, are saying that embracing the US system is not what they want for the future of higher education in Australia.

 

Independent public schools – Why competition in public education is a bad thing

THE SLIPPERY SLOPE OF INDEPENDENT PUBLIC SCHOOLS

The current government is committed to creating “independent” public schools, a change to bring more autonomy to around 25% of Australian public schools. A $70 million fund has been set up to make this a reality.

According to Education Minister Christopher Pyne, independent public schools will give principals the autonomy to hire and fire their staff and control more of the school budget.

What is not being talked about is that a brief tour of recent history in other Western countries shows that dividing the public education system in two can be a very slippery slope. It has a tendency lead to negative social consequences and there is a lack of evidence of better student outcomes. So why then is this happening?

BIG IDEAS: TO SUBSIDISE THE SCHOOL OR THE STUDENT?

Influential Chicago economist Milton Friedman wrote more than 60 years ago about how to formulate government policy in education. Friedman’s big idea was that just because education is provided by a government, it does not mean that the forces of competition cannot be useful here too.

Friedman’s suggestion was that governments have a choice, between giving money to schools (to educate our children), and giving money to the parents of children (with which to choose a school). The advantage of the latter, says Friedman, is that schools will have a reason to compete with each other – with a result of greater quality for less money.

For this to work how Friedman intends, public (state-run) schools need to be in competition with other schools – and private schools, with their large annual fees, aren’t competing for the same students.

The way competition is achieved by policymakers is to give money to schools based on how many students they have, whether they are run by the state or whether they are independent – what is sometimes called a “voucher” system, in which parents theoretically have more choice.

In the US they created the competition for public schools by giving out “charters” for non-profit schools to be formed that are independent of the state in many ways, but are still subsidized by the state. In the UK they created “academies” under a similar model with government funding but school independence.

Here in Australia the suggestion is to follow a similar program and make roughly a quarter of the nation’s schools “autonomous”. The motivation in all three cases is the same, a desire to introduce choice and competition into public schooling – and this is where the problem lies.

THE DANGERS OF COMPETITION IN EDUCATION

Whilst superficially appealing, evidence shows that introducing competition to public education can have a raft of undesirable social consequences that are very difficult to undo.

Some of the most harmful effects of introducing competition to public schooling have been identified by researchers as:

1) More pronounced social stratification. Dividing the public school system into autonomous and state-run schools is likely to widen inequality. The case of education in Chile, where a similar system (the first in the world back in 1981) provides an extreme example of the way that competition in public schools can lead to a cycle of widening social inequality.

In Chile, autonomous schools have the ability to select or reject students. In the drive for better results and the development of reputation these schools tend to favour students from wealthier backgrounds that are already achieving better results. Consequently, the 38.5% of students that remain in the fully public system are much more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds and perform more poorly in national tests.

Further, the idea that parents now have more “choice” in where to send a child with the advent of competition is not as straightforward as it might seem. Will an autonomous school, which is being measured on academic results, spend its advertising budget in a wealthy or a disadvantaged neighbourhood? Does a parent that has the time and money to transport a child long distances have the same amount of “choice” as a parent that does not?

2) Impoverishment of the educational mission. Consider two schools in the US. One is a state-run school, the other a non-profit autonomous charter school. The state school spends their allocated $500 on advertising. The other school spends a full $325,000 on advertising. The autonomous school can do this because they have a different mission to the public school. Their “success” is entirely determined by the number of enrolments they can get and their score on a very limited range of indicators (often standardized tests). The two schools are playing by different rules but are evaluated by the same measures. It serves neither society nor the aims of public education to have schools spending their budgets on advertising or in targeting standardized tests, yet a competitive system encourages such spending.

3) Teacher remuneration and satisfaction. The charter school movement in the US was used as an opportunity to attack unions, with by far the majority of charter schools being non-union. This led to serious fissures within the profession and in many cases led to reduced teacher wages. Charter schools in the US have been shown to have a much greater turnover of staff leading to teachers in these schools with less experience.

4) Exploitation by for-profit entities. In the United States, charter schools are able to enter into agreements with for-profit organisations. This can lead to effective ‘subcontracting’ of education where a school pays a for-profit company to manage the school. Autonomy in schools can also open the door to corporate sponsorship, introducing commercialisation into the early years of schooling – a polluted mental environment in the very place where students are meant to be learning the skills for life.

5) Contentious educational outcomes. For all of this, the educational benefits are from most evidence non-existent. Chrisopher Lubienski, a Professor of Educational Policy with a focus on public and private interests, summarises the situation:

“Advocates argued that autonomy from bureaucratic regulation allows these schools to react to the needs of individual learners and be more effective at their core academic mission as measured by standardised tests… [Yet] Large-scale empirical analyses consistently find that charter schools are no better – and often somewhat worse – than public schools at boosting student achievement, even after controlling for demographic differences in the populations served at different types of schools”

Lubienski is talking about the situation in US charter schools, but the first sentence sounds eerily familiar to anybody listening to the rhetoric around the move towards independent public schools.

IT HASN’T HAPPENED YET, BUT THE RISK IS REAL

Here in Australia, we have a well-respected public system facing a serious change with the move towards independent public schools.

The assurance we are being given by government is that the independent schools policy is simply a way to give more power to principals regards staffing and operations. Whilst a reduction in bureaucracy within schools is welcomed by many there are other ways to achieve this outcome without creating this split between those that are autonomous and those that are not.

The risk we run by creating a division within our public school system is serious. Once a nation heads down the slippery slope of introducing more “choice” and “competition” into public education, the door is left wide open for any well-meaning ideologue to follow the ideas of Friedman.  All that is needed is to keep giving this subset of our public schools ever more autonomy and it will be to the detriment of the system as a whole.

This article is written as a response to Pyne’s claim that “the more autonomous a school, the better the outcomes for students”.

Innovation and distributing determination of quality

I’ve recently published an ADFI Blog post here. This post is a cut and paste of the content from this article:

An image drawn from Buddhist philosophy is of a spider’s web covered with dew-drops. The significance of the image is that its beauty comes from the way in which each dew drop reflects all other drops. The droplets are interconnected in this complex way, and their beauty comes from these connections.

Dewy spider web
Image Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Dewy_spider_web.jpg
(Licensed as Creative Commons: Attribution-Sharealike, image by http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Fir0002)

The image is a powerful one to introduce the theme of how we determine quality (of resources, people, information) in a society that increasingly relies upon the internet. The internet has changed and will continue to change many sectors of society by making it cheap (trivially so) and accessible (we all know how to do it) to duplicate and communicate data anywhere in the world. As a society we are still exploring the effects and potential of this.

This blog post is about one idea within this context; that much of the disruptive innovation driven by the internet has come about not simply through increased inclusivity but, rather, through innovation in ways to distribute the determination of quality.

Whilst it is often simple to ‘scale things up’ with the internet and get more people involved in something, the hard part is finding a way to similarly scale up the way that quality is determined. (For a subjective definition of quality we adopt the notion of ‘fit for purpose’)

Some examples are helpful for introducing the idea and distilling a common narrative (Kelly, Sie, & Suwer, In press):

  • In the 90′s anybody could create a web page with HTML, and many people did. However, judging the usefulness of a given site was a difficult problem. Google changed all that with their use of eigenvector centrality (within the ‘PageRank’ algorithm) to quantify quality based upon the interconnected network of web page links (Page, Brin, Motwani, & Winograd, 1999). A site’s value is judged based upon the links to it from other sites, and these links are weighted based upon their respective value. By mining the graph of connections the value of each site can be determined. (A fantastic intuitive understanding of the complex nature of this calculation can be gained through this NetLogo simulation of PageRank).
  • In research administration there is a desire to ‘manage’ the quality of research and hence to measure it. Many academics publish many articles, but which ones can be judged as high quality? The field of bibliometrics attempts to respond to this problem through content and citation analysis. Some of most popular metrics (e.g. the SCIMago Journal Rank or SJR as it is commonly known) utilise applications of the same eigenvector centrality measure used in Google’s PageRank.
  • The company AirBnB has provided a platform such that anybody can open up their house for guests, thus allowing individuals to compete with hotels to provide accommodation. The difficulty in setting up this platform was not so much the ability to list their house (increasing inclusivity), but rather the challenge of ensuring quality in the listings – people wanting to stay in accommodation register by uploading ID documents, people listing houses need to provide accurate photos, and ratings and reviews play a part in providing constant community feedback.
  • A new company Uber allows for anybody to use their car to provide ‘taxi’ services to others using the platform that requires this service. The online platform removes barriers to entry (inclusivity) allowing anyone with a car to compete in providing taxi services and it maintains quality in a way that is similar to AirBnB.
  • eBay similarly allowed for increased inclusivity in online trading, allowing anybody to turn their home into a warehouse for selling goods. The challenge of ensuring quality involves legal protections, reviews, ratings and metrics such as number of goods sold.

These few cherry-picked examples have a common narrative: the internet makes it possible to implement processes on a grand scale. Wherever this occurs, a need is created to distinguish quality. The above examples can all be seen as disruptive innovations within their sector. It can be argued that the significant innovation in each case is the way in which quality is determined within the large-scale community.

The current fashion for MOOCs (the acronym for which is increasingly irrelevant) in higher education provides a useful case study. The model of students being taught by a lecturer and tutors on campus has been around for centuries and is difficult to scale. Putting digital course content online and making it open has been around in various forms for a long time but offered a different kind of education. Downes and Siemens introduced the term MOOC to emphasise the way that online courses designed in a specific way could be massive, open and, in this way, fulfil the aims of connectivist pedagogy (what are now known as cMOOCs). However, determining the quality of students within MOOCS (both formative to aid the students and summative for the ‘gatekeeping’ role of university education) is difficult within this expanded context. Innovations such as automated marking and peer-assessment have been used within the MOOC context but, as the two links show, also strongly criticised.

Recent work has begun developing a collection of ways in which quality is assured online and organising them into a taxonomy:

  • Implicit measures: Users of a service to do what they would normally do. Quality is measured using implicit metrics, such as Eigenvalue analysis and content analysis (e.g. PageRank) or indicators of behaviours (e.g. seller ratings of eBay based upon volume sold, and measures of contributions on StackOverflow)
  • Explicit measures: Users of a service or paid professionals take specific actions to ensure quality. Examples include paid staff rating contributions to the OER commons, ebay members rating their experiences, or Amazon buyers reviewing books.

A theory for quality in connected systems?

It is useful to identify and describe these measures of quality, but a more profound question is: Can we identify a technique that could aid this kind of innovation for determining quality?

An inspiring example is Shannon’s work in developing information theory (Shannon, 2001). Shannon saw that engineers were coming up with ways of sending and receiving signals with greater or less bandwidths and in the presence of noise (interference). Rather than contribute to ad-hoc, domain specific solutions, Shannon was able to develop a mathematical representation for the problem and consequent implications of this representation that make up the basis for much of the cryptography and communications that we use today.

What could such a representation, abstracted away from eigenvector centrality or specific measures look like? Or perhaps, at the very least, a general formulation of an approach that could be used in determining quality regardless of the medium or context.

This blog post is much more about questions than answers. The spiders’ web remains a beautiful symbol for our ever more connected world. Within recent centuries we have moved from a philosophy of the whole-in-the-parts to mathematical and applied representations of it. We propose that this way of thinking is particularly useful for distributing the determination of quality – there remains much more to be uncovered in applying this type of thinking.

If you would like to be involved in this research as a collaborator or higher degree research student, contact Dr Nick Kelly.

Image credit: Dewy Spider Web by User:Fir0002 Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

References

Kelly, N., Sie, R., & Suwer, R. (In press). Innovating processes to determine quality alongside increased inclusivity in higher education. In M. Keppell, S. Reushle & A. Antonio (Eds.), Open Learning and Formal Credentialing in Higher Education: Curriculum Models and Institutional Policies: IGI Global.

Page, L., Brin, S., Motwani, R., & Winograd, T. (1999). The PageRank citation ranking: bringing order to the web.

Shannon, C. E. (2001). A mathematical theory of communication. ACM SIGMOBILE Mobile Computing and Communications Review, 5(1), 3-55.

If you would like to be involved in this research as a collaborator or higher degree research student, contact Dr Nick Kelly.

References
Kelly, N., Sie, R., & Suwer, R. (In press). Innovating processes to determine quality alongside increased inclusivity in higher education. In M. Keppell, S. Reushle & A. Antonio (Eds.), Open Learning and Formal Credentialing in Higher Education: Curriculum Models and Institutional Policies: IGI Global.
Page, L., Brin, S., Motwani, R., & Winograd, T. (1999). The PageRank citation ranking: bringing order to the web.
Shannon, C. E. (2001). A mathematical theory of communication. ACM SIGMOBILE Mobile Computing and Communications Review, 5(1), 3-55.

Good teachers are leaving the profession

Nobody really knows how exactly many teachers drop out of the profession. A couple of recent articles are keeping this issue in the spotlight, which is a good thing:

This from the conversation

And this a reference to the Gallant and Riley study (Monash).

50% in the first five years is a figure thrown around, 30% in the first three years is another. And unfortunately there is reason to believe that many of the leavers are good quality teachers.

How to keep them in the profession?

Some suggestions that have been raised: increase salaries of experienced teachers and finding a way for society to recognise the professionalism and technical skills required for the profession, giving them the social status they ought to have.

Many ideas about what it means to be a quality teacher are very well articulated in this article by Raewyn Connell.