Monday, December 29, 2008

Obama Picks a Moderate on Education

The president will ultimately decide whether to take on the teachers' unions.

Barack Obama picked Arne Duncan only partly for his skills on the basketball court. As secretary of education, he will be running one of the administration's most important finesse games. The CEO of the Chicago public schools and the ultimate diplomat, Mr. Duncan rises to the rim at a moment when teachers unions are, for the first time, facing opposition within the Democratic Party from young idealists who favor education reform. They want to recapture what should always have been a natural issue for Democrats: helping underprivileged kids get out of failing public schools.

Considering the reviews from the right and the left, you might be confused about whether Mr. Duncan is a signal that Mr. Obama's administration is lining up behind the reformers or supporting the status quo. Washington, D.C., schools Chancellor (and _ber reformer) Michelle Rhee endorsed the pick, as did President Bush's Education Secretary, Margaret Spellings. But Mr. Duncan also has fans among traditional Democrats, whose main interest is keeping the teachers unions happy. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi applauded the choice, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promised that he would enjoy a speedy confirmation.

So what should we make of Mr. Duncan? One promising clue comes from a group called Democrats for Education Reform, part of the growing voice for reform in the party. DFER is known to cheer Democrats brave enough to support charter schools and other methods of extending options to parents. Joe Williams, the group's executive director, predicted that Mr. Duncan will help break the "ideological and political gridlock to promote new, innovative and experimental ideas."

In Chicago, Mr. Duncan is credited with laying out plans to close 100 underperforming public schools. Fans also note that he helped raise the cap on charter schools to 30 from 15. But his record is short of miraculous. Why have a cap on charter schools at all? And the teachers unions extracted plenty of concessions, including a ban on new charters operating multiple campuses.

Mr. Duncan is certainly no bomb thrower. His role instead will be to harness the entrepreneurial spirit of young idealists in the party, like DFER and the tens of thousands of young people who join Teach For America each year. This group, which continues to attract highly skilled young people, is fast creating the new Democratic elite in the education arena while challenging the education establishment.

At forums during the Democratic National Convention in Denver, several big-city mayors lined up with reform principles against union demands. Cory Booker of Newark, N.J., said that "As Democrats we have been wrong on education, and it's time to get it right." Washington, D.C.'s Adrian Fenty, a strong backer of Ms. Rhee's effort to negotiate tough terms with the unions, remarked that the politics of school reform are changing fast. At one DFER event last year, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. used the word "monopoly" -- a major affront to teachers unions -- to describe failing schools. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the third ranking Democrat in the House, is another important convert to the idea of more parental choice in education.

It's all a bit delicate, which makes Mr. Duncan Mr. Obama's man for a good reason. He's known for a flexibility that allows him to float between the traditional Democratic strongholds and the new wave of reformers in the party. With proper implementation, Mr. Obama could accomplish on education reform what President Bill Clinton did for welfare reform -- taking a previously Republican issue and transforming it from within the left.

But unions aren't about to slink off into the sunset. If they're losing some of their clout at the national level, they maintain their grip locally. In many places, teachers angle to usurp the language of the reformers while pushing their own agenda. Thus "merit pay" has been twisted into a system that bears little resemblance to the original concept of paying teachers for teaching kids successfully. Instead, it has become pay-for-credential, offering salary bumps for continuing education and other qualifications, with no anchor to proven results in the classroom.

Mr. Duncan is a reformer at heart, if one who works collegially within the system. But in the end, much will depend on his boss. Whether Mr. Obama is an artful fence walker or a real agent of change -- on schools or anything else -- is a mystery the coming year may finally clear up.


Peek inside Britain's schools and shudder

If you want to know how bad the future will be, take a look at our schools, and shudder. We know that they are nurseries of ignorance, which is why we have to import disciplined, hard-working, competent young Poles to do so much of the work in this country. We should also be concerned that they are places of fear and violence, where authority is nothing but a joke.

The police have admitted (under Freedom of Information laws) that they were called to violent incidents at least 7,000 times in English schools last year. Since FoI disclosures are about the only Government statistics we can trust, I think we should take this seriously, though - since not all police forces replied - the figure is probably much higher. There is no reason to think that things are much better in Scotland or Wales.

The Sixties revolution, which destroyed the authority of parents and teachers alike, will soon reach its long-cherished goal. Everything stuffy, traditional, repressive, old-fashioned and boring has been swept away in the world of the young. They are all free now. The trouble is that they do not know how to be free, because they have also been taught that morals are `judgmental', religion is `outdated' and that adults are just obsolete ex-teenagers groping their way to the grave, a nuisance to be ignored or violently shoved aside.

They have discovered that the law is not just feeble (though it is) but that it frequently punishes those who try to uphold what used to be the rules of civilisation. And that, while we now have armed policemen licensed to kill virtually at will, our authorities recoil in horror at the very idea of an adult smacking a child. Listen to this slightly edited account of a day in a supposedly reputable school in a prosperous and middle-class area of one of the Home Counties. It is written by a highly experienced teacher, returning to work after a few years away.
`The class turned up totally out of control... it was similar to controlling a riot ... it took about 15 minutes to sit them down and make them do some work. `A boy in the front row turned his back on me and decided that he would try to wind the class back up into a frenzy, by calling out, waving his arms and by completely disregarding my presence. 'I thought he was going to mount the desks in front of him and cause other pupils - or himself - some damage. I had no intention of smacking him, but to restrain him from his own actions I went to grab him.'

The result of this was that the teacher concerned was accused, by another pupil, of the heinous crime of `smacking'. Thanks to this, the person involved has given up teaching and is - quite reasonably - worried in case the Useless Police and the CPS are called in and mount one of the zealous life-ruining prosecutions of innocent teachers that they so much enjoy.

Now, listen carefully, to see if you can hear any Sixties liberals admitting that they were wrong to dismantle adult authority. And listen even more carefully to see if you can discover a `Conservative' politician with the courage to say that this must be put right, that marriage is miles better than non-marriage, that a man without a conscience is wilder than any beast, that fathers should be respected, that parents must be allowed to smack, that teachers should be able to cane.

All you will hear is silence, mingled with the sound of boots kicking a human head as if it were a football, the head of another poor fool who tried to stand up for what was right, and thought he could appeal to the better natures of people who have been brought up feral, and have no better natures.


Australia: Reprieve for "old" maths in the State of NSW

The "old" syllabus is why NSW students learn more than kids in other States

The NSW Government will delay introduction of a long-awaited new syllabus for Higher School Certificate mathematics courses to avoid confusing schools with further changes when a national curriculum is introduced. The new courses were to be taught to year 11 students from 2010. It is about 30 years since the senior maths curriculum has been reviewed.

The Minister for Education, Verity Firth, has asked the Board of Studies to delay the new documents to avoid complicating the national curriculum agenda. "In light of the current work on the national curriculum, the minister has asked the Board of Studies to complete initial work on the senior maths syllabus but to delay implementation while monitoring the progress of the national curriculum," a spokeswoman said. "This is to avoid confusion for students, teachers and parents."

The NSW Board of Studies said it would meet on February 17 to discuss the status of the new HSC maths courses in the context of a national curriculum.

Representatives of the school-resources publishing industry contacted The Sun-Herald about the delay. A maths editor said book sellers who relied on income from the sale of syllabus documents were concerned.


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