Wednesday, April 05, 2006

School Revolution May Be on Horizon

Talk is cheap in the Florida House, where would-be orators struggle to be heard over the constant buzz of chatter from their colleagues. But the din noticeably quiets when Rep. Marco Rubio speaks. Rather than reciting trite talking points polished dull from years of use, the West Miami Republican's fiery sermons are seen by many as the future of the Republican Party in Florida, his words ringing with an unmistakable tone of revolution. His speech earlier this month calling for a complete "transformation" of Florida's public schools has special significance. Rubio will have the power to put ideas into action as he prepares for a two-year term as Florida House speaker, one of the most powerful positions in the state with virtual veto power over legislation and spending.

Defending Gov. Jeb Bush's proposal to require high school students to declare majors and minors in preparation for the work force, Rubio said the state's best schools fail to meet the standards of most schools in other developed countries. "In Florida, we aspire for our third-graders to read," Rubio said. "In China, they speak three languages." Rubio said sixth-graders in America are getting "stars and happy faces" for their work while students in other countries work on advanced math and science. "Public education will not improve by reformation, it will only improve by transformation," Rubio said, "when you say our system no longer works."

The details of such transformation are still vague as he and others gather data and ideas, Rubio said last week in an interview. But the clear goal is to make school matter to students adrift in courses they find meaningless. "We're all born with natural talents for something. Trying to match up those natural talents with their dreams, that's the general theme," said Rubio. "Kids go to school and they do school work, but no one tells them why it matters." He talks of adults in the mid-to late 20s going to vocational schools for career training, wondering why they couldn't have been steered toward that path when they were teenagers. He also laments a culture in which "scientists are looked at as geeks and nerds. The cool guys are the basketball players, the drug dealers and the pimps. We need to turn that around."

A solution, Rubio said, may be making high school relevant again, with more diverse offerings for careers ranging from paralegals to poets. This "tracking" of students into career paths is common in other parts of the world, said Dr. Joseph Beckham, the Allan Tucker Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Florida State University. He applauds the concept of more specialized offerings for high school students, but said tracking can force students into paths before they're ready for such a decision. "For a 12- or a 13-year-old, they may have no idea what they want to do and some tracking programs would have pejorative effects that would limit their options at a later point," Beckham said. "Some tracking programs work against the idea of giving people every reasonable opportunity to determine their talents."

Rubio has also questioned the cookie-cutter aspects of education accepted as givens in Florida. "The idea that we have to have a system that is uniform everywhere all schools look alike, the same desk, the same light, all the same over and over," Rubio said. "Maybe 12 years is too short or too long. Maybe it should be year-round. Maybe it should be longer days. I don't know, all I'm trying to do is start that debate." Beckham said studies are pretty firm in showing the lack of continuous education, interrupted by the summer break, hinders student learning.

Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Board Association, said longer school years have long been a goal of the state's districts. He said parents may buy into the idea of 220-day school years compared with the 180 now required, but the Legislature has balked at the anticipated cost of nearly $80 million for each day added to the school year. "I think we could sell it very easily to the parents of Florida," he said. "It's just always been the situation that the state has been unwilling to bite the bullet."

Rubio has succeeded, thus far, in garnering support from Democrats willing to revolutionize the state's schools. Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said Rubio's speech to lawmakers is "one I could have given" as a Democrat said to lead his party in the House. But he wondered about Rubio's ability to sell such a revolution to Republican lawmakers who have strictly and uniformly tied performance on the FCAT test to everything from teacher bonuses to the availability of vouchers. "I think at some point the rubber has to hit the road and we'll have to see what those ideas area and how they compare with this party's record," said Gelber, citing the state's dismal rankings in teacher pay and high school graduation. "It's one thing to talk about wanting to do things and it's another to actually do them."

Rubio acknowledges the difficulty of long-term visions in a legislative process that rewards immediate gain. "If you transform education, you're not going to see the results for 10 to 12 years," Rubio said. "We are not in a system that rewards 10-year outlooks, we're in a system that rewards how the papers tomorrow write about things. We're willing to allow history to be the judge of our work."

For now, Republicans say Rubio is the right man for creating a broader vision that will lead to specific ideas. "A major shift in the education model is going to take a Marco Rubio to cast that vision," said. Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, chairman of the House Education Council. "He is going to assemble the platform for the Republican Party for the next 10 years." Rubio is less grandiose in assessing his mission, comparing it to his father's absolute reluctance to sell a 1971 Chevrolet Impala. Despite clear evidence that the car's usefulness had passed, his father kept changing tires and repainting the vehicle to extend its life. "In Florida, we're still committed to an Impala model," Rubio said. "And the model itself is broken."


Taking on the teachers unions

IT IS RARE -- and risky -- for a governor and national political aspirant to put the interests of children above those of a constituency that has as much electoral clout as the teachers unions. Yet Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has done just that with the education reform package he proposed last September and is touting nationwide.

The governor's bill seeks to upend the status quo in teacher pay and evaluation that has been written into collective bargaining agreements across the Commonwealth. Specifically, it would offer annual bonuses for teachers with a math or science degree who pass the teacher test in their subject, forgo tenure, and receive a satisfactory year-end evaluation. It would also make teachers in all subjects eligible for a bonus upon receiving an exemplary evaluation and empower superintendents to reward teachers who work in low-performing schools. Crucially, the bill would remove teacher evaluation from the collective bargaining process and establish statewide criteria for assessing each teacher's ''contribution to student learning."

While several states and districts nationwide are experimenting with differential pay for teachers, Romney's proposals are noteworthy for their breadth and the size of the proposed bonuses. All told, an effective math or science teacher could receive up to $15,000 a year in three bonuses. Catherine Boudreau, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, predictably criticized Romney's proposals as ''inequitable, divisive, and ineffective." The MTA denounced the proposal as ''uniquely designed to destroy collegiality in a school," ignoring the fact that performance pay is routine in such other professions as medicine, law, and engineering, not to mention in the Commonwealth's first-rate universities, including those that are unionized by the MTA.

The governor can expect a similarly abrupt reception nationwide -- a fact he should consider as he eyes a presidential run. Teachers unions control enormous political resources, including a network of readily mobilized voters. Moreover, the public likes to think that the interests of teachers and kids are always aligned, a line tirelessly advanced by the unions. The National Education Association's political action committee even bills itself as the ''Fund for Children and Public Education."

However, what the unions want may not always be good for students. Teacher pay is exhibit one. While unions have fought to boost salaries, they have resisted efforts to ensure that this money recruits, rewards, and retains the most essential or effective teachers. Current pay scales reward teachers only for experience and graduate credits, neither of which is a meaningful predictor of quality. The result is that districts reward long-serving veterans while failing to recognize those teachers who improve student achievement, possess high-demand skills, or take on more challenging assignments.

Proposals to revamp collective bargaining by tackling teacher pay are only a start. Teacher collective bargaining agreements extend far beyond bread and butter matters, frequently privileging the interests of employees over those of students. Across the nation, contracts include clauses that prohibit principals from factoring student achievement into teacher evaluation, that allow senior teachers to claim the most desirable school and classroom assignments, and that engage in a dazzling array of minutiae, such as when teachers are allowed to wear an NEA membership pin. As a result, schools are organized and managed more like mid-20th century factories than professional 21st century centers of learning. None of this serves students, valuable teachers, or communities.

Improving teacher collective bargaining is not only a question of knowing what to do, but of persuading school boards and the public to tackle the issue. State policymakers must change the environment in which negotiations take place by maintaining pressure on local officials to raise student achievement. Local newspapers must shine light on contract provisions that serve adults rather than children. School boards and superintendents need to push for fundamental changes in contract language and fully exploit ambiguous language where it exists. Civic leaders and citizens must support management measures that may entail, at least initially, disgruntled unions and increased labor unrest.

Since 1993, education reform in Massachusetts has been a bipartisan triumph, accomplishing both a dramatic leveling of the financial playing field between wealthy and poor school districts and the creation of a nationally recognized accountability system. Building on that start is no short journey, but overhauling teacher collective bargaining is the crucial next step. It would be something if Romney did not have to take it on alone.


Two new public schools for gifted teens in Queensland, Australia

Inequality recognized! Leftists will be grinding their teeth about such "elitism"

Two new "super state schools" for gifted Year 10, 11 and 12 students will open next year. Education Minister Rod Welford and Premier Peter Beattie yesterday announced the Academy of Creative Industries would be developed in partnership with the Queensland University of Technology and located in the Kelvin Grove Urban Village. The Academy of Maths, Science and Technology will be built at Toowong.

Mr Welford said both schools would be "melting pots of genius and creativity with superb interaction between highly motivated teachers and students ideally suited to accelerated learning". "Watch out Grammar. These academies will be unashamedly elitist and yes, I expect they would achieve 95 per cent or so of students with OPs 1-15," Mr Welford said. This would challenge the supremacy - in terms of academic achievement - of the top-ranking Brisbane Girls Grammar school.

But Girls Grammar principal Amanda Bell welcomed the news. "I think any improvement to education that lifts the quality of learning through innovative programs and offers parents a wider choice is good," she said.

Although state schools, the new academies will charge each student about $1000 a year to cover curriculum materials. Up to 10 per cent of places will go to overseas, full fee-paying students. The academies will open with 300 Year 10 and Year 11 students next year, to be selected through a screening system that considers academic ability, leadership potential and high-level skills in either maths/science or creative industries. With Year 12 added the following year, there will be 450 students in each school. "An OP statistic is too simplistic a measure for parents to use to chose a school for their child," he said.

Executive director of Catholic Education in the Archdiocese of Brisbane, David Hutton, said the data was "useful", but urged parents not to reduce schools to limited performance measures. "These issues are only part of a big picture when assessing the total contribution of a school community to the overall development of students," he said.

Headmaster of Somerset College, Dr Barry Arnison, said parents "had a right to know" the information, but academic performance was only one aspect of a school community. Kenmore State High School principal Wade Haynes said he was happy for "people to see the data as it is". "It's a transparent process," he said. "The academic data and the range of data presented is very important, but it's only one factor. It's a complex thing to choose a school for your child."



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.

The NEA and similar unions worldwide believe that children should be thoroughly indoctrinated with Green/Left, feminist/homosexual ideology but the "3 R's" are something that kids should just be allowed to "discover"

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