Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Race to the Top: The Obama admin and the Gates Foundation are working hand in hand

The government has set aside $4.5 billion, as part of the $787-billion economic stimulus, to spur public schools toward better achievement. As states compete for grants under the "Race to the Top" program, they are being held to a standard that took root during the Bush administration, with its requirements that schools demonstrate yearly progress, and has blossomed in the Obama administration, which also is setting measurements for progress.

And for both the No Child Left Behind initiative that Bush won during his first year in office and the Race to the Top initiative that Obama's Department of Education is sponsoring in his first year, that means more student testing. It's a clear indicator of the common goals at work that Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and school reformer, and former president's brother, has heartily endorsed the work that Obama's education department is doing.

It has also, as the Associated Press reports in an analysis of a blossoming partnership underway in Washington, spawned a new joke: "The real secretary of education is Bill Gates."

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has become the biggest player in the school reform movement, spending around $200 million a year on grants to elementary and secondary education, the AP's Lbby Quaid and Donna Blankenship report. But now the foundation is taking "unprecedented steps to influence education policy, spending millions to influence how the federal government distributes nearly $5 billion in grants to overhaul public schools. The federal dollars are unprecedented, too."

Since Obama secured the money as part of the economic stimulus to spur schools that are failing their students, the Gates Foundation has offered grants of $250,000 apiece to help states apply for the money - "so long as they agree with the foundation's approach." The administration and foundation share common goals: Paying schoolteachers based on the performance of their students, and that means testing, encouraging charter schools that operate independently of local school boards; and establishing a common academic standards adopted by every state.

The big teachers' unions are at odds with some of these goals. They complain that standardized testing has run amok. The Obama administration has directly confronted a constituency that has been a longtime ally of the Democrats, those teachers' unions.

"Despite growing evidence to the contrary, it appears the administration has decided that charter schools are the only answer to what ails America's public schools," the National Education Association, the largest teachers' union, said in comments about the grant competition submitted to the Education Department. "We should not continue the unhealthy focus on standardized tests as the primary evidence of student success, the NEA said. The American Federation of Teachers submitted similar comments. Together, the unions count about 4.6 million members.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the former superintendent of schools from Chicago, welcomes the foundation's involvement. "The more all of us are in the game of reform, the more all of us are pushing for dramatic improvement, the better," Duncan said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Duncan's inner circle includes two former Gates employees, the AP report notes. His chief of staff is Margot Rogers, who was special assistant to Gates' education director. Assistant Deputy Secretary James Shelton was a program director for Gates' education division. The administration has waived ethics rules to allow Rogers and Shelton to deal more freely with the foundation, but Rogers said she talks infrequently with her former colleagues.

"It's no secret the U.S. education system is failing," Bill Gates says in this report. "We're doing all kinds of experiments that are different. The Race To The Top is going to do many different ones. There's no group-think."

When the foundation offered to help states apply for the federal funding, it initially offered the $250,000 to only 15 states. Officials in other states complained when they learned of the plan. And the foundation agreed to expand its offer, now agreeing to help any state that meets eight criteria, including a commitment to the common standards effort and the ability to link student data to teachers. The foundation also is helping some districts that are eligible for a share of the money if they are working in partnership with nonprofits such as the Gates Foundation.

The Department of Education has announced public meetings across the country "to listen and learn from assessment experts and practitioners," the agency says. "The goals are two-fold: first to gather technical input to inform the development of a Race to the Top Assessment Competition; and second to enable states, who will be the competition applicants, and the public to participate in and learn from these events.

"The next generation of assessments will provide information that helps accelerate student learning and improve teachers' practice," Duncan says. "At these meetings, experts will give us their best ideas so we can support states' efforts to build the new assessments our country needs to ensure that our students are prepared for success in college and careers."

In the Race to the Top, the agency says:

Duncan has pledged to reserve up to $350 million to support consortia of states that are working to create new assessments tied to a common set of standards. The grants will be distributed next year through a competitive process. The assessment grants will come from the $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund and will be awarded under a separate program from the larger one designed to support states' comprehensive efforts to reform education.

Department officials will use the input gathered to design the application for the assessment competition; consortia of states, who are the applicants for the competition, will use the information to inform their proposed assessment designs. The department plans to publish the application early next year and will award grants by next fall.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act appropriated $4.35 billion for the Race to the Top Fund. The law requires the money to be distributed through four areas of reform:

Adopting college- and career-ready standards and assessments;

Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals;

Building data systems that measure student success and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve their practices; and

Turning around our lowest-performing schools.

"To succeed in comprehensive efforts to reform, states need to have plans to address each of these areas," Duncan says. "But high-quality standards and assessments are the foundation on which reforms are built. High-quality assessments are one of the most important ingredients of reform. We look forward to supporting states as they lead the way in this critical effort."


Half of the British think creationism should be taught alongside evolution

More than half of all Britons believe that creationism and other theories about the origins of life should be taught alongside evolution in school science lessons, according to a survey published today. The study, published to coincide with a British Council symposium on science education, suggests that three-quarters of adults support the teaching of evolution. But only one in five thinks this should be to the exclusion of theories such as creationism and intelligent design.

There has been growing controversy over the place of alternative theories in schools. Professor Michael Reiss was sacked last year as the Royal Society’s director of education after arguing that creationism and intelligent design should be addressed as a “world view” if they were raised by pupils.

There was further controversy this summer when the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance asked GCSE candidates to compare creationism with Darwin’s theory of evolution. Creationism is the literal interpretation of scripture, while intelligent design holds that living organisms are too complex to be explained by evolution alone.

National Curriculum guidelines stipulate that evolution alone should be taught in science lessons, while creationism may be discussed as part of religious education. But it has been estimated that as many as ten per cent of pupils now come from families that believe in the accounts of divine creation in the Bible or the Koran.

The MORI research, commissioned by the British Council, polled 1,000 adults in Britain among 12,000 in ten countries, including America, Russia and India. British support for teaching other theories alongside evolution was higher, at 54 per cent, than in any of the other countries apart from Argentina and Mexico. But Britain had the lowest proportion (6 per cent) believing that other theories should be taught in preference to evolution.

However, when responses were restricted to those who had heard of Charles Darwin and knew something of his theory of evolution, the proportion supporting lessons on evolution alone rose from 21 per cent to 24 per cent. Among the more informed group, 60 per cent favoured the mixed approach.

Dr Fern Elsdon-Baker, the head of the British Council’s Darwin Now programme, which is running today's symposium at the National Science Learning Centre on evolution and education, said: “One of the most interesting findings of our survey is that there is evidence the more people understand about evolutionary theory the more enthusiastic they are about it being taught as part of the science curriculum.”

But Dr Baker added that the overall level of support for the teaching of theories other than evolution might reflect a need for a "more sophisticated approach to teaching and communicating how science works as a process, and how it is debated alongside other perspectives". The council is launching a range of international education resources on the subject for schools, museums and science centres.

Professor Reiss, who is now Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education, in London, is speaking at the symposium. He said he was not surprised that so many people felt that creationism and intelligent design should be taught in schools, even though they were not scientific theories. "In my experience in the UK, the overwhelming majority of science teachers do not want creationism or intelligent design taught as valid scientific alternatives to evolution, but are often comfortable with pupils bringing up such ideas," Professor Reiss said. "When I was taught science, we were allowed to bring anything up in lessons.


Power in those old school ties

AUSTRALIA enjoys clout and access in the Asia-Pacific thanks to politicians and officials in the region who have not forgotten their student days here. This is the claim of a report released last week to talk up the non-financial benefits of the $16 billion industry in international education. "What we've found a bit distressing is that so much attention is given to the economic impact of international education," said Peter Coaldrake from the peak body Universities Australia, which commissioned the independent report. "It's important that we remind ourselves and everyone else of some of the other benefits."

Those benefits include more positive attitudes to Australia, open doors for our diplomats and a better hearing, according to the Hong-Kong based consultancy, Strategy Policy and Research in Education Ltd, which is behind the report.

The report says the son of Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is a graduate of Curtin University of Technology, and the country's top three economic policy-makers have close ties to Australian education. In 2001-02, when the issue of East Timor's independence strained relations between Jakarta and Canberra, the Indonesian cabinet at that point had five Australian-educated members. This helped ease tensions, according to Ric Smith, a former ambassador quoted in the report.

The report makes much of the good work done in Indonesia and China by the Australian National University. Mr Smith said ANU economist Ross Garnaut played a remarkable role in the education of Chinese economists. "For a time those (ANU-trained) economists exerted disproportionate influence in China," he said. Former ANU vice-chancellor Deane Terrell pointed out that ANU's expertise in the region rested heavily on languages, a field under pressure in the education system.

The report attributes the rise of Australia's soft power in the region especially to the elite former students of the Colombo Plan. The report asks why they "appear to shine brightly against those who followed them in the fee-paying era for international students which began in the late 1980s".

It suggests the fruits of the Colombo Plan are well known because its former students have by now reached or passed the peak of their careers. "However, the far larger wave of fee-paying students is still to hit their career pinnacle ... expect to see more eminent Australian alumni emerge soon into senior roles in Asian countries," the report says.

Monash University's Bob Birrell said the report failed to come to grips with criticism of the overseas student industry, its poor standard of English and the "dumbing down" of courses popular with these students, many of them seeking permanent residency. "On outcomes (the report's) rosy assessment relies mainly on research which shows that some 90 per cent of overseas students in our universities successfully complete their courses. This is hardly surprising since the students have heavily invested in the course fees and thus have a very strong motive to finish," Dr Birrell said.


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