Thursday, July 02, 2009

British teachers to be fired under new classroom licence plan

A good start -- but expect very weak-kneed enforcement

Teachers will need a licence to enter the classroom and face being banned if they cannot renew it every five years, the Government said yesterday. The radical move, in a White Paper put before the Commons yesterday, will be widely seen as an attempt to weed out incompetent teachers and to stop bad teachers being shunted from school to school. Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, indicated that he expected some teachers to fail their renewal. “It may be that we will discover some teachers who do not make the grade, and some who aren’t relicensed,” he said.

Newly qualified teachers would get a licence to teach from September. All teachers returning to the profession will go through the process from September next year, and supply teachers will be targeted after that. Eventually all teachers will need a licence.

Experts have estimated that more than 20,000 teachers are not fit to do their jobs, with one or two in each school. Heads privately complain that it is virtually impossible to sack poorly performing teachers. Only ten teachers, out of a workforce of 500,000, have been fired for incompetence since 2001. Teaching unions attacked the plan for licences, saying that teachers already faced numerous accountability measures.

Mr Balls indicated his intentions in the Children’s Plan published in December 2007, in which he called on the General Teaching Council to root out teachers whose “competence falls to unacceptable low levels”.

Under the licence scheme, head teachers would provide written accreditation for teachers every five years, vouching for their ability, and the General Teaching Council would conduct an annual audit of about 5 to 10 per cent of teachers. The licence would go hand in hand with entitlement to professional development so that teachers could keep up with the latest teaching methods and technology.

Christine Blower, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “Teachers’ capacity and practice are persistently under review. It is not clear to me that head teachers will welcome an additional responsibility to relicense their teachers every five years.”

The licence was one of several radical reforms announced by Mr Balls in the White Paper. These include report cards, which will grade schools from A to F across a range of measures, including academic performance, children’s wellbeing and parental satisfaction.

Local authorities will also be forced to consult parents about whether they are happy with schools, and set out a plan of action if the results are negative. Parents will have to sign up to the school’s behaviour rules and reiterate this commitment each year. If it is breached, they could face a courtimposed parenting order or a fine.


In One Room, Many Advantages

The 'little red schoolhouse' of legend, whatever its flaws, made more sense than the warehouse-schools of today

Tacked to my wall is a lithograph of the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. For many years, it graced my mother's one-room schoolhouse in Lime Rock, N.Y. Antiquarian relic or enduringly relevant image? The same question may be asked of the "little red schoolhouse" itself, whose reality and legend are the subject of "Small Wonder." Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor at New York University, sets out to tell "how -- and why -- the little red schoolhouse became an American icon." Mr. Zimmerman proves a thoughtful and entertaining teacher.

First, the chromatic debunking: One-room schools were often white and seldom red. The teachers were usually young unmarried females, pace the most famous one-room schoolteacher in literature, Ichabod Crane. They swept the floor, stoked the stove, rang the hand-bell and taught their mixed-age students by rote and recitation. The schools could be a "cauldron of chaos," in Mr. Zimmerman's alliteration, as tyro teachers were tormented by Tom Sawyers dipping pigtails in inkwells and carving doggerel into desks.

Yet these one-room schools, Mr. Zimmerman notes, were "a central venue for community life in rural America." They hosted plays and dances and box socials and spelling bees and Christmas pageants.

In 1913, Mr. Zimmerman says, "one-half of the nation's schoolchildren attended one of its 212,000 single-teacher schools." By 1960, progressive educationists, growing cities and the centralizing pressures of two world wars and a Cold War had reduced the total to just 1%.

The attempt to abolish one-room schoolhouses, whether by the carrot of state aid or the stick of government fiat, set off one of the great unknown political wars of U.S. history, pitting farm people who "invoked classic themes of liberty and self-rule" against the "mostly urban elites" who "would wage zealous battle against the rural one-room school." Typically, two Delaware school-consolidators informed the hicks that "modern education . . . is less romantic and more businesslike, more formal, more exact, more specialized, done according to tested methods and a standard schedule." Such grim exactitude sounded like prison to parents used to the comparatively anarchic and localized governance of rural schools.

Progressives worshipped "efficiency," Mr. Zimmerman observes, a word that to country people "conjured up a bloodless, impersonal system that buried small-town traditions and idiosyncrasies in a maze of regulations and policies." Big was better than small, asserted the consolidators. Riding the bus to a new school over "good roads" -- the highway and automobile industries lobbied for consolidation -- was superior to walking (how old-fashioned!) to a nearby school. A system in which parents and neighbors had a say in the education of a community's children was judged incapable of keeping up with the ever-accelerating improvement of the human species.

The propaganda mills worked overtime. New Deal photographers snapped pictures of decrepit one-room shacks and contrasted these premodern blights with the spotless (if sterile) multistory consolidated schools. City journalists who knew nothing of rural life (except that it was retrograde) fanned out over the countryside, filing stories suggesting that the young 'uns in Dog Patch were larnin' that the world was flat and toothbrushing was one of Satan's snares.

The one-room school was "neither as rundown as critics claimed nor as bucolic as defenders imagined," Mr. Zimmerman writes. But its champions understood its flaws. They were defending the principles of local autonomy and human-scale democracy. Mr. Zimmerman quotes a "rural mother" who lamented: "Individuality will be lost, the pride taken in 'our' school and 'our' teacher gone. Haven't the parents who bear the children anything to say?"

Not in the consolidated schools they didn't, except in PTA debates over which kind of brownies to sell at the bake sale. "Thousands of rural parents did resist consolidation," Mr. Zimmerman says; they struggled to save the one-room symbols of "their vanishing local communities." But true to Joni Mitchell's lyric, the rest of America didn't know what it had till it was gone.

By World War II, the little red schoolhouse whose razing had been a New Deal project became a symbol of homefront democracy. In the 1960s, some liberals praised the one-room school of yore as "the precursor to group learning" and "open classrooms" -- daily Bible reading not included. At the same time some conservatives extolled its alleged (and exaggerated) hickory-stick discipline.

Decades after consolidation had obliterated one-room schools, researchers discovered their advantages. The child in the small school is not just a statistic on a government chart. She receives "individual attention and recognition." She works at her own pace. She has, most important, a place. As Mr. Zimmerman remarks, recent alternatives to "the large, alienating modern school," from charter schools to homeschooling, have sought to foster "the snug, communal aspects of the one-room school." But the one-room-school model entails community control, which liberals and conservatives alike resist if the "community" sings from the wrong hymnal.

The idealization of the little red schoolhouse, Mr. Zimmerman concludes, reflects a rueful awareness that in modernity Americans "gained the whole world of technological conveniences and lost the soul of their communities."

Even after Mr. Zimmerman's unsentimental accounting of its defects, the one-room school shines in comparison with the over-large and remotely controlled warehouses in which too many children are educated today. Reading "Small Wonder," one wonders if Americans will ever tire of chasing after the gods of Progress and Bigness and rediscover the little things, red schoolhouses among them, that once gave us our soul.


Australia: "League tables" and NSW school-reporting policy

Below is an article from Jennifer Buckingham of the Centre for Independent Studies. Her line is very much that of the teachers' unions. She supports the covering up of some kinds of information about schools: Very disappointing from a free-market think-tank. At the foot of the article I reproduce a letter from a teacher who is also surprised by her views

The Federal Government confirmed last year that it would be making good on its election promise to introduce transparency measures for all schools, including publicly reporting school-level performance in national tests, year 12 results, and a range of other information.

The main concern the critics of this policy have is the potential for media outlets to mine this information to create and publish "league tables" - lists of schools ranked from "best" to "worst" by a single performance indicator. This has been the experience in other countries, and fears that it may happen here were realised when a Tasmanian newspaper recently published school rankings of the newspaper's own creation.

It is important to make one thing clear: school-performance reporting and league tables are not the same thing. School-performance reporting, done properly, is a way to empower parents and make them informed participants in their child's education.

Under the new federal reporting protocols, people will be able to look up any school and see how it has performed in national tests and get information about teacher and student characteristics, among other things. They can see how that school's performance compares with the state average and "like schools". By looking up several schools they will be able to compare the schools in their area, but this comparison will not be provided to them as a list or ranking. It is up to people to compare individual schools and draw their own conclusions.

League tables, on the other hand, are lists or rankings of schools based on a single indicator, without reference to context or location. They are a potential by-product of providing parents and the public with information. They are often misleading, are not useful and can be harmful to the schools at the bottom of the rankings. Some schools may deserve to be there, but others will not.

Opponents of school-performance reporting have used the spectre of league tables to argue against it, but this did not stop the state and territory education ministers agreeing on the policy. To comply with this federal agreement, NSW had to amend legislation put in place in 1997 that prohibited the publication of information that allowed schools to be compared on academic performance. Last week a bill was passed in the NSW parliament to do just that. The amendment will allow a new national federal agency, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, to publish the academic outcomes of individual schools.

The Greens argued fervently against the amendment, but obviously had already seen the writing on the wall. Knowing that the amendment would pass, the Greens introduced a clause to the amendment in the last half hour of the debate, which they had previously drafted with the help of the Coalition. The clause attempts to prevent the publication of league tables in "a newspaper or other document that is publicly available in this state". The clause also prohibits the identification of schools "in a percentile of less than 90 per cent in relation to school results, except with the permission of the principal of the school".

The Labor MP Penny Sharpe put up little defence, saying the clause was "well-intentioned but utterly futile". Sharpe argued that it was questionable whether print media would comply, and there was no jurisdiction over the internet. She also raised the possibility that it might also have negative consequences for school systems and associations publishing their own comparisons or school profiles.

There was little debate about the clause and it passed with a majority of five votes. This anti-league table clause seems, on the surface, to have discarded the bath water while retaining the baby. It would be nice to think legislation could solve misuse of information, but it is doubtful. In this case the compromise position may be unacceptable. If the clause is ineffective, school league tables will be published anyway.

This will mean a missed opportunity to draft legislation that might have been more effective in protecting schools from spurious claims about their performance by over-zealous media outlets.

Alternatively, the clause may be too effective, preventing any comparative information being produced even for a small audience, undermining the positive effect of the school-reporting policy. If misleading league tables can be avoided they should be, but not at the expense of parents' right to know. Time will tell if, in its haste to pass the amendment, the NSW parliament has betrayed this principle.


A polite letter to Ms Buckingham from a reader

I read your article in the SMH Online website and I had to look twice to be sure it said you were from the CIS that I subscribe to.

Your point appears to be that while you don't oppose the release of information for parents, you do object to it's publication in newspapers on the basis the information might be presented in a simplistic way. Indeed you quote an example from Tasmania. In my experience of league tables - i.e. Times Education Supplement - such league tables attempt to apply all factors in a weighted manner. I haven't seen an example of a one factor league table although I don't deny that it can happen.

You appeared to be arguing for laws which attempt to legislate against the misuse of information. That would appear to be dangerous ground for a fellow at the CIS whose philosophy I would have thought was that freedom of information is more important than protecting the public from its misuse. Where information is misused it is easily refuted and the source so discredited, I might have thought.

When it comes to education, in my limited experience, parents often do not make rational decisions anyway, but the provision of information on the multilevel performance of schools I would have thought to be a useful anitdote the present atmosphere of enforced egalitarianism that forced me, in 1959, to attend a run-down, indequately set-up junior technical high school with its cadre of motivated and unmotived, professional and incompentant, but generally poorer teachers than the intermediate technical school or even higher level high school that my efforts might have deserved before before Harold Wyndham had his way.

Fortunately, many of my classmates, who will be marking the 50th anniversary of our entrance to Jannali Boys' High School this year, went on to make a mark on our society, despite the handicap.

Encouraging schools to lift their game by publishing outcomes, I believe, can only serve to ensure that there should be no gap between state and private schools, and that they, and their teachers thus deserve the increased funding coming their way in Rudd's Education Revolution. As a profession I believe teachers, of whom I am now one, should have an obligation to use one month of their generous annual leave for upgrading their professional skills in the same way other professional are. But that's another story!

Again thank you for your thoughts on this matter. But I do hope they don't represent the position of the CIS!

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