Monday, April 06, 2009

Study Supports School Vouchers

In District, Pupils Outperform Peers On Reading Tests

A U.S. Education Department study released yesterday found that District students who were given vouchers to attend private schools outperformed public school peers on reading tests, findings likely to reignite debate over the fate of the controversial program.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the first federal initiative to spend taxpayer dollars on private school tuition, was created by a Republican-led Congress in 2004 to help students from low-income families. Congress has cut off federal funding after the 2009-10 school year unless lawmakers vote to reauthorize it.

Overall, the study found that students who used the vouchers received reading scores that placed them nearly four months ahead of peers who remained in public school. However, as a group, students who had been in the lowest-performing public schools did not show those gains. There was no difference in math performance between the groups.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement that the Obama administration does not want to pull participating students out of the program but does not support its continuation. "Big picture, I don't see vouchers as being the answer," Duncan said in a recent meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters. "You can pull two kids out, you can pull three kids out, and you're leaving 97, 98 percent behind. You need to help all those kids. The way you help them is by challenging the status quo where it's not working and coming back with dramatically better schools and doing it systemically." [A very disappointing response from Duncan. That old "We are going to make ALL schools first-class" response has been around forever but it never happens and it certainly won't in DC]

Since it began, the voucher program has awarded scholarships to more than 3,000 students from low-income families, granting up to $7,500 a year for tuition and other fees at participating schools. This school year, about 1,715 students are participating. The Bush administration, and many Republicans, have championed the program as a "lifeline" for students in struggling schools.

Supporters hailed the congressionally mandated study as proof the program works. "With concrete evidence in hand that this program is a success, we look forward to reauthorizing it as quickly as possible," Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (Calif.), the top Republican on the House education committee, said in a statement.

The study, conducted by the Education Department's research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences, compared the performance and attitudes of students with scholarships with those of peers who were eligible but weren't chosen in a lottery. Parents of students in the program were more satisfied with their children's new schools and considered the schools safer, the report found. Students showed no difference in their level of satisfaction.

In a letter Thursday to Duncan, several GOP leaders urged him to continue awarding grants. "Under no circumstances should the funds be withheld by the U.S. Department of Education when so many children in the District need and deserve access to a quality school today," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and other lawmakers wrote.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), whose Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs has jurisdiction over the District, has said he plans to hold hearings on the program.


No school for 35,000 British High School students?

Tens of thousands of A-level students may be left without a college or sixth-form place this autumn because there is no state funding for them.

Frantic efforts were under way last night to plug a £60 million hole in funding for the education of students aged 16-19 in England.

Details of last-minute cuts to sixth-form funding were e-mailed to schools on Tuesday – the last day of the financial year – which meant that they had no opportunity to seek new money or to readjust annual budgets due to begin the following day.

The cuts, which could affect an estimated 35,000 students, contradict government plans to encourage more young people to remain in education until 18. Many schools and colleges say that they have insufficient cash to pay for their current students, let alone the significant increase in numbers predicted for 2009-10. Some have lost as much as £300,000 a year.

Shaun Fenton, co-chairman of the Grammar School Headteachers’ Association, said that jobs would be cut, leading to bigger classes and fewer courses. “It will not be popular media studies courses that will close,” he said. “It is more likely to be small science, maths, languages or computing courses that will face the axe.”

John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that schools and colleges had responded magnificently to the Government’s policy to increase the number of 16-year-olds in education. “They have an even more critical part to play during the recession, when more young people are likely to stay in full-time education,” he said. He has written to Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, asking for more money.

Sixth-form and college funding is administered by the Learning and Skills Council, which was criticised this week for mishandling a rebuilding programme that left colleges millions of pounds out of pocket.

Ministers said that they were not aware that it had promised schools one sum of money on March 2 only to cut it on March 31.


British government meddling 'has de-skilled teachers'

Teachers should be allowed to use their judgment and be given greater freedom to teach beyond the strictures of the national curriculum, rather than being flooded with edicts, MPs say today in a highly critical report.

The Commons Children, Schools and Families Select Committee says that government meddling has de-skilled the teaching profession and turned it into a franchise operation.

The freedoms enjoyed by academies, which are semi-independent from local authority control, should be enshrined at all schools, the committee says.

MPs took evidence from government agencies, trade unions, academics, research organisations and associations representing different subjects.

The report says that MPs have heard how the level of central prescription and direction through the national curriculum and national strategies had “deskilled teachers”. “At times schooling has appeared more of a franchise operation, dependent on a recipe handed down by government, rather than the exercise of professional expertise by teachers,” it said.

The current regime of testing and school inspection had exacerbated matters, the report adds.


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