Saturday, January 05, 2008

How to get into college despite the disadvantage of privilege

Given that, with the arrival of the new year, college applications are now flooding into admissions offices all over the country, it might be a good time to reflect on the absurdity of the whole college-admissions process. Take this passage from Michele Hernandez's "Acing the College Application," where she assesses the chances of a high-school student getting into a college of his choice. "Best case: Neither of your parents attended college at all, your father is a factory worker, and your mom is on disability. . . . Worst case: Your father went to Yale as an undergraduate and then Harvard Business School and is now an investment banker and your mom went to Brown, holds a Ph.D. in chemistry and works as a research chemist."

We all understand that being a rich white kid puts one at a disadvantage in the college-admissions process. But it is worth pausing to savor the irony of an institution that charges as much as $45,000 a year asking its applicants to demonstrate their proletarian credentials.

What's a privileged kid to do? Ms. Hernandez, a former admissions officer at Dartmouth, offers a couple of options. "Be vague" about your parents' occupations: "If your mom is the chief neurosurgeon for a New York hospital, try 'medical.' " Or you could get yourself a job, "the less exalted the better," Ms. Hernandez advises, citing one boarding-school student who improved his admissions chances by baling hay every summer (on his family's farm).

But making your collar seem blue may not be enough. What colleges are looking for these days, according to Ms. Hern ndez, is passion. "Since the late 1990s," she writes, "the focus has shifted away from well-rounded students to the idea of a well-rounded freshman class." A high-school student who gets good grades, serves as student body president and plays varsity football may be a remarkable person, but to an admissions officer his excellence may look rather conventional and diffuse. Better to cultivate a particular skill or enthusiasm. The ideal admissions-candidate is thus a prize-winning gymnast, a fluent reader of both Greek and Latin, a math champion, a successful entrepreneur or a violin virtuoso (all, ideally, with working-class parents, of course). And remember, Ms. Hernandez warns, "passion cannot be faked."

But so much else can. Elizabeth Wissner-Gross's "What High Schools Don't Tell You" provides, as its subtitle has it, "300+ Secrets to Make Your Kid Irresistible to Colleges by Senior Year." Ms. Wissner-Gross is an "educational strategist" and proud of it. "When people ask me what I do exactly," she explains, "I'm sometimes tempted to tell them that I make kids' dreams come true."

So what happens when you rub her magic lamp? She'll offer a five-year plan for the future college student--aimed at piling up credentials, polishing the youthful resume and shaping a suitable self-image so that, when it comes time to fill out college applications, nothing has been left to chance. Starting no later than middle school, a kid should have "dazzling" and "very ambitious" long-term goals. Ms. Wissner-Gross offers a list of possibilities: "I would like to conduct research for NASA"; "I would like to speak at an important political rally"; "I would like to become known as the nation's top math student"; "I would like to host a fund-raiser ball for cancer research." Students should then structure their time accordingly--with the emphasis on "structure."

Ms. Wissner-Gross wants students to adopt a four-summer plan "crammed with multiple enrichment activities" but all focused on that key long-term goal. Each summer--working in a local research lab, attending a math camp or trying to write the great American novel--should take a would-be college applicant one step closer to his dream. But aren't summers supposed to be, well, fun? Ms. Wissner-Gross has two bits of advice: "Contrary to pop psychology, down time need not be unstructured to be relaxing and to help a student decompress." And "children who insist on hanging out with already known friends during the summer often miss out on wonderful opportunities." Yes, buddies can be an obstacle if you care about getting into college.

During the academic year, Ms. Wissner-Gross says, young actors and musicians should take private lessons and be sure to perform both inside and outside of school. Her secret #205 reads: "When it comes to college applications, starring in school shows is better than being a good soldier and playing small parts." (Is that really a secret?) To the aspiring journalist, she recommends starting a blog (ugh) and submitting articles to local weeklies, although nothing too contentious. Such articles "should not be investigative journalism." When writing about school activities, students should "focus only on the positive." Young documentary filmmakers might want to make a "thirty-second informational spot announcement about some aspect of school procedures." Future public servants should "avoid heavily political or religious causes that tend to be controversial."

Will all this careful calculation get a child into the college of his dreams? Who knows? It will certainly produce some really annoying teenagers, not to mention what it will do to their parents. If your child has to miss class for one of his extra-special resume-building activities, Ms. Wissner-Gross advises, mom should write a mollifying note to each teacher along these lines: "I'm sorry Matt will be missing your English lesson on 'Our Town' today. The play is a family favorite, and I cried my way through our at-home reading last night." For producing real tears, though, even Thornton Wilder can't compete with "What High Schools Don't Tell You."


Britain: Village school provides a lesson for the government

A SPEAKER at a recent Yorkshire Post Literary Luncheon prompted warm applause when he said politicians should get off teachers' backs and let them get on with their jobs. He was Gervaise Phinn, now a well-known writer. He was formerly a teacher in South Yorkshire and then a schools inspector in North Yorkshire for many years.

I thought of his words last week when I visited a village school in North Yorkshire. As soon as you stepped inside, you could taste excellence. The headteacher glowed with pride as she showed the work done by the youngsters. A study of the village in Victorian times was a masterpiece of endeavour.

With fewer than 60 children, this was a model of what education should mean. I don't know where it stood in any league table, and I don't care. You don't need a computer to assess excellence, Gervaise will know exactly what I mean.

Then you read about the grandiose 10-year Children's Plan announced by the Education Secretary, Ed Balls, who is rapidly turning into the Dr Strangelove of the Brown Government. He has produced 170 pages of "initiatives" which effectively take the job of parenting out of parents hands, so as to make Britain "the best place in the world to grow up".

Every international measure show Britain failing in maths, science and literacy. Yet Balls tells us that standards are improving all the time. I only hope he is being cynical because it raises doubts about his sanity.

As comprehensive teachers say, pupils can pass through 11 years of schooling, even pass exams, without an understanding of basic subjects. They are spoon-fed information, assisted with their coursework, and led by the hand to meet targets and boost state figures. Now Balls plans to turn everything upside down yet again.

Meanwhile, let's give thanks for that little Dales village school and others like it - and the dedicated teachers who continue to deliver excellence despite all the burdens politicians place upon them.


Medical education: Want to be a doctor? Try your luck

Australia: The usual Leftist hatred of merit -- and the examinations which detect it -- at work

The University of Sydney's medical school may turn its admissions process into a lucky dip and scrap applicant interviews in the biggest overhaul of its selection policy in 10 years. The proposals are among options being investigated by a working party to ensure admissions to the university's most prestigious course are fair and snare the best students. The dean of the school, Bruce Robinson, commissioned the review because he was concerned the current process failed to predict which applicants would succeed as students and doctors.

Students are selected through a combination of interviews, grade point average and performance in an exam known as the Graduate Australian Medical School Admissions Test, used by 11 universities. But the test had never been properly scrutinised, Professor Robinson said. An internal review had found no difference between students who scraped through and those who scored highly.

The working party is considering a ballot system used in the Netherlands, with each applicant's name put into a lottery. Outstanding HSC students would get more chances. "It may be just as reliable as anything else," Professor Robinson said. "I'm just not sure the way we're doing it at the moment is the best way or the fairest way. There is no perfect way."

The University of Queensland has eliminated interviews from its admissions system after a review cast doubt on their value. Kim Oates, who is reviewing the University of Sydney program with Kerry Goulston, said there was little evidence the interview system was valuable. "What's really interesting is that a few years after graduation most people working in hospitals can't tell what medical school the students have been to," Professor Oates said. "And I think that's because the hospital system moulds you as well."

However, the University of NSW says the attrition rate in its undergraduate program has been halved since interviews were added to the admissions process in 2002. In its own recent review, the body that developed the current exam, the Australian Council of Educational Research, concluded it was a good predictor of success. Marita MacMahon Ball, the general manager of higher education programs, said there was a correlation between students' results and their first-year exam results. [Is that all? And how big is the correlation?]


Friday, January 04, 2008

Hillary and others drive for `universal preschool'

Little children need the security, understanding and tolerance of a loving home, not institutionalization

Last May, just as the academic year was wrapping up, Hillary Clinton stopped by a Miami Beach elementary school to say that she wanted to define school down. "As president, I will establish universal pre-kindergarten education," she promised, so that "every four-year-old child in America" can attend a government-funded preschool.

Her $10 billion proposal essentially would add a whole new grade onto the front end of the K-12 system. It's one of the liberals' hottest policy ideas, pushed by their think tanks and embraced by their politicians. "We expect that all of the presidential candidates will be talking about it," says Libby Doggett, executive director of Pre-K Now, an advocacy organization. Wealthy foundations, such as the $5.6 billion Pew Charitable Trusts, are bankrolling the concept. Democratic governors also have made it a priority: Eliot Spitzer of New York has promised universal preschool by 2011, and Rod Blagojevich of Illinois wants public preschool not only for four-year-olds but for three-year-olds as well. In the last two years, states have boosted their preschool budgets by more than $1 billion.

The author Robert Fulghum has built a career on the motto "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." Yet the supporters of universal preschool worry that kindergarten comes too late--and believe that shunting children into government-run nursery schools around the time that they're potty training is a key to success in life. They say it leads to academic achievement, economic productivity, and law-abiding lifestyles. "There's a lot of evidence that this saves money over the long run," claimed Senator Clinton on the Today show.

Unfortunately for the nanny-statists, almost none of this is true. There's no doubt that preschool has the potential to help some children, especially poor ones, but its benefits for most kids range from short-term to nonexistent. "The last thing we need is a one-size-fits-all policy," says the Goldwater Institute's Darcy Olsen, who coauthored a comprehensive report on preschool for the Reason Foundation. "Yet we're looking at the biggest expansion of government into education since the creation of public schools."

A generation ago, only a small minority of kids went to preschool: In 1965, just 5 percent of three-year-olds and 16 percent of four-year-olds attended. Since then, preschool has become a booming business. Nowadays, more than 40 percent of three-year-olds and more than two-thirds of four-year-olds are enrolled, according to federal statistics. Although public programs such as Head Start have encouraged this trend, the sector is dominated by private actors: parents who pay out of pocket, YMCAs and churches that run preschools in their basements, and for-profit centers that hope to meet a growing demand.

The cheerleaders of universal preschool aim to capture this thriving market. Ready or not, here they come: Janet Napolitano, the Democratic governor of Arizona, has said that her goal is nothing less than "ensconcing early care and education as a lockstep component of public schooling."

The irony is that early education is already an American strength. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that vast majorities of children enter kindergarten ready to learn: They recognize numbers, they can count to ten, and although most of them aren't literate they grasp a few fundamentals about letters and reading. During the 1990s, even as Americans became less likely to read books, parents actually increased the rate at which they read books to preschoolers.

Perhaps this is one reason that young children perform well when compared with kids in other countries. On recent standardized language tests, fourth graders finished north of the 70th percentile, topping their peers in 26 of 35 countries. They also scored above average in math and science. "There's room for improvement, but this system certainly isn't broken," says Lisa Snell of the Reason Foundation. "It's basically working just fine." Problems set in as these children leave elementary schools and enter middle school. By the time they're in the eighth grade, their achievement is at best average. In the twelfth grade, it's mediocre.

This hardly makes the case for a government takeover of early education. If anything, it's an argument for reform of the upper grades--and probably in the direction of market-based alternatives that weaken government's near monopoly on K-12 schools. Anything else is a misbegotten priority.

The universal preschoolers, however, won't stop overselling their agenda. Senator Clinton has linked nursery-school attendance to lower crime rates. Last year, Isabel Sawhill, a former budget official in the Clinton administration, claimed that the advent of universal preschool would cause the GDP to rise by almost $1 trillion over the next 60 years.

Advocates make these flamboyant claims by taking wisps of data and warping them beyond recognition. Typically, that means focusing on a small-scale experiment conducted under precise circumstances and drawing completely unwarranted extrapolations from it. The most famous of these involves a preschool in Ypsilanti, Mich., in the early 1960s--a test case that universal-preschool partisans and their media handmaidens have gone on to mythologize.

The 123 kids who took part in the Perry Preschool Project weren't at all ordinary: They were black, poor, and had low IQs. Researchers described them as prone to "retarded intellectual development and eventual school failure." About half were sorted into a gold-plated preschool program. The rest were put into a control group. They've been tracked ever since, in a longitudinal study. Those who went to preschool--where they encountered highly trained instructors, low teacher-to-student ratios, and a regime of home visits--appear to have benefited. Over time, they've been more likely to finish college and less likely to be arrested or get pregnant as teenagers. A common interpretation of this result is that a healthy preschool experience put these at-risk kids into the right frame of mind for kindergarten, where they met teachers who responded positively to their readiness, which in turn helped them make a more substantial commitment to their own education.

Whatever the explanation, it's far from obvious that Perry Preschool holds any lessons for large-scale public policy. "Boutique preschools that serve poor children aren't realistic models for everybody else," says Bruce Fuller, a UC-Berkeley education professor who is the author of Standardized Childhood, a thorough survey of preschooling. He points out that the Perry experiment came with a high price tag: more than $15,000 per child in 2000 dollars. That's almost four times the cost of preschool in Oklahoma, which is one of three states to have a government-sponsored universal-preschool program (the others are Florida and Georgia). When the latest assessment of Perry preschoolers came out in 2005, researchers described an ongoing benefit, though not an eye-popping one. As summarized by Fuller, "Exposure to Perry explains less than 3 percent of all the variation in earnings at age forty, and about 4 percent of the variability in school attainment levels."

This is an important finding, though it's difficult to see how attempting to replicate it might add a trillion bucks to national GDP. As it happens, several other experiments have tried to repeat it and failed. One reason may be that the kids in the Perry experiment's control group didn't have an alternative to staying at home because the preschool industry that flourishes today hadn't been born. By contrast, a control group today would have many options. This hasn't stopped universal-preschool advocates from claiming that it takes a Perry Preschool to raise a child, or that all preschools can be Perry Preschools. "It's intellectually dishonest--they're just way out in front of the evidence," says Fuller, who describes himself as "an aging, left-of-center Berkeley academic."

One lesson from Perry and several other studies is that preschool really can help certain kinds of kids--especially those who come from homes where Cartoon Network blares from the television all day and nobody ever opens a copy of Goodnight Moon. The simple act of removing children from bad environments and placing them in better ones for a few hours each week can make a modest difference. For these unlucky kids, preschool may be critical, and public investments have a practical logic.

For the most part, however, universal preschool is an expensive solution to a problem that doesn't exist. Even when preschool appears to have a positive effect on middle-class kids, the benefits wear off shortly after they enter elementary school. "It's a continuing problem," says Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution. And it prompts a question: Why commit resources to universal-preschool schemes when the K-12 system appears unable to leverage them? Darcy Olsen says, "Until we get the next 13 grades right, it just doesn't make sense to add more of the same."

When confronted by hard facts, the leaders of the universal-preschool movement prefer to close their eyes, cover their ears, and utter their talking points. "All children make phenomenal gains," says Pre-K Now's Doggett (who is the wife of Democratic congressman Lloyd Doggett of Texas). What about the research of Fuller and other scholars? "They're wrong," she says.

It would be bad enough if universal preschool merely wasted taxpayer dollars. But its unintended consequences could do more harm. For some children, there's such a thing as too much preschool--there are indications that it leads to increased aggression, especially among middle-class children. Last year, Canada's C. D. Howe Institute published a critique of universal preschool in Quebec. "We studied a wide range of measures of child well-being from anxiety to hyperactivity to social and motor skills," wrote the authors. In almost every instance, they found that kids were "worse off." Boys may present special challenges. As psychologist Leonard Sax points out in Boys Adrift, the initial experience of school is often a bad one for boys because the language centers of their brains don't develop as quickly as they do in girls. Overexposure to preschool could possibly turn them off to education, in a sort of reverse Perry effect.

"What middle-class parents need to understand is that an average or below-average preschool can be worse for their kids than what most of them can provide in their own homes," says one preschool expert. "That's not true for a lot of low-income families, where the parenting skills aren't as good."

Then there's the troubling economics of universal preschool. Teacher unions would enjoy a growth spurt. If government-funded preschools begin to drive out private providers and become a middleclass entitlement, they could reshuffle the most talented teachers, encouraging them to move from existing programs that serve at-risk children to new ones that serve the well off--i.e., they could migrate away from where they're needed to where they aren't.

There would also be a harmful ripple effect on care for infants and toddlers. At many childcare centers, services for the youngest kids function as loss leaders because they require more adults per child. Classrooms of three- and four-year-olds, which require fewer adults per child, actually subsidize them. "If public schools become the primary points of delivery for four-year-olds, the costs of infant and toddler care, already expensive and in short supply, will shoot up," says Eric Karolak of the Early Care and Education Consortium. Parents would foot the bill.

The good news is that efforts to install universal preschool aren't inevitable. In California last year, voters considered Proposition 82, an initiative pushed by moviemaker Rob Reiner. It would have hiked taxes on high earners by $2.4 billion to fund state-run preschools. It failed by a three-to-two margin. "It was complicated, inflexible, and the finances just didn't make sense," says Lisa Snell. She calculated that, because 66 percent of the state's four-year-olds are already in preschool, meeting the initiative's goal of enrolling 70 percent of them would have increased the number of kids in preschool by only 22,000--at a taxpayer cost of $109,000 per child.

As with so many policy matters, this one ultimately boils down to something other than dollars and cents or the findings of social scientists. It's about fundamental philosophies of government and the duties of citizenship. Whose responsibility is it to raise small children? Hillary Clinton has offered her answer. It remains to be seen whether her Republican rivals will present a different vision.

Source. See also here and here

Australia: Victorian government schools not so "free"

Government schools that have wrongly charged parents for voluntary fees will be forced to pay families back under a State Government crackdown. Exclusive figures seen by the Herald Sun reveal taxpayer-funded state schools netted a staggering $168 million in voluntary fees in 2006 alone. The total is more than three times as much as parents contributed in 2004.

Government documents, seen after a three-month wait under Freedom of Information laws, show four schools raised more than $1 million each. Another 45 schools raised more than $500,000 from their local communities in 2006 alone. Schools received an average of more than $106,000 each from voluntary fees, with some hitting parents for more than $300 per student. Select-entry Melbourne High School ($1.69 million) and Box Hill Senior Secondary College ($1.13 million) raised the most from voluntary fees in 2006. Schools in low socio-economic areas, such as Frankston High, Footscray City College and Narre Warren South P-12 College, were among schools that raised more than $500,000 from local parents.

When the Herald Sun anonymously rang Balwyn High School earlier in December, we were told parents must pay the voluntary fee of $345 per student. Swan Marsh Primary School, near Colac, received nothing in voluntary fees. Navarre Primary, west of Ballarat, received $20.

Non-compulsory fees vary between schools, but often run into hundreds of dollars. Welfare agencies are bracing themselves for an influx of calls from thousands of stressed families whose schools are bullying them into paying fees when first term starts on January 30. Some schools have banned students from attending camps, accessing the internet and taking woodwork projects home because their parents have not paid voluntary fees. Some schools have organised special payment plans if parents are unable to afford a lump-sum amount.

Department of Education and Early Childhood Development policy stipulates state schools must not force parents to pay optional fees. Education Minister Bronwyn Pike said at least 100 schools would be audited from March to ensure they are complying with fundraising guidelines. Ms Pike said schools must clearly state which items parents are expected to pay for, and which are voluntary financial contributions. Schools with a history of breaching the guidelines will be on the audit list while a small number will be selected randomly, she said. "Most of our schools do the right thing, but if we find schools who are over-charging parents they will have to pay the money back," Ms Pike said.

The Government rejected the Herald Sun's request for figures from 2007, claiming the data was not yet available. Opposition education spokesman Martin Dixon said the millions paid by parents proved the State Government was under-funding education. "Voluntary levies are fine for extras and schools are not relying on them to prop up budgets, but $168 million begs the question if schools are being funded properly -- and the answer is no."

Open Family youth worker Les Twentyman said more than 1000 families were expected to approach the service for help with fees in January. "It just makes me livid that schools are forcing parents who certainly can't afford it to pay, or they will withhold materials and resources from their kids," he said. "This is an outrageous situation." Victorian Council of Social Service deputy director Carolyn Atkins has previously told the Herald Sun voluntary fees caused heartache for some families. "Some students are being denied access to art or music, which really should be seen as core elements of an education," Ms Atkins said.


Thursday, January 03, 2008

Shock! British Catholic bishops believe in teaching Catholicism!

Roman Catholic bishops are to appear in front of a powerful committee of MPs amid fears that they are pushing a fundamentalist brand of their religion in schools. Bishops have called on parents, teachers and priests to strengthen the role of religion in education. In one case the Bishop of Lancaster, Patrick O'Donoghue, instructed Catholic schools across much of north-west England to stop 'safe-sex' education and place crucifixes in all classrooms.

He also wrote: 'Schools and colleges must not support charities or groups that promote or fund anti-life policies, such as Red Nose Day and Amnesty International, which now advocates abortion.' In a 66-page document, O'Donoghue called on teachers to use science to teach about the 'truths of the faith', only mention sex within the 'sacrament of marriage', insist that contraception was wrong and emphasise natural family planning.

The Bishop of Leeds, Arthur Roche, sent a letter to parishes warning them that Catholic education was under threat following attempts by the local council to set up an inter-faith academy.

Barry Sheerman, chairman of the parliamentary cross-party committee on children, schools and families, said he had heard of other cases and felt that behind the scenes there was 'intense turmoil' about the future of Catholic education. 'A group of bishops appear to be taking a much firmer line and I think it would be useful to call representatives of the Catholic church in front of the committee to find out what is going on,' he said. 'It seems to me that faith education works all right as long as people are not that serious about their faith. But as soon as there is a more doctrinaire attitude questions have to be asked. It does become worrying when you get a new push from more fundamentalist bishops. This is taxpayers' money after all.'

Sheerman, MP for Huddersfield, asked to meet Roche about the possibility of setting up an inter-faith school in the area. 'The bishop took a long time to agree to meet and eventually we set a date in May,' said Sheerman. 'But just before we were due to meet - during the May elections - he had a letter read out in every parish church in Kirklees and Calderdale, a really big area, accusing politicians of trying to dilute Catholic education. He said Roman Catholic education was under threat.'

In Fit for Mission, the document written for schools in the Lancaster diocese, O'Donoghue wrote: 'The secular view on sex outside of marriage, artificial contraception, sexually transmitted disease, including HIV and Aids, and abortion, may not be presented as neutral information ... parents, schools and colleges must also reject the promotion of so-called "safe sex" or "safer sex", a dangerous and immoral policy based on the deluded theory that the condom can provide adequate protection against Aids.'

The bishop also called for any books containing polemics against the Catholic faith to be removed from school libraries. 'Under no circumstances should any outside authority or agency that is not fully qualified to speak on behalf of the Catholic church ever be allowed to speak to pupils or individuals on sexual or any other matter involving faith and morals,' he said.

The report has outraged non-religious groups, who accused the bishop of trying to 'indoctrinate' pupils. In a letter to Secretary of State Ed Balls, the National Secular Society wrote: 'What happened to a well-rounded education - which is what British state schools are supposed to provide?' Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the society, said: 'I do not think the state should be funding Catholic indoctrination.' He highlighted a poll released by the US group Catholics for a Free Choice showing that most Catholics across the world believed using condoms was pro-life because it prevented the spread of HIV and Aids.

Teachers expressed concern that the bishop's instructions could damage the health of teenagers who chose to become sexually active despite the church's teaching. 'Irrespective of the strongly held views of those in the Catholic faith, it is absolutely vital for the future of children's wellbeing, health and safety that they receive proper sex education,' said Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers. O'Donoghue said it was 'absolute rubbish' that what he was advocating was indoctrination.


Calif. School Targets Mexican Students

Another argument for serious border control

Children are more likely to shield their faces than to smile when Daniel Santillan points his camera. Santillan's photos aren't for any picture album or yearbook-they help prove that Mexican youngsters are illegally attending public schools in this California border community. With too many students and too few classrooms, Calexico school officials took the unusual step of hiring someone to photograph children and document the offenders. Santillan snaps pictures at the city's downtown border crossing and shares the images with school principals, who use them as evidence to kick out those living in Mexico.

Since he started the job two years ago, the number of students in the Calexico school system has fallen 5 percent, from 9,600 to 9,100, while the city's population grew about 3 percent. "The community asked us to do this, and we responded," school board President Enrique Alvarado said. "Once it starts to affect you personally, when your daughter gets bumped to another school, then our residents start complaining."

Every day along the 1,952-mile border, children from Mexico cross into the United States and attend public schools. No one keeps statistics on how many. Citizenship isn't the issue for school officials; district residency is.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled illegal immigrants have a right to an education, so schools don't ask about immigration status. But citizens and illegal immigrants alike can't falsely claim residency in a school district. Enforcement of residency requirements varies widely along the border. Some schools do little to verify where children live beyond checking leases or utility bills, while others dispatch officials to homes when suspicions are raised.

Jesus Gandara, superintendent of the Sweetwater district, with 44,000 students along San Diego's border with Mexico, said tracking children at the border goes too far. "If you do that, you're playing immigration agent," he said.

The El Paso Independent School District in Texas sends employees to homes when suspicions are raised. But spokesman Luis Villalobos said photographing students at the border would be a monumental, unproductive effort. That's not the thinking in Calexico, a city 120 miles east of San Diego that has seen its population double to 38,000 since 1990. A steel fence along the border separates Calexico from Mexicali, an industrial city of about 750,000 that sends shoppers and farm laborers to California.

Calexico's rapid growth outstripped school resources, resulting in overcrowding and prompting demands that Mexican interlopers be ousted. Taxpayers complained their children were bused across town because neighborhood schools were full, even after Calexico voters approved a $30 million construction measure in 2004. Portable classrooms proliferated. The 62-year-old Santillan (pronounced sahn-tee-YAHN) was hired in He is an unlikely enforcer. Posters of Cesar Chavez and Che Guevara adorn the walls of his ranch-style home. The Vietnam War veteran and labor activist is an outspoken advocate of amnesty for illegal immigrants and fills water jugs in the desert for Mexicans who trek across the border illegally.

He parks his old Toyota Echo at the border two or three mornings a week, often in a handicapped spot that his bad knees allow him to occupy. He photographs some of the hundreds of students who exit the inspection building and walk to class. Some hide their faces when they see his 6-foot-5, 310-pound frame. Sometimes he follows students to school. Many of the students know him. Others in town are not always sure what he is up to. A new police officer once ran his name through a database of sex offenders. A talk-radio host warned listeners that an odd- looking man at the border might be looking for children to kidnap.

Some students taunt him. Friends have called him a hypocrite. Santillan reminds them that he is only enforcing school residency rules, not immigration laws. Still, he says, "You've got to have hell of a tough skin." The California native also visits addresses listed on student enrollment forms, knocking on doors as late as 9 p.m. and introducing himself in Spanish. One crisp December morning, he went to three homes before dawn, carrying a clipboard with several pages of students suspected of living in Mexico. A woman who opened her door at 6:30 a.m. said her niece no longer lives with her. At another home, a woman said her niece moved last month.

Many Calexico residents support the crackdown. Fernando Torres, a former mayor, was upset when the district said his grandchildren would have to transfer because there was no room in their neighborhood school. "It's not right" for U.S. taxpayers to build classrooms for Mexican residents, he said. The district eventually relented. School board member Eduardo Rivera estimates there are still 250 to 400 students from Mexico attending Calexico's schools. "It's a continual struggle," Rivera said. "You have people who are determined to continue sending their kids over here."


Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Britain: Rich pull away from poor in the classroom

In characteristic form, the Labour Party has achieved the opposite of what it claimed to aim at

The colonisation by the middle classes of the best state schools has led to a dramatic widening of the gap in educational performance between rich and poor children in the past year, new figures indicate. An analysis of government data by the Conservative Party shows that the achievement divide between pupils in the 10 per cent richest and poorest areas of England has grown by more than ten percentage points, compared with fractional increases of less than one percentage point in previous years.

The figures also show that the attainment gap between rich and poor continues to widen as pupils progress through school. At age 7, the performance gap between pupils in the 10 per cent richest and poorest areas was 20 percentage points in 2007. At age 16, however, the gap had more than doubled to 43.1 per cent, suggesting that far from being a leveller, school was increasing the disparity.

The figures underscore the massive influence of parental background on school success. More than 65 per cent of children in the wealthiest group achieved at least five good GCSEs, including English and maths, this summer but the figure for children from the poorest backgrounds was less than 26 per cent.

Michael Gove, the Shadow Education Secretary, said that the system favoured those who were fortunate enough, or rich enough, to live in areas with good schools. "If you have nominal parental choice over school admissions, but an undersupply of good schools, you will find that the sharp-elbowed middle-class parents get access to excellent schools, but those trapped in deprived areas do not," he said.

Mr Gove said that the dramatic widening of the gap this year, after much smaller incremental increases in previous years, was the result of the cumulative effect of this phenomenon. He noted that pupil performance in the richest areas had improved at twice the rate that it had deteriorated in poor areas. An additional explanation of the sudden widening of the gap this year may be the influx of immigrants who do not have English as a first language, he suggested.

Conservative plans to allow good new schools to open in deprived areas, with extra cash for children from more deprived homes, would reverse a growing social class gap, he said.

Alan Smithers, Professor of Education at the University of Buckingham, said: "Even where you have good schools in poor areas, like some of the academies, they are progressively taken over by ambitious parents."

The figures come after recent concern by Christine Gilbert, the Chief Inspector of Schools, that the school system was dividing children along social and economic lines. They show that in 2005 28.2 per cent of pupils in the 10 per cent most deprived areas gained at least five GCSEs, including English and maths, at grades A* to C. In the richest 10 per cent of areas, 56.2 per cent of pupils reached this level, giving an attainment gap of 28 percentage points. In 2006 the figures were 29.2 and 57.6 per cent respectively, with a performance gap of 28.4 percentage points. In 2007 the figures were 25.3 and 68.4 per cent respectively, with a performance gap of 43.1 percentage points.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said that closing the attainment gap was a priority for the Government. The Government had invested more than 21 billion pounds in childcare and the early years since 1997, so that poor children could get better chances in early life, she said. It was now providing one-to-one tuition and personalised support to help every child to achieve at school, regardless of social background. She added: "We can only tackle deprivation and poverty by changing the aspirations of young people, their parents and the education system."


Schools and class hatred in Britain

Let's make a 2008 resolution, politicians and polemicists together. Let us renounce certain chippy clich‚s when talking about schools and social mobility. Let it become a mockable offence to refer - as Michael Gove MP did yesterday - to "the sharp-elbowed middle classes" who "colonise" the best schools. Let professors of education like Alan Smithers feel a stab of shame when they take an easy pop at academies getting "taken over by ambitious parents". Let columnists beware of jeering at the "stupid spawn of the rich".

Fun though it may be, it is all a wicked distraction from the main task: the improvement of all British schools - yes, all - and an absolute intolerance of the shoddy, the dull, the undisciplined and the woolly. The new figures hauled out by the Conservatives only reinforce a swath of others, which make it clear that, after ten years of Labour government, the gap between rich and poor children's attainment is actually widening.

But jeering at "sharp-elbowed middle classes" is a pure distraction technique, blurring the inconvenient truth that many of our schools are (if not actually chaos) intellectually unambitious and overburdened with irrelevant duties. It leads to such class-war fatalism as the ridiculous theory that places should be allocated by lottery: which implies accepting that some schools will always be rubbish, so let's spread the misery around by ballot.

No: it won't do. How dare a professor of education sneer at "ambitious" parents? Would he prefer it if they didn't give a damn? How dare a Conservative MP criticise conscientious middle-income parents as "colonists", and suggest that their "sharp elbows" deliberately disable the poor?

Is it wicked for parents to want their children taught well in calm surroundings? Is it wrong to do your best? Most families are beset by worries about mortgages and redundancy and recession; they are not making war on the disadvantaged, but just doing what they can. They may kick off if rowdy children cause distraction and intimidation or sell drugs in the playground, but that is not class war. Any private school head will tell you that disruption and drug dealing occur in every echelon of society, and that parents protest just as fiercely when the Hon Freddie gives their child grief as when Charlie Chav does.

There are many roots of our school problem, and middle-class elbows are the least significant. One - fading now, thank God - is the legacy of the early comprehensive movement, which reacted against the cruel 11-plus by denigrating cleverness, precocity and academic passion in favour of mixed ability and rigid age groups. Then there has been a 25-year mania of central governments to interfere with every detail of the curriculum and keep moving the goalposts, thus de-professionalising and demoralising teachers.

Meanwhile a well-intentioned new sense of children's rights has led, through timidity and confusion, to an absurd erosion of teachers' authority - so now we need actual parliamentary edicts to enable staff to confiscate mobile phones in class. At the same time the mishandling of numerous cases of false sexual accusation, with adults guilty until proven innocent, scared many men out of the profession, creating a feminised, boy-hostile atmosphere. And now we have evidence that unpredicted, unmonitored and unresourced immigration leaves some schools unable even to teach the newcomers English.

On top of all that, there is a terrible fashion for loading on to schools the responsibility for inculcating things that are not facts or skills at all, but social desiderata - citizenship, sex education, diversity. This is largely a waste of time: note that while sex education has "improved", teenage motherhood and abortion have climbed. It is now causing another ruction because of the equally loopy obsession with faith schools. Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Education Select Committee, is at odds with the Bishop of Lancaster who has (surprise, surprise) decreed that Catholic schools must not teach "safe sex" and contraception in a morally neutral manner, nor support Red Nose Day.

Mr Sheerman and assorted secularists are up in arms, asking why the state should fund "indoctrination" (do they think Muslim schools teach free love, then?). But they miss the main point, which is that this is froth. A State that really cared about the core of education, and its ability to raise and inspire poor children, would not faff about making schools teach citizenship and condom technque. If sex education is so important, force every 12-year-old to do a holiday course run by nurses. If citizenship is important, then support local youth groups instead of closing them down because their kitchen isn't up to scratch or they can't afford enough slow-motion criminal records checks. Let schools just teach - properly, to an exam standard that cannot be fiddled, and with a focus on real subjects, whether that means astrophysics or practical woodwork.

I do not have the answer to every educational problem. Nobody does. I just know that one place where the answer certainly does not lie is in sniping at imaginary "middle-class" elbows. Stop doing it. Leave the poor sods alone. If all the schools were good, they'd soon stop manoeuvring, with a sigh of relief. Worried parental behaviour - if indeed there is anything wrong about it - is due to the deficit in the school system. It's a symptom, not a cause.


Tuesday, January 01, 2008

British teachers quitting

Teachers are leaving the profession in increasing numbers, with a quarter of a million no longer working in schools, according to figures published by the Conservatives yesterday. More than twice as many teachers aged under 60 quit their jobs between 2000 and 2005 than in the previous five years. The Conservatives blamed excessive red tape in schools, poor discipline amongst pupils and "micromanagement" by the Government for forcing teachers to change careers. The figures show that 95,500 teachers left the profession between 2000 and 2005. In the previous five years, from 1995 to 1999, only 40,600 teachers left.

Michael Gove, the Shadow Children's Secretary, said: "[Teaching] talent is going to waste. Not only are our children not achieving as they should, talented teachers are not where they should be - in the classroom, opening young minds to new horizons. "With more than a quarter of a million gifted professionals no longer in teaching we have to ask why they've given up on education under Labour. "I fear that a combination of classroom bureaucracy, government micro-management and poor discipline in too many schools has encouraged a drift away from teaching. "We need to free teachers to inspire [pupils] and give them the tools to enforce discipline so that schools have access to the widest range of talent."

However Jim Knight, the Schools Minister, said that Labour had done more to support teachers than any previous government. He said: "Recruitment into the profession has never been more buoyant, and teaching is now the career of choice for many highly qualified and talented individuals. Indeed, Ofsted has said this is the best generation of teachers ever. "Early retirement and turnover in teaching is in fact good compared with equivalent professions." Mr Knight said a recent survey of 22,500 British workers found that teaching at schools, colleges and universities had climbed from being the 54th happiest occupation in 1999 to the 11th happiest in 2007.

A spokesman for the Training and Development Agency for Schools said: "Many qualified teachers decide to take a break from the profession for a number of reasons. "The figures released do not take account of the fact that up to 30,000 teachers return to teaching at a later date, with added industry experience and a new enthusiasm for teaching and learning. Many also choose to remain within the education sector in an administration capacity."

Teachers' unions said the figures were accurate but disputed the reasons given by the Conservatives for teachers leaving the profession. Chris Keates, the general secretary of the NASUWT, said: "The number of inactive teachers is probably correct. The reasons given by Michael Gove for their inactivity are, however, overly simplistic and fly in the face of the evidence. "Qualified teachers are in the `pool of inactive teachers' for a variety of reasons, mostly because of career changes or career breaks. Their motivation for a change in direction has varied over the years. For the majority of those who leave now, evidence shows it is a positive choice.

"Seeking to manipulate statistics in a way which implicitly criticises and denigrates schools just to score political points is grossly unfair to hard-working teachers and pupils." Ms Keates added that the number of teachers who dropped out after three to five years had "fallen significantly" and studies of levels of job satisfaction were "increasingly positive".


Comment below from a "Times" reader on the above -- a comment that cuts through the official flim-flam:

I used to be a teacher and so did my wife. Most of the teachers who started with me have left teaching. I lasted seven years before the stress got to me, parents expect too much but won't give us the support and schools expect all children to succeed but won't remove the really bad ones who ruin the other children's education. In my time as a teacher I had a pupil who we were told was to be murdered (he was in a gang and was murdered when he was twenty - the suspected murderer is also another pupil whom I taught). I taught children whose parents dealt drugs, and large amounts, and were raided by the police. I taught one child whose own cousin was a police officer and had told his mother that he was a police target for rioting at night, his responce was to brag about it in school and assault his mother when she tried to stop his rioting. What hope did we have? These children deserved an education but so did all the others in their classes for most of the day, whose educationw as ruined.

Australia: Teacher standards slip again

MORE than 50 West Australian high school leavers will be able to study teaching without qualifying for admission to university. In an effort to combat the dire shortage of teachers, Edith Cowan University has asked principals to recruit suitable Year 12 students who have not sat the tertiary entrance examination to train to become teachers.

The move has the support of the Education Minister Mark McGowan and the teachers' union, which hopes to recommence negotiations this week over a stalled pay deal for the state's 20,000 teachers. Mr McGowan said he supported ECU's efforts to attract good candidates by taking other factors into account, including interviews and experience. "I think there may be people who have not done TEE who may become great teachers," he said.

Mr McGowan also extended the olive branch to the teachers' union yesterday, offering to relaunch negotiations on Wednesday over a second pay offer the union rejected before Christmas. "I want to reward teachers properly, that is the Government's aim and ambition," Mr McGowan said.

It is believed the 52 non-TEE students will qualify for direct entry if they have As and Bs in their final year subjects and have a level five in Year 12 English. Level eight is the highest English level attainable.

People Lobbying Against Teaching Outcomes, the group that campaigned heavily against the controversial outcomes-based education framework, is concerned about the move. President Greg Williams said the students who did not sit the TEE were generally those who struggled at school. "I am just wondering whether the kids who struggle at school should be the ones we want as the next generation's teachers," he said. "I still think that a teacher should be a person who has a great love of academia." Mr Williams, a former school principal, said he had been asked to identify potential student teachers from among non-TEE students 10 years ago, but said ECU was now more transparent about selecting students outside the academic stream.

The State School Teachers Union has put the teacher shortage at 600, but claims there are more teachers who are teaching subjects for which they were not trained, so the total figure could be higher. Senior vice-president Anne Gisborne said she was interested in restarting pay talks with the Government as soon as possible. Although supportive of ECU's direct entry for non-TEE student teachers, she said that the university and principals would have to make sure teaching standards were maintained.


Monday, December 31, 2007

Why boys should be allowed to play with toy guns

Report from Britain

Playing with toy weapons helps the development of young boys, according to new Government advice to nurseries and playgroups. Staff have been told they must resist their "natural instinct" to stop boys using pretend weapons such as guns or light sabres in games with other toddlers. Fantasy play involving weapons and superheroes allows healthy and safe risk-taking and can also make learning more appealing, says the guidance. It conflicts with years of "political correctness" in nurseries and playgroups which has led to the banning of toy guns, action hero games and children pretending to fire "guns" using their fingers or Lego bricks.

But teachers' leaders insisted last night that guns "symbolise aggression" and said many nurseries and playgroups would ignore the change.

The guidance, called Confident, Capable and Creative: Supporting Boys' Achievements, is issued by the Department for Children, Schools and Families. It says some members of staff "find the chosen play of boys more difficult to understand and value than that of girls." This is mainly because they tend to choose activities with more action, often based outdoors. "Images and ideas gleaned from the media are common starting points in boys' play and may involve characters with special powers or weapons. "Adults can find this particularly challenging and have a natural instinct to stop it. "This is not necessary as long as practitioners help the boys to understand and respect the rights of other children and to take responsibility for the resources and environment."

Children's Minister Beverley Hughes says 'imaginary games are good for their development as well as good fun' The report says: "Creating situations so that boys' interests in these forms of play can be fostered through healthy and safe risk-taking will enhance every aspect of their learning and development." It cites a North London children's centre which helped boys create a "Spiderman House" and print pictures of the superhero from the internet. This led to improvements in their communication, ability to develop storylines in their play and skills in drawing, reading and writing.

The guidance is aimed at boosting boys' achievement. They often fall behind girls even before starting school and the trend can continue throughout their academic careers. Children's Minister Beverley Hughes said: "The guidance simply takes a commonsense approach to the fact that many young children and perhaps particularly many boys, like boisterous, physical activity." "Although noisy for adults such imaginary games are good for their development as well as good fun."

But Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "The real problem with weapons is that they symbolise aggression. "The reason teachers often intervene when kids have toy guns is that the boy is usually being very aggressive. We do need to ensure, whether the playing is rumbustious or not, that there is a respect for your peers, however young they are."

Chris Keates, general secretary of the The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) union said: "Many parents take the decision that their children won't have toy weapons."

Research by Penny Holland, academic leader for early childhood at London Metropolitan University, has also concluded that boys should be allowed to play gun games. She found boys became dispirited and withdrawn when they are told such play-fighting is wrong.


Learning an Illegal Lesson in Our Public Schools

Nothing shocks us anymore, especially when it comes to illegal immigration. We've already seen the government on our southern border distribute millions of comic-book style guides to its citizens, informing them how to come to and survive in America illegally. (Read "Mexican Government's Official Guide to Illegal Immigration") Indeed, the "Guide for the Mexican Migrant" doesn't even pretend that it's intended to help legitimate legal immigrants.

The very first sentence of the Guide's introduction explains that readers will learn the answers to "some basic questions about the legal consequences of your stay in the United States of America without appropriate immigration documents, as well as the rights you have in that country once you are there, independently of your immigration status." But we digress, since that surprise came to light nearly three years ago.

The latest outrage is much closer to home. In fact, it's at home - in our nation's heartland to be specific - in a high school classroom in Ohio. We couldn't believe it when we saw the story in Saturday's edition of the Columbus Dispatch. But there it was in black-and-white under the headline "Students struggle as immigrants do." Public school students were assigned the role-play project of immigrating to and then living and working in the United States ... illegally.

That's right, according to the newspaper, a Spanish teacher at Olentangy Liberty High School told her students to "assume a Latino identity, build an imaginary life in your home country and develop a workable plan to immigrate to the United States." At first, the students were urged to "[t]ry it legally," so they "[f]illed out the correct documents" and "[f]ollow[ed] the proper steps," even spending "days completing the actual paperwork from the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services." But that was not the lesson that the students were supposed to learn, so the teacher "took out her red ink pad and stamped a big, fat DENIED across every [legal documented] request." Then, she told the students to come to America illegally.

The story went on to explain that the students were assigned to "forge [their] documents" and to "find a way across the border." The students also had to "research real [classified] ads and find a place to live in Columbus," not to mention "how to get food" and "how to survive." As a result, according to the newspaper, "the students had to go to real businesses and ask for Spanish-language job applications," as well as "visit a bank and ask for new-account documents written in Spanish."

And to teach what lesson? Well, the story reports that the teacher "caution[ed] that the point isn't to sway the students, only to teach them a little empathy." But while that's a nice sentiment, it's more than a little bit disingenuous since the same news story explains that, from the outset, the teacher promised her students "that the process - even in make-believe - would frustrate them."

Indeed, the feature article says that the teacher "hoped" her students would gain "an understanding of what is one of the most important political and humanitarian issues facing the U.S, government today." We could agree with that, except for the slanted view these students learned through this teacher's lesson - not to mention an illegal one.

Ironically, in justifying her lesson, the teacher explained: "These kids will become our leaders, maybe even the people who make the laws. At the very least, they'll certainly be the people who vote on them. Shouldn't they learn something about it all now?" Maybe so, but it would be better that they learn a legal lesson - rather than an illegal one - in our public schools.


Sunday, December 30, 2007

The tax credit option

A poll released last week by the Illinois Policy Institute and the Friedman Foundation revealed a surprising item on the Christmas wish lists of Illinois parents: a new school for their kids. Four out of five Illinoisans said they would opt out of traditional state public schools if given the chance. And they would choose private schools over public by a margin of two to one (39 percent to 19 percent).

Legislators can help grant that wish and save money at the same time. How? By expanding the state's education tax credit program. Education tax credits are a great way to use private funds to improve education and expand school choice for all families while saving taxpayers money. The credits reduce the amount a taxpayer owes the government for each dollar he spends on education. If a business donates $4,000 to a scholarship-granting organization, it could deduct $4,000 from its tax liabilities. Similar benefits for donations can be applied to individuals or to parents on education expenses for their own children.

Education tax credits, in other words, come in two forms. The first, tax credits for donations to scholarship organizations, can help support school choice for lower-income families. And the second, personal-use credits, can help middle-class families. Tax credits save the states money because the amount spent on each student on average is so much less. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, public schooling costs around $10,700 per child, while private-school tuition averages around $7,300. Education tax credits cover just what a family needs to send their child to a better school and turn what's pocket change to an education bureaucrat into a lifeline for thousands of children.

Three states now have modest forms of personal-use tax credits. Iowa allows 25 percent up to $1,000, and Minnesota allows 75 percent of non-tuition expenses up to a maximum credit of $1,000 per child. Illinois allows families to claim credits worth 25 percent of their educational expenses up to $2,500, which means a small $500 tax benefit. That's far too little to save much money or expand choice significantly. Lawmakers should build on current law by allowing a 100 percent credit on education expenses up to half of current per-pupil spending in the public schools for each child.

But a personal-use tax credit won't be enough for many lower-income families without a large tax liability. That's why lawmakers also need to pass a donation tax credit program for scholarships. Five states - Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island - have serious donation credits. Pennsylvania allows a 90 percent credit for donations to scholarship-granting organizations and Florida allows a 100 percent credit, helping thousands of children from lower-income families attend good, independent schools.

Tax credits have already been expanded in a number of states, with the support of people that you might not expect. Democratic legislatures or governors helped to pass tax-credit programs in Arizona, Rhode Island, and Iowa last year, and Pennsylvania expanded its existing program.

This year a unified Democratic government in Iowa increased the tax-credit dollar cap by 50 percent to $7.5 million from $5 million. Many prominent African-American Democrats - most notably, Newark Mayor Cory Booker - support tax credits. Even New York's Democratic Governor Eliot Spitzer supports tax credits and proposed an education-tax deduction in his first state budget. So there should be plenty of bipartisan cover for Republicans and Democrats in the Illinois legislature to come together and promise taxpayers they'll do right by their children this Christmas - and make good on that pledge in the New Year.


Russia likes British education

They presumably have Oxbridge in mind, not British "Comprehensives"

Vladimir Putin's controversial youth movement is to send a select group of activists to learn at British universities - despite its disdain for Britain and its harassment of the British ambassador in Moscow. The 100,000-strong Nashi group, which is reportedly funded by the Kremlin, is to pay for dozens of its activists to study in Britain - because the excellence of the education will help make Russia a "world leader".

The move comes as Russia is threatening to forcibly close the St Petersburg and Ekaterinburg offices of the British Council, which promotes education overseas, as part of a diplomatic row. Nashi recently resumed its campaign against the British ambassador, Sir Anthony Brenton, after his speech on democracy to Putin opponents. Sir Anthony has called the campaign "psychological harassment bordering on violence", and complained that it had affected his wife and children. His car has been followed and he has been picketed on trips out of Moscow.

Yet despite its views on Britain, Nashi states: "We lag behind in knowledge and experience vital for making Russia a 21st-century world leader. British education is rated highly all over the world. The graduates of British universities are in great demand. This is because of the high quality of education and also control from the government."

Relations between Moscow and London have been soured by Russia's refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, wanted over the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London. Britain has refused to extradite Boris Berezovsky, who Russia accuses of financial crimes. An embassy source said: "The British Government supports young Russians who wish to study in the UK. This is a core activity of the British Council's three offices in Russia. We are delighted that Nashi clearly supports the objectives of the British Council."