Thursday, December 30, 2004


Plugging a few holes in a leaky boat

As a student at New York University, Ruth Zemel dreamed of finding a job that would enable her to change the world. Three years later, she stands in front of a class of high school students in one of Washington's most underprivileged neighborhoods, teaching them mathematics. "I have homeless students, students who have been abused, students who need to take time off to translate for their parents, students who work 40 hours a week on top of school to help support their families," Zemel said.

Zemel is one of 3,000 teachers recruited under the Teach for America program working in some of the nation's poorest and toughest urban and rural schools this year. The private non-profit program seeks to mobilize talented and idealistic young people for two-year teaching stints, but over 60 percent choose to stay in education after their commitment is done. "We've found it is possible to go into a school and create a learning culture in the classroom and it is within a teacher's power to foster success," said Wendy Kopp, who came up for the idea of Teach for America when she herself was an undergraduate at Princeton University in 1989. The program has proved highly popular; only 14 percent of the 13,500 applicants last year were accepted. The program is expanding to 3,800 teachers next fall.

At Bell Multicultural Senior High School where Zemel is teaching, almost two-thirds of the students are Hispanic and another 25 percent are black. Assistant principals Darry Strickland and Dahlia Aguilar both started as Teach for America corps members and continued in education. "Part of my passion now comes from when I saw what was happening to black and brown kids, kids who are poor and those for whom English is a second language," said Strickland. "I fell in love with youth -- with my ghetto kids."

Racial disparities have long been one of the biggest problems facing the U.S. education system. By the fourth grade, students in low-income areas are already three years behind their peers in reading and mathematics. A new book by Harvard University education and social policy professor Gary Orfield finds that only half of minority students in the United States graduate from high school, a figure that is often disguised in official statistics. Among males, the figure is even lower. Orfield said many urban high schools had become "dropout factories" with devastating effects on both students and their communities.

Zemel said among her students truancy was a constant problem. "I do everything in my power to get them here. I always try to convey to my students how important it is for them to be here every day," she said. She raised money from a private donor to pay 10 students $8 an hour to tutor fellow students after school hours and has organized a college trip for nine outstanding students to tour campuses in New York. "We do activities showing how much more money people make if they have gone to college. These kids have the same talent as more privileged ones, but their skills are lower than they should be," Zemel said.

Despite their youth and lack of experience, Teach for America members produce higher test scores among their students than other teachers in the same schools, according to an independent study released last June. As for Zemel, she is staying at Bell for a third year. "It's a surprise to me. I didn't intend to stay in education but now I'm here, I can't see how I can leave," she said.


Must try harder: Confederation of British Industry reports on school standards

THE CBI demanded a renewed government effort yesterday to improve the teaching of English and mathematics after it calculated that two million students have left school with poor skills since Labour came to power. It said that schools should be set a tough new target requiring them to get at least 70 per cent of teenagers to pass GCSEs in English and maths at grade C or better by 2007.

Digby Jones, the CBI's Director-General, said that schools were letting down 130,000 pupils a year by failing to reach this standard. Only 46 per cent of school-leavers have gained at least a grade C in both subjects on average since 1997. The employers' organisation said that this meant that two million students had left school with inadequate levels of literacy and numeracy since Tony Blair took office. Many of them faced a future of unemployment or low-paid work because they could not read, write or add up properly. Mr Jones called on Ruth Kelly, the new Education Secretary, to set the target in a government White Paper expected early next year in response to the Tomlinson report.

Mike Tomlinson, the former Chief Inspector of Schools in England, has proposed replacing GCSEs and A levels with a diploma for students aged 14 to 19.

The CBI opposes the reform, which is predicted to take a decade to implement, because it argues that schools will be distracted from the more pressing task of raising standards of literacy and numeracy. "Business is yet to be convinced that reforming the exam system is the best way to improve basic skills. It wants assurances that reform will change what young people achieve, not just what qualifications are called," Mr Jones said. "The school system must produce people ready for the world of work in the context of a fiercely competitive globalised 21st-century economy. That means the right attitude, an appetite for hard work and at least being able to read, write and count. Our goal is higher standards, not new structures."

The CBI plans to publish its own "basic skills action plan" in the new year, setting out ways to achieve the target.

This will include a call for ministers to extend the literacy and numeracy strategy from the early years of secondary school to cover pupils aged 14 to 16. The CBI said that the strategy should tell teachers what to teach and how best to go about it. "High skill levels are the greatest protection that any of us can have from the challenges of globalisation. That's why it's so worrying that so many youngsters are being condemned to a low-skilled poorly paid future," Mr Jones said. "My fear is that many who cannot read, write or add up properly will find themselves unemployable and the problem is only going to worsen. "This is a scandal but it is not a new scandal. It's not a problem that has been created by this Government. Indeed, ministers have done a lot to chip away at the problem since 1997. But let's be honest, no political party has cracked this one." He said that the CBI intends to make basic skills a key theme of its lobbying with all parties in the run-up to the general election, expected in May. "Business is not interested in the blame game or excuses. What we want is action with cross-party support. Let's get together as a nation, put the illiterate and innumerate at the top of the agenda, and produce tangible results."

The move comes after a CBI survey showed that 47 per cent of companies were unhappy about the level of school leavers' basic skills. A spokesman at the Department for Education and Skills said: "The Tomlinson report proposed that all young people acquire basic skills in literacy, numeracy and ICT as part of a new diploma qualification for 14-19 year olds. The Government will respond in the new year."



For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

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