Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A parent’s plea on teaching

IF I could change public education, here's what I'd do first: reward the best teachers with higher pay and stature, and fire the worst teachers, because they shouldn't be in the classroom.

My children have gone through a total of 16 years of public schooling in New Jersey. Over the years, I've seen outstanding teachers, and outstandingly bad ones. Our kids have had teachers who introduced them to everything under the sun, and made every day different and fascinating. Some of our daughter's teachers gave up their lunch and stayed late to help her find her way through the maze of math. Two of our son's teachers comforted him when traumatic events laid him low. My daughter's sixth-grade teacher made students feel like real scientists; her language arts teacher covered everyone's papers with useful suggestions. These people put everything they have into teaching. They light sparks that stay lit for years.

But we've also seen teachers who put dents in our children's spirits, day after day, teachers who barely taught anything at all, who, I suspect, chose the profession because they wanted summers off.

My father used to come home from his post office job railing about co-workers who didn't do their share of the work, but couldn't be fired. Watching bad teachers fail to do their jobs, I'm even angrier than he was. How can anyone justify protecting the jobs of teachers who:

hand out worksheets every day, or let students play on computers or watch videos, instead of teaching?

batter their students daily with shouting and ego-bruising remarks?

create stress and despair by giving incomprehensible assignments at the last minute?

It could be worse. We haven't had to deal with broken arms or sexual abuse. But should that be the bar we set? With so much at stake, it seems absurd to treat teachers like civil servants - good and bad compensated the same way, and everyone immune to firing regardless of performance.

You might think that complaining to the principal would be enough to fix these problems, but it doesn't usually work that way. Operating in permanent damage-control mode - in part because they don't have the freedom to fire teachers - many principals preserve tranquility by placating parents every way they can, short of solving the problem.

To fix the system, we need first to identify problem teachers. This shouldn't be left to the principals. Every school should seek specific feedback from every student's parents, every year. Don't wait for unsolicited complaints: For every gripe that reaches the principal, there are many unhappy students and parents who didn't want to take that step. Discount the extreme responses, if you like; but don't ignore criticisms that are repeated over and over.

Yes, give bad teachers training, support, a chance to improve. But watch them closely. If there's no progress, don't force another two dozen or more children to endure a year with them.

This means changing the tenure system - something people assume can't happen because teachers unions are too powerful. There's hope, though: In experimental programs, teachers have accepted change, when they had a say in drafting the new rules. In exchange for the right to fire terrible teachers, some districts are now rewarding exceptional performance. That should be a national model. Higher pay for excellent teachers would improve teaching in two ways: by attracting high-caliber candidates, and by allowing stellar teachers to stay in the classroom instead of pursuing raises by the administrative route. Since cities and towns are already having a hard time paying their school bills, the federal government could help by offering major tax reductions for teachers.

Smaller classes, better textbooks and curricula, early childhood education, deemphasizing standardized tests - each of these reforms might help improve schools. But I'd happily sign my children up for crowded classrooms with antiquated curricula and no computers, if I knew they'd be getting inspiring teachers. I think every parent would.


British students pushed out of universities by EU applicants

British sixth formers could be "crowded out" of university places because of an increase in applications from candidates from the rest of Europe, according to vice-chancellors. An unprecedented surge in applications by young people to start higher education in the UK in September has seen the number of British candidates rise by 8.8 per cent from last year. Applications from the rest of the European Union are rising even more quickly, up by 16.4 per cent.

Yet even though 43,367 more Britons and 3,576 more Europeans are chasing places, the Government has set a controversial 10,000 cap on the number of additional places available across the sector. A combination of the cap, the rise in EU applicants and a rule that prevents universities from discriminating in favour of homegrown talent means that British sixth formers risk losing places to well-qualified rivals from abroad. Students from the EU are funded by the Government in the same way as British students, and count in an identical way towards universities' student quotas.

"We have never seen anything like the upsurge in applications," said Malcolm Grant, the provost of University College London. "It is across all sectors, postgraduate, international and even our conventional UK and EU undergraduate applications. "EU students have to be treated the same. There is a crowding out possibility – if you take an EU student it is a place that is not available to a UK student.

"We get superb overseas students, especially from France and Germany, and we must treat them on the same basis and offer them places on the same basis. "They turn up here and they are dead keen to have come to London on their own initiative. They have studied English in a formal way and are pretty impressive."

The number of EU students studying in the UK is already on the rise. Between 2006/07 and 2007/08 there was a six per cent increase to 112,150, while enrolments of Britons actually fell by one per cent. Over the same period, the number of non-EU overseas students increased by four per cent.

The squeeze on places this year will mean even greater competition for courses. It is estimated that as many as 80,000 applicants could fail to find a place. Les Ebdon, the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire University, who has condemned ministers for restricting higher education at a time of recession, warned that if British students are turned away, while EU students win places, it could lead to a backlash that mirrors the "British jobs for British workers" row. "Institutions are not allowed to discriminate against any student in the EU," said Professor Ebdon, chairman of the Million+ group of newer universities. "And for EU students, the UK is an increasingly popular destination. "But in a situation when you have increased applications, a cap on places and few places through clearing it will be difficult for the public to understand why a Polish student can get a place but their own kids can't."

EU nationals face the same £3,145-a-year tuition fees as their UK counterparts and are entitled to the same grants and subsidised loans, to cover the cost of fees and living expenses. Non-EU overseas students are charged full tuition costs by universities, which average £10,000 a year for arts students, and they do not count against Government student quotas.

Since 2006, EU citizens studying in Britain have been eligible to take out low interest loans to pay for tuition fees, in the same way as British students. They are supposed to pay back what they owe when they graduate. But figures published earlier this year revealed that among the 2,240 EU students who have so far become eligible to start paying back such loans, some 1,580 were not doing so, leaving taxpayers with a £3.8 million bill.

David Lammy, the universities minister, claims that the figure is misleading because a proportion of the 1,580 students will have changed courses and not yet graduated, or are earning below the salary at which loans have to be repaid - £15,000 in the UK, or an equivalent level in their homeland. Students from the EU currently studying currently studying at British universities have borrowed, between them, a further £124 million to cover tuition fees and living costs. It is feared that many who return to their home countries will never repay the money because there is no repayment mechanism outside of the UK. The Student Loan Company has to rely on students informing them of their earnings and making their own arrangements, although it said measures to track EU students will be in place by April next year.


Australia: Crooked private school still gets Federal "stimulus" cash

Typical of the low level of care that we expect of "stimulus" spending

AN elite Melbourne private school has been showered with new government infrastructure funding despite being under threat of deregistration for chronic mismanagement, including hiring a fake teacher and breaching the rules for its annual federal grants.

Melbourne Montessori School will receive $847,000 of taxpayer funds to build a new hall and classroom as part of more than $6billion in new funding announced by Education Minister Julia Gillard over the past week. Yet the private primary school, which commands fees of about $7000 for its students, is mired in controversy; about 20 families, representing almost 10 per cent of the school's 256 students, are taking legal action against the school. In March, a review by school watchdog the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority warned that the problems at the Montessori school were so severe it "no longer complies with the prescribed minimum standards for registration as a school".

In a desperate effort to survive, the school's board last week dismissed principal Nicolette Correy and briefed authorities about steps taken belatedly to comply with state and federal standards of governance.

Parents who have had children at the school say they have been failed by both the school's former management and also by Victorian regulatory authorities, which they say failed to step in and take decisive action when told of the school's problems. Sean Macdermott's daughter Sadhbh was taught by a fake teacher, Renai Brochard, who used another teacher's identification to get a job with the school in 2006 and 2007. "You take your child to school each day and you trust your school to protect them and it's really scary for a parent when it doesn't happen," Mr Macdermott said.

He was one of several parents to confront the school about Ms Brochard's qualifications when he noticed that she appeared to lack the most basic teaching skills, much less those associated with the alternative, Montessori philosophy. However, Ms Correy and the school board dismissed their complaints and insisted Ms Brochard was a qualified teacher. It was not until the end of the 2007 school year that the Victorian Institute of Teaching found ms Brochard had faked her teaching qualification.

Late last year, at the urging of parents, the VRQA examined the management of the school and in March it produced a damning report saying children were being taught by staff who had a Montessori background but who were not qualified teachers. It also found the school failed to comply with basic governance requirements including legal obligations to report on the performance of the school, its teachers and its students.

The failure to produce these reports meant the school was in breach of its legal requirements when it received $1.35 million in federal funding over the past three years. Parents have withdrawn about 30 students from the school in the past 18 months.

Now about 20 families are taking legal action against the school's insurer to recoup fees and other expenses incurred during the time when their children were being taught by Ms Brochard.

The head of the school's new board, Tony Swain, said the school was taking steps to put its troubled past behind it. "We have tried to deal with the problems that were plaguing the school in 2008 that led to a number of families leaving," Mr Swain said.


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