Sunday, May 28, 2006


Florida's Constitution requires the state to maintain a uniform system of free public schools. It doesn't say that this system must be the only education policy the state adopts, just that such a system has to exist. But that's not how the state Supreme Court read it when five of its justices struck down the Opportunity Scholarships school voucher program in January. They inferred that because the Constitution mentions a uniform public school system, it automatically forbids any alternatives.

This puts the state's elected representatives in a bit of a bind, because the Constitution also demands that Florida's education system be "efficient, safe, secure, and high quality," allowing students "to obtain a high quality education." The problem is that a one-size-fits-all education system isn't the best way to provide efficiency, safety, or high quality, no matter how the Court chooses to interpret the Constitution.

Consider, for instance, that Florida's public schools spend around $8,000 a year, per pupil -- more than one-and-a-half times the average independent school tuition. That doesn't exactly make the public system look like a paragon of efficiency. Of course, some independent schools have revenue sources other than tuition, but in a forthcoming study of Arizona I find that even after considering non-tuition revenues, independent schools still spend far less than the public schools.

As for safety, one out of every 12 Florida students reported having been threatened or injured with a weapon at school in 2003, according to a recent federal study.

Finally, high quality has also proven elusive. Sure, test scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) often go up from year to year, but if you got to perform your own employee review, don't you think your ratings would go up, too? The FCAT is designed and administered by the same system that it is supposed to evaluate. Nice work if you can get it.

To really get at the truth, it's better to use more objective performance measures like graduation rates or SAT scores. And the truth isn't pretty. According to two independent studies of the nation's public school graduation rates (one by the Urban Institute, another by the Manhattan Institute), Florida falls between sixth-to-last and second-to-last place among the states, depending on how you crunch the numbers. And Florida's SAT scores? They are below average in Math and far below average on the Verbal portion of the test -- results that can't be explained away by demographics. Even Floridians whose first language is English have Verbal SAT scores 15 points below the nationwide average for such students.

So despite decades of improvement efforts, it would be hard to argue that Florida's "uniform" public schools are the efficient, safe, high quality institutions that the Constitution demands.

Ironically, they aren't particularly uniform either. Nassau County schools spent a little over $6,200 per pupil in 2003. Hamilton county spent upwards of $13,600. Is that uniformity? Nassau's test scores are usually quite high, while Hamilton's are generally low. Not a lot of uniformity there either.

With results like these, it seems reasonable to ask if there are alternatives to the status quo that would do a better job of fulfilling children's needs. Reasonable, but illegal. Thanks to the state Supreme Court, state legislators are not allowed to color outside the lines. If they do, no matter what kinds of education alternatives they come up with, they'll likely get rapped on the knuckles by the judiciary. This makes no sense. The legislature is being asked to squeeze efficiency, safety, quality, and uniformity out of a school system that is still not especially efficient, safe, high-quality, or uniform despite having been around for more than a century.

You don't have to be an advocate of any particular education reform to recognize the seriousness of this problem -- or to see the solution. An amendment to the Florida Constitution explicitly allowing representatives to consider alternative educational options would free them from the straightjacket into which the Supreme Court has forced them. In the process, it might finally give all Florida children a real chance at that safe, efficient, high quality education they've been promised.

More here

Few of the English can now write good English

People who can string a sentence together grammatically could be forgiven for feeling like old fogeys, reports Kevin Donnelly

The British wartime prime minister Winston Churchill is considered one of the 20th century's greatest political orators. An important reason why Churchill was able to communicate so effectively was because, when at school, he was taught how to write. As observed in his autobiography: "I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence, which is a noble thing." Judging by a British report on undergraduate writing skills by the Royal Literary Fund, it would appear the ability to structure an essay and to master the basics of syntax and grammar are things of the past.

The report, Writing Matters, outlines the observations of about 130 professional writers who worked on a one-to-one basis with undergraduates in 71 universities. The writers conclude that considerable numbers of students, even at some of Britain's leading tertiary institutions, arrive at university without the skills necessary to make the most of their education. "In many cases, the problems occur at a basic level: poor vocabulary, inaccurate phrasing, bad syntax, incorrect punctuation [and] an inability to form well-structured sentences," the British report notes. The report also states that many students are incapable of sustaining a consistent and coherent argument in prose.

Falling standards and dumbed-down English are not restricted to Britain. Last year's report, Remedial or Rhetorical English?, in which academics at the Australian Defence Force Academy tested the writing skills of about 600 undergraduates, also discovered significant weaknesses. "Written work was characterised by common grammatical errors and knowledge gaps, an inability to select stylistic devices to express relationships between ideas and purpose, and difficulties in producing complex written texts while demonstrating control over generic structure," Fiona Mueller, one of the authors of the ADFA report, says.

Baden Eunson, from the English department at Monash University, also notes that many undergraduates have gone through six years of secondary school without learning the fundamentals of English: "I teach professional writing at Monash University and I have to spend far too much of my scarce curriculum time cramming the basics into my students."

Concerns about poor writing skills, especially basics such as spelling, punctuation and grammar, are not restricted to undergraduates. Beatrice Booth, the president of Commerce Queensland (the state chamber of commerce), has publicly criticised literacy standards and was recently quoted as saying, "We have a plethora of people who can't spell, comprehend what they are reading or write a proper sentence."

Notwithstanding the evidence, some argue that there is no crisis and that approaches to teaching English, especially literacy, are beyond reproach. The children's author Mem Fox, based on Australia's strong performance in the Program for International Student Assessment, a test of 15-year-old students in literacy, mathematics and science, argues: "We don't have a literacy problem. We have a very high literacy rate. We are absolutely sensational in this country. "So we always come either second after Finland, or third after Canada, or fourth after New Zealand. But we are always in the top four, always."

What Fox ignores is that the PISA test did not correct or penalise students for mistakes in spelling and grammar, and that if students had been corrected, many would have failed. "Errors in spelling and grammar were not penalised in PISA; if they had been, probably all countries' achievement levels would have gone down, but there is no doubt that Australia's would have," one Australian researcher says. "It was the exception rather than the rule in Australia to find a student response that was written in well-constructed sentences, with no spelling or grammatical error."

The Australian Association for the Teaching of English also argues that concerns about falling standards are a media beat-up and that present approaches to English teaching, such as whole language, critical literacy and postmodern theory, are not the reason many students leave school unable to write a grammatically correct, fluent and well-structured essay. The AATE is also wrong. Much of the focus on teaching literacy in schools is on so-called critical literacy, where students are taught to analyse texts in terms of power relationships from a range of theoretical perspectives, including Marxist, feminist, postcolonial, postmodern, class and race. As noted by Eunson, when comparing today's syllabuses and examination papers with those of the 1960s, the reality is that more traditional approaches, including precis, discussing definitions and word meanings, and analysing comprehension passages grammatically, have long since disappeared.

At the primary school level, judged by curriculum documents, the prevailing approach, with the exception of NSW, belittles the more structured phonics model of teaching reading in favour of whole language. Teacher training is also a concern, evidenced by a 2001-02 national survey of 680 beginning teachers that found only "half of the new graduates indicated that they felt prepared to teach spelling and phonics".

That teacher training has suffered is understandable. Those in charge of Australia's schools of education, the Australian Council of Deans of Education, in New Learning: A Charter for Australian Education, argue that the basics, represented by the three Rs, are obsolete, old fashioned and irrelevant. The deans argue in favour of the new basics: "Nor is literacy a matter of correct usage [the word and sentence-bound rules of spelling and grammar]. Rather, it is a way of communicating. "Indeed, the new communications environment is one in which the old rules of literacy need to be supplemented. Although spelling remains important, it is now something for spell-checking programs, and email messages do not have to be grammatical in a formal sense."

This ignores the ability to use language that does not happen intuitively or by accident and that spell-checking cannot differentiate between whether and weather or their and there. Not only do students have to be taught and regularly practise the rules of grammar and correct composition, they must be given the technical vocabulary that will free them to more consciously control what it is they wish to write.


UK: Inquiry rejects high-security schools "The head of a government inquiry into pupil behaviour has rejected demands for airport-style security to be set up in schools in the wake of the murder of 15-year-old schoolboy Kiyan Prince. Sir Alan Steer, the headteacher of Seven Kings High School in Ilford, Redbridge, warned such a move 'might actually create more problems than you solve.' ... 'You would create a certain atmosphere in schools,' he said at a conference organised by the National Union of Teachers on pupil behaviour. 'Schools should be comfortable, warm, sociable places, and you've got to get the balance right between security and creating the right atmosphere.' Sir Alan pointed out that Kiyan was knifed to death outside the school -- and therefore any airport-style security check would not have helped him."


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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