Monday, October 26, 2009

Protestant schools under attack in Ireland

Protestant schools in Ireland have been funded by the Irish government on parity with government schools for 40 years but the present government now want a big cut to such funding. Protestant schools tend to be more prestigious so there is both class hatred and religious bigotry at work

EDUCATION Minister Batt O'Keeffe claimed yesterday that he withdrew €2.8m in grants from Protestant schools because the payment was deemed unconstitutional. The Attorney General believed that to continue the grants would be unconstitutional as they were being given to the Protestant denomination and being refused to the Catholic denomination, he said in a heated Dail exchange with Fine Gael education spokesperson Brian Hayes. Mr O'Keeffe accepted that the funding position for Protestant schools in many areas could be more difficult than in Dublin.

And he repeated that he would consider any proposals that would effectively channel funding in rural areas. The claim about the constitutional position was made hours before a stinging attack on Mr O'Keeffe by the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, Dr John Neill.

Dr Neill said he would like to see the legal advice offered by the Attorney General and noted that it was strange that it was being sought now, 40 years after the arrangements for Protestant schools were first made. He warned that some Protestant schools would be put out of business. "Those that survive will only do so by charging excessive fees, thereby excluding the very community they were founded to serve," he said.

The archbishop suggested that the 're-classification' of the Protestant schools was not driven by financial considerations. "It was driven by what amounts to a very determined and doctrinaire effort within the Department of Education and Science to strike at a sector which some officials totally failed to understand," he claimed. Previous Governments treated these schools in a fair manner, he said. "The same cannot be said of the present Fianna Fail / Green Party coalition," he added.

The future of the Protestant schools was also threatened by the changes in the pupil teacher ratio from 18:1 to 20:1. "These two changes will not only cost jobs, but actually make some schools no longer viable in quite a short span of time," he added.

Mr Hayes said Mr O'Keeffe was undermining Protestant confidence in the Government's position, in terms of denominational education and the rights of its 21 secondary schools. Legal opinion that had never been sought in the past 40 years "has resulted in a terrible loss of faith in his position as Minister for Education and Science among the minority community," he said. He said Protestant schools had done a deal with former Education Minister Donogh O'Malley, when he introduced free education in the 1960s, to ensure they kept grants and the minister was breaking that agreement.

Today, Mr O'Keeffe meets the management committee for Protestant schools which will ask him to restore grants and teachers to the sector.


The farce of teacher-training colleges

I got good results for my High School students and I have never had one second of teacher-training. For High School teaching, a relevant degree should be sufficient. Teachers are born, not made

On Thursday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan went to Columbia University's Teachers College, the oldest teacher-training school in the nation, and delivered a speech blasting the education schools that have trained the majority of the 3.2 million teachers working in U.S. public schools today. "By almost any standard, many if not most of the nation's 1,450 schools, colleges and departments of education are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st century classroom," he said to an audience of teaching students who listened with more curiosity than ire — this was Columbia University after all, and they knew Duncan wasn't talking to them. It was a damning, but not unprecedented, assessment of teacher colleges, which have long been the stepchildren of the American university system and a frequent target of education reformers' scorn over the past quarter-century.

But Duncan's speech raises another question: If most teacher colleges are "mediocre," does that mean the teachers they produce are equally lackluster?

One of the major problems with answering that question, says David Steiner, New York's education commissioner, is that we simply don't know, can't know. It is nearly impossible in many states to tell which teachers produce the best student outcomes, let alone which teacher colleges. "And if we can't identify the skills that make a difference in terms of student learning, then what we're saying is that teaching is an undefinable art, as opposed to something that can be taught," says Steiner. Until recently, Steiner served as dean of Hunter College's School of Education, where he was a vocal critic of the typical ed-school approach, in which teachers-in-training study theories and philosophies of education at the expense of practical, in-the-classroom experience. Steiner maintains that institutions need to turn their eyes toward the practical and away from the hypothetical.

Which brings people like Steiner to a central concern: What good are teachers' credentials if we can't tell how much their students are learning?

To that end, Duncan said, "I am urging every teacher-education program today to make better outcomes for students the overarching mission that propels all their efforts." He suggested that more states mimic a model currently being used in Louisiana in which student test scores in grades 4-9 are traced back to their teachers, who are in turn traced back to their place of training, whether it be an ed school or an alternative certification program like Teach for America.

"If you want to get more-effective teachers, one of the obvious places to begin is to look at the supply side," says George Noell, a researcher at Louisiana State University who has worked for several years on the state's Teacher Quality initiative. "You need to know who's coming into teaching, how they were prepared and where they were prepared. Then you can make a link between who taught a kid, who trained the teacher and the overall efficacy of that teacher." Although such measures may seem a prelude to punitive measures on ed schools, "we aren't seeking to close people down," says Noell. "That's not the point." Rather, the ideal situation would be to have schools use the feedback to improve the quality of their instruction. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette, for example, increased admissions standards and added other programs after data from the initiative alerted the school to its weaknesses.

Concern over the ability of teacher colleges to produce effective teachers has long existed and only increased as the focus of education policy has turned to accountability and data. As Duncan points out, one of his predecessors, Richard Riley, put ed colleges on notice a full decade ago. The difference, as Duncan never misses an opportunity to say, is that the Federal Government now has financial incentives through which to effect change — a $4.35 billion pot of competitive innovation grants and $43 million to support "residency" programs that put budding teachers in classrooms for longer periods of time under the watchful eye of a veteran teacher, in much the same way that medical residents are supervised by seasoned staff for their first few years out of med school.

Smart as they may be, trace-back programs are still likely to meet resistance. "Who wakes up one morning and says, 'I want to be publicly accountable?' " says Noell of teacher colleges. "That's kind of scary for anybody. Nobody wants to be embarrassed."


Australia: A childhood policy straight out of fantasyland

Get up and Grow, the guidelines for healthy eating and exercise in early childhood, part of the Federal Government's anti-obesity drive, are nearing release. They recommend children should be banned from watching television until they turn two and from two to age five viewing should be limited to one hour a day. Such policy recommendations emanate from a fantasyland where officials never seem to learn from the past or understand the real world where most of us live.

Television is omnipresent and a powerful means of educating young children. It has always been true that one-third of children do two-thirds of the viewing and many of these heavy viewers are children who live in disadvantaged families. This fact of life provides educators with an opportunity.

There have been only two comprehensive educational experiments that have attempted to fundamentally change the focus of early childhood education through television. The first was Sesame Street developed 50 years ago to address disadvantage among American preschoolers; the second was Lift Off, developed in the '90s by the Australian Children's Television Foundation. In both cases the television program was the centre-piece for a nationwide community outreach program with support materials designed for families, carers and teachers.

Lift Off exemplified the way in which the media and the education system could work together with parents to create a valuable resource for the education of children. The process of collaboration worked, but the ABC, for its own political purposes, took the program off air and the project collapsed. As a concept, Lift Off was ahead of its time but that time has come again with the Government acknowledging the vital importance of early childhood education.

Education does not begin when children go to preschool or school for the first time. Eighty five per cent of brain development takes place in the first few years of life. Research has taught us that infants and toddlers' brains are voraciously active from birth and that disadvantage in society is born when young children's education is neglected.

The major influence on children's learning comes from the home, from parents, without a formal teacher, with no clear curriculum and with few conscious goals. Community, culture and place are important influences. So the starting point of all formal early childhood education has to be each child's unequal and diverse family and community background and an attempt to expand each child's horizons beyond what has already happened to them. That means working with parents as much as with children and ensuring the broader social environment – the neighbourhood playgrounds, shopping centres and mass media - supports and enriches the experiences of every child as they grow.

Former British education minister Alan Milburn, in his recent report Unleashing Aspiration, emphasised the central importance of "pushy parents". So did US President Barack Obama in his "no excuses" call to the underprivileged to improve their lot. But parents need government to help them make a difference. Some children are born into a world rich in resources and experiences while others are deprived from the start. And this is where the Government should focus its attention.

The kindergarten movement began as a philanthropic attempt to redress working-class disadvantage; the maternal and child health system was set up to ensure every parent had access to professional health care and sound advice on child development; child care was to ensure a safe environment for the children of employed parents; primary schools were made free and compulsory to help remove the disadvantages of the working poor. None of these reforms were meant simply to develop services for the already privileged.

So what of the new policy initiative from the Council of Australian Governments (COAG)? The first Early Years Learning Framework for Australia is intended to make sure all children from birth to five years and through the transition to school get off to a good start in life. It has recently been released for trial and comment. In the introduction, the document states that the Framework "has been designed for use by early childhood educators working in partnership with families, children's first and most influential educators". Following that acknowledgement the document has nothing further to say to parents but goes on to address, in professional jargon, only those educators working in formal child care and preschool settings.

The Learning Framework for birth-five skirts round the inequalities and disadvantages that exist for many children by addressing the general themes of "Belonging, Being and Becoming" — goals that remind teachers that every child needs to be included, to feel they belong, that they should not be pushed too quickly towards formally defined educational outcomes. The framework's five outcomes for children are listed as having a strong sense of identity; feeling connected with and able to contribute to their world; having a strong sense of wellbeing; being confident and involved learners; and being effective communicators.

These are worthy objectives but missing is the content and the means by which each of those objectives can be achieved for the diverse child population entering preschool. There is no notion of how child care or kindergarten teachers can overcome gaps in wellbeing or confidence or communication skills that derive from the home. The framework is not informed by a theory of intelligence or developing competence.

Apart from a list of desired outcomes there is no discourse on what sort of experiences the child-care centre or playgroup or kindergarten might provide to expand the horizons of children from disadvantaged homes, or on the effectiveness of praise for effort and process rather than results. The dominant philosophy is "play-based learning" with a nod in the direction of teacher-directed play and with few mentions of the need for teachers to use the ever-more potent media technologies at the disposal of most children.

This blinkered approach, which makes only passing mention of learning outside formal child care and kindergartens, will do nothing for the development of most toddlers in their vital formative years and leaves parents out in the cold without help and guidance at the same time as too many children are falling through the kindergarten gap.

Soon parents are to be informed they should ban their children from watching television as part of the Government's anti-obesity drive. The onus is to be thrown back on parents to cope, with government abdicating a role in ensuring the television programs available to children during these years provide educational and entertainment value appropriate for their rapidly expanding brain power.

The important early years at home are being ignored within our first national framework and the education revolution, which began with such a bang, is wandering along through assorted bureaucratic tunnels with no one looking at children's environment as a whole. A critically important opportunity for integrated child policy is being missed again.

The new Early Years Learning Framework for Australia is still in development. It presents an opportunity to reach parents, to use constructively the ubiquitous media and influence those who shape the wider social environment of Australian children, as well as teachers, with a comprehensive statement on early childhood education.


Australia: In Victorian government schools, some "temporary" classrooms are over 40 years old!

Some would undoubtedly be closed down if they were part of a private school

THOUSANDS of Victorian state school students are being taught in old and shabby portable classrooms, including some believed to contain dangerous asbestos. Almost three-quarters of the 8070 portables spread throughout our schools are more than 20 years old, according to an Education Department audit seen by the Herald Sun.

Berwick Lodge primary school principal Henry Grossek said he was concerned about asbestos-lined ceilings among his 18 portable classrooms. "If you leave it there it's largely safe, but it can be dangerous if there's damage to the walls and ceilings," he said. "It costs a fortune to remove asbestos and if you need to do an upgrade it could blow a hole in the school budget." "Portables are not a good option for most schools."

Melton West primary and Wangaratta's Carraragarmungee primary have 48-year-old portables - the state's oldest, according to the audit released under Freedom of Information. They are among nearly 500 temporary classrooms that are more than 40 years old. A further 3000 portables are between 20 and 30 years old, and 2357 are aged between 30 and 40 years.

Liberal education spokesman Martin Dixon said that there was something very wrong when more than 70 per cent of portable classrooms were more than 20 years old. "It is conceivable that in some schools, three generations of one family could have been educated in the same portable, temporary classroom," he said.

Education Minister Bronwyn Pike said the Government had acted on a 2002 auditor-general's report that identified 1000 portables needing immediate replacement. Since 2005, the Government had spent $95 million rolling out 1000 modern portables, she said. "These newly-designed relocatable buildings contain two classrooms, providing schools with flexibility in a modern setting and replace older style relocatable classrooms," she said.

Parents Victoria spokeswoman Elaine Crowle said there were some pretty ordinary portables around, but a lot of good things were happening in education. "The Government deserves some credit for its building program and it is pretty much on track to phase out many of its old portables," she said.


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