Wednesday, September 30, 2009

More school: Obama would curtail summer vacation

Students beware: The summer vacation you just enjoyed could be sharply curtailed if President Barack Obama gets his way. Obama says American kids spend too little time in school, putting them at a disadvantage with other students around the globe. "Now, I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas," the president said earlier this year. "Not with Malia and Sasha, not in my family, and probably not in yours. But the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom."

The president, who has a sixth-grader and a third-grader, wants schools to add time to classes, to stay open late and to let kids in on weekends so they have a safe place to go. "Our school calendar is based upon the agrarian economy and not too many of our kids are working the fields today," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

Fifth-grader Nakany Camara is of two minds. She likes the four-week summer program at her school, Brookhaven Elementary School in Rockville, Md. Nakany enjoys seeing her friends there and thinks summer school helped boost her grades from two Cs to the honor roll. But she doesn't want a longer school day. "I would walk straight out the door," she said.

Domonique Toombs felt the same way when she learned she would stay for an extra three hours each day in sixth grade at Boston's Clarence R. Edwards Middle School. "I was like, `Wow, are you serious?'" she said. "That's three more hours I won't be able to chill with my friends after school."

Her school is part of a 3-year-old state initiative to add 300 hours of school time in nearly two dozen schools. Early results are positive. Even reluctant Domonique, who just started ninth grade, feels differently now. "I've learned a lot," she said.

Does Obama want every kid to do these things? School until dinnertime? Summer school? And what about the idea that kids today are overscheduled and need more time to play?

Obama and Duncan say kids in the United States need more school because kids in other nations have more school. "Young people in other countries are going to school 25, 30 percent longer than our students here," Duncan told the AP. "I want to just level the playing field."

While it is true that kids in many other countries have more school days, it's not true they all spend more time in school. Kids in the U.S. spend more hours in school (1,146 instructional hours per year) than do kids in the Asian countries that persistently outscore the U.S. on math and science tests — Singapore (903), Taiwan (1,050), Japan (1,005) and Hong Kong (1,013). That is despite the fact that Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong have longer school years (190 to 201 days) than does the U.S. (180 days).

Regardless, there is a strong case for adding time to the school day. Researcher Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution looked at math scores in countries that added math instruction time. Scores rose significantly, especially in countries that added minutes to the day, rather than days to the year. "Ten minutes sounds trivial to a school day, but don't forget, these math periods in the U.S. average 45 minutes," Loveless said. "Percentage-wise, that's a pretty healthy increase."

In the U.S., there are many examples of gains when time is added to the school day. Charter schools are known for having longer school days or weeks or years. For example, kids in the KIPP network of 82 charter schools across the country go to school from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., more than three hours longer than the typical day. They go to school every other Saturday and for three weeks in the summer. KIPP eighth-grade classes exceed their school district averages on state tests.

In Massachusetts' expanded learning time initiative, early results indicate that kids in some schools do better on state tests than do kids at regular public schools. The extra time, which schools can add as hours or days, is for three things: core academics — kids struggling in English, for example, get an extra English class; more time for teachers; and enrichment time for kids.

Regular public schools are adding time, too, though it is optional and not usually part of the regular school day. Their calendar is pretty much set in stone. Most states set the minimum number of school days at 180 days, though a few require 175 to 179 days. Several schools are going year-round by shortening summer vacation and lengthening other breaks.

Many schools are going beyond the traditional summer school model, in which schools give remedial help to kids who flunked or fell behind. Summer is a crucial time for kids, especially poorer kids, because poverty is linked to problems that interfere with learning, such as hunger and less involvement by their parents. That makes poor children almost totally dependent on their learning experience at school, said Karl Alexander, a sociology professor at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University, home of the National Center for Summer Learning.

Disadvantaged kids, on the whole, make no progress in the summer, Alexander said. Some studies suggest they actually fall back. Wealthier kids have parents who read to them, have strong language skills and go to great lengths to give them learning opportunities such as computers, summer camp, vacations, music lessons, or playing on sports teams. "If your parents are high school dropouts with low literacy levels and reading for pleasure is not hard-wired, it's hard to be a good role model for your children, even if you really want to be," Alexander said.

Extra time is not cheap. The Massachusetts program costs an extra $1,300 per student, or 12 percent to 15 percent more than regular per-student spending, said Jennifer Davis, a founder of the program. It received more than $17.5 million from the state Legislature last year. The Montgomery County, Md., summer program, which includes Brookhaven, received $1.6 million in federal stimulus dollars to operate this year and next, but it runs for only 20 days.

Aside from improving academic performance, Education Secretary Duncan has a vision of schools as the heart of the community. Duncan, who was Chicago's schools chief, grew up studying alongside poor kids on the city's South Side as part of the tutoring program his mother still runs. "Those hours from 3 o'clock to 7 o'clock are times of high anxiety for parents," Duncan said. "They want their children safe. Families are working one and two and three jobs now to make ends meet and to keep food on the table."


British school admissions reforms 'failing'

A £15m Labour plan to get poor pupils into the best state schools has had a “minimal effect”, according to research. But if it had succeeded, the schools concerned would no longer be "best". Feral students will destroy any school in the absence of strict discipline and strict discipline is a distant memory in British schools

The reforms – introduced in 2006 – have benefited less than one child in 100 and are just as likely to help pupils from middle-class families, it was disclosed. Every local council in England is required to run a team of “choice advisers” to make the school admissions system fairer.

Under plans, they are supposed to advise parents about secondary school admissions policies, help them fill out forms and provide information on uniform policies, the curriculum, term dates, travel details and understanding league tables and Ofsted reports.

Launching the programme four years ago, ministers said they would “have a real impact on ensuring that all parents are armed with the information they need to find the right school for their child”. They were introduced alongside a more stringent system of school admissions rules to stop head teachers selecting bright pupils from middle-class backgrounds.

But a study by Sheffield Hallam University said the high-profile reforms had an “incommensurate” impact. “The proportion of children benefiting from the service is, and in any likely policy context could only ever be, tiny,” it said. “While it substantially benefited a small group of parents, some of whom were very needy, it had a minimal effect on the numbers of poorer parents gaining entry to the more popular schools.”

This year, one in six children failed to get into their preferred secondary school. In some areas, such as London, where parents face the stiffest competition for places, up to half of 11-year-olds missed out.

Researchers led by Professor John Coldron, from the centre for education and inclusion research, studied the impact of choice advisers in 15 local authorities. The report said 73,000 children transferred between primary and secondary schools in the affected areas but only 602 had contact with a choice adviser. It represented 0.8 per cent of parents, but only half of those were from the poorest families, the study said.

Researchers suggested other parents taking advantage of the additional help were from middle-class backgrounds. “We dubbed them ‘well-informed, but anxious’,” said Prof Coldron. “They were parents who wanted to ensure no stone was left unturned in their attempt to make sure children got into the best schools.”

The report said the initiative had failed because it ignored the fact that postcode was the “main driver” of school “segregation”. It suggested that – even with the help of advisers – many poor families could not get into the best state schools because they did not live in the catchment area. The study also found that many parents did not want to send children several miles to sought-after schools, preferring the local comprehensive irrespective of quality. "While the choice advice service has delivered a valuable service to a few needy families, the proportion helped was so small it could not make any significant impact on the larger process of segregation of schools and therefore had a minimal impact on the fairness of admissions," it found.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: "We’ve outlawed covert selection and given all parents a fair and equal chance to get into a school of their choice through the mandatory admissions code. Choice advisers target families that need the most help with the application and appeal process – it was never designed to deliver fair access for all parents so it is disingenuous for this research to claim it was.

"Parents now have more choice because there are undeniably more good schools and standards have gone up across the board.The vast majority of parents will get a place at a school of their choice - most at their first choice school. We have given the admissions watchdog real teeth to police the system and crack down on unfair admissions.”


Australia: Only one State is set to use the best method of teaching kids how to read

The amazing defiance by teachers of all the research evidence shows how deeply they are involved with the most destructive elements of the Left: Simplistic theories must triumph, no matter how much havoc they cause. And the havoc wreaked on literacy has been extreme, with many kids years behind where they could be in reading ability.

FOUR years after the national inquiry into teaching reading, one Australian government has finally embraced the key recommendation that children be taught the sounds that make up words as an essential first step in learning to read. The NSW government has released literacy teaching guides incorporating the latest research evidence on the best way to teach reading. The guides mandate that children from the first years of school be explicitly taught the sounds of letters and how to blend and manipulate sounds to form words in daily 10 to 20-minute sessions.

The guides set out key principles for teachers to follow in reading instruction, stipulating that phonics need to be taught to a level where children can automatically recall the knowledge. They also debunk "common myths" about phonics that "have almost become accepted as truths", including that "phonics knowledge is caught, not taught" or that having a sound of the week is an effective way of teaching. Devised in response to the 2005 national review on teaching reading, the NSW guidelines were yesterday lauded as the benchmark for the rest of the country.

A bitter debate has raged for the past three decades over the teaching of reading, with the proponents of phonics pitted against those favouring the "whole language" method, which emphasises other skills instead of sounding words.

Whole language advocates encourage students faced with an unfamiliar word to look at the other words in the sentence, the picture on the page or the shape of the letters rather than by "sounding out" the word. The national review, released after an inquiry led by the late educational researcher Ken Rowe, was one of three large international studies in the past decade to examine all the evidence about teaching reading, including an earlier US report and Britain's Rose report, completed in 2006.

All three reviews concluded the same thing, that teaching children phonics and how to blend sounds to make words was a necessary first step in learning to read, but not the only skill required.

The Australian inquiry was prompted by a letter from reading researchers and cognitive psychologists, many based at Macquarie University, concerned about the state of literacy teaching in the nation. One of the signatories to the letter, Macquarie University professor Max Coltheart, yesterday said the NSW guides were entirely consistent with the recommendations of the reading inquiry and that "Ken Rowe would have been delighted". Professor Coltheart called on the other states and territories to follow NSW's lead.

Jim Rose, author of the British report and now reviewing the English primary curriculum for the British government, praised the NSW guides for "establishing the essential importance of phonics". "It provides some firm guidance for principals and teachers rather than leaving them to reinvent reading instruction, school by school," Sir Jim said.

The assistant principal and kindergarten teacher at Miranda Public School in Sydney's south, Susan Orlovich, has already started using the guides in teaching her students. "For the first time, we have really clear materials and guidelines for setting up an early literacy program that's integrated and balanced but ensures we also teach phonics and phonemic awareness explicitly and systematically," she said. Ms Orlovich said the guides had struck the right balance between teaching the skills necessary to sound out words and decode the alphabet, and comprehension with students being able to write their own words. They also gave teachers strategies for students at different stages in recognition that some already understand the phonemic basis of language.

"Some kids can learn with whole language, and make those connections and do phonemic substitution, so if they know how to write 'look', they can write 'book'," she said. "Some kids are able to make that substitution without being taught, but for other students, you need to teach them explicitly, make it visual for them."

In an interview with The Australian during a visit to Australia last week, Sir Jim said the simple view of reading was that it had two dimensions, comprehension and word recognition. While teaching sounds is often denigrated by the whole language side of the reading debate as a decoding skill unnecessary to be able to read, Sir Jim said it was essential children knew how the alphabet worked and that it was a code to be understood. "It's not just barking at print, although that is a stage you go through," he said.

Professor Coltheart, said he understood the new national English curriculum being written would include extensive material on the teaching of phonics in the early years of school, including phonemic awareness in the first year. "This alignment between the national curriculum and the NSW guides for teachers is going to be of enormous benefit for the state's young children. I hope other states will be following in NSW's footsteps," he said.

Sir Jim said the reading debate was a false dichotomy and the two sides had more in common than the extremists were prepared to recognise. "A picture has emerged from the research that is overwhelmingly clear; I can't see any conflict, they're closer than they admit," he said. "I don't understand why they can't accept good evidence that would enrich both sides."

The NSW Education Department has produced two guides, one focused specifically on phonics and a companion guide on phonemic awareness, or the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds that make up words. In response to the myth that phonics knowledge is "caught, not taught", the guide says letter-sound correspondences are arbitrary and therefore difficult to discover without explicit teaching. "Left to chance or inference alone, many students would acquire phonics knowledge too slowly or fail to learn it at all," it says.

Another myth debunked is that teaching phonics impedes student comprehension by having them rely too much on "decoding" rather than "reading for meaning", resulting in students "barking at print" without understanding what they're reading. "Effective phonics teaching supports students to readily recognise and produce familiar words accurately and effortlessly and to identify and produce words that are new to them. Developing automatic word recognition will support and enhance students' comprehension skills," the guide says.


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