Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Gates Foundation seeks education's magic pill

Ever since Americans sent their children to one-room schoolhouses, parents have known what makes a good school: an inspiring, organized, creative teacher. But researchers haven't been able to quantify what exactly makes a teacher effective and how to tie that to student achievement.

Now the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — an influential voice in education policy today — hopes to end that confusion. Nine years and $2 billion into its work to improve America's public schools, the Seattle-based foundation is turning its focus to teacher effectiveness. "We've been sort of looking around for the silver bullet for education reform, and actually the answer has been right under our feet the whole time," said John Deasy, deputy director of the foundation's education work.

Over the next five years, the foundation plans to spend another half a billion dollars in its quest to figure out what qualities make the best teachers and how to measure those qualities in the classroom. The project has two parts: research to develop and test methods to rate teachers and experiments at a handful of school districts around the nation to try out new ways of recruiting, training, assigning and assessing teachers.

Among those asked to submit proposals for a share of the money were school districts in Atlanta; Denver; Hillsborough County, Fla.; Memphis, Tenn.; Omaha, Neb.; Palm Beach County, Fla.; Pittsburgh; Prince George's County, Md.; Tulsa, Okla., and a group of Los Angeles charter schools.

This week, the foundation chose five finalists: Hillsborough County, Memphis, Omaha, Pittsburgh, and the Los Angeles charters. Final decisions will be made this fall. The other five districts will be considered for smaller grants to pay for parts of their effective teaching plans.

Their ideas, which were presented in Seattle earlier this month, focus on teacher training, putting the best teachers in the most challenging classrooms, giving the best teachers new roles as mentors and coaches while keeping them in front of children, making tenure a meaningful milestone, getting rid of ineffective teachers, and using money to motivate people and schools to move toward these goals. "It really is about an effective teacher for every student every year of their school career," said Vicki Phillips, director of the foundation's K-12 education program. "If we did that, we would make the kind of progress that we have all long dreamed about in this country."

Foundation officials said they were impressed with how thoughtful the districts were in their proposals and how clear it was that teacher's unions, school officials and elected school board members worked together to come up with the ideas.

Pittsburgh Superintendent Mark Roosevelt said the process propelled his district forward. "I'd say we made almost 10 years of progress with our union in three months," he said. "It was like a door had been opened that we didn't know was in the wall any more."

Before getting involved in the Gates grant proposal process, Pittsburgh had focused on other school reforms like closing troubled schools, improving principal training and fixing curriculum to make it more rigorous and more consistent across the district. Teachers were next on the agenda.

Roosevelt speculated the transformation would continue with or without money from the foundation, although some of their ideas would take considerably more time to accomplish without the cash.

Districts chosen for the project will agree to use the foundation's research findings to influence their reform efforts, said Tom Kean, a Harvard researcher and foundation deputy director who is in charge of this part of the project.

Among the research ideas the foundation wants to explore is one that involves making digital videos of teachers in thousands of classrooms. Researchers will track elements of teacher performance and compare that information with student test scores.

The nation's largest teachers union expressed cautious optimism about the foundation's efforts. John Wilson, executive director of the National Education Association, said he was glad to see someone putting money into research about teacher effectiveness, since there hasn't been much independent analysis combining teacher pay and student achievement. "We all want great public schools for every student. It's rather complex how to get there," Wilson said.


450,000 British children failed by 'coasting' schools

More than 450,000 children are being taught in "coasting" schools that are failing to stretch their pupils, according to the Government's own assessment. Official data, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, shows that a total of 470 secondary schools, many located in middle-class suburbs and shire counties, are "resting on their laurels" instead of pushing pupils to get the best grades. They have been designated as "coasting" by the Department for Children, Schools and Families under new criteria introduced last year.

The figure represents 15 per cent of secondaries in England and is far higher than initial estimates. With an average of 975 pupils per secondary school, it suggests that 458,000 children are affected.

Parents will be concerned that passable, even respectable, overall exam results at hundreds of schools mask poor progress which allows individual pupils to fall behind or underachieve. In some local authorities, including Hertfordshire, Nottinghamshire, Hampshire, Essex and Staffordshire the number of coasting schools is in double figures. In Lancashire, 29 schools fit the criteria.

The Government defines schools as coasting if they display one of more of a list of indicators. These include pupils starting school with good SATs results but going on to get poor GCSEs, "unimpressive" pupil progress, static exam results, disappointing Ofsted ratings, "complacent" leadership and lack of pupil tracking and early intervention.

The extent of school complacency is revealed as 600,000 teenagers await their GCSE results, published on Thursday. While the proportion of A* to C passes is expected to rise beyond two thirds, thousands of pupils will fail to secure the grades needed to get a job or go on to sixth form, or will scrape C grades when earlier promise indicated they should do better.

An analysis by the Conservatives of the subjects taken by GCSE students published tomorrow will show that schools are allowing pupils to drop "hard" subjects like modern foreign languages. Michael Gove, the shadow children's secretary, said: "It is very worrying that the Government figures show that there are so many schools which are simply not doing well enough. "The current league table system leads weaker schools to concentrate on a small number of pupils rather than focusing maximum amounts of energy on raising standards for all pupils. "The Government may have identified a significant number of schools in need of help but they still do not have a coherent policy in place to raise standards for the pupils affected."

A total of 470 schools, across 121 of England's 150 local authorities, have met the criteria for the Government's Gaining Ground initiative, aimed at coasting schools. The breakdown from the Department for Children, Schools and Families shows the north west had the most schools in the category, with 94, followed by the east of England with 59.

Officials believe that coasting secondaries in rural counties lack the "competition" that fuels higher expectations in some urban schools. In a bid to boost performance, the 470 secondaries will receive between £10,000 and £50,000 a year extra. The £40 million funding pot will pay for more training for teachers and academic support for pupils.

If improvements are not made within two years, the schools face intervention from local authorities who can replace their governing bodies or force them in to federations with more successful secondaries.

Some schools and local authorities involved in the initiative have criticised the "coasting" label, however, and fear it may lead to a drop in applications and make it harder to recruit good teachers. Jonathan Hewitt, Lancashire County Council's head of quality and improvement, said: "Although some of our schools are receiving support as part of the Gaining Ground programme, they do not necessarily fall into the category of coasting schools." Surrey County Council and Education Leeds said the nine schools in each authority involved in the initiative had "volunteered" to take part.

Iain Wright, the schools minister, said: "These schools are not failing schools - they will have acceptable, or sometimes even good results, but may not be fulfilling the potential of their pupils. The Gaining Ground programme supports these schools to help them link up with other schools to improve performance and access additional resources to raise their ambition and improve pupils' progress. "

Professor Alan Smithers, the director of education and employment at Buckingham University, said: "For school where progress is not being made, we need to look at the intake, the quality of teaching and leadership and other factors."


British education is now an all-round failure

When the NHS was attacked by the Republicans in the US this month, all sorts crawled out of the woodwork to 'love' the NHS. Those of us --that is most of us - who know it's not perfect and needs more than money to fix it, will still defend it. The same thing would not happen with education. An 'I love state education' campaign is fairly unimaginable. Those who don't love it go private and have little knowledge of it beyond scaring each other at dinner parties about half-feral children with incompetent teachers.

Now, though, the pressure on kids is enormous and in a recession the figures are truly frightening. One young person in six is not in education, employment or training. This, combined with children leaving primary school barely able to read, is a catastrophic legacy of our current system.

The nostalgia for grammar schools, basically the Tory policy, ignores all the children who went to secondary moderns and were knowing fodder for manual industry. These jobs no longer exist or British people don't want to do them.

The New Labour-obsession with measuring, targeting and centralising has done nothing to reduce the gulf between those born to succeed and those born to fail.

Just as we feel we should be healthy but should be looked after if we fall ill, we should surely desire a society where we can learn as much as we want to, when we want to, not just to become individually wealthier but because education is enriching in itself. I am all for people getting three years of their lives to read and mess about in. Most degrees are not a preparation for the workplace and it is wrong that colleges are forced to market degrees as vocational.

The current utilitarian approach to education is not working. It is literally not producing work either for those at the bottom of the heap or graduates. Unfortunately-many young people have absorbed the celebrity mantra of 'getting it if you want it bad enough'. But even with a good degree, many find it hard to get as far as that first job interview.

We know education is the key to a more equal society but have chosen not to know it. Wanting your own child to be more equal than other people's has been redefined as normal, as good parenting rather than a fearful and selfish preoccupation.

Jenny Diski, in her wonderful book The Sixties, takes a clear-eyed view of where child-centred learning led. She was a teacher and she also set up a free school. She recalls how she learnt by rote and singsong, and concludes that once you've got the basics under your belt, you have the rest of your life to sit back and learn as you wish.

The Thatcher/ New Labour backlash against all this has been a drive to efficiency and measurement. But of what? For what? Diski writes: 'We forget what pleasure we had from irrelevance, from the strange and the half-understood, and even from the difficult.'

What is difficult is worth learning. What is difficult is mounting expectations and few jobs. What is difficult is watching the golden girls leap with joy while the less golden slink into Jobcentres unable even to fill out the forms.


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