Saturday, September 08, 2007

Unhappy teachers in France

Why are French school teachers always so miserable? I will not be popular with my teacher friends for taking another shot at an education world that seems permanently angry, defensive and resistant to change. But it's time for a new swipe because most of France's 12 million school children returned to classes yesterday -- including my two teenagers -- and Nicolas Sarkozy used the occasion to upset the teaching establishment with a call for a change of attitude.

If you know the set-up, skip this paragraph: France has a uniform national education system commanded by a single Ministry. Almost 850,000 primary and secondary teachers are civil servants, and 145,000 more work in private schools. They all impart a national syllabus that is heavy on knowledge but light on encouraging imagination. There is little sport or other non-classroom activity. Despite Europe's second highest per capita spending on primary and secondary education (after Sweden), French kids perform modestly by European and world standards. French teachers, who largely support leftwing ideas, see themselves as guardians of the egalitarian republic. They complain but hate anyone touching their status quo.

Sarko did that yesterday, dropping in on a Loire valley school at Blois. He delivered a lecture that was guaranteed to anger the unions who despise him as a rightwing philistine. The president's unwanted medicine for an educational "Renaissance" is being sent as a 32-page letter to all 993,000 professeurs and instituteurs. "The time for a new start has come," says Super-Sarko. "We have delayed it too long."

Teachers must stimulate children and help raise their self-esteem. "For too long, education has neglected the personality of the child (because) knowledge has been put above everything else," says Sarkozy. That might sound odd to parents in, say, Britain and the USA where the pendulum swung long ago towards feel-good education, but it's needed in France. I am tired of seeing the spirits of my bright 13-year-old crushed by joyless teachers who send her home with scores of zero in dictation. "Her problem is she's operating dans une optique d'echec -- in a mindset of failure," the French teacher at her eighth arrondissement school told me the other day..

Sarkozy wants more values and discipline and respect for teachers, with children standing up when they enter the classroom. He also wants more sports and arts activities less time in the formal classroom. The teachers unions were groaning before Sarko had finished speaking. They have been here before, with a string of back-to-basics reforms and governments who see teachers as ageing sixties revolutionaries. Gerard Aschieri, boss of the FSU, the main teachers' union, dismissed the Sarkozy letter as "beneath the challenges of today." The schools, he said, need more staff and resources and extra help to deal with disorder in the poor urban zones.

The Sarkozy letter's "great failings" include failure to address social inequality, said Aschieri. In one of those ideological niggles that tell you everything, Aschieri accused Sarkozy of elitism because "he talks about 'sport' but not about 'physical and sporting education'." The teachers are already furious with Sarkozy because their profession has taken a hit with his scheme for trimming the civil service. Their giant ministry, which employs 1.2 million staff (yes, 1.2 million), is to lose 17,000 jobs next year. Sarkozy and his government say they know that teachers, once a noble profession in France, are underpaid and suffer from declining public esteem. The answer, they say, is better performance.

Sarkozy has a long list of revolutionary things he would like to do but cannot because they will bring the strike-happy unions onto the streets. These include loosening the rigid limits on class-room time, performance-related pay, comparison among schools and the right of schools to hire and fire their own staff. As it is, there is a fair chance that the teachers will strike this winter over Sarkozy's plans to include them in a new law imposing minimum service during public sector strikes. Perhaps I am being unfair. There are many dedicated, excellent teachers and the rigorous French system does help the cleverest children shine. But the faillings are obvious for anyone who comes in contact with the system.


Unhappy teachers in America

The collective groan heard across America this morning came from America’s most disgruntled group of workers: public school teachers. I’ve never been to jail, but trust me when I tell you that Day 1 of a 180-day school year can feel like the first day of a life sentence.

Fortunately, my post-Labor Day blues are gone forever. I’m officially an ex-teacher now, and statistics reveal than I’m far from alone. A recently published article in the New York Times cites the most recent findings of the Department of Education. In the 2003-4 school year, 269,000 of the country’s 3.2 million public school teachers, or 8.4 percent, called it quits. A desire to pursue another career and dissatisfaction were the reasons 56 percent of these teachers put down the red pen (or purple for those who worked in school districts where red ink is deemed to be too demoralizing) forever. The Times also notes that new teachers often leave because they feel overwhelmed by classroom stress—a result of chaotic, last-minute hiring practices.

This is exactly how my teaching career got started. After graduating from the University of California system with a degree in economics and no clue what I wanted to do with my life, I figured I’d give teaching a try. So I went down to the Los Angeles Unified School District’s main office to fill out the necessary paperwork to become an elementary school teacher. After being sent from one department to the next on multiple visits (if you aren’t familiar with the inefficiency of government bureaucracy, just rent Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru”), I was finally ready to mold the minds of the next generation.

I’ll never forget the gentleman from Human Resources who set up the first and only interview I’d have at a school in one of the rougher parts of Los Angeles. I overheard him tell his colleague that I would “definitely get the position” because of where the school was located. In retrospect, I can translate what he meant: Nobody wanted to teach at this inner city school; thus, the principal was starving for teachers. But since I was starving for a job, I missed all the clues that suggested this one probably wasn’t right for me. A ten-minute lesson delivered to the gifted 5th grade class was enough to convince the principal that I could take over the lowest level and worst-behaved 5th grade class a couple of weeks into the school year.

To make a long story short, I got eaten alive that year. My classroom management skills were horrible, and I received very little support from the administration. My students thought I was the nicest teacher in the world, when my goal on most days was to be the most intimidating. As a result, much of my teaching hours were spent dealing with behavior problems: In between phonics lessons, I would break up fistfights and have doors slammed in my face. The afternoon bell, alas, could never come soon enough. While the challenges I had with discipline that year undoubtedly led me down the road to becoming a substitute teacher and eventually quitting, there are many more serious problem with public education that made me (and so many others) eager to exit the world of teaching.

Any discussion of educational reform must begin with the absurdity of teacher credentialing. Is there any reason, for example, why a college graduate with a degree in mathematics and a passion for teaching shouldn’t be able to teach 8th grade geometry without a credential? Or, in my case, why I needed to learn about educational theory in order to teach American history to 5th graders? I was hired with an emergency credential, which required me to enroll in a credentialing program if I wanted to renew my contract.

I never enrolled. Taking classes at night or during the weekends (and paying for them) was the last thing in the world I wanted to do after a draining day or week in the classroom. And even if I had enrolled, I probably wouldn’t have come away with much useful information anyway. Jay P. Green, a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, has revealed how education degrees are not linked to classroom success. He notes a study conducted by the Abell Foundation, which found that out of 171 available studies on the impact of teaching credentials on job performance, “only nine uncovered any significant positive relationship…[and] five found a significant negative relationship.”

The negative relationship shouldn’t be surprising. Most credentialing programs are far more interested in teaching teachers how to become multiculturally sensitive than providing them with the tools necessary to make sure students learn how to read. Mike Piscal, founder of some of the most successful charter schools in Los Angeles, has commented on the fact that “training is almost always detached from the reality of the classroom.” Writing on the Huffington Post a while back, he explained that at his schools “a teacher needs only a scholar’s zeal for the subject s/he studied in college, and a burning desire to lead the next generation.” Interestingly, I contacted Piscal, my 8th grade basketball coach, by email during my first year of teaching. He told me I should come down to his school to interview one day. Although I never made it in, I often wonder if things might have turned out differently for me had I been hired at one of his schools, where everything from “lesson planning to classroom management, from discipline to communicating with parents” is taught by master teachers.

My paycheck being too small was not one of reasons I quit teaching. Contrary to the laments of so many teachers, the pay really isn’t all that bad. Indeed, this is another misconception that Jay Greene has thoroughly dispelled. The average teacher makes about $45,000 a year, or rather, three-quarters of a year. The fact is that teachers only have to work about nine months per year because they get summers off. After taking into account that teachers average 7.3 working hours per day, and that they work 180 days per year, Greene found that “the average teacher gets paid a base salary equivalent to a fulltime salary of $65.440.”

Yes, I know all about the amount of work teachers have to do at home. But guess what? All professionals have work to take home. Moreover, because job security for teachers is so strong (it’s almost impossible to fire a teacher), they have less incentive to work extra hours. I actually believe it’s this lack of incentive to work harder that really depresses so many teachers, even if they don’t want to admit it. It is human nature to want to be rewarded for a job well done. But because teachers are paid on a seniority-based schedule, the worst teachers are often paid better than the best ones.

Merit pay is the obvious answer to such a problem. Daniel Henninger wrote a must-read account in the Wall Street Journal of the performance pay program at the Meadowcliff Elementary School in Little Rock, Arkansas. In the first year of the program, the Stanford achievement scores of the school’s students (80 % of whom are black) rose 17 percent. Writes Henninger: “Little Rock has to find a way to hold its best teachers. The teachers I saw at Meadowcliff Elementary seemed pretty happy to be there.” Which brings to mind the question: What, god forbid, would become of teachers’ unions if they were made up of happy teachers?


Friday, September 07, 2007

Middle East Tensions Flare Again in U.S.

The academic year in the United States is opening with flare-ups of tensions over the Middle East, and specifically over scholars who write critically of Israel. On Tuesday, the Middle East Studies Association released two letters protesting what the group considers to be serious violations of academic freedom. One concerns Norman Finkelstein, the DePaul University political scientist who was denied tenure in June and who has since been placed on a paid leave, with his classes called off and his office shut down. The other concerns the decision by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs to call off a lecture by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, two scholars who have written a book that is harshly critical of the influence of Israel and its supporters on U.S. foreign policy.

Today, Finkelstein is expected to stage a protest over his situation by teaching the class that the university canceled and then going to his old office, from which he has been barred. Finkelstein has vowed to enter the office, even if that gets him arrested, in which case he says he will go on a hunger strike. (Update: On Wednesday, Finkelstein and the university announced a settlement. Details will appear tomorrow on this site.)

Meanwhile, at Barnard College, a tenure case that has been attracting attention since last fall is getting more intense (at least among those outside the college). Competing Web sites offer analyses of the work of Nadia Abu El-Haj, an anthropologist whose book that criticizes the use of archaeology by Israel has been praised by some and panned by others. A critic's column this week that suggested that El-Haj's status as a Palestinian was an important area of inquiry is being cited by Middle Eastern studies scholars as a sign of how ugly some of the debates have become.

In all the cases, there are claims and counterclaims. And the Middle East has of course long been a source of debate on American campuses. But to people with a range of views on the issues, it seems that this academic year is starting off with these disputes as tense as ever, with enough flashpoints to assure numerous conflicts. "It seemed to me a year or so ago that things were getting a little better and the attack dogs were calmer, but now there is another spate of cases, of people up for tenure and advocating views," said Zachary Lockman, a professor of history and Middle Eastern studies at New York University and president of the Middle East Studies Association. "There seems to be a new aggressiveness. Issues have surfaced that have given an opportunity for people to mobilize."

Why there is so much tension this year is, not surprisingly, also a cause for debate. Critics of the professors being attacked say that it's a question of exposing shoddy scholarship. Defenders of these professors say that critics are unwilling to let critics of Israel have a hearing on campuses, and that these critics have been emboldened by success. Last year, Juan Cole, a prominent figure in Middle Eastern studies who teaches at the University of Michigan, lost a chance for a position at Yale University. While details of the decision-making process have never been confirmed, it came after he had gained support at the departmental level but was the subject of much criticism on op-ed pages and in letters to Yale officials.

A Lecture Called Off

The canceled lecture in Chicago was just the latest of disputes involving the ideas of Mearsheimer and Walt, who hold endowed chairs, respectively, at the University of Chicago and Harvard University. They have a new book out, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, which argues that the United States alliance with Israel has not advanced U.S. interests in the Middle East and criticizes the way supporters of Israel influence Congress and the executive branch. The book is an expanded version of an essay they wrote last year, which was hailed as courageous by some and criticized as irresponsible by others.

As tenured professors at top universities, the authors don't have to worry about job security. But they do seek audiences for their ideas and they were scheduled to talk this month at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. They were uninvited. The council has said that the reason is not fear of their ideas, but the belief that their ideas would be best explored in a program that would include "other perspectives." According to the council, this was always the intent, and when people to oppose them could not be lined up, the event needed to be called off.

The letter from the Middle East Studies Association about the nixed talk calls the decision "a serious violation of the principles of free expression and the free exchange of ideas." It notes that both authors have spoken at the council previously, without having anyone to oppose their views, and questioned why only when talking about their new book are they "subjected to the litmus test of `balance.'"

Laurie A. Brand, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California who heads the association's academic freedom committee, said the crucial point is the different treatment based on subject matter. If a group wants to always have opposing views of speakers, that's its right, she said. But to let some controversial people speak without opposition raises questions about this choice. "These are people who are prominent professors and then the council decided to withdraw the invitation, presumably because what they have to say is controversial. Part of what academic freedom is about is the ability to present new ideas, and they may be controversial. You don't cancel someone's presentation because you can't find someone to counter it."

The council's schedule does in fact indicate that highly controversial figures do speak there frequently - without anyone in opposition. This week a lecture is scheduled by Bjorn Lomborg, famous and controversial for his "skeptical" view of the environmental movement. No one will oppose him at his talk. Rachel Bronson, vice president for programs and studies at the council, said Lomborg's talk was different because the Chicago group had previously had a panel discussion on the environment. She said that the claims of the Middle Eastern studies scholars were "unfounded" and that the group still planned to have a panel discussion featuring Walt and Mearsheimer. When "emotions run high" on certain topics, as she said was the case with their work, panel discussions are the best approach. "We have a job to do. We provide interesting, stimulating panels to our members and the format is up to us. That's how we view our job," she said. Bronson said that doing so was more difficult when "this kind of barrage comes at us," and she said that "outside pressure" from the Middle East Studies Association "makes this harder."

Showdown at DePaul

The DePaul situation is also much in dispute. Finkelstein's tenure denial followed a long, public debate over his qualifications, and the decision to stop his classes was highly unusual - drawing criticism from a number of academic groups. While DePaul hasn't explained the latter decision, an article in the Chicago Tribune noted concerns about "threatening and discourteous behavior" - concerns that have been much disputed by backers of Finkelstein.

The letter from the Middle East studies scholars released Tuesday does not take a formal stand on the tenure decision, but raises two other issues. First, it calls it "unacceptable" that Finkelstein does not have a venue to appeal the denial, calling the lack of an appeal an "arbitrary and unjust" system. Second, it questions the decision to place Finkelstein on leave, which is setting up today's expected confrontation. The letter to DePaul states: "It is customary to permit faculty who have been denied tenure to teach for one final year. Your administration's abrupt decision to prevent Professor Finkelstein (who is by all accounts an outstanding teacher) from doing so, without his agreement and despite strong objections from members of your own faculty and student body, strikes us as high-handed, if not vindictive."

Brand stressed that it was the violation of academic norms that raised questions about the case, not whether the faculty members agreed or disagreed with Finkelstein's take on the Middle East. Tenure decisions, she said, should be based on the quality of scholarship and teaching, not "someone's opinions on Israel."

A number of prominent professors, generally of the left (Howard Zinn, Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado and others, some of them quite controversial themselves, such as Ward Churchill) have issued calls to back Finkelstein. One such call says his treatment amounts to "a fundamental threat to the intellectual ferment and critical thinking so desperately needed - in academia and in society - at this time in history."

Some at DePaul say that the statements about the impact of the case have been overstated. Jonathan Cohen, a professor of mathematics at the university, said that there is no shortage of criticism of Israel on the campus - and that most such discussion doesn't cause much of a stir. He said one would be "hard pressed" to prove that people who criticize Israel aren't welcome to share their views on the campus. It was not the substance of criticism, he said, but the style that got Finkelstein into trouble, he noted. Indeed, the decisions to reject Finkelstein for tenure talked about his style, and said that it did not reflect the university's values of promoting civilized discussions.

While Cohen is not bothered by the decision in the case, he argued that the university should have challenged Finkelstein's scholarship on substantive grounds. "I feel like there were issues about his scholarship that were real - such as where do you draw a line between advocacy and scholarship," he said. Cohen also said that there is a problem with Finkelstein's research (and with the book by Walt and Mearsheimer) of "serious things being omitted" from the work.

Had DePaul evaluated the quality of Finkelstein's scholarship, instead of talking about tone, Cohen said that the university might not be accused today of infringing on academic freedom. Many supporters of academic freedom, and scholarly and faculty associations, warn that discussions of tone frequently mask discomfort with controversial ideas. "The way they worded it led them into this mess," Cohen said.

There's no telling what will happen today, when Finkelstein has vowed to reclaim his office. A spokeswoman for DePaul said that there were no special plans for security on the campus.

Lobbying at Barnard

The Middle East Studies Association notably did not issue a letter about the case of Nadia Abu El-Haj, the assistant professor of anthropology who is up for tenure and who has not commented on the debate that has been going on over her tenure bid. According to Brand, the academic freedom committee asked El-Haj if she wanted it to examine her case, and she declined, saying that outside letters would not be appropriate at this time. Outside commentary, however, continues to arrive.

Unlike Finkelstein, Walt or Mearsheimer, El-Haj has not been been seeking to be a public intellectual on the Middle East and the controversy concerns a book she wrote about Israeli archeology. The book, Facts on the Ground, was published by the University of Chicago Press and has received some kind reviews and some harsh ones. When the controversy started, Barnard's president, Judith Shapiro, appealed to alumnae to let the normal tenure process proceed. She argued that the use of outside reviewers in El-Haj's field was the best way to evaluate her scholarship (just as such reviewers are used in other tenure cases). She also expressed "concern about communications and letter-writing campaigns orchestrated by people who are not as familiar with Barnard as you are, and who may not be in the best position to judge the matter at hand." Since then, opponents of El-Haj have gathered hundreds of signatures urging Barnard to deny her tenure, while others have published refutations of the criticisms of her book.

Many in Middle Eastern studies have been particularly alarmed by a recent column by Shulamit Reinharz, a Barnard alumna who is a professor of sociology at Brandeis University and wrote about her decision to skip her reunion and her concerns about El-Haj. Much of the column is similar to other criticism of El-Haj's scholarship, but one paragraph in particular is drawing attention. Reinharz writes: "According to information on the Web, El-Haj is a Palestinian. I was unsuccessful in my efforts to find exactly where she was born, a topic that interested me because I am not sure if she identifies as a Palestinian as a consequence of being born in what some people now call Palestine or because she identifies with Palestinians and was born elsewhere. I couldn't find the facts."

In an interview, Reinharz said that this was a legitimate question to ask. "She makes a point of calling herself a Palestinian scholar so I was curious about why she did that. The word Palestinian is a contested term," Reinharz said. "There is no country yet called Palestine so I didn't know what she meant by that." She added that "people who call themselves palestinian garner sympathy for the Palestinian cause, and this is a book that is an attack on Israeli archaelology so I thought maybe it was relevant." She stressed that she wasn't inquiring about El-Haj's religious beliefs, just what she meant by Palestinian. "It's not racism, it's curiosity," she said.

But others see this as the latest sign of how bitter the debates have become. Lockman of NYU, called the comments "slimy" and said "I find it incredibly offensive to question someone's place of birth or nationality." Noting that he is Jewish, Lockman said it was inconceivable that a professor would publish a column critiquing another professor's scholarship and devote a paragraph to wondering about what that professor meant about being Jewish. "People would acknowledge that as outrageous," he said. "Her origin is irrelevant to her scholarship," Lockman said. "It's clear people are pulling out all the stops."


A partial halt to "social promotion" in Britain?

Underachieving children could be forced to spend an extra year in primary school under proposals unveiled by the Conservatives. Eleven-year-old pupils would be compelled to resit their final year with children a year younger, while their peers started secondary school. David Cameron claimed that this could be part of a "genuine schools" revolution aiming to raise literacy and numeracy standards.

The Conservative leader vied for the spotlight yesterday with Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, with rival announcements timed to coincide with the start of the school year. Mr Balls admitted that improvements in education had slowed in the last year and that schools still had "some way to go to deliver a world class education".

He is writing to all primary and secondary school head teachers for the first time in his tenure, asking them to redouble their efforts, particularly with basic skills and discipline. The letter will focus on the Government's "personalisation agenda", under which individual children can be targeted and taught at a level suited to their ability. As with Mr Cameron's plans, this could result in pupils moving on to key stages at different ages from their peer group.

During the autumn term, up to 500 schools will trial new personalised approaches to assessment and testing, backed by one-to-one tuition for pupils at risk of making slow progress. A Department for Children, Schools and Families spokesman said: "Mr Balls will be looking closely at the experience of these schools and will not hesitate to accelerate national roll-out where personalised teaching techniques, one-on-one coaching and catchup classes are proving to work."

Mr Cameron's comments will be expounded in tomorrow's launch of a review by his party's public services improvement policy group. The report will propose that the worst performers in year six should be made either to catch up at summer classes or to repeat the whole academic year. Mr Cameron promised to "look carefully" at the measure, which is already used in the US and some European countries. He also supported giving extra money to schools for each pupil they take from a disadvantaged background, and said there should be a "bonfire of controls" to free teachers from bureaucracy and targets.

Mr Cameron pledged to stop the closure of special needs schools and to give schools the final say over whether pupils were expelled.

The report also suggests that A/S levels should be scrapped so that students can concentrate on their A-level exams. It proposes that ability sets should be introduced across the curriculum, and that league tables should be simplified and restructured.

Michael Gove, the Shadow Children, Schools and Families Secretary, said that making 11-year-olds stay back rather than go on to secondary schools would be "very much a backstop". He added: "We can't have children going from primary school into secondary school without the skills necessary to make the most of what they are going to be taught in secondary schools."

But Mr Cameron's announcement was criticised by the Government. Jim McKnight, the Schools Minister, said: "Proposals for what the Tories have called a `remedial year' would stigmatise the very children who need extra help. They would increase class sizes and make it difficult for teachers and parents to plan ahead."


Thursday, September 06, 2007

High return on early childhood education -- up to age 5

I am a bit dubious about the claims below, even though they are by an economist. I would like to see the benefits dissected out by social class

By Jeffrey M. Lacker

Economists like to think about investment in terms of rate of return, and there is reason to think that the rate of return on early childhood investment could be particularly high. Like any investment in human capital, some of the return accrues directly to the individual in increased lifetime earning ability. But a substantial share of the return -- perhaps as much as three-quarters of the total -- is a broader, social benefit coming from such sources as reduced costs of remediation and other special services in primary and secondary school, as well as from the reduced incidence of the array of social problems often associated with low educational achievement.

There are many explanations for the apparent high economic returns to early childhood education, but a key difference between early childhood investments and investments at primary and secondary education levels is the potential for compounding. That is, enhancing early childhood development appears to improve a child's ability to learn at later stages. This means the return on early education comes not just from the direct effects, say on the development of cognitive ability, but also from the fact that these early investments increase the productivity of later educational investments. Nobel Prize-winning economist James J. Heckman has emphasized this point in his writing on early childhood education.

This compounding effect means disparities in early childhood development have potential to exacerbate inequality within our society. People with limited means are more likely to have difficulty providing their children with high-quality early childhood environment, leaving those children less able to benefit from later investments in human capital. This possibility creates a legitimate public interest in helping people of modest means find and afford quality early childhood education. It holds the promise of expanding the development of human capital more broadly across our society and in so doing, widening our potential for skill-based economic growth.


As New Orleans restarts its schools, most are now charter schools

Since hurricane Katrina, the city has been determined to reform one of the nation's worst school districts

In three New Orleans neighborhoods, young teachers and administrators at charter schools are preparing with haste for the doors to swing open Tuesday. In the diverse community of Algiers, rookie principal Meredith Summerville relishes a daunting directive: In one week, open a school. Over at McDonogh 15, a charter school in the French Quarter, 20-something assistant principal Kyle Schaffer rules "controlled chaos" from his desk in the middle of the hall. And at New Orleans Charter Middle School in Uptown, an economically and racially mixed area, first-year principal Bree Dusseault prepares to measure her idealism against reality as school begins.

Although hurricane Katrina wrought much destruction and despair, it also provided the spark of reform for one of the nation's worst school districts. Hundreds of young, mostly white would-be teachers and principals from around the country have arrived for the task - replacing a veteran, mostly black teacher corps pink-slipped by the thousands after the storm.

In the two years since Katrina, New Orleans has come to have the highest percentage of students in charter schools among US cities. That's happened partly in response to the needs of rapidly redeploying a shattered system. It's also being done in hopes of improving historically miserable test scores and high dropout and expulsion rates.

Despite some bright spots, however, critics worry that this setup for the school district could further entrench educational and racial inequities. Thus New Orleans is becoming a proving ground for charter schools in US urban areas: Can they really improve academic achievement in places where reform is needed most? "There's definitely a hope that the experience in New Orleans after the hurricane will show that public charter schools can work at scale, particularly for those students who have struggled historically," says Todd Ziebarth, a policy analyst at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Last year, 91 percent of McDonogh fourth-graders passed their end-of-year tests, compared with 51 percent of students in the city's public schools. To help students who have missed classes catch up, the school day runs until 4:30 in the afternoon, and students attend school every other Saturday.

Mr. Schaffer, the assistant principal, helped run the school when it opened in Houston after the storm, as "evacuated teachers taught evacuated students." "What sold me on this model is no shortcuts, no excuses, discipline, but having fun," he says. "I love that we have the autonomy to have a longer school day, and we have teachers who are all on the same page, working together."

Like Schaffer, Ms. Dusseault, the principal at New Orleans Charter Middle, is driven by idealism more than pay. When it opens, the school's population will be largely poor and black. "This is an opportunity for people who like dreaming big ideas to put them into reality," says Dusseault, a multidegreed business consultant.

More here

Special treatment for Muslims in Australia too

HALAL food and prayer rooms should be adopted at all universities to help Muslim students meet their religious and educational obligations, a conference heard yesterday. The religious needs of Muslim university students were addressed at an inaugural conference launched by the University of Western Sydney. UWS Director of Equity and Diversity Dr Sev Ozdowski said they wanted to develop national standards for Muslim students which could be incorporated by other universities.

The "Access, Inclusion and Success - Muslim students at Australian universities" two-day conference is covering issues relating to gender, discrimination and how to meet the fundamental religious needs of Muslim students. Dr Ozdowski told The Daily Telegraph the aim of the forum was to raise awareness and to find a way to make sure Muslim students can meet obligations to their religion as well as the university. UWS already has prayer rooms and halal food at a majority of its campuses for its 2000 Muslim students - the largest tertiary Muslim student population in Australia.

"There is no model or national standard to guide Australia's universities on how they can best address the varied cultural, ethnic and religious needs of their diverse student populations," Dr Ozdowski said. "It's important that all people, including those from Muslim backgrounds, have the ability to fully participate in higher education so they can gain good employment and strengthen their place in society. "We also need to address the practical realities that Muslim students face every day, such as providing prayer space and cafeteria food that is halal, to ensure university campuses are welcoming of all cultures and faiths," he said.

About 150 people are involved in the conference including representatives and speakers from universities and TAFE, the government and local muslim communities. Muslim student Najwa Hussein - who is completing her post graduate diploma in psychology at UWS - believes the conference is a positive step forward for Muslim students. "It is part of our obligations to fulfil these religious duties, to pray and to ensure we eat halal meat," the 21-year-old from Guildford said. "These small things are part of our daily life so if the universities adopt such facilities, that would be awesome," she said. The conference, held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Parramatta, concludes today with practical workshops.


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Swedish Moonbats Suppress Knowledge of Communist Genocide

There's a reason 90% of Swedish students aged 15-20 don't know what a gulag is, despite living in the neighborhood of the former Soviet Union. Swedish moonbats openly hold that knowledge of communist atrocities must be suppressed, lest people develop conservative views:
A recent opinion piece in Biblioteksbladet magazine (a periodical for Swedish librarians) denounced the government's plan to spread knowledge to students about the horrors of communism. In the article, two school librarians write that informing students about the crimes of communism would be wrong as it would risk making the pupils' views more right-wing.

Kjell Albin Abrahamsson, who worked as a foreign correspondent in communist countries, was enraged by the piece, noting that by its own admission the Russian government killed 32 million "counterrevolutionaries" during the Soviet era. (The total number of people killed by their own communist governments during the 20th Century is estimated at over 100 million.) Nonetheless:
Support for communism, both hidden and visible, is still quite prevalent among many groups of intellectuals, such as journalists, librarians and those writing in the culture pages of the daily papers. Indeed, outright supporters of communism can be found not only in the Swedish Left Party but also in the Green Party and in the ranks of the influential Social Democrats.

One symptom of this tendency is the widely believed myth among Swedes that Cuba is a relatively prosperous welfare state, offering a decent quality of life and fantastic healthcare to its citizens. Few bother to question the official statistics from a communist country where thousands of citizens have lost their lives whilst attempting to escape on rafts to the United States. Cuba might have gone from being the richest country in Central American to being the second poorest due to Castro's rule - but this has not stopped Swedish intelligentsia from spreading a positive view of his policies.

Similarly, Swedish journalists seem more interested in pointing out that Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is a morally superior socialist standing up to the vile Americans, than looking at his dubious moves towards a socialist planned economy and authoritarian rule.

Moonbats who continue to advocate communism aren't slow learners who haven't yet caught on that their ideology invariably leads to oppression, misery, and death. They know what they want: evil. For evil to triumph, truth must be suppressed. This is why leftists flock to careers in journalism and academia that put them in positions to keep the good in ignorance, the better to corrupt them.


Happiness lessons: What crap

The latest looniness from Britain. Anything that is not objectively assessable they love. After all, they are extraordinarily bad at teaching things that ARE objectively assessable, like the "3Rs"

Feeling down today? OK, let's talk about how you feel and start again. With this touchy-feely approach, the Government is hoping to bring about a revolution in the classroom. Today Ed Balls, the Education Secretary, will announce that lessons in happiness, wellbeing and good manners are to be introduced in all state secondary schools. The initiative follows an extensive pilot of a programme called Seal (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) in primary schools, which has been found to boost both academic performance and discipline by helping children to better understand their emotions.

[Assessed under "double-blind" conditions? Not if it is like most educational "research". So any benefit was probably a "Hawthorne Effect". It now seems generally agreed that there was no Hawthorne effect at the Hawthorne plant but we know something close to it as the placebo effect -- possibly the best documented therapeutic effect in medicine. The basic lesson of the Hawthorne study was that any changes made with enthusiasm had some benefit.]

The adoption of "wellbeing" classes by state schools suggests that emotional intelligence - a term coined in 1995 by psychologists in Britain - has now become entrenched firmly in the educational mainstream. Ministers are convinced that teaching children to express their feelings, manage their anger and empathise with other people makes for a calmer school and boosts concentration and motivation.

It is not just the pupils that benefit. Research published today by the Institute of Education (IoE) into the effect of Seal in primary schools indicates that it is equally beneficial for teachers, reducing their stress levels and boosting their enthusiasm for study. The approach includes wellbeing assemblies and one-to-one sessions in which pupils may, for example, be told a story about a personal conflict that they are then encouraged to discuss.

The wellbeing ethos will be incorporated into all lessons and even into playtime through the use of positive phrases and ideas, such as "OK, let's start again" and "people like me succeed". Susan Hallam, author of the IoE research, suggested that the Seal programme was the perfect antidote to the intense pressure imposed on schools by the testing regime and exam league tables. "Most of the effort in recent years has been on academic work. Seal gives teachers and pupils permission to think about things that are not academic. It allows them to take time to consider how they think about themselves and others," she said.

Professor Hallam evaluated the impact of the Seal in a sample of primary schools from 25 local authorities that used the programme between 2003 and 2005. The programme had seven themes including, "good to be me", "getting on and falling out" and "relationships". Finding that the programme helped them to understand their pupils, teachers noticed that they were shouting less and resolving conflicts more easily. Queues of naughty children outside the head teachers' offices diminished or disappeared entirely. Because the children were more relaxed, their learning, motivation, willing to interact with those from different backgrounds and cultures," Professor Hallam said. Children's behaviour at home also changed: they tidied up without being asked and had fewer confrontations with their siblings.

Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College in Berkshire, who has pioneered wellbeing classes in the independent school sector, said the approach was based on hard evidence. "We know much more about how to teach children to be emotionally resilient and self-reliant and to be able to manage their emotions than we did. Even ten years ago there was no empirical evidence to support this approach, but now there is," he said.

Oli Marjot, 16, who took wellbeing lessons at Wellington last year, said: "The wellbeing lessons were a pool of calm. They don't teach you to be happy all the time. They teach you about how to deal with things when you are not happy." But Seal does have its critics. Frank Furedi, Professor of sociology at Kent University and author of Therapy Culture, has cautioned that children are more likely to develop emotional problems if they are encouraged to become obsessed with their emotions.


IQ tests rediscovered in Australia

Although he was shy, overweight and pushing 40, Paul Potts somehow summoned the nerve to perform on the show Britain's Got Talent. He appeared on stage in a wrinkled shirt and cheap, ill-fitting jacket and trembling like a leaf. You could see the three judges looking at each other, wondering what this mobile phone salesman was doing there as he prepared to sing Puccini's Nessun Dorma. But he went on to win the competition and was signed by a record company. People who do not appear to have ability sometimes go on to achieve great things. We need a university entrance system which takes this into account.

Our tertiary admissions system is like a footrace. The first students to cross the finishing line - those with the highest entrance scores - gain entry to the most popular courses at the most prestigious universities; those who run a bit slower get to study less popular courses, and so on. It sounds fair, but is it? In most races, the runners begin at the same starting line, which is rarely true in life. Some students have the advantage of private schooling while others struggle in under-resourced schools; some help out their families by working part-time while others may use the time for extra tutoring.

A fair system should take unequal starting points into account. There are two ways to do this. One is to use special "access" schemes to allow students from deprived backgrounds to enter courses they would not get into under the competitive admissions system. Because these students may displace students with higher entry scores, access schemes face substantial political resistance from those with higher entry marks. In addition, many academics worry that students admitted just because they are socially or economically deprived may lack the necessary motivation or the academic potential to succeed.

This is where admissions tests, such as the one we intend to introduce at Macquarie University this year, can help to uncover hidden talent among educationally disadvantaged students. I expect that those who will be most interested in taking the test will be students whose entry mark has been adversely affected by illness, family problems or poor schooling. This test is already being used by the Australian National University and Monash. No test is perfect, but the UniTest, at least, makes no assumptions about schooling. For example, students may be asked to read and answer questions about a paragraph. All the necessary information is contained in the paragraph, so the test assesses only reasoning, not knowledge.

Tertiary admissions tests had their debut at Harvard University 60 years ago, when the university was the preserve of wealthy students whose families could afford to send them to the best preparatory schools. James Conant, the president of Harvard at the time, believed talented students were missing out because their poor schooling did not prepare them for the curriculum-based achievement tests that Harvard used to select students. He wanted selection to be based, at least in part, on a general "aptitude" test that was not linked to any particular school experience. In Conant's view, such a test would produce an even playing field in which working-class and middle-class students could compete in a contest of brains rather than bank accounts. The test he chose was the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

By the 1990s the test was producing revenue of about $US200 million a year. But critics questioned its status as a test of innate ability. Studies found that coaching improved performance, although how much was debatable, and certainly good schooling helped students achieve higher scores. This doesn't mean the Scholastic Aptitude Test is not useful. The test predicts first-year university performance - the reason it is still widely used to select students.

Although the admissions test may help make the system fairer, it is important to remember that no test can be guaranteed to uncover every Paul Potts. There is no perfectly objective selection device and there never will be. All examinations are influenced by social and economic factors and by life experiences. The best we can hope for is that universities will use test results as part of a holistic assessment. University admissions will always be more of an art than a science and the playing field may never be completely flat, but we can make admissions fairer by using admissions tests.


Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Teaching unattractive

Who'd want to teach where your main challenge is to get kids to sit down?

The retirement of thousands of baby boomer teachers coupled with the departure of younger teachers frustrated by the stress of working in low-performing schools is fueling a crisis in teacher turnover that is costing school districts substantial amounts of money as they scramble to fill their ranks for the fall term.

Superintendents and recruiters across the nation say the challenge of putting a qualified teacher in every classroom is heightened in subjects like math and science and is a particular struggle in high-poverty schools, where the turnover is highest. Thousands of classes in such schools have opened with substitute teachers in recent years.

Here in Guilford County, N.C., turnover had become so severe in some high-poverty schools that principals were hiring new teachers for nearly every class, every term. To staff its neediest schools before classes start on Aug. 28, recruiters have been advertising nationwide, organizing teacher fairs and offering one of the nation's largest recruitment bonuses, $10,000 to instructors who sign up to teach Algebra I. [How about reintroducing discipline? Controlling a roomful of monkeys is difficult-to-impossible without extensive discipline options] "We had schools where we didn't have a single certified math teacher," said Terry Grier, the schools superintendent. "We needed an incentive, because we couldn't convince teachers to go to these schools without one."

Guilford County, which has 116 schools, is far from the only district to take this route as school systems compete to fill their ranks. Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit policy group that seeks to encourage better teaching, said hundreds of districts were offering recruitment incentives this summer.

Officials in New York, which has the nation's largest school system, said they had recruited about 5,000 new teachers by mid-August, attracting those certified in math, science and special education with a housing incentive that can include $5,000 for a down payment. New York also offers subsidies through its teaching fellows program, which recruits midcareer professionals from fields like health care, law and finance. The money helps defer the cost of study for a master's degree. The city expects to hire at least 1,300 additional teachers before school begins on Sept. 4, said Vicki Bernstein, director of teacher recruitment.

Los Angeles has offered teachers signing with low-performing schools a $5,000 bonus. The district, the second-largest in the country, had hired only about 500 of the 2,500 teachers it needed by Aug. 15 but hoped to begin classes fully staffed, said Deborah Ignagni, chief of teacher recruitment.

In Kansas, Alexa Posny, the state's education commissioner, said the schools had been working to fill "the largest number of vacancies" the state had ever faced. This is partly because of baby boomer retirements and partly because districts in Texas and elsewhere were offering recruitment bonuses and housing allowances, luring Kansas teachers away. "This is an acute problem that is becoming a crisis," Ms. Posny said.

In June, the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, a nonprofit group that seeks to increase the retention of quality teachers, estimated from a survey of several districts that teacher turnover was costing the nation's districts some $7 billion annually for recruiting, hiring and training.

Demographers agree that education is one of the fields hardest hit by the departure of hundreds of thousands of baby boomers from the work force, particularly because a slowdown in hiring in the 1980s and 1990s raised the average age of the teaching profession. Still, they debate how serious the attrition will turn out to be. In New York, the wave of such retirements crested in the early years of this decade as teachers left well before they hit their 60s, without a disruptive teacher shortage, Ms. Bernstein said.

In other parts of the country, the retirement bulge is still approaching, because pension policies vary among states, said Michael Podgursky, an economist at the University of Missouri. California is projecting that it will need 100,000 new teachers over the next decade from the retirement of the baby boomers alone.

Some educators say it is the confluence of such retirements with the departure of disillusioned young teachers that is creating the challenge. In addition, higher salaries in the business world and more opportunities for women are drawing away from the field recruits who might in another era have proved to be talented teachers with strong academic backgrounds.


Standards tell a needed story

Five years ago, when the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) began ratcheting up education accountability standards, the pinch was first felt mainly in inner-city areas where the massive failures of public schools are most evident. Now affluent suburban school systems are coming under pressure and they don't like it one bit.

Nationwide, 20 percent of all public school districts failed to make adequate yearly progress last year, including more than a third of northern Virginia's widely hailed schools. The results aren't much better in Maryland where 56 schools in Prince George's County and 17 in Montgomery County failed for the second year in a row, leaving them subject to sanctions intended to help parents rescue their children from failing schools.

These dismal results illuminate the real story behind efforts earlier this year by local school boards in Virginia to be excused from NCLB rules requiring that all students take the same proficiency tests in reading and math. The tests set an essential benchmark against which all future efforts will be measured. Without the benchmark, progress can't be measured. The local boards backed down only when the feds threatened to withhold millions in federal funding.

Something is terribly wrong with public education when, despite spending more child than has ever before been spent in human history, anywhere from a quarter to half of the students in a school can't pass basic read and math tests. The unions that control public schools often blame the tests themselves, but these diagnostic tools were chosen by each state, not the federal government. What the unions most fear is that NCLB will provide undeniable objective proof that they - not the tests, not student or parent demographics, not even President Bush - are responsible for the scandal of American public schools.

The unions prefer subjective criteria to measure academic performance because the results are so easily manipulatable, especially to gullible parents. But such obfuscation long ago ceased being merely tiresome.

Third-graders shouldn't be expected to read Shakespeare or do trigonometry, but graduating seniors ought to be able to read at a third-grade level and solve third-grade math problems. That achieving such minimal proficiency has become so Herculean a task is a sad testament to the diminished state of public education in America.


Australia: Government schools not so "free"

STATE schools have been warned not to use debt collectors to recover "voluntary" fees from parents. Draft regulations, obtained by The Australian, say parents should not be harassed or children humiliated because of a failure to pay materials fees or make voluntary contributions. The Victorian government policy follows controversy over what parents are expected to pay at state schools. There have been claims of parents being forced to pay up to $1000 in subject charges and students being humiliated if their parents could not pay. Other instances included students not being allowed to take home finished artwork, students being banned from excursions and others being embarrassed because they were not allowed a school diary until fees were paid.

The draft policy states that the Government only provides funding for "free instruction -- which is defined as the resources, materials and teaching of the "standard curriculum program". It says schools may charge fees to parents for "goods and services provided by the school". This can include textbooks, excursions and extra materials that students "consume" or take home, such as artwork. The draft regulations state that a school can charge a "voluntary" contribution but parents are not to be forced to pay it. "Payments and contributions are to be obtained without coercion or harassment," the document states. "It is not acceptable to send repeated requests for voluntary contributions beyond the initial notice to all parents." The regulations replace a 2004 policy which also instructed schools not to use debt collectors, threaten parents or humiliate students.

Victorian Council of School Organisations president Jacinta Cashen said the new regulations were much more explicit about what fees could be charged. "But the concern for us is the policing side," she said. "We know that previously schools have flouted the guidelines ... and in the past some have used debt collectors." Ms Cashen said the Victorian Government had failed to address the key issue. "If schools don't legitimately have enough money for free instruction, we should put more pressure on the Government for more funding," she said.

Victorian Association of State School Principals president Brian Burgess said he was pleased there had been an attempt to clear up confusion about fees. "There has been some lack of clarity about some of the issues regarding school materials charges," he said. Victorian Principals Association president Fred Ackerman said schools struggled to provide everything for students. "The system isn't funded at a sufficient level not to have to ask for charges," he said. "The books won't balance without a co-contribution from parents."


Monday, September 03, 2007

Not even teachers can speak English

An official state inspection of Arizona public schools reveals that many students are being taught English by Spanish-speaking teachers whose command of English is so poor that the officials can barely understand them. The recent inspection revealed teachers providing instruction in Spanish instead of the legally required English, students unable to answer questions in English, and teachers' instructions such as "Sometimes, you are not gonna know some." The results of the inspections were reported by the Arizona Republic, which concluded hundreds of students in the state are trying to learn English from teachers who don't know the language.

The inspections found teachers who are unable to use English grammar and cannot pronounce English words. The "You are not gonna know" comment came from a Mesa teacher instructing a classroom filled with students trying to learn English. From a Casa Grande Elementary District teacher came, "read me first how it was before," and a Phoenix teacher at Creighton Elementary asked, "If you have problems, to who are you going to ask?"

State officials each year visit classrooms where children are learning English. Of the 32 school districts visited last year, there were problems at about one-third. "Some teachers' English was so poor that even state officials strained to understand them," the assessment found. "At a dozen districts, evaluators found teachers who ignored state law and taught in Spanish." The visits, which lasted from one to three days, discovered teachers did not know grammar or pronunciation. "In one classroom, the teacher's English was 'labored and arduous.' Other teachers were just difficult to understand. Some teachers pronounced 'levels' and 'lebels' and 'much' and 'mush,'" the newspaper reported. Other visits uncovered:

In the Humboldt Unified District, one teacher said, "How do we call it in English?"

In Phoenix's Isaac Elementary, a teacher said. "My older brother always put the rules."

In Marana, a teacher said, "You need to make the story very interested to the teacher."

The report found children in Cartwright Elementary in Phoenix who still were in the beginning stages of learning English were "sitting, comprehending very little, and receiving almost no attention." Another school, in Maricopa Unified, provided English instruction for students, from a teacher's aide at the back of the class.

Changes, however, apparently are on the way. The state under a new plan is requiring that schools put language learners into four hours of classes each day where the students will learn English grammar, phonetics, writing and reading. It also has a new program to help school managers train teachers in the new procedures.


Corrupt governance of a major U.S. college

Mr. Rodgers founded Cypress in 1982, and now, a lifetime later in the hypercompetitive semiconductor business, it is an industry leader. Mr. Rodgers, for his part, has reached that phase where success purchases new opportunities. Some men of his means and achievement buy a yacht, or turn to philanthropic work, or join other corporate boards. Mr. Rodgers went back to school: He became a trustee of his alma mater, Dartmouth College--and not a recumbent one. He has now served for three years; and though he notes some positives, overall, Mr. Rodgers says, "It's been a horrible experience. I'm a respected person here in Silicon Valley. Nobody calls me names. Nobody demeans me in board meetings. That's not the way I'm treated at Dartmouth. The behavior has been pretty shabby."

Now the college's establishment is working to ensure that the likes of T.J. Rodgers never again intrude where they're not welcome. What follows is a cautionary tale about what happens when the business world crosses over into the alternative academic one. Founded in Hanover, N.H., in 1769, Dartmouth has long been famous for the intensity of its alumni's loyalty. It is not unfair, or an exaggeration, to call it half college and half cult.

In part this devotion is because of what the school does well. "Dartmouth is the best undergraduate school in the world," says Mr. Rodgers, who graduated in 1970 as salutatorian, with degrees in chemistry and physics. There were "small classes taught by real professors, not graduate students," he says, "and I never realized how that was heaven on earth until I went on to my next school." (Mr. Rodgers earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford in 1975.)

Partly, too, Dartmouth's alumni fidelity is a result of engaging graduates in the life of the college. It is one of a few schools in the U.S. that allow alumni to elect leaders directly. Eight of the 18 members of Dartmouth's governing Board of Trustees are chosen by the popular vote of some 66,500 graduates. (The other seats are reserved mostly for major donors, along with ex officio positions for the governor of New Hampshire and the college president.) This arrangement has been in place since 1891.

Until recently, though, Dartmouth's elections have been indifferent affairs, with the alumni choosing from a largely homogeneous slate handpicked by a committee closely aligned with the administration. In 2004, things got--interesting. Mr. Rodgers bypassed the official nomination channels and was named to the ballot by collecting alumni signatures; he needed 500 and ended up acquiring more than 15 times that. He was dissatisfied with the college's direction and resolved to either "do something or stop griping about it." He was elected by 54% of the voters.

Although there were a lot of political issues churning about the campus, Mr. Rodgers decided "that I would pursue just one issue, and my one issue, the one substantive issue, is the quality of education at Dartmouth. . . I decided that if I started debating the political argument du jour it would reduce my effectiveness."

That kind of pragmatism, however, didn't inhibit a highly political response from the aggrieved, including the college administration and some of the faculty. Mr. Rodgers notes that certain professors "seemed to specialize" in accusing him of being retrograde, racist, sexist, opposed to "diversity" and so forth. Or, in the academic shorthand, a conservative.

A curious label for a man who is in favor of gay marriage, against the Iraq war, and thinks Bill Clinton was a better president than George W. Bush. Mr. Rodgers's sensibility, rather, is libertarian, and ruggedly Western. He is also a famously aggressive, demanding CEO, with technical expertise, a strong entrepreneurial bent and an emphasis on empirics and analytics. His lodestars, he says, are "data and reason and logic."

At Dartmouth, he remarks, he has produced dozens of long, systematic papers on the issues. His first priority was to improve its "very poor record of freedom of speech." Soon enough, the college president, James Wright, overturned a speech code. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a watchdog group, elevated Dartmouth's rating from "red" to its highest, "green," one of only seven schools in the country with that status. "We made progress, and I was feeling pretty good," Mr. Rodgers says.

He intended to move on to quality of education next, but the political situation at Dartmouth degenerated. Mr. Rodgers's candidacy was followed by two further elections, in which petition candidates--Peter Robinson, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, and Todd Zywicki, a professor of law at George Mason University--were also elected. Mr. Rodgers says that, like him, they're "independent people willing to challenge the status quo."

Perhaps sensing that a critical mass was building, Dartmouth's establishment then tried to skew the petition trustee process. The details are complex and tedious, but last autumn they cooked up a new alumni constitution that would have "reformed" the way trustees were elected. In practice, it would have stacked the odds, like those in a casino, in favor of the house.

The measure needed two-thirds of alumni approval to pass, and in an election with the highest turnout in Dartmouth's history, it was voted down by 51%. "It lost big time," Mr. Rodgers says.

Earlier this year another petition trustee, Stephen Smith of the University of Virginia Law School, was elected with 55% of the voters. Quite naturally, Dartmouth's insular leadership has loathed all of this. A former trustee, and a current chair of Dartmouth's $1.3 billion capital campaign, publicly charged that the petition process had initiated a "downward death spiral" in which a "radical minority cabal" was attempting to hijack the Board of Trustees. That was among the more charitable commentaries.

Curious, again, that Mr. Rodgers has been cast as the leader of some sinister conservative faction, since he is open about what his actual goals are. "They attack things that don't matter because they can't attack you for what you stand for--quality of education. . . . The attacks become ad hominem. . . . We get called the problem. The fact is that we're a response to the problem."

In Mr. Rodgers's judgment, the increasingly political denigration--the "rancor," he calls it--has seriously impinged on his effectiveness as a trustee, and on the effectiveness of the board in general. "Before I ever went to my first board meeting," he says, "I did what any decent manager in Silicon Valley does--management by walking around. You actually go and talk to people and ask how they're doing and what they need to get their jobs done."

He noted trends: over-enrollment, wait lists and an increased percentage of classes taught by visiting or non-tenure-track faculty. He concluded that many departments--economics, government, psychology and brain sciences, in particular--were "suffering from a shortage of teaching." "It's a simple problem," Mr. Rodgers says. "You hire more professors." His effort to get an objective grip on the problem would be comic were it not so unfathomable. "I've had to scrounge to get data," he says, the administration not being forthcoming. "My best sources of data come from faculty members and students."

While he can't discuss internal figures, he says there's been "a modest improvement since 2004. It's about 10 professors net gain." That's "going in the right direction, but not nearly as fast as I would like." While the college has added 1.1% faculty per year over the last decade, at the same time its overall expenses have increased by 8.8%, "so the inevitable mathematical conclusion of those numbers is that the percentage of money we spend on faculty is going down, and it has gone down consistently for a long time."

"In general, I don't have a prescription," he says. "I'm not trying to micromanage the place. What I'm saying is take the huge amount of money that an institution like Dartmouth has and focus it on your core business, which is undergraduate education, and make it really, really good. If you want to pinch pennies, pinch pennies somewhere else and not on the core business. That's all I'm saying."

Trustee politics is the reason that this problem with "the core business," as he puts it, has not been addressed. "I don't think we pay enough attention to it and care enough about it. We have time to worry about other things and somehow the main business of the college, which is to educate, doesn't dominate our meetings. "I obviously don't want to talk a lot about what happens in board meetings, but I keep pushing to spend time on it--and that makes me an annoyance. . . . The priority has been, if you look at it, changing the rules to get rid of the petition trustees who are willing to criticize the administration. "Basically," he continues, "I find the meetings to be pro forma--this is an overstatement, but almost scripted. No, we don't roll up our sleeves and think real hard. I certainly don't feel like that what I have to offer to any organization is being used by the board of Dartmouth College." Now, Mr. Rodgers says, the argument has come to its endgame. "This is not a conservative-liberal conflict. This is a libertarian-totalitarian conflict."

One of the main criticisms leveled at the petition trustee process is that it is polarizing, divisive and somehow detrimental to the college. Mr. Rodgers replies, "If 'divisive' means there are issues and we debate the issues and move forward according to a consensus, then divisive equals democracy, and democracy is good. The alternative, which I fear is what the administration and [Board of Trustees Chairman] Ed Haldeman are after right now, is a politburo--one-party rule."

And so, after losing four consecutive democratic contests, the Dartmouth administration has evidently decided to do away with democracy altogether. "Now I'm working on the existence question," Mr. Rodgers notes mordantly.

Though he cannot say for sure--"I'll be kept in the dark until a couple of days before the meeting on what they're planning on doing"--a five-member subcommittee, which conducts its business in secret and includes the chair and the president, has embarked on a "governance review" that will consolidate power. "It looks like they're just going to abandon, or make ineffectual, the ability of alumni to elect half the trustees at Dartmouth," Mr. Rodgers says. He believes that the model is the Harvard Corporation, where a small group "makes all the decisions. They elect themselves in secret. They elect themselves in secret for a life term. How's that for democracy?"

The rest of the Dartmouth trustees, Mr. Rodgers says, "will go to the board meetings to have a couple of banquets and meet a few students and feel good about ourselves and brag to our compatriots that we're indeed on the board of trustees of Dartmouth College."

This drastic action, he says, is unnecessary. "These are small problems that are fixable," Mr. Rodgers argues. "Instead of making them major political wars, we simply ought to go solve the problems and get on with it." The alternative remedy, he continues, is poor corporate governance, for one. "This is committees working in secret, which is a very bad way to run any organization." Besides transparency, it may also present conflicts of interest, in which the college president would dominate those who ultimately evaluate his performance.

But he contrasts the situation especially with his experience at Cypress: "Silicon is a very tough master. It operates to the laws of physics, there are no politics, you can't vote or will or committee your way around it. . . . Therefore the culture of Silicon Valley, where winning and losing is being technologically successful or not, is an objective, nonpolitical culture. It's just different on the Dartmouth board."

Mr. Rodgers expects to be "severely criticized, unfairly and personally," for talking to The Journal. He may even be removed from his post entirely. "It's worth it," he says. "Doing what is right for the college that I love is more important than holding what is largely a ceremonial position."


Australia: Little recourse against bad teachers

Jim Taylor is not the name of the primary school principal who approached me after a recent column, but it will have to do because he's not supposed to talk to the media. I'd written that it was easier to dismiss poor teachers from the state system these days and he was on the phone to tell me that it's still far too difficult. Since then I've talked to other principals and teachers about this, because it's an issue of concern to many parents, including some of those who transfer their children from the public to the private system. I don't claim to have the final word on the situation, but in at least some places it's a festering issue.

In state schools, teachers' performance is reviewed annually by their principal or a senior teacher. The review cannot include any observation of the teacher in the classroom unless the teacher agrees. In Taylor's experience, most underperforming teachers don't. Therefore the review is usually a paper exercise, conducted with different degrees of rigour in different schools. What this means is that teachers, once they finish their probationary period, can go through their careers without ever being observed and assessed in the classroom by a senior person. Some principals and teachers who talked to me say the annual performance review was a joke and poor teachers could easily make themselves look adequate on paper. One teacher says her principal doesn't even do the review, but just signs the forms and sends them off.

If a teacher is doing a really poor job this will eventually be noticed by colleagues. Her or his pupils might start to display behavioural problems in the playground and the low standard of their work will be apparent to the unlucky teacher who takes them next year. Once this is brought to the principal's attention, he or she usually tries to help the teacher informally. If this fails, the Department of Education and Training is informed and the teacher is put on a 10-week formal support program. This can be extended by six weeks if considered necessary. At the end of the program, the teacher is dismissed if there is inadequate improvement. According to the department, 600 teachers have been put on programs in the past five years, with 270 failing to meet the necessary standards and leaving the department. That's fewer than 60 a year out of 50,000 teachers in primary and secondary schools and the interesting question is whether it's enough.

Taylor believes we need a public debate on the current procedures, because they don't work all that well. He says the teachers involved nearly always take stress leave, which can be paid by WorkCover, so it doesn't affect the teacher's accumulated sick leave entitlement. He says that when the teachers he's put on a program returned from stress leave, the department told him the 10-week period had to recommence, dragging the process out for much longer. (Other principals I talked to had received different advice on this point.) As well as stress leave, teachers can claim they are being victimised or harassed by the principal, which can trigger a messy mediation procedure. In some cases the teacher will be transferred to another school during the program, which then lapses.

One senior teacher said to me: "The process gets extended and then it gets complicated and sometimes it falls over for various reasons. It drags in other staff members, even parents, for and against the principal. In a really bad case some teachers stop coming to the staff room for lunch and the school becomes a factionalised place where you just don't want to work." I have been told of some principals who retired because of the stress created by this process. Others won't initiate support programs in order to avoid the problems they bring on themselves and the school. "You can sympathise with them to a point," one teacher says. "But the other teachers can get resentful about carrying a colleague who's just coasting, and that affects staff morale. It just takes a bit longer to happen."

The present system is an improvement on the past. Geoff Scott, the president of the NSW Primary Principals Association, says: "There used to be two 10-week programs plus a five-week review. It's much shorter now and I think we've got it pretty right." Jim McAlpine, the president of the NSW Secondary Principals Council, is also generally happy with the present system, although he would like to see the program always finish in 10 weeks. "At the moment," he says, "it's often drawn out when the teacher involved takes leave for stress or other reasons."

Angelo Gavrielatos, the deputy president of the NSW Teachers Federation, acknowledges the need for the procedures and says: "They have been in existence for a long time. They're the result of negotiations between the department and the federation, with the exception of the withdrawal of some appeal rights last year, which we opposed." He is concerned that "focusing on this issue detracts from the fact that the overwhelming majority of teachers exhibit a very high level of professionalism every day". I'm sure this is true. But anyone who's talked to many parents about this knows that, far more in public schools than private ones, there's a smattering of poor teachers who stay in their jobs year after year. After talking to Jim Taylor, I can understand why.


Sunday, September 02, 2007

Colorado school bans tag

The Puritan instinct or fear of litigation? Probably both. A sad limitation on the exercise and experience of children, however. Maybe the adults who enforced this ban were the ones who were easily caught as kids. I myself was so hopeless at all games that nobody bothered catching me!

A Colorado Springs elementary school is banning the game of tag on its playground -- after some children complained that they'd been chased or harassed against their will. Assistant Principal Cindy Fesgen of the Discovery Canyon Campus school said running games will be allowed, as long as students don't chase each other. Fesgen said two parents complained to her about the ban, but most parents and children didn't object

Two elementary schools in the nearby Falcon School District did away with tag and similar games in 2005 in favor of alternatives with less physical contact. Officials at Evans and Meridian Ranch elementaries say that encouraged more students to play games, and helped reduce playground squabbles.

Colorado Springs schools are not alone. Schools in Cheyenne, Wyo., Spokane, Wash., and Attleboro, Mass., have banned tag at recess. A suburban Charleston, S.C., school not only banned tagged, but outlawed all unsupervised contact sports.


Private schools in Britain show up government schools

The schools system in England is at risk of drifting into "educational apartheid" with different examination systems for pupils in state and independent schools, according to a leading head teacher. Pat Langham, president of the Girls' Schools Association, was responding to renewed calls from private school head teachers for the GCSE to be ditched in favour of more rigorous examinations, such as the IGCSE (International GCSE). Her comments were made as it emerged that fee-paying school pupils passed nearly six out of ten of their GCSE exams this summer with a grade A or A*, nearly three times the national average of 19.5 per cent. GCSE results for independent schools revealed that 92.9 per cent of pupils achieved five GCSEs at grades A* to C, including maths and English, compared with just 63.3 per cent nationally.

Martin Stephen, head of St Paul's, the top-performing boys' private school in The Times GCSE league tables, said the gulf between the two suggested that the GCSE was no longer fit for purpose. "The GCSE is seriously flawed. It is trying to be all things to all people, but it is failing. Getting five good [A* to C] GCSEs has effectively become the equivalent of passing a school leaving certificate, yet the system is not doing this job very well because 50 per cent of pupils fail to get these grades," he said.

Ms Langham, who is head of Wakefield Girls' School, one of the top 50 girls' schools in the UK, argued against more private schools adopting the IGCSE, saying that it would create further divisions between state and independent schools. She said: "The IGCSE is not the answer. Independent schools should be part of a credible, national examination system and it should be the same as the system in state schools. Otherwise, you get educational apartheid and I don't agree with that. If there are concerns about too many pupils getting A grades at GCSE, we should all work together as teachers in the private and state systems to find a joint solution. "Students in private and state schools are both going out into the same world when they leave school and they deserve the same education."

Ms Langham's comments followed claims by examination boards that standards were falling in private schools. Results for private schools, compiled by the Independent Schools Council, published today, show that 57.4 per cent of GCSE exam entries were graded A or A* this year, with 26.8 per cent of entries awarded an A* grade, up from 26.5 per cent last year. The national A* average was just 6.4 per cent. In 231 independent schools, every pupil achieved five or more A* to C grades. In a further 159 schools, 95 per cent or more achieved this standard.


Addle-headed literature curricula in Australia

By Imre Salusinszky

Last month's Australian Literature in Education Roundtable, organised by the Australia Council for the Arts, came up with many suggestions for raising the profile of our national literature, past and present, within the education system. And on the eve of the roundtable, federal Education Minister Julie Bishop took one great leap for mankind by announcing the Howard Government would endow a new chair in Australian literature at whichever university put forward the best proposal. At a stroke Bishop increased the number of such chairs by 50 per cent.

But while the state of Oz lit received a decent airing, there was much said at the roundtable that applied to the teaching in our schools of literature generally. As university specialists have ceased to be included on the state boards of studies, which shape curriculums and reading lists, two related developments have occurred. First, the cart seems to have overtaken the horse, with assessment and outcomes assuming precedence over content. Second, curriculums have come to be couched in a formidable bureaucratic jargon, an edu-babble that is inaccessible to mere mortals including, I suspect, most teachers. Here is a passage from the introduction to senior English in the South Australian curriculum:

"Through the study of English, children and students learn that language transmits cultural perspectives, including gender, ethnicity and class; and who or what is or is not important as they think, imagine, challenge, remember, create and narrate.

"They learn how language shapes meaning and reality, what this means for issues of identity and interdependence, and how it is used for a range of purposes in different contexts. Learners need to know how language is constructed and how it is used by different groups in society to shape power relations."

And this, from Western Australia's senior literature curriculum:

"In the literature course students develop skills and understandings of textual production and reception through reading practices that foster the close analysis and interrogation of textual languages and constructions. In addition to expanding their imaginative and intellectual experience, students develop and extend their social, cultural and textual knowledge through a greater comprehension of cultural meaning-making systems.

"Through critical engagement with a range of text types and cultural and historical contexts, students develop their understanding of different approaches to reading texts. This enables them to ask questions about the nature of literary text and how literature is defined by, and functions within Western cultural history.

"Such questions include the reasons why cultural value is assigned to one kind of text and not another; the changing nature of what is valued as literature at different times and in different historical and cultural contexts; and the ways particular social groups are given or denied the power to define what is 'literary' and what is 'not literary'."

It would appear, to put it bluntly, that senior-level courses in English expect students to be able to theorise the process of reading before they have done any. The sorts of inquiries outlined in these documents are perfectly appropriate to the graduate seminar room, but to place them at the beginning of a literary education is like starting arithmetic with advanced calculus.

It seems a particular style of literary theory that enjoyed its historical moment in universities in the 1970s and '80s has returned as farce in the curriculum prescriptions of the Australian states and territories. I am reminded of the way the Finnish system of dexterity training known as Sloyd got taken up in Victorian state schools in the '50s and ended up being plain old woodwork.

There are a couple of significant verbal giveaways in the documents quoted above. One is the use of interrogation, a word that spread through the humanities in the '80s and '90s like privet. When you interrogate a text you are apparently doing something far more important that simply reading or analysing or asking questions about it: you are standing in the middle of the road of ideas, raising your hand as some benighted Western cultural juggernaut rolls towards you, and announcing: "No further!"

The other giveaway is the grammatical slippage evident in "the nature of literary text". It suddenly appears as if literature has become indivisible, like milk. The view implied is that the particularities of author, style and imaginative vision, which arguably distinguish literary texts from each other, are secondary to an ideological impulse that unites and transforms them into an undifferentiated porridge.

The first point to be made about these kinds of curriculum statements is that they are, in all likelihood, harmless. I have little doubt teachers in high schools largely ignore such guff and simply get on with introducing their students to set texts without too much cultural theory clogging the gears.

However, it is the extent to which the texts are chosen to illustrate the frequently tendentious statements in the syllabuses that is a worry. As my friend Peter Holbrook asked in The Australian last month, would there be a glaring lack in a syllabus that simply declared students would be "introduced to some of the most rewarding and influential writing of the 19th and 20th centuries in English"? Such a syllabus would generate a reading list based on notions of quality, or at least canonicity, rather than illustration of appropriate contexts. My fear is that we have become so devoted to interrogation that we are embarrassed by concepts - sorry, constructs - such as genius or greatness.

Senior secondary studies in English enjoy an advantage right now that is unprecedented and may not last: the reading bonanza among younger children being driven by their enchantment with Harry Potter. We will not leverage this advantage by making disenchantment the object of high school literature courses.

What should that object be? Quite simply, literary experience, for its own sake. Until students have undergone at least the beginnings of an inductive survey of poems and stories, they are substantially under-prepared for the deductive assertions of literary theory that await them at university. And only such a survey can form the beginning of an appreciation of specifically literary attributes such as style, structure and influence.

By beefing up the literary content of secondary English courses and elbowing some of the more noisy curriculums out of the way, we would leave students and teachers freer to go wherever a dialogue with the text - which is very different from an interrogation - may lead.