Saturday, July 18, 2009

Charter Schools Gain in Stimulus Scramble

Cash-Strapped States, Districts Signal Expansion of Public-Education Alternative Despite Some Teachers' Strong Opposition

Some cash-strapped states and school districts are signaling a major expansion of charter schools to tap $5 billion in federal stimulus funds, despite strong opposition from some teachers unions. Charter schools are typically non-unionized, publicly funded alternative schools that have been widely promoted by conservatives as a needed dose of competition in public education.

Last month, the Louisiana legislature voted to eliminate that state's cap on new charter schools. The Tennessee legislature recently passed a bill expanding charter schools after U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan personally lobbied Democrats who had been blocking it. And the Rhode Island legislature reversed a plan to eliminate funding for new charters after Mr. Duncan warned such a move could hurt the state's chances for grant money.

The most striking example may be in Massachusetts. Gov. Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Tom Menino -- both Democrats with histories of strong labor support -- are proposing new state laws that would give them broader power to overhaul troubled schools, open more charter schools and revamp collective-bargaining agreements. Gov. Patrick Thursday proposed increasing the number of available slots for students in state-sponsored charter schools to 37,000, from 10,000. He also wants to give state officials the explicit power to appoint outside receivers to run chronically underperforming schools. Mr. Duncan came to Boston to join Gov. Patrick and the mayor as they detailed their plans.

Charter schools receive public money but are free from many of the rules and restrictions that govern traditional public schools.

Mr. Menino, who oversees the Boston schools, wants Massachusetts communities to be able to transform traditional public schools into district-controlled charter schools and link teachers' pay to performance. Formerly a charter-school critic, Mr. Menino said he is fed up with opposition from the Boston Teachers Union. "I'm just tired of it," he said. "We're losing kids." Richard Stutman, the Boston Teachers Union president, declined to be interviewed.

Massachusetts public schools have regularly been among the nation's top performers. But officials have struggled to turn around the worst-performing schools and eliminate achievement gaps between white and minority students. "We have been talking about these gaps for years while children wait," Gov. Patrick said Thursday.

The Obama administration created the "Race to the Top Fund" earlier this year to dole out federal money for school innovation. States and school districts nationwide suffering from deep budget cuts are scrambling for a share of the funds.

Mr. Duncan has warned states in recent months that they are unlikely to qualify for the grants if they don't move toward changes such as merit pay for teachers and lifting caps on charter schools -- measures that unions have either opposed or tried to limit.

In a speech earlier this month to a convention of the National Education Association, the largest teachers union, Mr. Duncan urged teachers to embrace revamped pay and seniority rules to give schools greater flexibility. "When a Democratic secretary of education goes to the NEA and mentions merit pay explicitly as something that has to happen, the ground has shifted," said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.

Teachers are starting to adjust to the new landscape. They are "both feeling the pressure and willing to think about doing new things," said Jane Hannaway, director of education policy at the Urban Institute, a left-leaning research group. "It's a new world."

Some teachers unions have made moves to give administrators greater flexibility. In New York City, for instance, the United Federation of Teachers, which operates two charter schools, has accepted a form of merit pay.

Even so, Randi Weingarten, departing UFT chief and president of the American Federation of Teachers, the national union, said some states are moving too fast. The availability of the new federal grants "is pushing people to say and do things simply because everybody is desperate for resources," said Ms. Weingarten, whose union represents 1.4 million members.

School takeovers and overhauls have a mixed record. While test scores rose in cities like Boston, Chicago and New York after mayors took control of the schools, state takeovers have been less successful. Most state education departments aren't staffed to manage a school district or an individual school. Even bringing in a private school-management concern doesn't ensure improvement.

In 2004, long-troubled Cole Middle School in Denver became the first school to be taken over by the state of Colorado. Management was turned over to KIPP, a large San Francisco-based school-management concern. It ran Cole as a charter school and test scores rose. But KIPP had difficulty finding the right administrator for the long haul, and it eventually withdrew from the effort. The school was closed for several years. Reopened last fall as an arts and sciences academy serving students in preschool through eighth grade, Cole is seeking state approval to undergo yet another transformation and become a so-called "innovation" school, which would give it charter-like status under state law.

In Massachusetts, with its long history of local control of schools, the proposals of the mayor and the governor are likely to face opposition from school boards as well as teachers unions. But with the availability of the new federal funds at stake, some think legislators will have a tough time voting against them. "It would be a political disaster for anybody to be seen as reducing our ability to access that money," said Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a right-leaning, Boston-based think tank.


Children’s authors outraged at British "Big brother" scheme for schools

A prominent group of children’s authors and illustrators have said that they will stop visiting schools in protest against a new vetting scheme which comes into place in the Autumn. Some of the top names in children’s publishing - including Philip Pullman, Anthony Horowitz, Michael Morpurgo and Quentin Blake - have refused to register their names on a new government database.

Philip Pullman, the author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, described the Home Office policy as “corrosive and poisonous to every kind of healthy social interaction.” He said: "I've been going into schools as an author for 20 years, and on no occasion have I ever been alone with a child. The idea that I have become more of a threat and I need to be vetted is both ludicrous and insulting. “Children have never been in any danger from visiting authors or illustrators, and the idea that they should be is preposterous.”

The Vetting and Barring Scheme is being managed by the Independent Safeguarding Authority, which was set up following the murder of schoolgirls Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells by Ian Huntley, who was a janitor at their school at the time. All individuals working with children in schools will need to sign on to the database, at a cost of £64 per person, from October 12.

Michael Morpurgo, a former children’s laureate and the author of War Horse, said that children would suffer as authors decided to stop visiting schools because of the regulations. “Writers don’t go into schools for the money, they do it because they want to bring their stories to children and make readers of them. “The notion that I should somehow have got myself tested or passed in order to do this is absurd.”

Quentin Blake, who has illustrated said: “You don’t go to the trouble of being the Children’s Laureate to pay £64 to have permission to talk to children. That is bizarre.”

The Home Office said: “The UK already has one of the most advanced systems in the world for carrying out checks [That's a fact] on all those who work in positions of trust with children and vulnerable adults. From October this year the new Vetting and Barring Scheme will ensure these regulations are even more rigorous.”


Shoddy marking of British grade-school exams again

Head teachers angered by the poor quality of marking in this year’s national curriculum tests are sending back thousands of test papers to be marked again. Hundreds of primary schools are expected to write to the government agency responsible for exams to protest about sloppy marking and inconsistent standards.

The most talented children at some schools were penalised because the formulaic marking did not recognise their flair. Other schools discovered that right answers had been given a zero, or that wrong answers were marked as correct. Some pupils were penalised for not dotting the letter i — others were not.

The tests, formerly known as SATs, are a source of contention in schools and many heads and teachers would like them to be abolished. Those taken by 14-year-old pupils were scrapped last year, after the results from millions of papers went missing or were delayed. ETS, the company responsible, had its £156 million, five-year contract terminated, and an investigation found a backlog of 10,000 unanswered e-mails from worried schools.

Ministers insisted that this year’s tests for 11-year-olds would run more smoothly. Government agencies boasted last week that 99.9 per cent of pupils had their results on time. However, two teaching unions, representing the majority of primary school teachers and heads, are planning to boycott the tests for 11-year-olds next year if Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, refuses to get rid of them.

Yesterday one of those unions, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), which represents 85 per cent of primary heads, said that it was encouraging its members to write to Ofqual, the government agency responsible for exam standards. It said heads had complained of harsh and unfair marking, spellings being marked right when wrong and vice versa, little consistency in the marking of composition, clerical errors and mistakes in adding up marks. The marking scheme was time consuming and weighted to discourage schools from returning papers for review, the union said.

The importance of dotting every “i” was brought home to West Hill Primary in Cannock, Staffordshire, where some pupils were marked down for incorrect spelling if they failed to do so, but other children who had made the omission had dots added by the marker and were given a point. One 11-year-old pupil was given 0 out of a possible 2 marks for correctly spelling “stunning” but without dotting the i. Another child received 3 out of 12 in spelling for failing to dot the i in the words remain, various, scorching, distinctive, carrying and magical, all of which were spelt correctly.

Shaun Miles, the head teacher, has sent back eight papers out of 58. He said: “It’s bizarre and petty. The marker had used a red pen and put dots over some letters, and given some children the mark, but not others. Those who were marked as wrong were graded Level 4 instead of Level 5.”

Ian Foster, assistant secretary of the NAHT, said: “The bureaucracy and stress surrounding these outmoded tests, compounded by clear examples of inadequate marking, can be dispiriting for pupils and parents, and potentially put school leaders’ careers on the line . . . There have been comments that maybe the quality has been usurped because of the tight marking deadline.”


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