Friday, November 06, 2009

Obama uses money to urge school changes

Using stimulus dollars as bait, President Barack Obama is coaxing states to rewrite education laws and cut deals with unions as they compete for $5 billion in school reform grants, the most money a president has ever had for overhauling schools. And it may end up going to only a few states. In Wisconsin, where Obama will visit Wednesday, lawmakers are poised to change a law to boost their state's chances. Nine other states have taken similar steps.

And states can't even apply for the money yet. "There is an appetite out there for change," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in an interview with The Associated Press. "There's been really dramatic movement in a number of states," said Duncan, who will travel to Madison, Wis., with the president. "This was the goal, but we didn't know if anyone was going to respond."

Respond they have. Wisconsin lawmakers planned to vote Thursday to lift a ban on using student test scores to judge teachers. That helps clear the way for an Obama priority, teacher pay tied to student performance. California lifted a similar ban last month. And before that, charter school restrictions or budget cuts were eased in eight states — Louisiana, Illinois, Tennessee, Delaware, Indiana, Ohio, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Duncan had repeatedly warned that such restrictions would hurt a state's chances at the money. The administration can't really tell states and schools what to do, since education has been largely a state and local responsibility throughout the history of the U.S.

But Obama has considerable leverage in his nearly $5 billion competitive grant fund, dubbed the "Race to the Top," that was set aside in the economic stimulus law. "If you put a very large, $5 billion program in front of the entire country, everyone eyes that as an opportunity," said Wisconsin state Sen. John Lehman, a Democrat who chairs the state's Senate Education Committee and a former high school teacher.

No president has ever had that much money for schools at his discretion. Only Duncan — not Congress — has control over who gets it. And only some states, perhaps 10 to 20, will actually get the money.

Obama will use the trip to Wisconsin to call attention to the actions states are taking, one year after his election, to put his vision of reform in place, Melody Barnes, Obama's domestic policy director, told reporters Wednesday on a conference call.

Obama sees the test score data and charter schools, which are publicly funded but independent of local school boards, as solutions to the problems that plague public education.

The national teachers' unions disagree. They say student achievement is much more than a score on a standardized test and that it's a mistake to rely so heavily on charter schools. "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 submitted to the Education Department. The NEA added: "We should not continue the unhealthy focus on standardized tests as the primary evidence of student success."

At the state level, unions have made deals with lawmakers on test scores. In Wisconsin, the state teachers' union agreed that test scores could be used to evaluate teachers — as long as they couldn't be used to fire or discipline teachers. Teachers' unions are an influential segment of Obama's Democratic base. Obama is encouraging states to get their support; the Education Department says a state can win extra points in the "Race to the Top" if unions support their efforts.

The Wisconsin agreement is only half a loaf, said Amy Wilkins, a lobbyist for Education Trust, a children's advocacy group. "There are lots of ways to use the data aside from firing and discipline," Wilkins said. "That said, unless you figure out a fair but fast way to remove truly incompetent teachers from classrooms, they're going to continue to be cycled into the highest poverty schools."

Charter schools and test scores fit into four broad goals that Obama wants states to pursue — tougher academic standards, better ways to recruit and keep effective teachers, a method of tracking student performance and a plan of action to turn around failing schools.


An alternative to the usual watered-down British High school curriculum

Many schools are turning to the International Baccalaureate ahead of traditional British A-level exams. "It frustrates me that IBs are still seen as an elitist form of education," says Terry Hedger, head of Southbank International School in Westminster, London, where the International Baccalaureate has been taught for the past 30 years. "That stereotype does not do justice to the IB system, which is equally well suited to state and independent schools. IB students do not need to be rich or privileged: they just need to be able to work hard and apply themselves to their studies."

Southbank is a small fee-paying school, taking pupils from all over the world: a natural taker for IB, you might say. But Hedger is insistent that, just because the school teaches the supposedly demanding IB, where you study six rather than three subjects in the sixth form, that does not make it an academic hothouse.

"It has been our experience that students of no more than average ability and maybe quite weak in individual subjects, have flourished under the IB system," he says.

The relative merits of A-levels and IBs will continue to be fiercely debated in education circles and the waters have been further muddied by the introduction of A* grades at A-level, enabling universities to sift the wheat from the chaff more effectively. But one thing is already clear. The IB is on the march.

About 200 secondary schools currently teach it and that figure will be closer to 300 this time next year. And it is state schools, if anything, which are setting the pace, accounting for about two in every three IB schools. The Government has announced that it wants at least one IB school in every local authority.

"We took a risk in changing to IB," says Andy Jeffries, one of the IB coordinators at Barton Court Grammar School in Canterbury. "We didn't know if it would appeal to pupils or not. In the event, our numbers in the sixth form have more than doubled."

Barton Court adopted the IB in 2007 and, unusually, went cold turkey, moving wholesale to the new system, rather than trying to teach IBs and
A-levels in tandem. The first cohort of students got their results this summer and, with an average IB score of 30 (roughly the equivalent of three As at A-level and one A at AS), comfortably matched expectations.

"Comparing IB and A-level results is difficult," Jeffries says. "Some universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, show a better appreciation of the IB scoring system than others. But what has particularly pleased us is the way some middle-of-the-road students seem to have coped far better with IBs than they would have done with A-levels."

He cites the example of a student who got into Bristol University to read aeronautical engineering, having wowed tutors with a 5,000-word essay comparing early aircraft with Concorde. "The requirement to write an essay of that sort of length, demanding the kind of detailed research expected of university students, is one of the things that gives IBs the edge over A-levels. Another invaluable element is the requirement to serve the local community. In the last two years, our pupils have put in 15,000 hours of voluntary service."

Barton Court, a specialist language college, is keen to stress its international credentials. Of the 260 pupils in the sixth form, nearly 30 have their main place of residence in mainland Europe. The change to IB has not merely been a tweaking of the curriculum, but a cultural gear-change.

It is a similar story at Elthorne Park School, a state secondary in Ealing, west London, where local children have been joined by students from Greece, Finland and Morocco. Up until this year, there was no sixth form at all at Elthorne Park. Faced with a choice between introducing A-levels or IBs, the school had no doubt which route it wanted to take.

"The greater breadth of IBs was the clinching factor," says head of sixth form and IB coordinator Al Grant. "No major country in the world teaches as few subjects in the sixth form as Britain, with its traditional three A-levels. The other advantage of the IB system is that pupils are given more time to mature. They have two years to work at each subject, at their own pace, without having to jump the hurdle of AS levels," he says.

There are 36 IB students at Elthorne Park, a figure Grant expects to rise. "In the short term, offering IBs has cost the school more than offering A-levels and, as we have had no special financial help from the Government, it has been a calculated risk. But we are confident that it will prove a sound move in the longer term. Parents have been particularly enthusiastic. They seem to share our view that schools should educate the whole child, not just be exam-passing machines."


Australia: Prolonged degrees at Melbourne university not popular

Despite the spin. Melbourne is moving to the American model of a generalist first degree followed by specialized study only at the graduate level -- which increases the time you need to spend in order to get a useful qualification. Australia has always in the past followed the Scottish model -- which allows considerable specialization from Day 1.

MONASH University has again topped the Victorian first preference popularity polls while rival Melbourne University has suffered a steep fall as it transitions to its graduate model and cuts undergraduate courses.

Melbourne stresses that the fall is expected as it discontinues undergraduate courses in professions that are becoming graduate-only like law, dentistry and physiotherapy. But nevertheless, timely first preferences have dropped from 9771 last year to 8022 this year, a fall of 1749. That cuts its share of first preferences from 17 per cent to 13 per cent.

On the plus side Melbourne says first preferences for its "new generation" undergraduate degrees, that are to be the feeders to postgraduate study, are up by 3 per cent. But the drop in Melbourne's first preferences clearly indicates that many would-be students are prepared to look elsewhere so they can take professional disciplines at undergraduate level. But at over 8000, Melbourne's first preferences are still well above its 2010 undergraduate intake that will be limited to about 5000, in line with 2009.

In a statement Melbourne University's new provost John Dewar was upbeat, saying the numbers were "a welcome endorsement" of the new model.

Melbourne's Group of Eight rival Monash was buoyed by an 11.6 per cent rise in first preferences to 15,175, giving it 24 per cent market share.

Demand for places at Deakin University was also strong as its first preferences rose by 16 per cent to 9978 giving it 16 per cent market share.

La Trobe University secured a 15 per cent rise in first preferences to 6767, reversing its falling market share over the past two years. La Trobe's share of first preferences rose to 11 per cent from 10 per cent. At time of writing data from the other Victorian universities had yet to be released.


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