Thursday, November 27, 2008

Rhee-Forming D.C. Schools

A Democrat shakes up Washington's failed public schools

Guess who recently said the following: "Tenure is the holy grail of teacher unions, but it has no educational value for kids; it only benefits adults." A right-wing blogger? No, those are the words of Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington, D.C. schools, who is speaking truth to teacher-union power to shake up one of the nation's worst education systems.

In going after tenure, Ms. Rhee is taking on the holiest citadel of the education establishment. This summer she offered a new teacher contract proposal with two options. Teachers could choose a plan under which their pay would rise spectacularly -- nearly doubling by 2010 -- in exchange for giving up tenure. Or they could opt for a smaller pay bump and still lose some seniority rights.

Ms. Rhee's proposal has caused a meltdown among leaders of the Washington Teachers' Union, and negotiations have collapsed. The Chancellor has raised the stakes, announcing the district would seek to dismiss tenured teachers who are ineffective. She has also hinted she'll go around the union by creating more nonunionized charter schools, or getting the federal government to deem her district in a "state of emergency."

Plucked from a nonprofit by D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, Ms. Rhee (a Democrat) has spent the past 18 months puncturing other education taboos. She closed 23 failing schools and restructured 27 more. She fired nearly one-third of the district's principals and reduced a bloated bureaucracy. She dismisses as "complete crap" the argument that students can't learn because of disadvantaged backgrounds.

It's about time. Washington is the lowest-performing school district in the nation. Only 12% of D.C. eighth graders are proficient readers, 8% in math. A mere 60% of high schoolers finish in four years with a diploma. The problem can't be money; Washington's per-pupil spending is the third-highest in the nation, at $13,000 a head.

In part, the problem is unqualified teachers with lifetime job security. Contracts provide ways to fire incompetents, but unions make the process burdensome. In New York City, it costs an average of $250,000 to fire a teacher; the city last year dismissed 10 out of 55,000. New Jersey fired precisely 47 (of 100,000) in the 10 years ending in 2005.

The beauty of Ms. Rhee's tenure reform is that it would use financial incentives to help the best teachers. Unions love to say they are underpaid professionals. Ms. Rhee agrees. Under her reform, teachers willing to be judged on their worth could earn up to $130,000 a year. Her price: Disburse money as is in the real world -- on merit.

The union leadership claims its members oppose to the plan, but the WTU has refused to allow a vote. The local is getting heat from its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers, which is petrified that Ms. Rhee's plan will set a national precedent. These bosses know that smaller pay-for-performance experiments across the country have received strong teacher support.

Ms. Rhee was recently thrust into the middle of a Presidential debate, when Barack Obama and John McCain debated whether she supports school vouchers. (She says she doesn't have an official view but doesn't view them as the solution for public-school woes.) The key point is she's willing to tackle the hidebound practices that have made our worst public schools unreformable. Here's hoping she succeeds, and that her method becomes a movement.


America the Popular

A lesson from students about foreign exchange.

In the media telling, America during the Bush years has been an unpopular and insular country. But one group would seem to differ: young people. The U.S. remains the top destination for students from around the world, while Americans are studying abroad in record numbers too.

The New York-based Institute of International Education's "Open Doors" report, published this week, shows that more foreign students than ever are flocking to American colleges and universities. International student enrollment increased by 7% to 623,805 in the 2007-08 academic year -- the largest annual increase since 1980. The survey, funded by the State Department's Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, accumulates data from 3,000 institutions of higher education.

The report also notes that more American students are choosing to study abroad. In 2006-07, 241,791 Americans studied in foreign universities, a 150% increase from a decade ago. Students are also looking further afield than long-popular Europe, heading instead to places like Tsinghua University in Beijing.

More good news is lurking in the explanations for these trends. American universities continue to enjoy a world-wide reputation for academic excellence and cutting-edge research, even if there's room for improvement. And hosting these students gives the U.S. an opportunity to show them American life and values in action, a useful myth-dispelling exercise. On the other side of the equation, many young Americans are interested in, and engaged with, the world beyond their borders -- which says something about the kind of business and political leaders they'll be after graduation.

If there's a darker note here, it's that Congress remains uninterested in keeping those foreign students in the country once we've invested in their training -- witness the annual cap of H-1B work visas at 65,000. Higher education is a case study in the benefits of free movement of people across borders.


British pupils are 'too spoon-fed to cope with tough degrees'

Students are being sold short by a culture of 'spoon-feeding' at school which leaves them ill-equipped for traditional degrees, a report has warned. The UK produces a bigger percentage of graduates in 'soft' subjects than any other developed nation, according to a study by the Reform think-tank. It also generates the lowest percentage of graduates in engineering, manufacturing, construction, medicine and law - and the second lowest in science and maths. British students are losing out because these courses offer the best salary prospects and are highly valued by employers, Reform said.

The think-tank claims that a culture of 'teaching to the test' has left pupils incapable of thinking independently. 'One result is the growth of a spoon-fed generation that wants to receive education passively and without effort,' the report said. 'This generation prefers the X Factor to A grades.'

The report cited figures showing that only 6.2 per cent of UK graduates have studied engineering - against 15 per cent in continental Europe and 12.9 per cent in Eastern Europe. In contrast, 12.1 per cent of British students graduated in social and behavioural sciences, which include subjects such as media studies. In Asia and continental Europe, the figure is just 6.7 per cent.

The report concluded that UK students are 'poor at following high-value degree options' such as medicine, mathematics, computer sciences and engineering. The think-tank also said that further education colleges had 'lost their sense of purpose' and some had a drop-out rate of 71 per cent.

The report came on the day Ofsted warned that some business qualifications are treated as equivalent to A-levels despite being tested almost entirely through coursework. It said students needed only a 'weak grasp of key concepts' to pass the course.

Reform advocates giving each student an 'education account' worth 13,000 pounds to spend as they wish. It also believes that university tuition fees should not be limited. Elizabeth Truss, deputy director of Reform, said: 'We're already in recession. We urgently need to replace a bureaucratic skills maze with a system that puts individuals in charge of their own learning.'


1 comment:

USpace said...

It seems like there is some good education news in America, not so much in the UK. Btw, you do amazing work, thank you; please enjoy my FREE eBook, your URL is on page 19.
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