Monday, January 12, 2009

School Choice: The Real Test

It's official: President-elect Barack Obama's two daughters are attending Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. The decision comes as no surprise. That elite private school launched former first daughter Chelsea Clinton on the path to success years ago. And the Obama girls are certainly used to attending a private school.

The Obamas steered clear of the Chicago's failing public schools, where 34 percent of the students fail state reading tests and only about half the pupils graduate from high school. So there was never any reason to expect the Obama family to subject Sasha and Malia to D.C.'s failing public schools.

Yet as president, Obama will have some promises to keep. Not only to his daughters, but to all Americans. During his campaign, he vowed, "We cannot be satisfied until every child in America -- I mean every child -- has the same chance for a good education that we want for our own children." And the best way to give students that chance is to give their parents a choice.

If parents were allowed to pick their children's school (as the Obamas have now done twice), they'd pick the best available school, not merely the one that happens to be in their neighborhood.

Obama's decision should serve as a teaching moment for his administration's education policymakers. Lesson number one would be that spending doesn't equate to success.

D.C. spends some $14,000 annually on each child in its public schools. A lot of that funding comes from the federal treasury, which means all American taxpayers are subsidizing the D.C. public schools. That's one of the highest per-pupil costs in the nation. Yet if the District were a state, it would rank 51st -- dead last -- in test scores.

To address these failings, Congress created the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program four years ago. The plan provides low-income children the chance to attend a school of their parents' choice. Some 1,900 disadvantaged children now attend private schools in the District.

Parents are happier with the schools they've picked, and the students are making progress, too. A testing evaluation shows that participating students scored higher than their peers who remained in public school.

Sadly, Obama seemed to be leaning in the wrong direction. "What I do oppose," he told the American Federation of Teachers, "is spending public money for private school vouchers. We need to focus on fixing and improving our public schools, not throwing our hands up and walking away from them."

Yet real reform would involve expanding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program so that all children in the District can have the chance to attend a safe and effective school. That's not "throwing up our hands." That's doing something. Something other than simply throwing more money at a problem. We'd be expanding a successful program, so students could attend better schools and their parents could be more involved in their education.

The Obamas are already a role model for this, of course. They arrive in D.C. as an intact family, and both Barack and Michelle are clearly involved in their children's education. The key is to take this to the next level by making school choice available to all parents in the nation's capital.

Powerful politicians of all stripes routinely exercise school choice. A recent survey of Congress found that 37 percent of representatives and 45 percent of senators had sent at least one child to private school. The Obama administration could pave the way for a better education system nationwide by extending school choice to those less fortunate than Washington's elite power brokers. That would be a change Americans deserve.


Regulator said 15,000 useless teachers worked in British schools. Nine years on, how many have been fired? Just 10

Only ten teachers have been struck off for incompetence in almost a decade despite a Government crackdown on poor practice, it emerged yesterday. This means only two teachers have been barred for every 100,000 working in the state system since the General Teaching Council was set up in 2001 to protect children from under-performing staff. The watchdog admitted yesterday the system for passing on concerns about weak teachers was 'virtually non- existent' in many areas. Councils are legally required to pass details of incompetent teachers to the watchdog but two-thirds have not made one referral in seven-and-a-half years. 'The issue for us is whether all children can be assured that the teacher in front of them is competent,' said chief executive Keith Bartley.

The revelation that only ten out of 500,000 teachers in the system have been removed makes a mockery of Labour pledges to root out the incompetent. A claim by former Ofsted chief Chris Woodhead that there were 15,000 incompetent teachers led the then Education Secretary David Blunkett to introduce a fast-track procedure for firing poor staff within a month. Labour also backed legislation setting up the GTC within months of taking power in 1997.

Ten years on, Schools Secretary Ed Balls admitted the system needs tightening up and in his ten-year Children's Plan, issued in December 2007, called on the GTC to root out teachers whose 'competence falls to unacceptably low levels'. In response, the GTC has begun an investigation to find out why so few under-performing teachers are being referred to it. In cases where a teacher is dismissed for incompetence or resigns when dismissal is likely, their employers are supposed to inform the GTC.

Figures disclosed by the GTC show it has received 155 referrals from employers in the past seven and a-half years, which resulted in 64 competency hearings. Of these, only ten resulted in the teacher being struck off. A further 39 entailed disciplinary sanctions including suspension or a reprimand. In 13 cases, the GTC ruled there was no case to answer. The GTC investigation will conclude later this year and is expected to lead to a crackdown on employers who shun their duties. Mr Bartley said: 'I am hopeful we can now address the issue in underperformance.' He told the Times Educational Supplement: 'I don't think we are talking about a broken workforce. It's the best qualified it's ever been, and the best trained.'

The number of incompetence cases emerged a few days after current Ofsted chief, Christine Gilbert, warned that ' boring' lessons were contributing to falling standards of discipline. The Policy Exchange think-tank concluded last year that it was likely that teachers are being ' recycled' around the system. Sam Freedman, the report's author, said 'no one believes' that there were so few incompetent teachers.

John Dunford, general secretary the Association of School and College Leaders, said some heads found it difficult to proceed against incompetent staff because a lack of support from local authorities.


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