Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Killing school choice in DC

If ever there were a case of mixed-up priorities in Washington, this is it. Tucked into the $410 billion "omnibus" spending bill passed by the House of Representatives on February 25 is a provision designed to terminate the Washington Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), the school choice program established with bipartisan support in 2004 that is providing a glimmer of hope to thousands of students and families in the District of Columbia.

More than 2,000 students have been able to attend one of the D.C. area non-public schools through the program since it was established, and more than 7,200 have applied for scholarships, demonstrating the overwhelming public demand in the District among parents for new educational options for their children.

The D.C. opportunity scholarship program is creating greater opportunities and transforming lives.

"[The OSP] gives me the choice to, freedom to attend other schools than D.C. public schools," one thankful parent told researchers from the University of Arkansas, which conducted an in-depth study of the program's performance. "I'm not really badgering or bashing the system, but right now, well at the time, I just didn't feel that I wanted to put him in D.C. public school and I had the opportunity to take one of the scholarships, so therefore, I can afford it and I'm glad that I did do that."

In a video entitled "Voices of School Choice" posted on the website of the education reform-minded Heritage Foundation, local students participating in the OSP tell President Obama first-hand about the importance of the program, and implore him to keep it alive.

Buried in the so-called "omnibus" bill, however, is a poison pill intended to terminate the program. The language in the bill, proposed by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), sunsets the program after the 2009-2010 school year unless both Congress and the D.C. City Council take specific steps to reauthorize it.

Reauthorization is clearly not the intent of the Democratic leaders who run Congress. Powerful teachers unions that oppose school choice contributed millions to Democratic campaigns last year, and the Democratic leadership in Congress now has the program in its crosshairs. In a recent statement, House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-OK) advised D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee to "promptly take steps to minimize potential disruption and ensure smooth transition" for children currently participating in the program to re-enroll in the District's public schools.


The declining prestige of academics in Britain

So you want to be a nuclear physicist. I bet your parents are horrified. Nor do they want you to be an Oxford Don or a classicist. That's the bizarre British conundrum that Gail Trimble can't answer. When the University Challenge contestant let slip that she would like to be an academic when she finishes her doctorate in Latin literature, the comment that surprised her most was, "get a job".

Parents in Britain spend more than 1.5 billion pounds a year on tutoring. Many have spent this term agonising over whether Freya or Felix will get into a grammar school. They are thrilled if their child is asked to join the Government's gifted programme. Schools are assessed on their academic league tables. Gordon Brown's sole intervention in education as Chancellor came when he tried to help Laura Spence get into Oxford.

Yet once undergraduates arrive at the dreaming spires or the red bricks it would be a calamity if they actually decided to stay and become a don. What a waste of an education. Britain lauds its television presenters, not its academics. Sir David Attenborough is Britain's most famous naturalist; 100 years ago it was Charles Darwin. Young historians want to be Andrew Roberts, Willie Dalrymple, Simon Sebag Montefiore or better still Amanda Foreman whose book on Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire was turned into the film starring Keira Knightley. They want to visit the White House, appear in glossy magazines and be asked to write lucrative articles in newspapers. They'd rather not disappear into the dusty corridors of academia never to be seen again. Boris Johnson uses his classics education to entertain. Carol Vorderman is Britain's best known mathematician. Stranger still, the diminishing role of the academic in Britain has coincided with a massive expansion of higher education. We now want half the country to reach university but we deride those who will teach them when they get there.

The rising number of students partly explains why becoming an academic is such an unappealing career. The amount of government money universities receive for each graduate has fallen by 50 per cent in real terms over the past two decades. Lecturers now spend hours preparing lessons, marking dissertations, filing paperwork, monitoring students and fending off pushy parents, while also attempting to publish research papers. Even at Oxford there is precious little time for dreaming amid Matthew Arnold's spires. While the average graduate worked 44 hours per week in 2004, academics worked 47 hours per week.

For this they are paid a pittance. Back in the 1960s, an Oxford professor earned as much as a Liverpool football player. But the boom years never reached the campus. Between 1982 and 2001, academic earnings went up by 7 per cent in real terms, whereas average earnings for all full-time employees in Britain went up by 44 per cent. Academics now earn 23 per cent less than lawyers, 24 per cent less than doctors and 49 per cent less than dentists. Having missed out on the boom years, they are now participating in the bust. Universities have been told to cut back even further on original research projects, which are increasingly seen as an extravagance. And despite recent falls, house prices in Oxford and Cambridge mean most can no longer afford to live near the centre. According to the Association of University Teachers, three quarters of academics believe there has been a decline in their status in the past five years alone. No wonder the exodus of postgraduates abroad is higher than any other developed country. When my grandfather, a physicist, was professor at Imperial College before the Second World War, he lived in an eight-bedroom house in Notting Hill that is now worth œ20 million. My other grandfather, director of the Cavendish Laboratory after the war, lived in an even more imposing Georgian house in Cambridge that is now a hall of residence.

In the 1950s intellectuals still wanted the prestige - and money - that came with being a successful academic. Now the blockbuster historians, economists and scientists prevail, but if they want to keep up their advances they need to find a subject that has broad appeal rather than concentrating on specialised research on narrow topics. William Hague has admitted that he did no original research for his much admired autobiography of Pitt the Younger. The top-selling history books are mainly spin-offs from television programmes.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian would have struggled if it had been an academic thesis on the changing face of agriculture in the former Soviet Union, but became a bestseller because it started: "Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blond Ukrainian divorcee". Yet the former subject would have added more to our knowledge.

Who cares? Well, perhaps the future blockbuster writers who will find that there is no one inspirational left to teach them at university. There is little point in sending an ever greater number of young people to rack up debts for three years if they are going to taught by overworked, demoralised, second-raters.

In America academics are sought after in public life. President Obama has crammed his cabinet with intellectuals. His Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, won the Nobel Prize in physics. The director of the National Economic Council, Larry Summers, was a professor at MIT and Harvard. France also has a longstanding connection between public life and academia. Christine Lagarde, the finance minister, worked as a law lecturer, the education minister, Xavier Darcos, was a professor of literature.

Britain was like that once. Lord Annan called the years from 1945 to 1975 the golden age. Academics moved in and out of Whitehall as wise men. C.P. Snow chronicled their moves in his novels. Harold Macmillan became Chancellor of Oxford while still Prime Minister. Rab Butler became Master of Trinity. Harold Wilson, who had been a lecturer at Oxford, stuffed his Cabinet with former Oxford dons.

Yet few ministers now have a doctorate. In Brown's Britain, being clever is equated with being posh and elite. Mr Balls prefers beautician diplomas to Beowolf discussions, he calls for universities to "skill" students rather than educate them.

Britain has prospered during those periods in its history when scientists and thinkers have played a key role in our national life. Queen Elizabeth I was the best-educated woman of her generation. Technological advances drove the industrial revolution. Scientists helped to win two world wars. If we want to replicate that success today, putting senior common rooms rather than dealing floors at the centre of our national life might be a good place to start.


British government schools slip farther behind private schools at final High School exams

The Labour government has wreaked vast destruction on British education

Private schools had more pupils gain three grade As at A level last summer than all the comprehensives put together, according to data suggesting that poorer students are falling farther behind their middle-class contemporaries. More than 10,000 privately educated students got three As last year, the standard required to win a place at top universities, compared with just under 7,500 children at comprehensive schools. This is despite independent schools educating only 7 per cent of all pupils.

The figures, obtained by the Conservatives, also show that the achievement gap between the better off and the poor is widening at A level. Since Labour came to power in 1997, the gap between the proportion of students gaining three As at comprehensives and independent schools has widened from 12.2 to 22.7 percentage points. Almost a third of private pupils get three As, compared with less than one in ten at comprehensives. Last year 38 per cent of students achieiving straight As at A level were at fee-paying schools, compared to 28 per cent at comprehensives and 16 per cent at grammar schools.

Michael Gove, the Shadow Schools Secretary, said that pupils were now four times more likely to get three As at an independent school than at a comprehensive school. Despite millions of pounds of government investment directed at raising standards in comprehensives, through programmes such as the National Challenge, there was a widening gap between opportunities for better-off families and the rest, even among results for the brightest pupils, he said. At a conference organised by the children's charity Barnardo's today, he will say that there is a widening gap between opportunities for richer families and the rest. A Tory government would aim to reverse this. "We will make it easier to set up new academies, especially in poorer areas, and make it easier for them to hire great teachers, and we will make it easier for talented people to become teachers," he said.

Conservative plans to allow new state-funded schools to open in deprived areas, based on the Swedish system, with extra cash for children from more deprived homes, would reverse a growing social class gap, he said.

The figures show that the pattern of the education achievement gap is complex and impacts on all ability levels, not just among the less able or borderline pupils, where most government resources are directed. Separate figures from National Strategies, the Government's programme for professional development for schools, show that of the more than 26,000 pupils who obtained three As at A level, the number on free school meals (the rule of thumb measure for poverty) was 176, representing less than 1 per cent. Nationally, the figure is about 13 per cent. Clive Bush, of National Strategies, told a conference of head teachers organised by the Future Leaders programme last week, that British schools showed the biggest variation in performance of any school system in the world. There were wide discrepancies between types of school and within individual schools.

The figures come after concern expressed by Christine Gilbert, the Chief Inspector of Schools, that poor children had "the odds stacked against them" in education and that pupils were becoming divided along economic lines in schools.


No comments: