Saturday, January 10, 2009

Good news!

Lennie of Education Matters has agreed to become a co-blogger here. He is from Illinois and his wife homeschools their kids but he still takes a lively interest in what is going on in public education. He will not be posting here daily but his postings will add a valuable new perspective to this blog.

Congress contemplates future of DC vouchers

The arrival of a new Congress and administration is casting doubt over the future of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, the federally funded school choice program serving disadvantaged students in the nation's capital. The scholarship program-administered by the nonprofit Washington Scholarship Fund (WSF)-served more than 1,900 children from low-income families during the 2007-08 school year, its fourth year of operation. Families accepted into the program can send their children to the private schools of their choice, using scholarships worth up to $7,500 per student. Since its inception, approximately 7,200 students have applied to participate, representing about four applicants for every available scholarship.

The high demand for school choice in the District should come as no surprise to those familiar with the DC public school system, home to some of the worst-performing public schools in the country. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress standardized test, only 31 percent of DC eighth-graders scored "basic" in math, compared with 68 percent nationally in 2007. Only 45 percent of District students can read at a basic level, whereas nationally the number is above 70 percent. Only 59 percent of students in DC graduate high school. These low achievement figures persist despite the District spending nearly $15,000 per student each year.

Poor performance in the public school system has created a natural constituency of parents pushing for the Opportunity Scholarship Program and the better circumstances it creates for their children. In 2008, Congress voted to provide funding for the program for another school year, despite strong opposition from some leading voices on Capitol Hill. DC Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who strongly opposes the program, said in a June 9, 2008 Washington Post op-ed, "I can tell you that the Democratic Congress is not about to extend this program."

With expanded liberal majorities in Congress and a new, Democratic administration, Norton's warning could come true, analysts say. Congress must reauthorize the program this session in order for funding to continue beyond the 2009-10 school year. Failure to extend the program would result in many participating children returning to DC public schools. Since the average income of participating scholarship families is $22,736 for a family of four, few will be able to afford the tuition costs without the benefits of a scholarship.

According to Virginia Walden Ford, a school choice advocate and head of DC Parents for School Choice, the Opportunity Scholarship Program is providing hope and opportunity for families throughout the District. "The Opportunity Scholarship Program has empowered parents by giving them the chance to get their children out of low-performing schools and send them to schools that meet their individual needs," Walden Ford said. "We have seen that, when children are placed in nurturing educational environments, they succeed and their parents become active and involved. We've heard over and over that it would be devastating if this program were to end and parents would have to look for new schools for their children who are doing so well in the schools they are currently attending.

"The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program has changed the educational direction of all the children involved," Walden Ford continued. "When children are doing well in educational environments, because of expanded options for the families who have had no choice, we see happy endings-not only for the children but also their families and their communities."

Ending the program would be unwelcome news to participating parents. Surveys have shown scholarship families have high levels of satisfaction with their children's schools and increased feelings of student safety. Sheila Jackson, whose daughter is in the program, told DC Parents for School Choice in November, "For the last two years my daughter has been in the scholarship program at a school I chose, and I see the transformation in my child. At 13, she is becoming a disciplined young lady who likes school. She feels safe. I feel relieved."


Sex clinics 'to open' in EVERY British school so pupils as young as 11 can be tested... without parental consent

Sexual health clinics could soon be open in every secondary school as part of a drive to cut teenage pregnancies.

Sexual health clinics could soon be open in every secondary school and college. All pupils would have easy access to emergency contraception and pregnancy testing without their parents being told. Around a third of secondary schools in England - almost 1,000 - already have clinics. Some are mobile units shared by a number of schools. Now an influential study, commissioned by the Government, has recommended extending the coverage to all state secondaries and colleges in a drive to cut teenage pregnancies. Advocates of the approach say children can be deterred from seeking sexual health services if they have to travel to community centres.

But critics say the policy is a 'social experiment' which risks encouraging under-age sex instead of curbing it. Already, the morning-after pill is available to a million schoolgirls.

The survey of school clinic provisions was carried out by the National Children's Bureau on behalf of the Sex Education Forum. It found that single-sex, faith and independent schools were less likely to have clinics. Just 14 per cent of all-girl schools and 10 per cent of boys' schools had them. Only a fraction of the clinics restrict services to children over 16 - the legal age of consent. Among further education colleges, which teach four in ten 16-year-olds and growing numbers of 14-year-olds, almost three- quarters have on-site sexual health services. Some colleges offer condoms only in emergencies but others provide them in vending machines.

The report admits there is a 'lack of research evidence' about the effectiveness of school-based clinics, accessible by children as young as 11. But it says: 'School (and alternative provision) is the one place that the large majority of children and young people attend. 'Not all young people will need to use a sexual health service at school age, but providing a service in school is the best way of making sure that those young people who need the service can use it.'

Ministers have set a target for all schools to achieve 'healthy' status by next year. This means they must either set up clinics or refer youngsters to similar services in the community. But there is concern about the permissive approach of many clinics. Researchers in Bristol, who studied 16 school-based clinics catering for 11,805 pupils, found that only one in four youngsters who attended were advised to consider delaying sexual activity. A major study in the U.S. found the evidence was 'not strong' that clinics increase contraceptive use or bring down teen pregnancies.

UK rates of teenage pregnancy are the highest in Europe and the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show a shock increase last year, despite a ten-year Government strategy aimed at cutting rates by half. Critics say the increase casts serious doubt on the policy of increasing access to contraception and sex education. Norman Wells, director of the Family Education Trust, said: 'Sexual health clinics on school premises send out the message that it is normal for schoolchildren to engage in sexual activity. 'Confidential clinics in schools are part of a mix that is removing the restraints which previously limited underage sexual activity. 'There is no evidence that school clinics result in lower teenage conception rates. Instead, they encourage some teenagers to become sexually active when they would not otherwise have done so. 'The fact that these clinics keep parents in the dark is also a great concern. Confidentiality policies drive a wedge between parents and children and expose young people to the risk of abuse and disease.'

Children's minister Beverley Hughes said: 'The Government supports the provision of on-site services where schools have identified a need and where the scope of the service has been agreed by the school's governing body following consultation with parents. 'On-site services provide young people with swift and easy access to health advice that survey evidence suggests they are reluctant to access through GPs or clinics.


Friday, January 09, 2009

California Courts Rule for Charter Schools Again

A Los Angeles charter middle school is moving into new digs thanks to a court ruling on equal treatment that has national implications. One of the largest obstacles charters nationwide face is finding adequate facilities. Across the United States, only 26 of the 41 states with charter laws include procedures for providing space. California law requires districts to make unused facilities available to local charters, yet receiving the facilities continues to be a rough road.

Proposition 39, passed in 2000, requires school districts in California to treat charter schools the same as they do other public schools. Wayne Johnson, then-president of the California Teachers Association, told the San Francisco Chronicle charter schools were getting the leftovers and should be entitled to adequate facilities.

In the 2007-08 school year, New West Charter Middle School in Los Angeles was looking for a new facility to house its 285 students. The school's contract on its location was up for renewal in June 2008 and would require $1.5 million in rent. Fairfax Senior High School, just 15 minutes away in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), had unused classrooms that could accommodate the middle schoolers at far less expense. In October 2007, New West requested the vacant Fairfax classrooms from LAUSD. In April 2008, Fairfax made New West an offer, which the charter school accepted the next day. But only a few hours later, New West received a faxed notice saying LAUSD would not provide the facilities.

New West had little choice but to sign the $1.5 million contract for its current space. Administrators took the case to court, arguing the charter had been denied the equal treatment mandated by Proposition 39. On October 3, 2008 the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled in New West's favor, ordering Fairfax Senior High to provide 13 classrooms. The transition will take place at the beginning of 2009. New West hopes to sublease its current site in order to recoup the money spent on the legal process.

"This has far-reaching implications for charters nationwide" said Gary Larson, a spokesman for the California Charter School Association. "This and other cases will have ramifications as to whether or not charter school students will be afforded the same treatment as any other public school students."

Charter schools have always faced an uphill battle for support from sponsoring districts. Over the past two years, two similar cases have been brought to California courts by groups denied facility requests by LAUSD. "Districts do not seem to want to comply with the law," said Sharon Weir, executive director and principal of New West Charter Middle School. "Now there is a precedent for districts to be held accountable to the law." Weir doubts the move to new facilities will hurt students' performance.

The small charter is fulfilling its mission "to provide an academically rigorous, highly individualized education." New West earned an 867 on the state measurement of the Academic Performance Index (API). A passing proficient score is 800, and New West has exceeded it three years in a row. According to the California Department of Education, this API ranks higher than all other LAUSD middle schools, including public and charter schools. "It is attributed to the quality of our teaching staff," said Weir. "They are non-tenured teachers, but they teach wholeheartedly."


Labour sees SATs pass marks plunge for English and maths

British Sats are exams taken during and at the end of primary schooling

SATs test marks appear to be on a consistent downward trend. The pass mark in SATs tests has fallen sharply since Labour came to power, figures show. Youngsters needed to score just 43 per cent to make the grade in English last year and 45 per cent in maths to reach pass standard. A decade ago, they needed 48 per cent and 52 per cent respectively, according to figures obtained by the Liberal Democrats.

Ministers insisted that pass marks only fall when papers are judged by exam watchdogs to be harder, thus ensuring standards are maintained year-on-year. But opposition politicians claimed the figures cast doubt over the reliability of marking - and questioned why pass marks appear to be on a consistent downward trend. Results in tests for 11-year-olds in both English and maths have risen over the past 10 years, sharply until 2000 and then more slowly.

The Liberal Democrats said the figures would further weaken public faith in SATs marking following the debacle over late and chaotic results last summer. And they claimed a new independent exams watchdog being set up by the Government to dispel dumbing down worries was not independent enough. 'These figures reveal there has been a decline in the marks needed to get the basic maths and English levels since Labour came to power,' said education spokesman David Laws. 'They will raise inevitable concerns about a dumbing down of standards and there must now be serious questions about the reliability of the SATs results. 'We need a fully independent Educational Standards Authority to restore confidence in standards and ensure that the national tests really are rigorous.'

Figures disclosed by Schools Minister Jim Knight in a Parliamentary written answer showed that in 1999, pupils needed to achieve a minimum of 48 per cent in English and 52 per cent in maths to reach 'level four', the standard expected of 11-year-olds. However in each of the last three years the threshold has been 43 per cent for English. In maths, it was 46 per cent in 2006 and 2007 and 45 per cent in 2008.

The proportion of pupils making the grade and achieving level four has risen over the same period. In 1999, just 71 per cent scored level four in English and 69 per cent in maths, against 81 per cent and 78 per cent respectively in 2008.

However, experts at Durham University, who compared SATs results with independent tests, believe primary reading standards are little changed since the 1950s and maths standards have improved only marginally. Evidence from international studies is mixed, with a study of reading literacy claiming in 2007 that standards in England have fallen 'significantly' but a 2008 study in maths saying our primary pupils are among the best in the world.

The figures for marks thresholds over time were issued by the now-defunct National Assessment Agency, which was wound down late last year after a devastating report into failings that led to the summer's marking chaos. Mr Knight, writing prior to the findings, said: 'The NAA uses a range of statistical and judgmental procedures to ensure that the standards of performance required for the award of each level are maintained consistently from year to year. 'The content of each test changes every year, therefore different numbers of marks may be required in different years to achieve a certain level. 'Levels are anchored to the national curriculum so that a level four achieved in one year represents the same level of performance as a level four achieved in any other year.'


British schoolchildren aged FIVE expelled for sex offences, girls molested by classmates: Playground bullying takes a shocking twist

Arriving punctually at her school in South London, the 15-year-old girl - let's call her Sarah - would not have expected that day to be different from any other. She would have greeted friends, familiar faces gliding past hers in the corridor as she prepared for the first classes of the morning. But for her, those classes did not happen. Her headmaster told me the brutal story of what happened next: how Sarah went missing some time between her arrival and assembly and then, a while later, reappeared looking withdrawn and anxious.

Initially, her teacher wondered why she had entered her classroom late. Then Sarah became distraught and the teacher took her to one side. Eventually she revealed how that morning, she had been marched into an empty classroom by a group of boys - themselves pupils at the school and all aged under 16 - who had physically forced her to perform a sex act on one of them. The head told me: `The incident had actually occurred in the school building. The boys concerned had just gone off to their lessons afterwards as though nothing had happened.'

His astonishment is still evident as he speaks. `The girl herself was immediately badly affected. She took some time in the toilets to recover from it. Eventually, she disclosed that something had happened.'

Arrests and court action followed. The boys later pleaded guilty to sexual assault and were given custodial sentences. But Sarah's story did not end with their conviction. She left the school and remains terrified that she might see her attackers again. Her father told us that even now, 18 months on, he is still shell-shocked. `You see your child off safely to school and you don't worry about them, really, until the point when they leave school to come home. This was something that occurred at a time when I just couldn't have possibly expected her to be a victim of anything.'

Yet when he complained to the council and asked for a home tutor for his daughter so that she did not have to go straight back to the same classrooms where her attackers were taught, they refused. `The council official I spoke to said: "I'm very sorry, we only provide home tutoring for children who've been excluded from schools, such as the boys who've assaulted your daughter. We don't provide it for their victims." 'ent part of the city, but he can still see the fear in her eyes. `If she goes into town or if she's on the train and she sees anyone from her old school, she becomes very fearful and very distressed.'

A sexual crime on school premises, committed by one set of under-age pupils against an equally young victim . . . It sounds as if it must be, thankfully, a vanishingly rare event. Yet this case is just one example of a shocking new trend in sexual bullying among children that is the subject of a BBC Panorama report on Monday night. We investigated Sarah's story, and others like it, to see whether they tell us anything about the world our children inhabit when they congregate at school.

For among experts there is a growing conviction that, up and down the country, something disturbing is happening. It is difficult to break this kind of activity into statistics. But the Government did supply us with its most recent figures, compiled in summer 2007, showing that in the previous year there were 3,500 school exclusions for sexual misconduct - which can include anything from daubing sexually explicit graffiti through to serious physical assault. In 20 cases, the guilty party was only five years old. But informal evidence suggests the problem may be worse. A survey of 11 to 19-year-olds by the charity Young Voice found that one in ten had been forced against their will to take part in sex acts.

How can this be happening? In one sense, the evidence is all around us. Fuelled by a sex-addled culture that parents cannot hope to shield them from, children can be fluent in sexual terminology long before they turn the legal age of consent at 16; often, even, before they hit ten. Sexual words can become sexual actions - so playground bullying is becoming sexual, too. Michelle Elliott of the charity Kidscape says: `Sexual bullying has become much more prevalent. On the Kidscape helpline we used to get maybe one or two calls a year. Now we are getting two or three a week. It's probably the tip of the iceberg.' If the emergency calls made to Michelle's office are the summit of that iceberg, far more are happening lower down the slopes, in routine exchanges between schoolchildren.

I was amazed when I met a group of teenagers in the offices of an anti-bullying charity. There were around 20 of them, some aged over 16 and some under.We were sitting in a circle inside the headquarters of Beatbullying, where helpers counsel youngsters whose lives have been made a misery. They were from local state schools; all had, in some way or other, come across verbal sexual bullying.

They all talked of the way sexual language was part of the daily currency. The word `slag' has survived from my schooldays, but new ones such as `sket' and `junge' have the same meaning and are thrown around with equal malice. `Gay' has become an all-purpose term of abuse. But what fascinated me was the way the wordplay so easily drifted into physical interference. According to Opey, a girl of 17, there is a lot of `grabbing and touching' between pupils, mainly with girls the victims of boys. She hears them bragging threateningly about sexual activities: `It would be verbal a lot of the time. Like: "She did this and she did that, so will you do this? Will you do that?" It happens quite a bit.' So, I asked, are she and her friends upset when it happens? `For the most part, yeah, but after a while you just learn to deal with it,' Opey said sadly.

Gang culture has contributed to the problem, of course. In some cases, boys are told to have sex with particular girls as part of `initiation rites', while young girls are bullied into performing sex acts for their `protection'. This hateful culture has now spread into the mainstream arena. I am told that 25,000 homepages on Bebo, the social networking site for children, have the word `slut' on them.

Words give way to actions. Every one of the youngsters I met at Beatbullying knew someone they thought had been sexually groped inside their own school. Dwayne, 16, said some of the boys he knows `touch girls where they don't want to be touched, especially in a public place at school'. I asked what the teachers did about it. `They ain't aware,' he replied, and I sensed my question showed me to be hopelessly out of touch. `They're, like, oblivious to everything.'

Even when the authorities are notified, it doesn't guarantee they will punish the perpetrators. In one horrifying case, a five-year-old girl was locked in a school room and sexually assaulted by another pupil. Astonishingly, the school urged her mother not to notify the police. She informed them anyway - only to be told that the boy responsible was under the age of criminal responsibility.

So whose fault is this sexualisation of the young, and where does it start? Without hesitation Monique, an eloquent 15-year-old I met at Beatbullying, blamed popular culture and magazines which have thrown sex at her and her friends for years. `It has a big impact on the sexual bullying side of things,' she said. `Music especially. Most of the songs you hear are `sex this' and `sex that'. And magazines have things at the back for positions, and things to do with sex.' She says even 12-year-olds see such material. `If you're 12, you shouldn't really be thinking about that.' Next to her sat Ramanae, 16. She told me: `My eight-year-old cousin, if she's on the internet, a pop-up advertisement will appear - a pornographic one - and she'll go to her mum: "What's this?'' '

What I found saddest was that all the youngsters spoke as if such exposure to sexual harassment was a fact of life. Monique said, matter-of-factly: `I have seen people bullied sexually. It's all around you; in school, outside of school, if you're out with friends after school, at weekends.' And when it escalates, it can bring disaster. Paula Telford of the NSPCC said: `We have had examples, for instance, of a 16-year-old boy who raped a much younger boy in a secluded setting in school. We have had a ten-year-old who was forcing other children to perform sex acts on him, and performing sex acts on them. And we have had much younger children who've been inappropriately touching each other.'

There are many grey areas. The sexual attack which causes a headmaster to call the police, and results in criminal prosecution, is clear enough. But in lesser cases, it can be difficult for teachers to decide how to intervene when so much of the traffic between pupils can be excused, optimistically, as general teasing and banter in the roughhouse atmosphere of a school.

So now Children's Minister Ed Balls is preparing guidance for teachers on when they should step in. Yet if the problem comes from our culture, what can a minister do? Not one of the parents I met had any idea how to stop sex arriving in the playground.

I gathered a group of a dozen mums and dads in a bar to talk about it. They spoke about mobiles, music and the internet, freely admitting that policing TV viewing was nigh-on impossible because of the ease with which children can access programmes out of hours. The ITV2 series Katie And Peter, featuring fly-on-the-wall footage of Jordan and her slightly preposterous husband, Peter Andre, was cited frequently as an example of a show which a child might be drawn to, but which had strong sexual content - they frequently joke about `shagging' and fall into bed with other.

But why, then, do their parents not ban it, I wondered. One mother, Lisa, told me: `I look like such a bad parent, don't I? Yes, we absolutely love that show. OK, I'm not happy about the language - but my daughter, she's only ten and she looks up to Katie Price and she thinks she's amazing. And you know what, in some ways she is not a bad role model. My daughter sits there going: "Oh Mummy, I want to be like her.'' ' Another mum, Jane, said she had found out through her child that ten-year-olds in the playground were `boasting about who they'd snogged.' She was alarmed, but what could she do about it?

I tried to remember if I had any concept of that at ten; were ten-year-old boys doing that in the Seventies? These days, as the father of two daughters aged four and two, I worry about the sort of world they are growing up in. Sometimes, it can seem so innocent - like the moment this weekend when Martha, the oldest, took five minutes to help her little sister undo her cardigan buttons. There was something so innocent about this moment of sisterly support, amid all the usual rows over who owns which toy, that it made my heart leap for joy. But then I remembered all the interviews we did for Monday night's film, and how that innocence can so easily be dismantled. It seems that whatever we parents do, childhood is invaded by knowledge far earlier than we would wish - and danger can follow.


Thursday, January 08, 2009

Michael Palin replaces Alexander Pope in Britain's English lessons

Authors from an earlier age give a view of a different world and hence highlight different values. Losing that is to lose perspective on the follies of the modern world

They are the writers who have inspired generations of schoolchildren. But now such literary greats as Coleridge, Shelley and Browning have disappeared from school exams to be replaced by more modern writers like Hornby (Nick) and Palin (Michael). Dead poets and authors who are central figures in the canon of English literature are no longer being featured in GCSE papers, according to new research by Cambridge Assessment, the school examinations arm of Cambridge University. And as they lose their place in exam syllabuses to more contemporary text, their study is dying out in schools.

The analysis of GCSE papers and predecessor qualifications at ten year intervals, from the 1870s through to the present day, revealed that a number of literary greats have endured, such as William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott and Thomas Hardy. However, others, from Alexander Pope to Jonathan Swift, have fallen out of fashion. Even Geoffrey Chaucer, described as the "father of English literature", had not appeared in the last two sample papers from 1997 and 2007.

Researchers found a general trend towards more contemporary authors. In the 1950s, for instance, it was common for pupils to study writers who had been born well over 200 years earlier. In modern papers, this time lag had been cut by half. "Overall it is possible to see that the exam specifications show increasing modernity," the study said. "More recently there has been a tendency to include a broader view of literature along side 'literary greats'."

Susan Hill, the award-winning author, said the pendulum had swung too far in the "modern direction". "Iris Murdock once told me that school students should not be studying her novels, they should only read the classics, the great Victorians, the major poets - in other words, the dead," said Ms Hill, whose novel I'm the King of the Castle, has featured in GCSE syllabuses. "I am sure that the brightest should indeed be studying the canon, as well as some modern writers - the key words being 'as well'. "At GCSE, the emphasis is almost wholly on modern writers, at A-level slightly less so, but the pendulum has still swung far in the modern direction over the last few decades."

Ms Hill said too many teachers took the easy option when a choice was offered in GCSE courses because they were afraid of pupils being bored or that older work would not be considered "relevant" to pupils today. "Once it was 'Hamlet or King Lear', now it is 'the poems of Wordsworth or Carol Ann Duffy' - and it is easier to teach Duffy than Wordsworth, I'm the King of the Castle than Wuthering Heights," she said.

A shake-up of GCSEs four years ago introduced non-fiction to English literature courses in an attempt to entice teenagers, especially boys, to read more. Nick Hornby's autobiographical book about being an Arsenal supporter, Fever Pitch, and TV travel presenter Michael Palin's bestseller Pole to Pole, have since featured on syllabuses. Thousands of pupils can also now sit an English language GCSE which they able to pass without studying any plays, poetry or classic novels. Other modern authors now studied are Frank McCourt, Penelope Lively and Janni Howker.

Professor Alan Smithers, the director of the centre for education and employment research at Buckingham University, said: "We want young people to study works which illuminate the human condition. This tends to be true of works that have stood the test of time which are perhaps in a better position than more recent authors who could turn out to be a fad."

A spokesman for Cambridge Assessment said the study could not be used to provide a commentary on exam standards over time. Exams have changed because at the turn of the 20th century, only a tiny proportion of 16-year-olds sat the School Certificate, whereas the vast majority are now entered for GCSE. As a consequence, exam papers had to be more assessable, he said. "Modern questions must be worded in such a way that all students being targeted can make some attempt at answering," he said. "The target candidature of past questions, particularly those from the earliest years sampled, was undoubtedly very different."

The study also found that earlier question papers required a much closer knowledge and memory of the poetry and novels studied. For example every paper between 1877 and 1937 required candidates to quote verbatim from memory substantial sections of the prescribed text. Later papers give more emphasis to the candidate's own response to the work, for instance asking which character students "feel most sympathy for". There is also greater discussion of the overall meaning or themes of a text.

OUT: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Browning, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith

IN: Nick Hornby, Michael Palin, Frank McCourt, Penelope Lively, Janni Howker, Carol Ann Duffy


Poorer pupils are falling farther behind, say British Tories

The British Labour party is committed to lifting up the poor but their addled policies (such as attacks on selective schools) have the opposite effect

Poorer pupils appear to be falling farther behind their middle-class contemporaries as better-off families increasingly colonise the best state secondary schools.

An analysis by the Conservatives of government data shows the achievement divide between rich and poor schools to have risen by two percentage points within a year, despite the resources directed at reducing it. The proportion of teenagers achieving five good GCSEs including English and maths in schools where more than half of pupils are eligible for free school meals fell from 14 to 13 per cent between 2006 and 2007. At schools where fewer than a tenth of pupils are eligible, the proportion rose from 57 per cent to 58 per cent.

Michael Gove, the Shadow Children's Secretary, said that the system favoured those fortunate or rich enough, to live in areas with good state schools. The Tories plan to allow good new schools to open in deprived areas, with extra cash for children from poor homes.


Philadelphia libraries to become 'learning centers'

Nutty Nutter again: Who needs those silly old books?

As library supporters booed Mayor Nutter and called him a "liar" at City Hall yesterday, he announced that with outside financial help, the city plans to transform the 11 library buildings slated to close after tomorrow into "knowledge centers." Appearing unfazed by the catcalls, Nutter - flanked by staff and supporters that included four members of City Council - pledged that free computer access will be at the heart of the new public centers.

The city will lease the buildings to the new operators, which include community groups, foundations, corporations and others that would provide funding and staffing for the facilities, Nutter said. Five organizations already have offered to create programs, and as soon as all 11 sites are spoken for, Nutter said, details about the services that the centers are to provide will be made public.

Shutting the libraries will save $8 million a year and $40 million over five years, city officials have said. The move is part of the effort to make up what is estimated to be at least a $1 billion shortfall in the city's five-year financial plan. "This is a very bad situation," Nutter said. "We've come upon this economic crisis. We didn't create it, it was created by others." He insisted that concerns about the libraries that were voiced by citizens during eight community meetings were heard and taken into consideration.

Not so, said Eleanor Childs, 62, a teacher at Montessori Genesis II, a small private school in Powelton Village. "This is really a crime against the people," the library backer said after the news conference. "It's a civil-rights issue, this is a human-rights issue. This is not a budget issue." The Charles L. Durham Library, which Childs' students visit each week, is one of the 11 branches scheduled to close.

Nutter also announced that the LEAP (Learning, Education and Play) after-school programs housed in the 11 closing libraries will be relocated to nearby recreation centers, schools and other facilities on Jan. 12, the day the program is scheduled to restart for the new year. Eight of the new LEAP sites are within three blocks of the old sites, Nutter said, adding that one is eight blocks away but in a residential area. Nutter said that on Saturday he walked from the libraries to the new locations to gauge the distances. In all, more than 50 federally funded LEAP sites around the city provide more than 80,000 1st- through 12th-grade students with homework assistance, computer help, workshops, mentoring and other enrichment activities from September to June.

Nutter said that books and other materials likely would stay at the new knowledge centers, but computers leased by the city would not remain, and the new operators would equip the centers with new ones.

The dozens of teachers, students and other protesters who packed the news conference were unimpressed by what Nutter had to say. At 9:30 a.m. today some of them, members of several groups calling themselves the Coalition to Save the Libraries, planned to gather outside City Hall to "indict" Nutter. The charges against the mayor, according to a news release, include "wasting the minds of children," "promoting illiteracy" and "eliminating safe havens for kids." "I think it's a compromise that we cannot afford to make," Abby Miller, 34, a coalition member, said of the knowledge centers. "Community-run centers don't have the support that libraries have. They don't have trained librarians. It's a substitute for something that every neighborhood deserves."

The library issue has led City Council members to take sides. Council President Anna Verna and members Frank DiCicco, Marian Tasco and James Kenney stood with Nutter at yesterday's announcement. "I don't think I have any choice but to support the mayor," said Kenney. "People need to understand this is an international economic meltdown. We are in two wars and our economy is falling apart. . . . Screaming at the mayor in a rude way when he's trying to do his best to keep it all afloat, I think is crazy."

On the other side of the issue are three Council members who've filed a lawsuit to stop the library shutdowns: Bill Green, Jack Kelly and Jannie Blackwell. "All of my communities are united, whether it be Cobbs Creek or Mantua, whether it be Powelton Village in University City," said Blackwell. "All my neighborhoods, all races and income groups, everybody." "Last week before the issue of the lawsuit came up," Blackwell added, "I had teachers from my area saying, 'We're ready to go to jail.' "


Wednesday, January 07, 2009


The field of education is vast and I can cover only a small corner of it. So someone with a conservative or libertarian perspective who has views about education -- probably a person with some teaching background -- might like to consider blogging here. This blog gets about 120 hits a day, which may not seem much, but which is still in the top 99% of all blogs. Building up to that from scratch might take some time. And there is no doubt that this site could be developed much further with a bit more effort.

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Home schooling grows in the USA

The ranks of America's home-schooled children have continued a steady climb over the past five years, and new research suggests broader reasons for the appeal. The number of home-schooled kids hit 1.5 million in 2007, up 74% from when the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics started keeping track in 1999, and up 36% since 2003. The percentage of the school-age population that was home-schooled increased from 2.2% in 2003 to 2.9% in 2007. "There's no reason to believe it would not keep going up," says Gail Mulligan, a statistician at the center.

Traditionally, the biggest motivations for parents to teach their children at home have been moral or religious reasons, and that remains a top pick when parents are asked to explain their choice. The 2003 survey gave parents six reasons to pick as their motivation. (They could choose more than one.) The 2007 survey added a seventh: an interest in a "non-traditional approach," a reference to parents dubbed "unschoolers," who regard standard curriculum methods and standardized testing as counterproductive to a quality education.

"We wanted to identify the parents who are part of the 'unschooling' movement," Mulligan says. The "unschooling" group is viewed by educators as a subset of home-schoolers, who generally follow standard curriculum and grading systems. "Unschoolers" create their own systems.

The category of "other reasons" rose to 32% in 2007 from 20% in 2003 and included family time and finances. That suggests the demographics are expanding beyond conservative Christian groups, says Robert Kunzman, an associate professor at Indiana University's School of Education. Anecdotal evidence indicates many parents want their kids to learn at their own pace, he says.

Fewer home-schoolers were enrolled part time in traditional schools to study subjects their parents lack knowledge to teach. Eighteen percent were enrolled part time in 1999 and 2003, compared with 16% in 2007. Kunzman says this might be because of the availability of online instruction.

The 2007 estimates are based on data from the Parent and Family Involvement in Education Survey of the National Household Education Surveys. Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute, says the estimates are low because home-schooling parents "are significantly less likely to answer government-sponsored surveys."


A day in the life of an ordinary British school: drugs, violence and intimidation

Documents released to the Sunday Telegraph paint a disturbing picture of the challenges facing Britain's teachers. It is 9am, the start of the school day, and already an English teacher has been on the receiving end of a torrent of abuse from a 15-year-old boy. Outside on the playing field, the PE teacher has stopped a lesson to deal with teenage pupils who are swearing and not doing as they are told. Later that afternoon, three more members of staff will report being verbally abused by their charges, and the day will end with a pupil vandalising the library.

This is just another typical day at Northfields Technology College in Dunstable, Bedfordshire. It is not a particularly extreme example of the unruliness that many state schools have to deal with on a regular basis, but it is a snapshot that will horrify parents as they prepare their children for the new term.

Records of classroom and playground incidents, known as behaviour logs, from five schools on the National Challenge list (those in which fewer than 30 per cent of pupils leave with five "good" GCSEs, with grades A* to C), reveal for the first time the struggle to maintain order in our secondary schools. The logs, obtained by the Sunday Telegraph under freedom of information legislation, and taken from April and October 2008, show some secondaries recording up to 30 incidents a day. Children storming out of class and refusing to work is now commonplace. More worrying, however, are the serious offences contained in the logs. During one week, which was chosen at random, a pupil at Tong School, Bradford, was stabbed in the thigh by a student and had to be taken to hospital.

"The age of deference is dead," says Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. "As these documents show, in some schools, keeping behaviour under control is a massive challenge. Schools may well be coping, but it shows the level of indiscipline that teachers have to deal with every working day."

The picture painted by the logs comes as no surprise to Colin Adams, 50, a former IT teacher who was awarded 250,000 pounds compensation in an out-of-court settlement last month after an assault by a pupil ended his career. Adams joined the teaching profession after working as an engineer. He loved his job and was head of department at Kingsford Community School in east London. In 2004, a 12-year-old pupil strangled him to the point of unconsciousness. Colleagues who witnessed the attack were at first too afraid to pull off the boy in case they were accused of assaulting him.

According to Adams, deteriorating behaviour in schools is a reflection of society. "I have seen children coming in high because they have smoked their fourth joint on their way to school," he says. "I have also had students who have brought knives in to school because they are worried about what will happen to them on their way home. Society, if it is not broken, has a lot of problems and these are mimicked by children."

The boy who attacked him fits an all too familiar profile - he came from a broken home, with a father who lived 100 miles away. Within a few months of joining the school, the pupil had chalked up 27 serious incidents, nine for violence. Adams was on the receiving end of the tenth. "The day he assaulted me, he had already punched two other pupils, but was still in school. I had not been made aware of what had been going on," says Mr Adams. "He came from behind and ran at me, knocked me down and when I was on the floor, he strangled me. The teacher who eventually intervened had to prise his thumbs off my neck." Months earlier, the boy was involved in a fight which led to staff requesting his permanent exclusion from the school. Their concerns were not acted upon.

However, the former teacher's experience, and the incidents revealed by the Sunday Telegraph's investigation of school behaviour logs, are not recognised by the Government as significant. Ministers insist that behaviour in schools is improving, and that head teachers have more powers than ever to deal with unruly behaviour. Last week, they dismissed figures which revealed that thousands of pupils were escaping expulsion, despite violent and sexual offences which the Government's own guidelines class as serious enough to deserve permanent exclusion.

Teachers' unions complain that head teachers - under pressure from local authorities, which have a duty to provide alternative education for expelled pupils - are avoiding the ultimate sanction. Heads are also finding their decisions increasingly overturned by appeal tribunals or even their own governors, who are afraid of legal challenges.

Even the National Union of Teachers, which argues that schools are still one of the safest places for many children, has concerns. "While teachers have the powers to deal with bad behaviour, it has become a serious matter for wider society that the behaviour of a minority of pupils and, in some cases, their parents, has seriously worsened in recent years," says Christine Blower, the NUT's acting general secretary.

Even if schools are dealing swiftly and efficiently with the challenging behaviour they encounter, at the very least other children are having their education ruined on a daily, even hourly, basis. At Cheshire Oaks School in Ellesmere Port, the behaviour log for one week shows 73 cases of pupils talking, shouting and disturbing lessons, 61 refusing to obey the teacher, including more than 20 incidents of children simply walking out of the lesson, 65 incidents of poor behaviour, 32 refusing to work when asked, 39 cases of rudeness, 20 cases of verbal aggression towards staff, 10 incidents of children wandering around the classroom or using mobile phones, 14 incidents of lateness, 15 cases of pupils throwing things in lessons and four physical assaults.

And during one week at John Bunyan School in Bedford, pupils were reprimanded for smoking, verbal abuse, aggressive behaviour, drugs, dangerous behaviour and physical assault. Hayling Manor High, in Croydon, averaged between 20 and 30 incidents of bad behaviour a day.

None of the schools which provided records for the Sunday Telegraph study are thought to be failing in the eyes of officialdom. Indeed, inspectors say many are improving, and have "clear and consistent" policies for dealing with threatening behaviour from pupils. However, all of the schools studied are operating in difficult circumstances. Each has a high proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals. Ofsted inspections have found that many children entered these secondary schools, at the age of 11, still unable to read and write properly.

According to Adams, despite the big increases in spending in the last 10 years, staff do not have the training and resources to deal with the increasing number of pupils who display problems. "It is true that some head teachers and local authorities do not take behaviour seriously enough and support teachers," he says. "But there is also not enough money to deal with these children. I had one class where eight of the 19 pupils had behavioural and emotional difficulties. When you're spending your time trying to separate them and keeping them in their seats, the level of teaching plummets."

The Conservatives have promised greater powers to exclude pupils who otherwise "fester" in the mainstream, as well as better provision for those who are kicked out. Labour's answer is the 5 billion academy programme, which is supposed to transform education in deprived areas. However, recent problems at academies in Southampton and Carlisle have revealed that these "independent" secondaries are not immune from the behaviour issues that plague other schools. As revealed last month in the Sunday Telegraph, an emergency Ofsted inspection was triggered at the Richard Rose Central Academy in Carlisle, when complaints were made about gang fights and bullying. The head of the Oasis Academy in Southampton resigned in November after a riot at the school led to five pupils being expelled and 25 suspended.

"The public has no idea about what goes on in schools," says Adams. "At the three I worked in, there were examples of children involved in prostitution, the selling of drugs, gangs, intimidation. Teachers do their best to police it and keep these things external, but they are still getting in to our schools."


Playing outdoors protects young eyes from myopia

The differences reported below do seem to be quite stark and well controlled so the "safety" freaks who try to stop almost all outdoors childhood play may be damaging the vision of those children

The hours spent in front of the PlayStation or at the computer play no role in ruining a child's sight, with Australian researchers finding that being cooped up indoors is what gives children glasses. Children should spend two to three hours a day outside to prevent them becoming short-sighted, says a study by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Vision Science. A comparison of children of Chinese origin in Australia and Singapore, which has the highest rate of myopia in the world, found the only significant difference was the time spent outdoors.

The study, conducted on the centre's behalf by Australian National University and Sydney University researchers, challenges the prevailing assumption that near work, such as watching television, reading a book or playing computer games, ruins vision. Ian Morgan from the ARC Vision Centre yesterday said exposure to daylight appeared to play a critical role in limiting the growth of the eyeball, which is responsible for myopia or short-sightedness.

Professor Morgan said it had been apparent for a couple of hundred years that more educated people were short-sighted, but the research suggested spending some hours a day outdoors could counteract the myopic effects of study. "Video games are as ineffective as reading on vision," he said. "Computers are pretty neutral, watching television doesn't seem to affect vision. The only difference we could find is the amount of time spent outdoors. "As you are involved in intensive education through to studying at university, you ought to be conscious of this well into your mid-20s."

The research says about 30 per cent of six-year-olds in Singapore are short-sighted enough to need glasses, compared with only 3 per cent of Chinese-Australians. Both groups spend the same amount of time studying, playing video games, watching television and reading books. But Singapore children spend an average 30 minutes a day outdoors compared with two hours in Australia.

Professor Morgan said similar trends were seen in India, with 5per cent of rural-dwelling Indians being short-sighted compared with 10 per cent of their urban cousins and 65 per cent of those living in Singapore.

Myopia is increasing in urban areas around the world, and is described as an epidemic in parts of east Asia, with Singapore the world capital. Australia has a level of myopia more commonly found in the Third World, with only 0.8 per cent of six-year-olds of European origin being short-sighted. They spend on average three hours a day outdoors.


Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The "anti-discrimination" laws behind the education boom

How "anti-discrimination" laws actually make life harder for blacks

Like pebbles tossed into ponds, important Supreme Court rulings radiate ripples of consequences. Consider a 1971 Supreme Court decision that supposedly applied but actually altered the 1964 Civil Rights Act. During debate on the act, prescient critics worried that it might be construed to forbid giving prospective employees tests that might produce what was later called, in the 1971 case, a "disparate impact" on certain preferred minorities. To assuage these critics, the final act stipulated that employers could use "professionally developed ability tests" that were not "designed, intended or used to discriminate."

Furthermore, two Senate sponsors of the act insisted that it did not require "that employers abandon bona fide qualification tests where, because of differences in background and educations, members of some groups are able to perform better on these tests than members of other groups." What subsequently happened is recounted in "Griggs v. Duke Power: Implications for College Credentialing," a paper written by Bryan O'Keefe, a law student, and Richard Vedder, a professor of economics at Ohio University.

In 1964, there were more than 2,000 personnel tests available to employers. But already an Illinois state official had ruled that a standard ability test, used by Motorola, was illegal because it was unfair to "disadvantaged groups." Before 1964, Duke Power had discriminated against blacks in hiring and promotion. After the 1964 act, the company changed its policies, establishing a high school equivalence requirement for all workers, and allowing them to meet that requirement by achieving minimum scores on two widely used aptitude tests, including one that is used today by almost every NFL team to measure players' learning potentials.

Plaintiffs in the Griggs case argued that the high school and testing requirements discriminated against blacks. A unanimous Supreme Court, disregarding the relevant legislative history, held that Congress intended the 1964 act to proscribe not only overt discrimination but also "practices that are fair in form, but discriminatory in operation." The court added: "The touchstone is business necessity. If an employment practice which operates to exclude Negroes cannot be shown to be related to job performance, the practice is prohibited."

Thus a heavy burden of proof was placed on employers, including that of proving that any test that produced a "disparate impact" detrimental to certain minorities was a "business necessity" for various particular jobs. In 1972, Congress codified the Griggs misinterpretation of what Congress had done in 1964. And after a 1989 Supreme Court ruling partially undid Griggs, Congress in 1991 repudiated that 1989 ruling and essentially reimposed the burden of proof on employers.

Small wonder, then, that many employers, fearing endless litigation about multiple uncertainties, threw up their hands and, to avoid legal liability, threw out intelligence and aptitude tests for potential employees. Instead, they began requiring college degrees as indices of applicants' satisfactory intelligence and diligence. This is, of course, just one reason why college attendance increased from 5.8 million in 1970 to 17.5 million in 2005. But it probably had a, well, disparate impact by making employment more difficult for minorities. O'Keefe and Vedder write:

"Qualified minorities who performed well on an intelligence or aptitude test and would have been offered a job directly 30 or 40 years ago are now compelled to attend a college or university for four years and incur significant costs. For some young people from poorer families, those costs are out of reach."

Indeed, by turning college degrees into indispensable credentials for many of society's better jobs, this series of events increased demand for degrees and, O'Keefe and Vedder say, contributed to "an environment of aggressive tuition increases." Furthermore they reasonably wonder whether this supposed civil rights victory, which erected barriers between high school graduates and high-paying jobs, has exacerbated the widening income disparities between high school and college graduates.

Griggs and its consequences are timely reminders of the Law of Unintended Consequences, which is increasingly pertinent as America's regulatory state becomes increasingly determined to fine-tune our complex society. That law holds that the consequences of government actions often are different than, and even contrary to, the intended consequences.

Soon the Obama administration will arrive, bristling like a very progressive porcupine with sharp plans -- plans for restoring economic health by "demand management," for altering the distribution of income by using tax changes and supporting more muscular labor unions, for cooling the planet by such measures as burning more food as fuel and for many additional improvements. At least, those will be the administration's intended consequences.


Costly innumeracy in Britain

Children who fail to master basic maths cost society up to 44,000 pounds by their late thirties, a report concludes. Research by KPMG suggests that innumeracy costs Britain 2.4 billion every year as people fall behind at school and in the workplace. Children who fail to master basic maths are more likely to truant and be excluded from school, and run a higher risk of being unemployed and being drawn into crime, it says.

The report was commissioned by Every Child a Chance Trust, an educational charity, which says that 30,000 children leave primary school each year unable to do simple calculations. The report says: "Competent numeracy would appear not only important in relation to employability and the economy, but also as a protective factor in maintaining social cohesion." An earlier survey that tested maths skills concluded that 15 million adults have numeracy skills at or below those of an 11-year-old.

The KPMG research said that there was a significant link between poor numeracy and antisocial behaviour, even when other factors were considered. The raw wage premium from having adequate numeracy is greater now than in the early 1990s, according to researchers from the London School of Economics, the report said.

Teenagers who leave school without basic maths cost the taxpayer 1.9 billion a year because of unemployment, the report's authors calculated. The report said that those costs were incurred by people with numeracy difficulties, but who were competent at reading and writing. It added: "For all those with numeracy difficulties, the total costs to the public purse arising from the failure to master basic numeracy skills in primary school are estimated at between 4,000 and 44,000 pounds per individual to the age of 37, and between 4,000 and 67,000 over a lifetime."

The charity is starting a campaign to encourage businesses to help local children with maths problems. Children will receive maths toolkits that include dice, counters, bead strings, traditional games such as dominoes and snakes and ladders, maths computer games, and CDs of number songs. John Griffith-Jones, chairman of KPMG and of the trust, said: "Every pound put forward now will save the nation at least 12 later on in reduced crime and unemployment and other savings."


Australia: Exodus from Queensland government schools continues

The public school system has lost more than 55,000 students to private schools since Labor won Queensland in 1998 and rebranded it the Smart State. Figures obtained by The Courier-Mail show a 3.4 per cent drop in public school students compared with the private sector, from 1998 to 2007. And of the 206,000 extra private school students in Australia over that time, about one in three has been from Queensland. The net result means just 68.6 per cent of Queensland students attend state schools.

Over the decade, annual education funding has dropped 3 per cent as a proportion of total government funding, to 22 per cent. A spokesman for Treasurer Andrew Fraser said the decrease was "because of an elevated focus on health funding" and total spending should double, from 1998 levels, to $8.17 billion this financial year.

Deputy Opposition Leader Mark McArdle claimed the march out of state schools showed parents did not trust the Government to deliver quality education. Falling literacy, numeracy and behavioural standards in classrooms were the main reasons parents were aggrieved, he said.

Even as the economy slows dramatically and widespread job losses loom, more Queensland parents are choosing private, paying upwards of $15,000 a year. Brisbane parents Ben and Lisa Wavell-Smith said they had chosen St Elizabeth's Primary at Tarragindi for their daughter Malena because the Catholic school "brand" delivered a better, more rounded education than state schools. "You get the feeling also teachers seem to be more involved in their school," Mr Wavell-Smith said.

A week before Christmas, Premier Anna Bligh set terms of reference for the Masters Review into Queensland's underperforming primary school system, leaving the door open for Professor Geoff Masters to investigate any "systemic cultural issues (within Education Queensland) that are inhibiting performance", including bullying of teachers by EQ staff.

Experts say recruitment and retention of quality teachers is pivotal to a student's success. Former Queensland Studies Authority chairman Professor Bob Lingard said state school teachers were regularly blocked from promotion by self-interested EQ bureaucrats. "Often we get those promoted because they go along with what's happening with those above them," the Professor said. "If you want schools to do better, you have to get rid of some of those broader inequities as well."


Monday, January 05, 2009

In support of early explicit phonics teaching

Human speech has long been present in every culture, and our brains have evolved specialized features to enable its rapid development when we are exposed to the speech of others. Reading however is a relatively recent skill, and we have no such dedicated reading module to guarantee success. Fortunately, our brains are able to adapt to the task, although there is considerable variation in the assistance learners require to achieve it.

Humans have produced numerous writing systems in their attempts to create a concrete form of communication, and those languages employing an alphabet have provided the most powerful means of achieving this goal.

The invention of the alphabet was one of the greatest of human achievements. It required the appreciation that the spoken word can be split into its component sound parts, and that each part can be assigned a symbol or letter. All that is additionally required to have an amazingly productive writing system is for the learner to be able to identify the sound for each letter, and blend the sounds together to recreate the spoken word. This is known as the alphabetic principle, and allows us to write any word we can say. Our written language is thus a code, and phonics is simply the key to unlocking the code.

Should we explain to our students through phonics teaching how our speech is codified into English writing? It sounds obvious that we should; indeed, that not to do so would be cruel. But perhaps there is a better way. English is after all a complicated language, having absorbed so many words from other languages with differing spelling patterns. But, no, it turns out from years of research that there is a significant advantage in demonstrating from the beginning how the alphabetic principle works. This benefit is particularly evident in the 30% or so of our students who struggle with learning to read. It also has become clear that demonstrating this principle systematically is more effective than merely sprinkling a few clues here and there as a story is read with or to a student.

If we do not introduce this principle early, there is a risk of students developing less productive strategies in their efforts to make sense of print. Some of these strategies have a surface appeal because they provide a veneer of reading progress, but become self-limiting over time.

For example, routinely using pictures to determine word identity draws student attention away from print, thereby diminishing the central importance to students of the alphabetic principle. Asking students to remember words as a primary strategy gives the unhelpful message that reading involves the visual memory of shapes, of letter landscapes devoid of alphabetic significance. Stressing the integrated use of multiple cues leaves students with too many ill-defined options, and produces marked variability in the first approach most favoured by students. Of course, many of the better students will gravitate to phonics as a foundation anyway; however, those less fortunate will be left to scour their memories for word shapes or attempt to predict upcoming words based on sentence/passage meaning or on the sound of initial letters. Syntactic cues tend to be less employed among this group as their skills in grammar are likely to be under-developed also.

The problem is often not identified until about the fourth grade; hence, the term fourth grade slump. In truth, the problem was there from the beginning, and had an instructional source, but was unrecognised because of some teachers' misunderstanding of reading development.

What happens to these apparently progressing students? As text becomes more complex, prediction becomes less and less accurate. Many sentences now include difficult-to-decode words that carry non-redundant information, and hence become more difficult targets for prediction. There are now increasing numbers of such words. For the memorisers, the number of words that must be recalled from visual memory outgrows students' visual memory capacity.

These moribund strategies collapse, but in the absence of a productive course of action, students often hold on to them, resisting a return to decoding as a first option as too hard or too babyish. Resolution of the problems of these older readers is very difficult for both teacher and student. Better not to create this situation in the first place.

Even when the value of early phonics teaching is recognised by educators, students vary significantly in the ease with which they develop from their initial painstaking attempts at decoding through to effortless fluent orthographic-dominant reading. Our challenge as educators is to be truly sensitive to every reader's progress through careful monitoring, and to ensure the intensity and duration of instruction is appropriate to their needs. Once they are on their way, future progress becomes a self-teaching issue, driven largely by how much they choose to read. However, until reading is effortless, we cannot expect children to choose books over the many alternative communication modes available to them today.


Useless credentialism

BARACK OBAMA has two attractive ideas for improving post-secondary education - expanding the use of community colleges and tuition tax credits - but he needs to hitch them to a broader platform. As president, Mr. Obama should use his bully pulpit to undermine the bachelor's degree as a job qualification. Here's a suggested battle cry, to be repeated in every speech on the subject: "It's what you can do that should count when you apply for a job, not where you learned to do it."

The residential college leading to a bachelor's degree at the end of four years works fine for the children of parents who have plenty of money. It works fine for top students from all backgrounds who are drawn toward academics. But most 18-year-olds are not from families with plenty of money, not top students, and not drawn toward academics. They want to learn how to get a satisfying job that also pays well. That almost always means education beyond high school, but it need not mean four years on a campus, nor cost a small fortune. It need not mean getting a bachelor's degree.

I am not discounting the merits of a liberal education. Students at every level should be encouraged to explore subjects that will not be part of their vocation. It would be even better if more colleges required a rigorous core curriculum for students who seek a traditional bachelor's degree. My beef is not with liberal education, but with the use of the degree as a job qualification.

For most of the nation's youths, making the bachelor's degree a job qualification means demanding a credential that is beyond their reach. It is a truth that politicians and educators cannot bring themselves to say out loud: A large majority of young people do not have the intellectual ability to do genuine college-level work.

If you doubt it, go back and look through your old college textbooks, and then do a little homework on the reading ability of high school seniors. About 10 percent to 20 percent of all 18-year-olds can absorb the material in your old liberal arts textbooks. For engineering and the hard sciences, the percentage is probably not as high as 10.

No improvements in primary and secondary education will do more than tweak those percentages. The core disciplines taught at a true college level are tough, requiring high levels of linguistic and logical-mathematical ability. Those abilities are no more malleable than athletic or musical talent.

You think I'm too pessimistic? Too elitist? Readers who graduated with honors in English literature or Renaissance history should ask themselves if they could have gotten a B.S. in physics, no matter how hard they tried. (I wouldn't have survived freshman year.) Except for the freakishly gifted, all of us are too dumb to get through college in many majors.

But I'm not thinking just about students who are not smart enough to deal with college-level material. Many young people who have the intellectual ability to succeed in rigorous liberal arts courses don't want to. For these students, the distribution requirements of the college degree do not open up new horizons. They are bothersome time-wasters.

A century ago, these students would happily have gone to work after high school. Now they know they need to acquire additional skills, but they want to treat college as vocational training, not as a leisurely journey to well-roundedness.

As more and more students who cannot get or don't want a liberal education have appeared on campuses, colleges have adapted by expanding the range of courses and adding vocationally oriented majors. That's appropriate. What's not appropriate is keeping the bachelor's degree as the measure of job preparedness, as the minimal requirement to get your foot in the door for vast numbers of jobs that don't really require a B.A. or B.S.

Discarding the bachelor's degree as a job qualification would not be difficult. The solution is to substitute certification tests, which would provide evidence that the applicant has acquired the skills the employer needs.

Certification tests can take many forms. For some jobs, a multiple-choice test might be appropriate. But there's no reason to limit certifications to academic tests. For centuries, the crafts have used work samples to certify journeymen and master craftsmen. Today, many computer programmers without college degrees get jobs by presenting examples of their work. With a little imagination, almost any corporation can come up with analogous work samples.

The benefits of discarding the bachelor's degree as a job qualification would be huge for both employers and job applicants. Certifications would tell employers far more about their applicants' qualifications than a B.A. does, and hundreds of thousands of young people would be able to get what they want from post-secondary education without having to twist themselves into knots to comply with the rituals of getting a bachelor's degree.

Certification tests would not eliminate the role of innate ability - the most gifted applicants would still have an edge - but they would strip away much of the unwarranted halo effect that goes with a degree from a prestigious university. They would put everyone under the same spotlight.

Discrediting the bachelor's degree is within reach because so many employers already sense that it has become education's Wizard of Oz. All we need is someone willing to yank the curtain aside. Barack Obama is ideally positioned to do it. He just needs to say it over and over: "It's what you can do that should count when you apply for a job, not where you learned to do it."


Sunday, January 04, 2009

Bell "problem" in British schools

What will British teachers find to whine about next?

School bells which ring too loudly could be damaging the hearing of pupils and staff, a teaching union has warned. The Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association (SSTA) claimed some schools were buying one very loud bell, instead of several smaller ones, to save money. It said while infrequent exposure was acceptable, repetitive and prolonged ringing could be harmful.

Jim Docherty, SSTA's acting general secretary, said new schools were among the worst offenders. He said: "Schools build under PPP/PFI arrangements are worse than many older schools. There has been a consistent failure to carry out adequate risk assessments, as required by the Health and Safety at Work act, in many schools. "Quite simply many of these schools have been built on a 'minimum cost' basis."

Mr Docherty called on local councils to address the issue. He said: "School authorities must recognise these concerns where they are expressed and act accordingly before the hearing of staff and students is damaged. "The result will inevitably be legal action against the authorities."


1984 Now

Imagine the widespread panic if doctors nationwide abandoned genuine medical expertise labeling it old-fashioned, out of touch, and insufficient for treating patients. Suppose medical schools focused on patient psychology and beside manner instead of anatomy, diagnosis and prescription therapy. What if your family M.D. suddenly morphed into a wellness facilitator (W.F.) encouraging you to "discover" your own path to better health? Would you passively accept the change? Would you buy such blithe explanations as, " We treat the patient, not the disease," or "Our holistic approach to medicine more thoroughly meets the needs of 21st century patients"?

Before you dismiss the above as demented lunacy, please recognize this is no updated 1984 scenario. In reality we're not talking about the medical profession of the future. We are talking about the education profession in America NOW. The parallels are frightening but all too true.

Most teachers certified in the last decade or so are teaching subjects they never majored in. Your children are in their classes. Parents expect subject mastery and expertise from today's educators, but both are sadly missing. It's outright deception on a massive scale. Education professors and their required courses brainwash future teachers into believing anyone schooled in child psychology and progressive education doctrine can facilitate learning anything in any discipline. This notion is recycled rubbish, fermented and fomented in the compost heap of American ed. philosophy. It's been with us since before the turn of the 20th century, but it's news to American parents.

The teaching profession in 2009 is populated with young teachers too inexperienced to know anything different, established teachers too in debt to risk job security, and endangered traditional teachers too rare and too ostracized to be taken seriously. Administrators and union officials entrenched in John Dewey progressive dogma salivate over anticipated government grants using your tax money. Meanwhile parents and traditionalists within the system are ignored and castigated.

Ideologues thoroughly proficient in "edu-speak" euphemisms run American public schools today. They're public relations experts keeping parents happy but out of touch. I'd call their obfuscation a national swindle. "Child-centered" certainly passes a hoodwinked public's apple-pie test. "Outcome-based" assures everyone of attainable goals. "Pathways" pacify parents concerned about directionless kids. "Constructivist" no doubt betokens a solid "back to basics" foundation.

But wait. These sound-good sound bites represent updates of a progressive ed. philosophy in high fashion way back in the late 1800s. Thoroughly discredited ever since, progressive ed. has reinvented itself every generation with new "edu-speak" jargon. Just ask any veteran teacher old enough to have survived the cycles.

These specious catch phrases reflect the views of well-intentioned but wrong-headed utopians who invariably thought socialism would save the world. Their adherents still reside in ivory-tower academia, bad mouthing America and willfully ignoring the horrific lessons of the Soviet Union, Communist China, and Cuba. Worst of all, these education Ph.D.'s are teaching our teachers and have been since the `60s.

The shocking truth is today's public schools don't even attempt to provide a solid academic foundation for ALL students. It's what parents expect and what parents thought they were getting. Only students who opt for college prep courses get a shot at solid academics, and practically speaking even these classes have been systematically dumbed down during the 37 years since I began teaching.

Schools don't promote independent thinking anymore. Even math problem solving routinely becomes a group project. Ninth graders, supposedly algebra ready, still cannot add, subtract, multiply or divide on paper. At 58, I managed simple math in my head before my students figured out which calculator keys to push. They thought I was a math whiz. The difference is 45 years ago I learned my times tables. Memorizing anything nowadays "ist verboten!" in progressive ed. America-has been for decades.

Today's facilitators (edu-speak for teacher) think their job is merely helping kids learn on their own during group "discovery" sessions. In English, my chosen field, I was the only teacher in my department who failed to embrace the facilitator approach. Today's facilitators have no clue about the expertise a traditional English teacher was expected to display "back in the day." (Aside: Good thing my current M.D. memorized the location of my appendix. Glad he didn't have to operate by the "discovery" method.)

Of my 28 colleagues in the English dept. only one other geezer and I know what a direct object is. My grammar diagnostic test routinely given to 7th graders in the 70s proved way too tough for my current high school TEACHER colleagues. Our Language Arts department has no Standard English textbooks. The facilitators wouldn't use them anyway. "Besides, nobody cares about stuff like subject-verb agreement anymore," I've been told. Meanwhile glaring errors such as, "Her and me feel the same," pass muster with both students AND their facilitators.

With group work practically universal, cheating is rampant and registers little social stigma among students. Street-wise "players" within groups dump responsibility on the smart ones, hoping to slide by with the least effort possible. No longer does a high school diploma guarantee even basic subject expertise. Students are, however, well rehearsed in co-operative activities with their peers, and they do feel good about themselves.

If schools and young teachers committed to groupthink activities were truly honest, they'd start granting one group diploma on graduation day. That practice would certainly shorten ceremonies, but would Emily Spitzer, Group Diploma Recipient #247 who plans to become a neuro-surgeon, qualify for a 21st century med. school? Hope she finds some smart lab partners!

Wise up, America. By default public education has declared the earth flat again and fallen off the edge. Somebody please re-discover Pythagoras, and let's get back to a truly well-rounded, grounded education for all.