Wednesday, March 11, 2009

On Education Spending: Facts, not faith

Obama pours money into discredited programs

President Obama's massive education initiative detailed in his proposed budget aims at the right challenge - lifting our schools and narrowing achievement gaps. But huge chunks of his eye-popping $131 billion package, now before Congress, would go for stale federal programs that have long failed to elevate students' learning curves.

Mr. Obama promised a sharp break from President Bush, who often bent scientific findings to advance his favored dogma. Instead, "it's about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology," Obama promised at his inauguration. Few question the president's plea to improve the quality of our schools and colleges, racheting-up our economy's competitiveness. This requires not just retooling auto factories or investing in solar power, but enriching the nation's human capital as well.

To boost school quality Obama declared that he would only fund programs that lift pupil performance. "In this budget," he declared before the Congress, "we will end education programs that don't work." Music to the ears of the empirically minded. But hard-headed scholars are scratching those craniums over Obama's desire to spend billions more on disparate federal programs that have delivered little for children or teachers over the past decade.

Take Washington's biggest schools effort: the $14 billion compensatory education program, known as Title I, supporting classroom aides and reading tutors for children falling behind. A 1999 federal evaluation showed tepid results at best, largely because local programs fail to alter core classroom practices or sprout innovative ways of engaging weaker students. President Bush, pushed by congressional Democrats, expanded Title I school aid by 50 percent as he implemented No Child Left Behind. The result: achievement gaps have barely budged, even as the education attainment of young Latino and African American parents has inched upward.

So, under Obama's scientific principles this moribund program should be cut, right? Well, the president's new budget actually expands Title I by half again, with spending rising more than $20 billion a year. Ditto for special education funding, upped by $6 billion in the president's new budget, a heartfelt effort that's shown a modicum of success in boosting reading skills for millions of children.

Two dilemmas already haunt the White House. First, Obama went along with House Democrats last month who seized on the stimulus package, a long awaited chance to dramatically boost school spending and make college more affordable. To move quickly, the president agreed to pump-up already authorized yet deeply entrenched programs like Title I, whether these well-intentioned efforts have yielded detectable benefits or not.

Second, powerful lobbies arise every time the Congress creates a new program. Boosting Title I and Head Start spending will protect or spawn new jobs, providing urgently needed economic stimulus. But these hikes also embolden constituencies that fight tooth and nail to protect their favored program, hope they want to believe in.

Pieces of Obama's education plan are built on foundations of solid evidence. His proposal to expand Early Head Start - offering prenatal services and child care for toddlers - is backed by experimental results showing gains for mothers and children alike. The benefits of Head Start are less impressive, but significant, and could grow if efforts to boost teacher quality take hold. Massive dollar infusions may elevate program quality. But this assumes that the daily work of teachers or tutors, after a quarter-century of institutionalized habits, can be recast markedly to energize students.

What's risky is when Obama ignores empirical rigor for programs backed by powerful interests. He expands charter school funding to please corporate leaders who desire market remedies. Or Title I wins lavish funding as teacher unions argue that one day the program will lift achievement. It's ironically reminiscent of the Bush doctrine under which ideology and speculation trump hard evidence.

Making tough decisions with facts, not faith, is so emblematic of Mr. Obama's new pragmatism. But as the Congress begins debate over his huge education initiative, we will discover whether Obama's commitment to science is real, or simply rhetoric.


More State-funded boarding schools for Britain?

Academy [charter] schools could become boarding schools if the Conservatives won power at the next election. Michael Gove, the Shadow Schools Secretary, said that he would explore setting up state-funded residential academies "so that children in the greatest need can secure a placement that offers them the very highest standards of education and care".

There are currently only 35 state boarding schools in Britain offering free education and low-cost care for pupils, but no academy yet provides residential care.

Mr Balls announced plans for the 100th academy yesterday. The schools remain in the state sector but are independent of local councils and accept sponsorship from private companies or charities. Mr Gove told the charity Barnardo's that a study had found that 85 per cent of vulnerable children placed in state boarding schools were doing as well as, or better than, their peers.


Many British children turned away at the school gates

This week thousands of children were denied places in their first choice secondary school. Here, a teacher argues that the British education system is as crisis-ridden as British banks

The parent sobbed openly at the reception of the secondary school where I teach: "But it's not fair! You have to let her in!" Our secretary had to ask our caretakers to escort her off the premises. But she wasn't surprised. Every year, she gets hundreds of calls from panic-stricken parents wanting to know why their child didn't get into our over-subscribed comprehensive. Every year, she says the same thing: read the instructions in the admissions booklet very, very carefully. There's no way she can explain such a complex process over the phone. If she did, she'd never go home.

I teach in a very popular, co-educational comprehensive in outer London which gains some of the best results in the country. In common with many similar institutions, every year, over 400 applicants don't get an offer of a place. Much as we would like to take them, we have only one place for every three children applying. This year was no different: there were hundreds of bitterly disappointed families.

It's little consolation, but they might comfort themselves with the knowledge that they are not alone. On National Offer Day earlier this week, where parents discovered whether their child had been successful in applying for a place at secondary school, one fifth of parents didn't get their child into the school of their choice. In counties such as Kent, nearly a third of parents failed to get their preferred school.

It's no wonder thousands of parents are furious. A report from the London School of Economics published this week suggests that the whole system is in a state of chaos, with schools flagrantly flouting the rules - asking parents for personal information including marital status, occupation and even children's hobbies - and parents themselves being bamboozled by the arcane bureaucracy involved.

As a parent, teacher and writer who has researched this subject for years, I can only concur with the LSE's report. The central problem is that there is no consistency in the system: the rules or "admissions criteria" by which schools admit their pupils differ from school to school. There are a host of different rules when applying to grammar schools, academies, faith-schools, specialist schools and plain-old bog standard comprehensives.

If you're applying to a faith school, you usually have to prove you've attended church regularly for a number of years, live within the parish and have a glowing reference from your local vicar or priest. If you're going for a specialist school, you'll get preferential treatment if you can prove your child has an "aptitude" in that specialism. For example, schools that specialise in sports will often need to see references from coaches and team leaders. For grammar schools, you'll need to pay for a private tutor so that your child will excel in the 11-plus exam. And if you're going for a good local comp, you might have to consider selling your house and moving closer to the school - or lying about your address, which increasingly parents are doing.

But even moving near a good school can backfire. Take Katie, who moved house so she could be near the only popular school in her area, a faith-based school which specialised in languages. She thought she had everything covered - the attendance at church, the vicar's references, the proof that her son has an aptitude for languages - only to find that in the year of her application her local authority switched to a lottery system: all the schools were allocated randomly. As a result, her application failed. She is now faced with the absurd prospect of having to drive her son miles away to a sink school, despite the fact that she lives next door to an excellent one. All her hard work was for nothing. "This Government has ruined my family's life," she told me, trying to hold back the tears.

Time and again, conscientious parents who have fought so hard to get their children into good schools have had their best laid plans smashed by idiotic Labour legislation.

But it isn't only the school admissions system that the Government has broken. It's the exam system as well. Since they arrived in 1997, Labour apparatchiks have done nothing but interfere with exams. Each new initiative has made things worse. The Sats exams for seven, 11 and 14-year-olds have been mired in controversy from the start, with claims from parents and teachers that they are irrelevant and put pupils under unnecessary pressure. The situation was so bad last summer, when swathes of Sats papers were lost and thousands denied their results, that the Children's Secretary, Ed Balls, abandoned Sats for 14-year-olds and indicated that he was even considering scrapping the exam for all ages - a ghastly admission of defeat.

Even more seriously, A-levels and GCSEs have lost their credibility. The Government trumpets that the number of pupils gaining five A*-C grades at GCSE has risen from 44 per cent to 65 per cent since 1995, but any teacher knows this supposed improvement is nonsense. Recent research by Durham and Cambridge universities shows that the exams have become so dumbed down that these statistics are meaningless and that far from fostering real learning, the exam system has made our children less intelligent than they were in the 1970s, when far less was spent on education.

Meanwhile, the world education rankings run by the respected Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) - the only really trustworthy league table there is - shows Britain slipping from fourth to 14th for reading and from eighth to 24th for Maths. Put simply, most children from Europe and the Far East outperform our pupils every time - even in English.

Our exam system has become such a joke that many schools are giving up on it. Just this week, one of our top independent schools, Manchester Grammar, decided to abandon GCSEs, on the grounds that they were too easy, and to replace them with the International GCSE (IGCSE). In a letter to parents, the head poured scorn on the new GCSEs that the Government is introducing this September, observing that they threaten teachers' abilities to do their jobs well: they are stuffed full of easy questions and coursework.

Quite why the Government is bringing back coursework when its own investigations have uncovered widespread cheating and plagiarism appears a mystery until you realise that coursework significantly boosts results. In other words, the revamp of GCSEs is a cynical ploy to manipulate the statistics. But as any experienced teacher knows, coursework has a corrupting effect upon pupils because it makes them believe they can cheat their way to the top.

A real educational apartheid is developing between the independent schools who are abandoning the government's testing regime and the rest of us in the state sector who are lumbered with it. Clearly, children who take the wrong GCSEs haven't a hope of getting into the top universities because they haven't had the opportunity to gain respected qualifications.

One of the consequences of the Government decimating our exam system is that the process by which students apply for university has become farcical. The fact of the matter is that our best universities have lost faith in GCSEs and A-levels and have introduced their own tests. As a result, students have to fill in a barrage of forms, write a personal statement and take numerous A-level exams before gaining a place, and are also compelled to take exams set by the suspicious universities - particularly for popular courses such as medicine.

To make matters worse, the university admissions procedure is so haphazard that there is no uniformity over when the universities make their offers. So students are required to accept or reject an offer before they've heard back from all the places to which they have applied. Having been tested to the point of extinction, these poor students are frequently forced to sign up for inferior courses, even though they may have gained places on better ones. As with school admissions, one suspects this is a cynical ploy to make sure that the inferior universities are filled with students.

Our education system is failing on all counts: it is shockingly unfair, riddled with incompetence and corruption, and benefits no one but the bureaucrats. But while the pen-pushers enjoy enormous power and over-inflated wages, parents can see no end to their misery. Too many parents have watched helplessly as their children's education has gone down the drain: too many children have endured mediocre schools, taken too many worthless GCSEs, and saddled themselves with crippling debts to gain worthless degrees that lead nowhere but the dole queue.

Despite the phoney propaganda the Government peddles, Labour's incessant meddling, monstrous dumbing down and moronic self-righteousness have consigned our schools to the scrap heap. It pains me to say it, but our education system is as crisis-ridden as our banks.


1 comment:

Dan said...

If you support these core initiatives:

-Effective, empowered teachers and school leaders;
-Student assessments that stress 21st century skills;
-Universal access to high-quality early education;
-A safe, healthy learning environment; and
-Affordable college for all students;

Let Obama know. Visit and sign the petition.