Sunday, December 06, 2009

Texas education head warns of 'federal takeover'

Embrace of 'common standards' by Obama administration is first step to losing local control, Scott says

Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott said Wednesday that the Obama administration is marching toward a federal takeover of the nation's public schools — and Texas should fight it. The first step, he said, is an effort to develop common math and English curriculum standards that is being led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Participation in the ongoing common standards effort is part of the criteria for a $4 billion federal grant program called Race to the Top. Texas and Alaska are the only states not participating in the common standards effort. Scott said Texas is already ahead of the other states in developing tough standards.

The U.S. Education Department appears to be "placing its desire for a federal takeover of public education above the interests of the 4.7 million schoolchildren in the state of Texas by setting two different starting lines — one for nearly every other state in the country and one for Texas," Scott wrote last week in a letter to the state's congressional delegation. "Because Texas has chosen to preserve its sovereign authority to determine what is appropriate for Texas children to learn in its public schools," said Scott, "the state is now placed at a serious disadvantage in competing for its share of (the grant money)." That is coercion, Scott said in an interview Wednesday, adding that he could see future federal education dollars being tied to participation in the common standards.

Coercion, no; bribery, yes, said Michael Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank in Washington. "They are bribing states to participate. That is very different than mandating," said Petrilli, a former education official under President George W. Bush. He said there has been no discussion of requiring states to participate to get future federal dollars. "I can't foresee that happening. I don't think anybody would support making this mandatory," Petrilli said.

But the Race to the Top is a discretionary, competitive grant program, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan has made the common standards a key — though not defining — part of it. "This is not money that is earmarked for Texas," Petrilli said.

Texas still has a chance to win as much as $700 million because the state has a pretty good school reform story to tell and is otherwise well aligned with the federal government's goals in this grant program, Petrilli said.

Scott's letter to the delegation was sent a day after Gov. Rick Perry issued a news release decrying the inclusion of the common standards criteria in the grant competition. Perry is embroiled in a Republican primary battle with U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and has cast her as a Washington insider.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, said Texas' refusal to work with the other states on the common standards initiative does a disservice to the state's students. "Other states want to race to the top, but Gov. Perry remains determined to pursue an ideologically driven race to the bottom," Doggett said.


One in five Scots unable to read and write

This would once have been unimaginable in education-mad Scotland

Almost one million Scots are unable to read and write properly, according to an influential group of educationalists who have called for an overhaul of the country’s approach to literacy.

According to the Literacy Commission — which also includes business leaders and the novelist Ian Rankin — about a fifth of adults do not have the literacy skills they need for their daily lives. The group has also warned that about 13,000 pupils leave primary school every year without reaching even basic levels.

The commission has set out a plan to improve standards and achieve the aim of making Scotland the first fully literate country. It believes deprivation is the biggest barrier to this and wants help to begin before children start school.

Under its proposals, primary school pupils will learn to read by the synthetic phonics method, which involves learning the sounds that make up words, rather than recognising individual words. Teachers will be trained to identify slow learners, who can then be put through diagnostic testing and given one-to-one support.


The business of education reform in Britain

Reform’s latest report, Core Business, does an excellent job of pinpointing some of the main problems with education in the UK, but, to my mind, does not go quite far enough on the solutions.

As the report makes clear, low expectations, a lack of intellectual rigor and grade inflation are serious problems in our schools, while the fact that the most disadvantaged children are pushed to follow non-academic qualifications to boost school league table results is nothing less than a disgrace. A powerful and convincing case is also made that government policies of emphasizing differences in educational potential of children is in fact a symptom of the failure of state education.

On the policy side, there are two recommendations. Firstly, it is suggested that, “all students should be required to study a minimum of five academic GCSEs”, while vocational qualifications would be done in addition to, not instead of GCSEs. Yet on its own, this change would offer little for the thousands of children let down by state education. The problem isn’t vocational qualifications per se – just consider the Indian examples of NIIT and GNIIT – but rather the fact that the state holds a debilitating monopoly on education funding and delivery. It might well make the skewed league tables more accurate to ignore vocational qualifications, but as competition between schools is nonexistent, this will not return power to parents in any genuine sense. What we need is for parents to become consumers of education – something which Reform, to their credit, have pointed out in numerous other reports.

Secondly, the report recommends ending Ofqual’s and the QCDA’s control of the curriculum. This makes sense, but replacing them with another Quango run by academics is a Band-Aid solution to a much wider problem. It may prevent grade inflation, but will do little for improving the quality of teaching. Once again, I feel the focus should be on more competition, not just ‘better regulation’.

If the Conservative Party does come to power, they will have a mandate for radical reform of the education system. The failure of state education as things stand is beyond doubt. With a voucher system that allows schools to profit, competing curriculums to better meet the demands of parents and a bonfire of the multifarious regulations, Michael Gove MP could succeed where so many before him have failed. A proper market place with competing brands of schools, teaching methods, exam boards and curriculums is the only way to extract ourselves from the hole we have been digging since 1870.


No comments: