Sunday, December 13, 2009

Charter schools gain traction in 2009

By Jennifer Buckingham, writing from Australia

This has been the year of the charter school (public schools run by private operators) in education policy in the United States. Federal education secretary Arne Duncan made charter schools one of the centre-pieces of the US$4.35 billion ‘Race to the Top’ economic stimulus package, requiring all states to authorise charter schools to be eligible for funding. And two of the most high profile education chiefs in the country – Joel Klein in New York and Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C. – have built successful reforms around increasing the number of charter schools in their cities.

The policy focus on charters schools has not emerged in a research and knowledge vacuum. A number of important studies on charter school performance have been published this year. One of the most recent, released by the National Bureau of Economic Research this week, found that student achievement gains were significantly higher in Boston’s charter schools than in traditional public schools and the self-managing ‘pilot’ public schools, for both maths and English in middle school and high school. This closely follows a study of New York schools that found children who attended charter schools from kindergarten strongly outperformed their peers in public schools by the third grade, and that the gap widened as children progressed through the grades. Both these studies controlled for selection bias and student characteristics.

While these studies had large positive results, this is not uniformly true of all charter schools. This year’s meta-studies such as the CREDO and RAND studies demonstrated the variability in results from individual charter schools across the country. Some charter schools do exceptionally well, while others are barely better than their neighbouring public schools, and some worse. Part of this variability is due to the newness of many charter schools, a factor overlooked in much of the commentary about the CREDO study in particular, but some of it is to do with quality.

Fortunately, researchers are also gradually building a picture of which charter schools are effective and why. The characteristics of the best charter schools, which all but eliminate the achievement gap between white and black students, include: high flexibility in staffing and budgeting, allowing schools to lengthen the school day, and intensifying the learning program; explicit teaching; strong discipline; and robust accountability measures for performance. Forward thinkers like Noel Pearson have been looking to these gap-closing schools for inspiration to improve education for Indigenous children in Cape York [Australia]. Education bureaucrats would be well-advised to do the same.

The above is a press release from the Centre for Independent Studies, dated December 11. Enquiries to Snail mail: PO Box 92, St Leonards, NSW, Australia 1590.

Teachers forced to 'hide in closets' to pray

Florida school teachers say they are being forced to hide in closets to pray after a controversial court ruling. Under an order crafted by the ACLU, school employees in Santa Rosa School District must act in an "official capacity" whenever they are at a "school event" – including breaks, after-school events on or off campus and private events held on campus.

Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit law firm, alongside Christian Educators Association International, is seeking to overturn the court order, which has resulted in three school officials being charged with contempt. According to the group, school officials are strictly prohibited from showing agreement with anyone "communicating with a deity," such as "bowing the head" or "folding hands." "School officials" must also prohibit "third-parties" from praying, Liberty Counsel said.

During testimony that ended last week, Christian employees said the order has literally driven them to hide in closets to pray to avoid contempt charges.

As WND reported, Michelle Winkler, a clerical assistant, earlier faced contempt charges after her husband read a prayer at a private banquet held at a Naval base to honor non-instructional school district employees. The judge eventually found that Winkler's husband's prayer at a voluntary gathering outside of school did not violate any court order.

During her recent testimony, Winkler broke down on the witness stand as she told a story about how her coworker sought comfort from her after losing her 2-year-old child. The two hid behind a closet door to pray, for fear they would be seen and held in contempt of the court order.

Denise Gibson, an elementary teacher for 20 years, testified that the order requires her to inform parents that she cannot respond if they mention church or their faith. She said she is prohibited from replying to e-mails from parents if they contain Bible verses or even "God bless you." Instead, she said, the district has instructed her to open a separate e-mail to answer the parents rather than hit "reply." The district calls for the action to eliminate any trace of religious language in school communication.

As WND reported, Liberty Counsel successfully defended Pace High School Principal Frank Lay and Athletic Director Robert Freeman against criminal contempt charges after the ACLU complained when Freeman gave a 15-second blessing for a lunch meal for 20 adults with no students present. The men had faced penalties of up to six months in jail and $5,000 in fines each.

The situation began in August 2008 when two anonymous students sued with the help of the ACLU over long-standing practices at the school allowing prayer at some events. The school's separate counsel had agreed to a consent decree that "essentially bans all Santa Rose County School District employees from engaging in prayer or religious activities," Liberty Counsel reported.

WND also reported earlier when members of the 2009 graduating class at Florida's Pace High School expressed their objections to the ACLU restrictions on statements of religious faith at their school by rising up en masse at their ceremony and reciting the Lord's Prayer. Nearly 400 graduating seniors at Pace, a Santa Rosa County school, stood up at their graduation, according to Staver. Parents, family and friends joined in the recitation, and applauded the students when they were finished, Staver told WND. "Many of the students also painted crosses on their graduation caps to make a statement of faith," the organization reported.

"The court order crafted by the ACLU takes my breath away," said Mathew Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel. "I am embarrassed for our country, knowing that school employees in Santa Rosa County are hiding in closets to pray out of fear they may be hauled into court by the ACLU. We intend to restore religious freedom to Santa Rosa County. We will not allow the ACLU to criminalize Christianity."


Australia: Poor students top performers at elite universities

Which suggests that only the very bright can overcome a poor background

STUDENTS from poor backgrounds are less likely to attend the nation's prestige universities, but those who do are likelier to finish their degrees, according to a report by the Group of Eight.

The report, released earlier this week, will inform a Go8 equity strategy that is being hammered out in response to the federal government's call for a boost in the proportion of undergraduates from low socioeconomic backgrounds to 20 per cent by 2020.

The report found 72.4 per cent of applicants to Go8 universities achieved an equivalent national tertiary entrance rank score of more than 80.05 last year, and of these only 10.4 per cent were from low socioeconomic backgrounds. But the imbalance was corrected to some extent by better retention and academic success rates for students from these backgrounds.

"Retention rates were higher in Go8 universities than any other universities across all equity groups in the five-year period from 2002 to 2006," the report says. "The difference was greatest for remote students (77 per cent in Go8 universities, 66.9 per cent in other universities) and indigenous students (70.2 per cent in Go8 universities compared with 60.6 per cent in other universities)." The report says the dropout rate for low-socio economic status students, likewise, is lower within the Go8 than outside it.

The Go8 report comes after the federal government released its own attrition figures for 2001-07 which revealed a national dropout rate of 18.9 per cent for undergraduates. The worst rate, of 40 per cent, was found at the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education in the Northern Territory, while the lowest dropout rate, of 8 per cent, was recorded by the University of Melbourne.

Earlier this year the Go8 was stung by a higher education equity report written for the University of South Australia's new National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education.

While the report, by Griffith University researcher Leesa Wheelahan, found that universities such as Macquarie and Canberra had worse equity credentials than the sandstone universities, it revealed that the Go8 admitted an average of 10.9 per cent of their students from poor backgrounds. This compared with an average across the higher education system of 17.4 per cent. At the time the Go8 strenuously asserted its members' capacity to retain disadvantaged students through to graduation.

The new report, which pledges to improve ways to identify students with academic potential and develop "multiple pathways through partnerships with other post-secondary education and training institutions", gives substance to this claim.

In a related development, the University of Melbourne has unveiled a "guaranteed access" program which it says will "give certainty" to students from rural or isolated areas and in disadvantaged socioeconomic circumstances who apply to enter the university next year and meet the published criteria. These students will be guaranteed a commonwealth-supported place in the university's new-look degrees (except music, for which students have to audition) if their ENTER is 78 or above for arts, environments or science, or 88 or above for biomedicine and commerce. Disadvantaged students whose ENTER scores are below this level will still be eligible for a place.

Melbourne University's deputy vice-chancellor Sue Elliott said of students from disadvantaged groups who meet the criteria: "They will know they have a place at Melbourne when they get their [Victorian Certificate of Education] results. These are high-quality students whose results don't necessarily reflect their true academic ability."

Professor Elliott said disadvantaged students had been shown to perform at much the same level at university as other students. "The undergraduate experience at a good university is a level playing field where students from all backgrounds have the opportunity to flourish," she said.


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