Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bloomberg Plans to Stop Promoting Low-Performing Fourth and Sixth Graders

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said on Monday that he planned to make it harder this year for fourth and sixth graders who score poorly on standardized tests to move on to the next grade, extending a policy that his re-election team hopes will help him curry favor with voters. Under the requirements, which are already in place for grades three, five, seven and eight, students who perform at the lowest level on state tests in English and math will have to repeat the grade unless they can master the material in summer school.

Previously, under a policy known as social promotion, school officials gave a pass to low-performing students under the belief that they would be more likely to drop out if they were held back and separated from children their own age.

Mr. Bloomberg won approval for the stricter requirements in 2004, beginning with the third grade, after a bruising battle that involved the firing of three members of an education oversight board and criticism from elected officials, educators and good-government groups.

Over all, fewer students are being held back in the city, even with the tougher promotion requirements — a trend that education officials attribute to rises in test scores across the city since the mayor took over in 2002. In the third grade, for instance, 864 students were held back in the 2007-8 school year, compared with 3,105 in 2002-3, the year before the policy went into effect. In addition, enrollment at summer school has decreased in recent years (it was 105,531 this year, down from 119,954 last year).

Now, as Mr. Bloomberg seeks a third term, he is trying to play down divisions over the policy and portray the end of social promotion as a major reason for the city’s large gains in test scores and graduation rates, even though it is difficult to definitively prove that relationship. At an East Harlem elementary school on Monday, Mr. Bloomberg said social promotion was “as cruel and mean a thing as we could possibly do for any student.” “All we’re doing is setting those students up for failure,” he said. “We are not going to do that.”

Asked what evidence he had to show that stricter requirements had bolstered student achievement, Mr. Bloomberg was defensive. “I’m speechless,” he said. “If you don’t believe ending social promotion is one of the real keys to doing this, I don’t know quite how to answer the question.”

The city’s Department of Education said that 94 percent of low-performing students who were held back in the seventh grade earned a Level 2 (out of 4) or higher on their eighth-grade English tests. By contrast, 59 percent of those low-performing students who were promoted to the next grade reached that level.

Aaron M. Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College at Columbia, said the city should have waited for more conclusive evidence on the effects of its stricter promotion policy before extending it. He noted that similar efforts in other cities had shown mixed results. “Politically, the public is comfortable with hearing, ‘We don’t want just to pass kids along,’ ” he said. “The challenge is figuring out what is a good alternative.”

The city expects a longitudinal study of third- and fifth-grade policies conducted by the RAND Corporation to be released this fall. Mr. Bloomberg’s campaign team seized on the announcement to promote the mayor’s educational record. In response, the city comptroller, William C. Thompson Jr., Mr. Bloomberg’s likely Democratic challenger in the mayoral race, released a statement noting the high numbers of public school graduates who require remediation upon entering city colleges.

The teachers’ union said the move was a “step in the right direction,” but called for better support of struggling students. The new policy will require the approval of the 13-member oversight board, the Panel for Educational Policy, which is expected to vote on the matter after soliciting public comments.


British Conservative education policy - a brave new world of great schools, no national curriculum and real choice for parents?

It sounds great, doesn't it? But is it really going to happen? According to the Conservative party, the answer is very much "yes."

"I don't think", one Tory adviser said to me today, "that people realise how radically education is going to be changed under a Conservative government." It's a very interesting point. While there is much talk of "the Swedish model" (which can conjure up thoughts of something quite different to newly built schools), Tory plans for education go much further than the specifics which they have taken from Sweden.

Today George Osborne will make a speech claiming that the Tories are now the "progressive party", and promising a "revolutionary" delivery of front line services such as health and education. Education is definitely one area where the Conservatives have a wealth of ideas; whether they will now have the money to put them into practice is a moot point.

The most well-known Conservative education policy is probably the concept of independent providers setting up their own state (i.e. non-fee paying) schools, as has happened in Sweden. But England is a quite different country from its Scandinavian counterpart - it's far less homogeneous, both financially and multiculturally - and that's why the Tories are keen to point out that their plans contain much more than new schools. And of course, the Swedish model of education also has far more to it than the introduction of these new schools.

As visitors to School Gate will know, I am often disheartened by education in this country. So surely these plans should appeal to me. For one thing, I'm unhappy that parents often can't get their children into the school of their choice. Do the Tory plans - which also include an extension of academies - address this? I'm not sure. They're certainly meant to, but they also rely hugely on parent power, giving parents the chance to move their children to a new school, set up by concerned mothers and fathers, organisations or charities. What of the children with less pushy parents or the parents who care about their children's education, but wouldn't want to set up their own school to sort it out?

There's also a lot of concern that these policies benefit only the middle class. Interestingly Michael Gove addressed this point in a recent interview with former adviser to David Blunkett, Conor Ryan. "Critics say that these opportunities will be taken up most by the articulate middle classes,’ he said. "But I find that those who are most unhappy with the existing choices are articulate working-class parents."

In any case, if you were worried (as I am) about less privileged children with less pushy parents, the argument is that charities will fill the gap. Disadvantaged pupils will also receive more funding, via the pupil premium. This should guard against any damage to "social cohesion" - a concern of Christine Blower from the NUT.

The plans for new schools apply to both primary and secondaries, with primaries probably first to get the go-ahead. Having cleverly moved Key Stage 2 SATS to secondary school, schools will, apparently, be allowed so much more freedom - to be creative and flexible, something which teachers and parents have been demanding for a long, long time. There will also be no requirement that the national curriculum be followed.

It all sounds exciting, if a little scary. After all, these schools can teach what they want - who will be responsible for them? But if we do want change, perhaps it's time to go for something genuinely different.


Australian Leftist revolution in education is destined to fail

Kevin Donnelly

IF imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Tony Blair's head must be spinning. When it comes to the federal government's education revolution, the reality is that Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard are simply copying policies implemented by Blair when he was British prime minister. Initiatives such as early childhood education, a national curriculum and national testing, identifying under-performing schools and holding them accountable and investing in computers and information and communication technology, are all copied from British Labour.

Even the rhetoric is the same. Just compare Blair's exhortation, "Our goal: to make Britain the best-educated and skilled country in the world education, education, education", to Kevin Rudd's statement: "We need to lift our vision and start to imagine an Australia where we turn ourselves into the most educated economy, the most educated society in the Western world."

Education Minister Gillard, late last year, called on business to become more involved with schools, when she said, "I am certain that we will not achieve world-class education in every Australian school without the active support and involvement of the business community." It should not surprise that Blair expressed the same sentiment in 1999 when he said, "When people say keep business out of schools I say: the more support and involvement of the wider community, including business, in our schools the better."

That Australia's education revolution copies what has been tried in Britain over the past 12 years should not surprise. The ALP's links with Britain include one-time schools minister David Miliband advising the then opposition in the lead-up to the 2007 election. One of the most influential sources of policy advice during the Blair years was the left-wing think tank Demos. The director of Demos, Tom Bentley, after working as a senior adviser to the Victorian ALP government, now advises Gillard. Tony Mackay, the deputy chairman of Australia's National Curriculum Board, also has close ties with the British Labour, having worked with Demos and other British education bodies such as the London Leadership Centre during the Blair years.

Given that Rudd's education revolution mirrors events in Britain, the question needs to be asked: have the Blair policies succeeded in raising standards and strengthening schools? Based on the results of the most recent national tests for 11-year-olds, where two in every five children are leaving primary school under-performing in mathematics, science and English, the answer is "no".

Where there is evidence of test results improving, as noted by Alan Smithers in his report Blair's Education: an international perspective, such results are illusory. Not only have tests been made easier, but schools have also inflated results by narrowing the curriculum, teaching to the test and excluding weaker students.

Such are the flaws in Britain's national testing system, one that Australia has followed with national tests at years 3, 5, 7 and 9, that key stage three tests have been abolished and a recent report evaluating the primary curriculum argues that high-risk, one-off tests need to be wound back in favour of more teacher-directed classroom assessment.

In relation to the national curriculum, Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools originally appointed by Margaret Thatcher and reappointed by Blair, argues that subjects lack academic rigour as they are prone to politically correct fads such as personalised learning and teaching wellbeing. In his recent book Class War: The State of British Education, Woodhead also suggests the reason so many students achieve excellent examination results is because, over time, questions have been made easier and standards watered down.

Such are the concerns about the senior-school curriculum being dumbed down that a group of Britain's most prestigious independent schools has decided to abandon A-levels in favour of more academically rigorous and reliable alternatives.

As to why Blair's reforms have been ineffective and why Rudd's education revolution is also destined to fail, the answer lies in the overly bureaucratic, centralised and top-down nature of the reforms. As suggested by Woodhead: "The lesson for this failure is simple, the top-down imposition of politically inspired education reform does not work." Micro-managing schools and enforcing a one-size-fits all approach stifles creativity, innovation and denies schools the freedom and flexibility needed to achieve strong outcomes.

There is an alternative. Research into the characteristics of stronger performing education systems and schools identifies autonomy, diversity, choice and competition as central, the very things ignored by Rudd's and Gillard's education revolution.

Evidence that school choice and a more market-driven approach works is easy to find: just look at Australia's Catholic and independent schools that, even after adjusting for students' socioeconomic background, outperform government-controlled schools in areas such as literacy, numeracy and year 12 results, as well as school retention rates and success at tertiary entry.


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