Saturday, March 14, 2009

Obama's education push includes merit pay

President Barack Obama laid out a broad education vision Tuesday that includes expanded merit pay for teachers and more charter schools, ideas long troubling to teachers' unions. With his congressional agenda already packed, the president is not proposing a major new piece of legislation. Instead, he spelled out the goal of a "cradle to career" education system aimed at serving Americans better at every level. He said he would use the budget to expand programs that work and encourage voluntary action by states and individuals.

The president's plan, which largely implements promises from his campaign, includes new incentives for states to boost the quality of preschool programs and easier access to financial aid for higher education. Mr. Obama also called on states to raise standards for student achievement. Perhaps the most controversial step would increase the number of school districts that benefit from a federal program that supports performance pay for teachers.

Mr. Obama also called on states to remove caps on the number of public charter schools. Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia now cap the total, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The president cast his proposals as an effort to move past the debates that have dominated education policy in the past. "Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom," he told the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "Too many in the Republican Party have opposed new investments in early education, despite compelling evidence of its importance."

Mr. Obama's support for merit pay breaks with some in his party, who fear it can't be administered fairly. The Teacher Incentive Fund currently supports 34 grant recipients at a cost of $97 million this year and another $200 million was allocated through the economic-stimulus plan. Mr. Obama said he'd like to see as many as 150 districts added, but the administration did not say what its 2010 budget request will be.

"It's time to start rewarding good teachers, stop making excuses for bad ones," Mr. Obama said. "If a teacher is given a chance or two chances or three chances but still does not improve, there's no excuse for that person to continue teaching." Mr. Obama said that teachers who are rewarded for excellence should help their schools improve.

Teacher unions said Tuesday that they welcomed Mr. Obama's overall approach and could support merit-pay plans as long as they are fair to teachers. The presidents of the two largest teachers' unions said they were confident Mr. Obama would only support proposals that meet that test. "This is a president who actually respects teachers for who they are and what they do. We can work many of these things out," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said that merit-pay plans should be negotiated to ensure they are not run in an arbitrary way, and he cautioned: "If you pay one teacher more you have to pay someone else less." Mr. Van Roekel rejected another Obama proposal to pay math and science teachers more in hopes of filling the recruitment gap. He said a small additional payment will not change the financial calculations of math and science graduates who have more lucrative options than teaching.

Mr. Obama also used his address to talk about parents' responsibility for the education of their children. "Government…cannot turn off the TV or put away the video games. Teachers, no matter how dedicated or effective, cannot make sure your child leaves for school on time and does their homework when they get back at night. These are things only a parent can do," he said. Other aspects of the Obama plan include:

--Early Learning Challenge Grants to help states improve the quality of child care, including improving the quality of teachers. Incentive grants will provide aid for states to better collect data about programs, push for standards and increase help for the most disadvantaged students.

--Challenging states to voluntarily raise their standards in reading and math. As it is, certain states give students high grades for scores that would rate low in other states. But the president did not say anything about changes to the landmark No Child Left Behind law, which imposes federal standards on schools.

--For higher education, an increase in Pell grants, including inflation adjustments. Mr. Obama also wants to simplify the application process for financial aid.


Bright schoolchildren take back seat to 'social misfits', says British head teacher

State schools are being forced to prioritise "social misfits" at the expense of the majority of pupils, according to a former academy head teacher.

The most disruptive children are being plied with "indulgence and sentimentality" instead of firm discipline, it was claimed. Steve Patriarca blamed Gordon Brown's decision to create a new "Orwellian" Government department with duel responsibility for schools and social services. It meant education for the most able often came second best to the needs of problem pupils, he said.

The comments will come as a huge embarrassment to the Government. Mr Patriarca led fee-paying William Hulme's Grammar School in Manchester when it was tempted out of the private sector by Labour in 2007. In a high-profile move, it axed parental fees and academic selection to become one of the Government's flagship city academies - semi-independent state schools sponsored and run by the private sector. A total of five independent schools have now converted.

Mr Patriarca, who retired last summer, said the school agreed to the move because academies offered the chance of "effective denationalisation" of state schools by taking education out of the hands of "overpaid, ill informed, over comfortable" civil servants. But talking openly about the move for the first time, he said the school struggled "to retain educational values" in the face of pressure from the Government. "The Department for Children, Schools and Families lives up to its Orwellian title," he said. "There are direct tensions between its responsibilities for social work, children and families and its commitment - if that is the word - to education. It seems to me to be a cumbersome hybrid which fulfils none of its roles very well.

"It is politicised in a way which seems to find achievement embarrassing. It is preoccupied with the less able and the social misfit - which would be fine if it actually achieved anything in dealing with such children. It doesn't because it panders to them - it prioritises their needs over the needs of the vast majority." The DCSF was created in 2007, replacing the old Department for Education and Skills.

In a speech at Wellington College, Berkshire, Mr Patriarca backed the principle of academies but insisted they were no longer "independent" of civil servants, despite Government claims. Academies are not allowed to put pupils on alternative exams, such as the International GCSE now favoured in private schools, he said. He also criticised the lack of freedom to control admissions, and he attacked the practice of forcing academies to share pupils expelled from other schools. "The more disruptive the child is the more attention it receives and the more benefits," Mr Patriarca said.

He added: "We have a chance to break free of this through the establishment of academies as genuinely independent schools with the DNA of the private sector operating within the state system. The present Government has lost its nerve on the academies programme."

It comes just days after a delegation of academy principals wrote to the Government, saying their attempts to improve education standards were being "increasingly hampered".

A DCSF spokesman said: "We make no apologies for the fact that the DCSF has broadened Government's focus beyond the school gates. Common sense and every teacher in every classroom tell us that what happens outside school hours and parents' involvement in children's education are both vital to their progress. "By strengthening family support during children's formative early years, getting parents more involved in their child's learning and making sure young people have more exciting things to do outside school, we hope to make this country the best place in the world to grow up."


Home tutoring option explored after kids from a good British grade school are sent to a sink High School

The parents of 25 pupils at an outstanding primary school plan to educate them en masse at home with a private tutor after a third of this year's 92 school leavers failed to secure a place at any of their preferred secondaries. Most were rejected by the local secondary school because they live just outside its 1.08-mile catchment area, even though it is their nearest one.

Catherine Roberts, whose son Alexander Lindfield was among them, was at a meeting of 25 families from Madginford Park Junior School, near Maidstone, Kent, at which home tutoring was discussed. Ms Roberts said: "We have been allocated, along with about 22 others, a place at the second-worst-performing school in the Kent league tables. "Unless you were selected for one of the grammar schools or had a sibling link to a non-selective school, virtually no one from Madginford Park Junior School gained a place at any of the schools on their selection list."

She added: "The children in my area have been failed in their desire for, and right to, a decent education at secondary level and after such a promising start at junior school are now being let down by the local authority. You wonder why there is a preference system if you are not able to gain a place at your nearest school which is also your first choice."


Friday, March 13, 2009

Critic Says Islamic Extremism Gets Whitewashed in American Textbooks

An education expert is warning that some American textbooks present a biased view of Islam and offer a sugarcoated picture of Islamic extremism, a trend that has parents worried about what's being taught in public schools.

In numerous history textbooks, "key subjects like jihad, Islamic law, the status of women are whitewashed," said Gilbert T. Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, an independent group that reviews history books and other education materials.

Cindy Ross, the mother of a junior high school student in Marin County, Calif., said she couldn't believe her eyes when she read her son's textbook last school year. "I was very shocked by what I saw, looking through the book," she said - shocked at how Islam was portrayed in her son's seventh grade history text. "What did strike me was that all the other religions seemed to be lumped together, where there is an inordinate emphasis on Islam specifically," Ross said.

Sewall claims that publishers have been pressured by Islamic activists to portray the religion in the most favorable light, while Islamic terrorism is downplayed or glossed over. "The picture is incomplete ... and the reason for this is that publishers are afraid of the Islamist activists. They don't want trouble," he told FOX News.

Sewall, who authored a report on how textbooks teach and present Islam, singled out one book that he said failed to explain what the story of the September 11 terrorist attacks. In a section discussing Islamic fundamentalism, the textbook "World History: The Modern World," published by Prentice Hall, omits direct mention of the 9/11 hijackers' religion, referring to the 19 Islamic fundamentalists as "teams of terrorists."

"On the morning of September 11, 2001," the book reads, "teams of terrorists hijacked four airplanes on the East Coast. Passengers challenged the hijackers on one flight, which they crashed on the way to its target. But one plane plunged in to the Pentagon in Virginia, and two others slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. More than 2,500 people were killed in the attacks."

In his report on the text, Sewall called the passage "dismaying" in its flatness and brevity. "In terms of content, so much is left unanswered. Who were the teams of terrorists and what did they want do to? What were their political ends? Since 'The Modern World' avoids any hint of the connection between this unnamed terrorism and jihad," he wrote, "why September 11 happened is hard to understand."

But Muslim advocacy groups say students need to learn more about Islam to correct misconceptions and help turn away a wrongheaded focus on extremism. "It's wrong to show an entire faith community from the lens of a small extremist community, which is really a fringe. It's a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the Muslim community, and that's not how Muslims want to be framed," said Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement.

"I think there is an unbalanced portrayal of Islam seen mostly through a political lens, but that is not the reality of who a majority of Muslims are," she told FOX News.

Khan said when it comes to teaching about Islam, "I think the more important issue is American values of tolerance, respect and mutual understanding," which can best be imparted with accurate information about the religion.

But the content of those religious lessons also has Sewall concerned, particularly on the controversial topic of jihad. Sewall says the violent aspects of Islamic jihad are glossed over and that it is presented as an internal struggle or a fight for protection in books like "History Alive! The Medieval World and Beyond," published by the Teachers Curriculum Institute.

"Jihad is defined as a struggle within each individual to overcome difficulties and strive to please god. Sometimes it may be a physical struggle for protection against enemies," the book reads, noting that Islam teaches "that Muslims should fulfill jihad with the heart, tongue and hand. Muslims use the heart in their struggle to resist evil."

It's a lesson that Sewall says needs to change. "What is frustrating is that repeatedly the textbook publishers have been called on their bias on the sunny, doctored view of Islam" but have refused to balance their books, he said. None of the textbook publishers contacted by FOX News regarding their books responded to requests for statements or interviews.

Parent Cindy Ross told FOX News she is concerned that unpleasant facts are being ignored for the sake of political correctness in her son's textbooks. "When you are talking about a history textbook, that is supposed to be talking about historical facts and they are talking about jihad in terms of spiritual terms ... I think it would be completely inappropriate for a public school."


Stop Avoiding the Issue of Failing Boys

Hardly a month goes by without another major foundation or education advocacy group reminding us of the peril our country faces if we don't send more students to college. The International Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warns that the United States is slipping fast in international rankings. Among 25- to 34-year-olds, we rank no better than 10th in higher education attainment. Most striking among the measures is the "survival rate," the measurement of enrolled students who actually earn diplomas. Our students rank at the bottom of the developed world.

Visit the Web sites of the prominent foundations -- Gates, Lumina, Broad -- and you will see the same message that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and corporate leaders such as Intel's Craig Barrett have been warning about for years: We need to broaden the college pipeline, and do it quickly. The latest study pointing out our educational weaknesses - and offering solutions - arrived earlier this month from the respected MDRC, which offered the Obama administration a 15-point plan for turning things around.

Interestingly, however, there's something all these groups studiously avoid talking about. These U.S. education numbers look bad primarily because the schools are failing boys. For the most part, those awful high school graduation numbers are driven by boys, not girls (32 percent of boys drop out, compared to 25 percent of girls). And the lackluster college graduation rates are due primarily to men floundering in college (men earn about 42 percent of four-year degrees). Given that men are far more likely to major in math and science - a special worry for the technical industries -- the chamber should be particularly concerned about men falling behind.

But the gender angle never gets mentioned. Popular, well-thought-out solutions, which include strengthening the high school curriculum, building better after-school programs and making college more affordable, skirt the obvious solution of reaching out to failing boys specifically. As for MDRC's 15-point plan - gender didn't get a mention.

Those omissions are striking, given that boosting the number of men earning college degrees should be the low-hanging-fruit remedy. Why the silence? The boys issue gets skipped because it has become a controversy; one of those he said/she said spats where the dialogue becomes downright unpleasant. In cases like this, the easy tactic is to steer clear. Interestingly, only in the United States is the boys issue considered so controversial. Countries such as Britain and Australia have been openly confronting the problem for years. There, the boy troubles are an issue to be studied and remedied, not something to squabble about.

All this gives our new education secretary, Arne Duncan, an opportunity: Why not do what Australia did and launch a federal probe into the boy problems? Duncan has the ideal vehicle, the freshly unveiled $15 billion grant program to reward initiatives that draw academic achievements from students less inclined to succeed. That would include boys.

In fairness to Duncan, he needs to know what he would be getting himself into. Why is this considered a controversy? That question can't be answered with absolute precision, but from years of reporting on this issue I have picked up on two threads. The first arose in 1992 when the American Association of University Women released a report about girls being shortchanged in schools, in part because teachers paid more attention to hyperactive boys jumping up to wave their hands in the air: Call on me! I was one of many education reporters who wrote about the report uncritically. That was a mistake. Hindsight tells us the schools-favor-boys research was shaky.

Regardless, the AAUW report unleashed a save-the-girls juggernaut. That girls' crusade ended up doing a lot of good by boosting female participation in advanced math and science classes. Today, girls dominate most of those courses. But the flawed research left behind an unfortunate legacy. Boys, who clearly needed the help more than girls, once again got ignored.

The second thread emerged in 2000 with the release of Christina Hoff Sommers' book, The War Against Boys. Sommers expertly laid out the case that boys, not girls, were suffering in school. Given that she was one of the first to tackle this issue, combined with the fact that The Atlantic serialized the book, Sommers had a unique opportunity to set the agenda about boys. Had Sommers stuck with her solid argument that boys were in trouble and then proposed solutions, it is conceivable the U.S. Department of Education would have launched a national investigation, identified the problems and funded experiments to arrest boys' academic slide. Today, the United States today could rank with Australia at the forefront of fashioning solutions to help boys.

But that's not how things played out. Instead of focusing solely on boys, Sommers devoted most her book to attacking feminists, blaming them for the boy troubles. Naturally, the feminists fought back, fingering Sommers as the tip of the spear of what they dubbed a "backlash" movement, those pushing back against the hard-won gains of women. Who could blame the feminists? After all, the book's subtitle was, How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men.

Since then, everything's been pretty much downhill. If boys are suffering any problems, argue feminists, those problems are limited to minority boys and rooted in racism and poverty, not gender.

Higher education leaders, who feel they are blameless in the boy troubles and have reaped the benefits of ever-rising numbers of female applicants, look the other way. That is proving to be a mistake. High-tuition second and third-tier private colleges that tolerated significant gender imbalances are now under stress from the recession. Today, they may be wishing they had stepped forward to try to solve the male college pipeline problem, which goes well beyond poor and minority boys.

Elite colleges generally don't suffer gender imbalances, especially those offering boys admissions preferences. Plus, their faculties remain fixated on the Larry Summers fiasco at Harvard. His musings over why fewer women occupy top academic spots politicized campus gender issues, leaving professors likely to embrace the viewpoints of the feminists, who argue that women, not men, are the aggrieved parties in higher education.

Given all this, it's easy to understand why groups such as Gates and the U.S. Chamber prefer to duck. Who can blame them? Problem is, ducking does nothing to solve the very problem they raise, the slipping status of the United States as an educated workforce - a phenomenon driven mostly by boys. Secretary Duncan, you have a unique opportunity to get us beyond this political divide. Settle this issue once and for all. Boosting college graduation rates is an issue too important to be mired in this controversy.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Texas: No one is really talking about any weaknesses in evolution

In March, the State Board of Education will vote on amendments to the new Texas high school biology teaching standards. Please contact your State Board of Education (SBOE) representative and encourage them to unanimously approve of teaching strengths and weaknesses regarding all scientific theories, particularly evolution. There is great confusion over what evolution is. The reality is that back in the 1940's, genetics and evolution were united to form the modern evolutionary synthesis. The synthesis takes parts from genetics that I would consider science, and unites them with speculative ideas about origins, which I would refer to as macroevolution or just evolutionism. But even microevolution has weaknesses, and some scientists consider the theory of natural selection as nothing more than a tautology, a circular reasoning argument that says those organisms that survive are fit, and, those that are fit, survive. Here is a definition of natural selection from a biology textbook used in Texas schools:

Natural selection is the outcome of variations in shared traits that affect which individuals of a population survive and reproduce each generation. This microevolutionary process results in adaptation to the environment.

Consider for example a female sockeye salmon in Alaska's Copper River. Let's say she lays 3,000 eggs, and all of them hatch. Now, to keep the population stable, only two of those eggs need to mature to adults and return, which means 2,998 of them will probably not make the return journey and produce offspring. Some will get eaten by birds, others by bears, or maybe even a salmon shark. Some will get smashed against rocks, others may starve. Only two are likely to survive to journey from their birthplace to the sea, then venture thousands of miles, before returning to their birthplace.

Now, do you really think the two salmon that survived to adulthood did so because they were clearly the best suited for the environment? Perhaps, but in reality, there is only a 1 in 3000 chance the salmon with the best set of genes survived to adulthood. And the likelihood gets smaller when you consider redfish, which can lay over one million eggs each season.

So the chances that natural selection results in adaptation to the environment are small, as are the chances the life cycle of a salmon, redfish, or any organism, happened through random mutation of genes. A better explanation is that organisms were designed to adapt. Take for example the recent reports of the "rapid evolution" of Italian Wall Lizards imported to Croatian Islands. According to Professor Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True, genetic mutations are the "engine" driving evolution, and he even devoted an entire chapter to The Engine of Evolution. Surprisingly though, scientists who studied the rapidly evolving Croatian lizards found they were genetically indistinguishable from their ancestors. This is a huge contradiction, because if evolution is true, a rapidly evolving lizard should have rapidly evolving genes that distinguish it from its ancestors. The logical conclusion must be that Italian lizards adapted to their new Croatian homes using preexisting genetic information. Another conclusion is that large segments of evolution are not true, but instead evolutionism is dominating real science. Neither creationism nor evolutionism should be taught in public schools. Real science calls for following the evidence. Following the evidence calls for studying both the favorable and unfavorable evidence, both the strengths and weaknesses.

Genes mutate, resulting in differences in parents and offspring. However, the low probability of mutation and selection working together to produce fitter populations is a weakness of natural selection theory, and Texas high school biology textbooks should explain such weaknesses.


The British government is waging a malevolent class war by punishing all academic excellence

While top universities find themselves penalised, with money being taken away from them to fund places at lesser universities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, we learn of the complete collapse of education standards further down the line. The headmaster of Eton, Tony Little, told a conference that clever pupils `wrestle with questions of crippling simplicity' at GCSE because they cannot believe that there isn't more to such questions than appears to be the case.

Worse still, the brightest are penalised because the standards are so low. He related how one Eton pupil gained five A grades at A-level but failed a sixth exam altogether. Eton sent the `ungraded' paper to two university dons who said the work was of the standard normally achieved in a first class honours degree. Mr Little said the boy was given almost no marks because he used `intelligence and flair' and refused to answer the question in the formulaic way demanded by examiners.

What an extraordinary situation this country is now in, that in order to pass a public examination ostensibly designed to test academic achievement a candidate now has to express dullness, stupidity and narrow intellectual reach!

The reason is the fact that these exams are now dominated by a `tick-box' approach, which requires candidates to deliver in their answers a list of expected sound-bites for the examiners to tick off. As Little observed, it is an approach that `makes no allowance for lateral thinking, for creative extension or wit.' Indeed, such expressions of intellectual ability or flair are actually penalised - because such knowledge or brilliance does not appear on the examiners' check-lists. So the more able the candidate, the more likely he or she now is to fail. Truly, an education system straight out of Lewis Carroll.

Now independent schools are moving towards dropping GCSEs altogether because they are such a farce. But in truth, this problem has beset A-level and GCSE for years. The problem is so bad it's certainly not just the top independent schools that are tearing out their hair. As Martin Stephen, high master of St Paul's boys' school said, heads from all types of secondary schools now shared a `deep concern at what is seen as the comparative neglect of academic education and the needs of a significant number of our gifted and talented children'.

No wonder so few pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are making it to good universities - causing `social mobility', or the progression of poor people up through the social classes, to go into reverse.

But instead of acknowledging the disaster in our schools and the profound collapse of education standards - caused by more than two decades of benighted education theories pushing `equality' and the inertia or worse of successive governments -ministers are still determined to press on with their malevolent `class war' by punishing academic excellence still further. So some 400m pounds will be hurled next year at the former polytechnics - which are more likely to target sixth-formers from poor backgrounds - despite claims that overall student numbers have barely increased in recent years. At the same time, universities such as Imperial College London and the London School of Economics, which were recently named among the best in the world, have seen their research funds cut.

Britain's education system was once acknowledged to be the finest in the world. It produced a class of people who went out and governed that world. Now, in no small measure because its intelligentsia has turned upon that class precisely because it once governed the world and was therefore `racist', `colonialist' and exploitative, Britain has developed an education system which risks giving itself no significant future in the world at all.


Why is school selection fine, when it's done on the basis of daddy's wallet, and wrong when it's done of the basis of the child's ability? Beats me

And so that time of year comes round again when thousands of [British] parents will discover that 'school choice' is a joke, and their child has not got into the school they wanted for him. All kinds of things will have helped decide his destination. But hardly anywhere, except in Northern Ireland and a couple of English counties, will the child's academic ability have any influence on which school he goes to. Even in those English counties, ability will count for less than it should because England's rare remaining grammar schools are so besieged by parents prepared to do almost anything to get a good secondary education, worth at least 60,000 pounds in post-tax income, for free.

His parents' wealth will be the main influence - not through fees, but through the devout socialist's method of paying fees - buying your way into the catchment area of a desirable school, and then telling all your friends how much you believe in state education.Though quite why anyone would want to believe in such a thing, I am not sure.

I agree that there are other methods (I go into them all in my forthcoming book, 'The Broken Compass'). But the catchment area technique is supreme, and adopted by a lot of hypocrites who claim they are against privilege, as well as by others who just see it as a perfectly reasonable way of buying something important - getting double value for a nice house in a good area, in fact.

There are many problems with this arrangement, the biggest being that bright children in poor homes are utterly barred from good schools, a terrible crime which makes me grind my teeth whenever I think about it. I am sure that a few of the usual suspects will still try to argue that this system is preferable to the supposedly cruel selection of the 11-plus. I can't see how they can continue to believe this, honestly. Ability's obviously a better guide than wealth, if you have to choose. And we do.

But the other thing that is perhaps wrong with it is that it creates two kinds of complacency. Even the best state schools aren't that good any more, because the comprehensive system has forced the dilution of exams and curriculum to a far lower level than used to exist. So even that 'good' state school is only good by the unexacting standards of GCSEs, A levels and the OFSTED classroom police. And it will go on getting worse as long as the system is unreformed.

The other kind of complacency is political. The better-off classes ought to be outraged at the betrayal of the nation, and the trashing of its future, caused by the comprehensive cataclysm. It will in the end help to destroy the peace and prosperity we seem to think are ours by right - but aren't. But because it does not affect them immediately and personally, they let it pass.

New Labour are, I think, aware of this. They continue to press, bit by bit, for the egalitarian wrecking of our whole education system. They know that their deep hopes of an egalitarian society depend more on this than on any other project. But precisely because it matters so much to them, they proceed with great caution.

They have their fingers on the windpipes of Oxford and Cambridge, through funding threats linked to pressure to give more places to state school applicants. They likewise have their fingers on the windpipes of the independent schools through the new, militant Charity Commission run by Dame 'Suzi' Leather. They are working, through 'adjudication' on the ability of the Roman Catholic secondary schools to select (now that Mr Blair's children have been educated) and are beginning to find ways of menacing Church primary schools.

The first shots have been fired (by think tanks, as usual) in what will be a long war designed to drag them down to the bog standard and erase their religious element. They have done as much as they can to besiege Northern Ireland's grammar schools, in alliance with the IRA. The 'Academies', whose alleged benefits are unproven anyway, face more and more attempts to regulate and regiment them into Bog Lane methods and aims. The remaining English grammar schools are under never-ending pressure of one kind or another, designed to demoralise them and force them into the comprehensive fold.

Everyone sensible should be in revolt over this. Politics should be in turmoil over the dogmatic destruction of a precious national resource, over the waste, the slamming of educational doors in the faces of the poor.

And if New Labour had pressed ahead with schemes to end the catchment system, and allocate places by lottery, then the direct and obvious personal interests of the middle class would have coincided with their political interests (which they are not so good at spotting), and the Tory-Labour-Liberal coalition against good education would have been blown apart by parental fury.

The Schools Secretary (I know he calls himself by another name, but who cares?) Ed Balls, like all cunning revolutionaries, had the sense to see that it was too early to take this step. That is why Mr Balls has retreated on plans to make such lottery schemes more widespread. But they haven't gone away. Schools are the principal battleground of the modern class war, comprehensive education is the true 'Clause Four' of New Labour (now accepted by the Tories too) and the Left will not give up on their education revolution until every last escape route from mediocrity has been closed.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

On Education Spending: Facts, not faith

Obama pours money into discredited programs

President Obama's massive education initiative detailed in his proposed budget aims at the right challenge - lifting our schools and narrowing achievement gaps. But huge chunks of his eye-popping $131 billion package, now before Congress, would go for stale federal programs that have long failed to elevate students' learning curves.

Mr. Obama promised a sharp break from President Bush, who often bent scientific findings to advance his favored dogma. Instead, "it's about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology," Obama promised at his inauguration. Few question the president's plea to improve the quality of our schools and colleges, racheting-up our economy's competitiveness. This requires not just retooling auto factories or investing in solar power, but enriching the nation's human capital as well.

To boost school quality Obama declared that he would only fund programs that lift pupil performance. "In this budget," he declared before the Congress, "we will end education programs that don't work." Music to the ears of the empirically minded. But hard-headed scholars are scratching those craniums over Obama's desire to spend billions more on disparate federal programs that have delivered little for children or teachers over the past decade.

Take Washington's biggest schools effort: the $14 billion compensatory education program, known as Title I, supporting classroom aides and reading tutors for children falling behind. A 1999 federal evaluation showed tepid results at best, largely because local programs fail to alter core classroom practices or sprout innovative ways of engaging weaker students. President Bush, pushed by congressional Democrats, expanded Title I school aid by 50 percent as he implemented No Child Left Behind. The result: achievement gaps have barely budged, even as the education attainment of young Latino and African American parents has inched upward.

So, under Obama's scientific principles this moribund program should be cut, right? Well, the president's new budget actually expands Title I by half again, with spending rising more than $20 billion a year. Ditto for special education funding, upped by $6 billion in the president's new budget, a heartfelt effort that's shown a modicum of success in boosting reading skills for millions of children.

Two dilemmas already haunt the White House. First, Obama went along with House Democrats last month who seized on the stimulus package, a long awaited chance to dramatically boost school spending and make college more affordable. To move quickly, the president agreed to pump-up already authorized yet deeply entrenched programs like Title I, whether these well-intentioned efforts have yielded detectable benefits or not.

Second, powerful lobbies arise every time the Congress creates a new program. Boosting Title I and Head Start spending will protect or spawn new jobs, providing urgently needed economic stimulus. But these hikes also embolden constituencies that fight tooth and nail to protect their favored program, hope they want to believe in.

Pieces of Obama's education plan are built on foundations of solid evidence. His proposal to expand Early Head Start - offering prenatal services and child care for toddlers - is backed by experimental results showing gains for mothers and children alike. The benefits of Head Start are less impressive, but significant, and could grow if efforts to boost teacher quality take hold. Massive dollar infusions may elevate program quality. But this assumes that the daily work of teachers or tutors, after a quarter-century of institutionalized habits, can be recast markedly to energize students.

What's risky is when Obama ignores empirical rigor for programs backed by powerful interests. He expands charter school funding to please corporate leaders who desire market remedies. Or Title I wins lavish funding as teacher unions argue that one day the program will lift achievement. It's ironically reminiscent of the Bush doctrine under which ideology and speculation trump hard evidence.

Making tough decisions with facts, not faith, is so emblematic of Mr. Obama's new pragmatism. But as the Congress begins debate over his huge education initiative, we will discover whether Obama's commitment to science is real, or simply rhetoric.


More State-funded boarding schools for Britain?

Academy [charter] schools could become boarding schools if the Conservatives won power at the next election. Michael Gove, the Shadow Schools Secretary, said that he would explore setting up state-funded residential academies "so that children in the greatest need can secure a placement that offers them the very highest standards of education and care".

There are currently only 35 state boarding schools in Britain offering free education and low-cost care for pupils, but no academy yet provides residential care.

Mr Balls announced plans for the 100th academy yesterday. The schools remain in the state sector but are independent of local councils and accept sponsorship from private companies or charities. Mr Gove told the charity Barnardo's that a study had found that 85 per cent of vulnerable children placed in state boarding schools were doing as well as, or better than, their peers.


Many British children turned away at the school gates

This week thousands of children were denied places in their first choice secondary school. Here, a teacher argues that the British education system is as crisis-ridden as British banks

The parent sobbed openly at the reception of the secondary school where I teach: "But it's not fair! You have to let her in!" Our secretary had to ask our caretakers to escort her off the premises. But she wasn't surprised. Every year, she gets hundreds of calls from panic-stricken parents wanting to know why their child didn't get into our over-subscribed comprehensive. Every year, she says the same thing: read the instructions in the admissions booklet very, very carefully. There's no way she can explain such a complex process over the phone. If she did, she'd never go home.

I teach in a very popular, co-educational comprehensive in outer London which gains some of the best results in the country. In common with many similar institutions, every year, over 400 applicants don't get an offer of a place. Much as we would like to take them, we have only one place for every three children applying. This year was no different: there were hundreds of bitterly disappointed families.

It's little consolation, but they might comfort themselves with the knowledge that they are not alone. On National Offer Day earlier this week, where parents discovered whether their child had been successful in applying for a place at secondary school, one fifth of parents didn't get their child into the school of their choice. In counties such as Kent, nearly a third of parents failed to get their preferred school.

It's no wonder thousands of parents are furious. A report from the London School of Economics published this week suggests that the whole system is in a state of chaos, with schools flagrantly flouting the rules - asking parents for personal information including marital status, occupation and even children's hobbies - and parents themselves being bamboozled by the arcane bureaucracy involved.

As a parent, teacher and writer who has researched this subject for years, I can only concur with the LSE's report. The central problem is that there is no consistency in the system: the rules or "admissions criteria" by which schools admit their pupils differ from school to school. There are a host of different rules when applying to grammar schools, academies, faith-schools, specialist schools and plain-old bog standard comprehensives.

If you're applying to a faith school, you usually have to prove you've attended church regularly for a number of years, live within the parish and have a glowing reference from your local vicar or priest. If you're going for a specialist school, you'll get preferential treatment if you can prove your child has an "aptitude" in that specialism. For example, schools that specialise in sports will often need to see references from coaches and team leaders. For grammar schools, you'll need to pay for a private tutor so that your child will excel in the 11-plus exam. And if you're going for a good local comp, you might have to consider selling your house and moving closer to the school - or lying about your address, which increasingly parents are doing.

But even moving near a good school can backfire. Take Katie, who moved house so she could be near the only popular school in her area, a faith-based school which specialised in languages. She thought she had everything covered - the attendance at church, the vicar's references, the proof that her son has an aptitude for languages - only to find that in the year of her application her local authority switched to a lottery system: all the schools were allocated randomly. As a result, her application failed. She is now faced with the absurd prospect of having to drive her son miles away to a sink school, despite the fact that she lives next door to an excellent one. All her hard work was for nothing. "This Government has ruined my family's life," she told me, trying to hold back the tears.

Time and again, conscientious parents who have fought so hard to get their children into good schools have had their best laid plans smashed by idiotic Labour legislation.

But it isn't only the school admissions system that the Government has broken. It's the exam system as well. Since they arrived in 1997, Labour apparatchiks have done nothing but interfere with exams. Each new initiative has made things worse. The Sats exams for seven, 11 and 14-year-olds have been mired in controversy from the start, with claims from parents and teachers that they are irrelevant and put pupils under unnecessary pressure. The situation was so bad last summer, when swathes of Sats papers were lost and thousands denied their results, that the Children's Secretary, Ed Balls, abandoned Sats for 14-year-olds and indicated that he was even considering scrapping the exam for all ages - a ghastly admission of defeat.

Even more seriously, A-levels and GCSEs have lost their credibility. The Government trumpets that the number of pupils gaining five A*-C grades at GCSE has risen from 44 per cent to 65 per cent since 1995, but any teacher knows this supposed improvement is nonsense. Recent research by Durham and Cambridge universities shows that the exams have become so dumbed down that these statistics are meaningless and that far from fostering real learning, the exam system has made our children less intelligent than they were in the 1970s, when far less was spent on education.

Meanwhile, the world education rankings run by the respected Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) - the only really trustworthy league table there is - shows Britain slipping from fourth to 14th for reading and from eighth to 24th for Maths. Put simply, most children from Europe and the Far East outperform our pupils every time - even in English.

Our exam system has become such a joke that many schools are giving up on it. Just this week, one of our top independent schools, Manchester Grammar, decided to abandon GCSEs, on the grounds that they were too easy, and to replace them with the International GCSE (IGCSE). In a letter to parents, the head poured scorn on the new GCSEs that the Government is introducing this September, observing that they threaten teachers' abilities to do their jobs well: they are stuffed full of easy questions and coursework.

Quite why the Government is bringing back coursework when its own investigations have uncovered widespread cheating and plagiarism appears a mystery until you realise that coursework significantly boosts results. In other words, the revamp of GCSEs is a cynical ploy to manipulate the statistics. But as any experienced teacher knows, coursework has a corrupting effect upon pupils because it makes them believe they can cheat their way to the top.

A real educational apartheid is developing between the independent schools who are abandoning the government's testing regime and the rest of us in the state sector who are lumbered with it. Clearly, children who take the wrong GCSEs haven't a hope of getting into the top universities because they haven't had the opportunity to gain respected qualifications.

One of the consequences of the Government decimating our exam system is that the process by which students apply for university has become farcical. The fact of the matter is that our best universities have lost faith in GCSEs and A-levels and have introduced their own tests. As a result, students have to fill in a barrage of forms, write a personal statement and take numerous A-level exams before gaining a place, and are also compelled to take exams set by the suspicious universities - particularly for popular courses such as medicine.

To make matters worse, the university admissions procedure is so haphazard that there is no uniformity over when the universities make their offers. So students are required to accept or reject an offer before they've heard back from all the places to which they have applied. Having been tested to the point of extinction, these poor students are frequently forced to sign up for inferior courses, even though they may have gained places on better ones. As with school admissions, one suspects this is a cynical ploy to make sure that the inferior universities are filled with students.

Our education system is failing on all counts: it is shockingly unfair, riddled with incompetence and corruption, and benefits no one but the bureaucrats. But while the pen-pushers enjoy enormous power and over-inflated wages, parents can see no end to their misery. Too many parents have watched helplessly as their children's education has gone down the drain: too many children have endured mediocre schools, taken too many worthless GCSEs, and saddled themselves with crippling debts to gain worthless degrees that lead nowhere but the dole queue.

Despite the phoney propaganda the Government peddles, Labour's incessant meddling, monstrous dumbing down and moronic self-righteousness have consigned our schools to the scrap heap. It pains me to say it, but our education system is as crisis-ridden as our banks.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Killing school choice in DC

If ever there were a case of mixed-up priorities in Washington, this is it. Tucked into the $410 billion "omnibus" spending bill passed by the House of Representatives on February 25 is a provision designed to terminate the Washington Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), the school choice program established with bipartisan support in 2004 that is providing a glimmer of hope to thousands of students and families in the District of Columbia.

More than 2,000 students have been able to attend one of the D.C. area non-public schools through the program since it was established, and more than 7,200 have applied for scholarships, demonstrating the overwhelming public demand in the District among parents for new educational options for their children.

The D.C. opportunity scholarship program is creating greater opportunities and transforming lives.

"[The OSP] gives me the choice to, freedom to attend other schools than D.C. public schools," one thankful parent told researchers from the University of Arkansas, which conducted an in-depth study of the program's performance. "I'm not really badgering or bashing the system, but right now, well at the time, I just didn't feel that I wanted to put him in D.C. public school and I had the opportunity to take one of the scholarships, so therefore, I can afford it and I'm glad that I did do that."

In a video entitled "Voices of School Choice" posted on the website of the education reform-minded Heritage Foundation, local students participating in the OSP tell President Obama first-hand about the importance of the program, and implore him to keep it alive.

Buried in the so-called "omnibus" bill, however, is a poison pill intended to terminate the program. The language in the bill, proposed by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), sunsets the program after the 2009-2010 school year unless both Congress and the D.C. City Council take specific steps to reauthorize it.

Reauthorization is clearly not the intent of the Democratic leaders who run Congress. Powerful teachers unions that oppose school choice contributed millions to Democratic campaigns last year, and the Democratic leadership in Congress now has the program in its crosshairs. In a recent statement, House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-OK) advised D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee to "promptly take steps to minimize potential disruption and ensure smooth transition" for children currently participating in the program to re-enroll in the District's public schools.


The declining prestige of academics in Britain

So you want to be a nuclear physicist. I bet your parents are horrified. Nor do they want you to be an Oxford Don or a classicist. That's the bizarre British conundrum that Gail Trimble can't answer. When the University Challenge contestant let slip that she would like to be an academic when she finishes her doctorate in Latin literature, the comment that surprised her most was, "get a job".

Parents in Britain spend more than 1.5 billion pounds a year on tutoring. Many have spent this term agonising over whether Freya or Felix will get into a grammar school. They are thrilled if their child is asked to join the Government's gifted programme. Schools are assessed on their academic league tables. Gordon Brown's sole intervention in education as Chancellor came when he tried to help Laura Spence get into Oxford.

Yet once undergraduates arrive at the dreaming spires or the red bricks it would be a calamity if they actually decided to stay and become a don. What a waste of an education. Britain lauds its television presenters, not its academics. Sir David Attenborough is Britain's most famous naturalist; 100 years ago it was Charles Darwin. Young historians want to be Andrew Roberts, Willie Dalrymple, Simon Sebag Montefiore or better still Amanda Foreman whose book on Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire was turned into the film starring Keira Knightley. They want to visit the White House, appear in glossy magazines and be asked to write lucrative articles in newspapers. They'd rather not disappear into the dusty corridors of academia never to be seen again. Boris Johnson uses his classics education to entertain. Carol Vorderman is Britain's best known mathematician. Stranger still, the diminishing role of the academic in Britain has coincided with a massive expansion of higher education. We now want half the country to reach university but we deride those who will teach them when they get there.

The rising number of students partly explains why becoming an academic is such an unappealing career. The amount of government money universities receive for each graduate has fallen by 50 per cent in real terms over the past two decades. Lecturers now spend hours preparing lessons, marking dissertations, filing paperwork, monitoring students and fending off pushy parents, while also attempting to publish research papers. Even at Oxford there is precious little time for dreaming amid Matthew Arnold's spires. While the average graduate worked 44 hours per week in 2004, academics worked 47 hours per week.

For this they are paid a pittance. Back in the 1960s, an Oxford professor earned as much as a Liverpool football player. But the boom years never reached the campus. Between 1982 and 2001, academic earnings went up by 7 per cent in real terms, whereas average earnings for all full-time employees in Britain went up by 44 per cent. Academics now earn 23 per cent less than lawyers, 24 per cent less than doctors and 49 per cent less than dentists. Having missed out on the boom years, they are now participating in the bust. Universities have been told to cut back even further on original research projects, which are increasingly seen as an extravagance. And despite recent falls, house prices in Oxford and Cambridge mean most can no longer afford to live near the centre. According to the Association of University Teachers, three quarters of academics believe there has been a decline in their status in the past five years alone. No wonder the exodus of postgraduates abroad is higher than any other developed country. When my grandfather, a physicist, was professor at Imperial College before the Second World War, he lived in an eight-bedroom house in Notting Hill that is now worth œ20 million. My other grandfather, director of the Cavendish Laboratory after the war, lived in an even more imposing Georgian house in Cambridge that is now a hall of residence.

In the 1950s intellectuals still wanted the prestige - and money - that came with being a successful academic. Now the blockbuster historians, economists and scientists prevail, but if they want to keep up their advances they need to find a subject that has broad appeal rather than concentrating on specialised research on narrow topics. William Hague has admitted that he did no original research for his much admired autobiography of Pitt the Younger. The top-selling history books are mainly spin-offs from television programmes.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian would have struggled if it had been an academic thesis on the changing face of agriculture in the former Soviet Union, but became a bestseller because it started: "Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blond Ukrainian divorcee". Yet the former subject would have added more to our knowledge.

Who cares? Well, perhaps the future blockbuster writers who will find that there is no one inspirational left to teach them at university. There is little point in sending an ever greater number of young people to rack up debts for three years if they are going to taught by overworked, demoralised, second-raters.

In America academics are sought after in public life. President Obama has crammed his cabinet with intellectuals. His Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, won the Nobel Prize in physics. The director of the National Economic Council, Larry Summers, was a professor at MIT and Harvard. France also has a longstanding connection between public life and academia. Christine Lagarde, the finance minister, worked as a law lecturer, the education minister, Xavier Darcos, was a professor of literature.

Britain was like that once. Lord Annan called the years from 1945 to 1975 the golden age. Academics moved in and out of Whitehall as wise men. C.P. Snow chronicled their moves in his novels. Harold Macmillan became Chancellor of Oxford while still Prime Minister. Rab Butler became Master of Trinity. Harold Wilson, who had been a lecturer at Oxford, stuffed his Cabinet with former Oxford dons.

Yet few ministers now have a doctorate. In Brown's Britain, being clever is equated with being posh and elite. Mr Balls prefers beautician diplomas to Beowolf discussions, he calls for universities to "skill" students rather than educate them.

Britain has prospered during those periods in its history when scientists and thinkers have played a key role in our national life. Queen Elizabeth I was the best-educated woman of her generation. Technological advances drove the industrial revolution. Scientists helped to win two world wars. If we want to replicate that success today, putting senior common rooms rather than dealing floors at the centre of our national life might be a good place to start.


British government schools slip farther behind private schools at final High School exams

The Labour government has wreaked vast destruction on British education

Private schools had more pupils gain three grade As at A level last summer than all the comprehensives put together, according to data suggesting that poorer students are falling farther behind their middle-class contemporaries. More than 10,000 privately educated students got three As last year, the standard required to win a place at top universities, compared with just under 7,500 children at comprehensive schools. This is despite independent schools educating only 7 per cent of all pupils.

The figures, obtained by the Conservatives, also show that the achievement gap between the better off and the poor is widening at A level. Since Labour came to power in 1997, the gap between the proportion of students gaining three As at comprehensives and independent schools has widened from 12.2 to 22.7 percentage points. Almost a third of private pupils get three As, compared with less than one in ten at comprehensives. Last year 38 per cent of students achieiving straight As at A level were at fee-paying schools, compared to 28 per cent at comprehensives and 16 per cent at grammar schools.

Michael Gove, the Shadow Schools Secretary, said that pupils were now four times more likely to get three As at an independent school than at a comprehensive school. Despite millions of pounds of government investment directed at raising standards in comprehensives, through programmes such as the National Challenge, there was a widening gap between opportunities for better-off families and the rest, even among results for the brightest pupils, he said. At a conference organised by the children's charity Barnardo's today, he will say that there is a widening gap between opportunities for richer families and the rest. A Tory government would aim to reverse this. "We will make it easier to set up new academies, especially in poorer areas, and make it easier for them to hire great teachers, and we will make it easier for talented people to become teachers," he said.

Conservative plans to allow new state-funded schools to open in deprived areas, based on the Swedish system, with extra cash for children from more deprived homes, would reverse a growing social class gap, he said.

The figures show that the pattern of the education achievement gap is complex and impacts on all ability levels, not just among the less able or borderline pupils, where most government resources are directed. Separate figures from National Strategies, the Government's programme for professional development for schools, show that of the more than 26,000 pupils who obtained three As at A level, the number on free school meals (the rule of thumb measure for poverty) was 176, representing less than 1 per cent. Nationally, the figure is about 13 per cent. Clive Bush, of National Strategies, told a conference of head teachers organised by the Future Leaders programme last week, that British schools showed the biggest variation in performance of any school system in the world. There were wide discrepancies between types of school and within individual schools.

The figures come after concern expressed by Christine Gilbert, the Chief Inspector of Schools, that poor children had "the odds stacked against them" in education and that pupils were becoming divided along economic lines in schools.


Monday, March 09, 2009

Surgical sex change now a right on campus?

Take a walk over to our campus library and you can see why I think the inmates are running this asylum, which is otherwise known as UNC-Wilmington. There is a display showing a little girl being held down as someone prepares to take a razor blade to her genitals. The picture reminds me why I am opposed to genital mutilation. And I'm always opposed to genital mutilation.

The crazy aspect of the display is not the fact that it is graphic and offensive. It is that it is so dishonest. Put simply, the feminists at the UNCW Women's Resource Center are not really opposed to genital mutilation. The fact that they co-sponsored a film called Trans-Generation shows that they are ambivalent on the issue.

Feminists will say there is a difference between the kind of genital mutilation portrayed on their display and the kind portrayed in Trans-Generation; namely, that the former is coerced and the latter is freely chosen. But that logic is flawed for two reasons.

First, Trans-Generation glorifies genital mutilation among college students, many of whom are under 21. Surely, someone who does not have the maturity to sip a beer does not have the maturity to order someone to surgically alter its genitals. They cannot have developed a full appreciation of the effects of their "decision."

Second, there can be no valid consent offered by one who is profoundly mentally ill. We would never assert that a man who thought he was a unicorn could "choose" to have his penis attached to his forehead. We would assert that he is mentally ill or run the risk that others would deem us mentally ill. Nor should we ever assert that a man who thought he was a woman could "choose" to have his penis carved into a female sex organ. We should assert that he is mentally ill or run the risk that others think the same of us.

But a group called the Gender Mutiny Collective disagrees. This fringe political group advocates the position that those who crave genital mutilation are not mentally ill. Instead, those who would stand in their way are "trans-phobic." In other words, they think that opponents of "freely chosen" genital mutilation are themselves suffering from a phobia (read: mental disorder).

The Gender Mutiny Collective has gone to the extreme of asking college administrators to monitor the lectures of college professors whom they suspect to be suffering from "transphobia." To date, the American Association of University Professors has had no comment on this obvious infringement of academic freedom.

In 2006, my department was asked to sponsor Trans-Generation not financially but emotionally by offering our approval of the film. One of our level-headed faculty members noted that sponsoring a film that endorsed genital mutilation would make us look bad in the community. One feminist's bigoted and stereotypical reply claimed that the community was comprised of nothing but people with "pot bellies" who drive "pickup trucks."

In other words, we have now "progressed" to a point in academia where those who advocate "chosen" genital mutilation deem themselves to be morally superior to the people who oppose it. And, remember, those people are not just fat rednecks. They're also mentally ill.

I wrote this column to state publicly that I do not endorse the film Trans-Generation. I simply will not take advantage of the mentally ill in order to establish my own sense of moral superiority. And I certainly won't do it in the name of tolerance and diversity.

If any member of the Gender Mutiny Collective is offended by this column I invite you to come and monitor my classroom. I also invite you to kiss my ass.


British professors reveal watered-down degrees

Academics are breaking ranks to expose a grim picture of higher education

A group of academic whistle-blowers have warned that British higher education is being blighted by watered-down degrees, rampant plagiarism and systematic pressure from university authorities to inflate the grades of weak undergraduates. The complaints by the academics - working at universities including Oxford, Sussex, Birmingham, Cardiff and new institutions such as Central Lancashire and Manchester Metropolitan - have been presented in a 500-page dossier to an MPs' inquiry.

One reports a student begging "please don't dumb down any further", while another says students are more interested in sending text messages in class than paying attention. The problems are blamed on two decades of relentless university expansion without adequate funding.

The evidence increases pressure on John Denham, the universities secretary, to take steps to guard quality as he prepares to announce a strategy for higher education this summer. One source at the select committee said: "It has to be quite a brave person to stick their necks out like this. "There is sufficient commonality between their concerns to be worth taking seriously - it is incumbent on the authorities to do so. The worry is they are inclined to dismiss rather than investigate."

Those who have given evidence include Sue Evans, an economics lecturer of some 30 years' standing at Manchester Metropolitan University. She describes a disappointed Slovakian undergraduate saying last term: "This university is like high school in Slovakia." Another begged the department: "Don't dumb down the subject any more than you already have." Evans also provides extensive allegations of marks frequently being revised upwards without justification. She says she has raised her concerns "repeatedly" with the university but without any response.

Her complaints are echoed by Stuart Derbyshire, a senior lecturer in psychology at Birmingham University. On one occasion, he said: "When I complained, he [an external examiner charged with scrutinising standards] stated that it was no longer 1986 and that we cannot mark like we did in the past. `We must', he said, `look harder for excellence'."

Some of the submissions raise concerns over the commitment of students themselves. The dossier includes warnings from some of Britain's most senior academics. Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford, wrote that, while he approved of expanding university education, too much of it is "remedial secondary education passed off as something else". At Oxford, he said, "anyone who remains awake and is tolerably well organised can get a 2:1". He added that there is a "dumbing to the middle" at the university in which compliance with government quality procedures is more important than "waking up minds".

Peter Dorey, a politics academic at Cardiff, said: "They often sit in seminars with only their mobile phone in front of them on the desk . . . but no books or notepads." He told the inquiry: "Many of them are semi-literate," adding that he was starting to feel "as if I am wasting my time with today's students".

Some of the greatest concerns raised are over the quality of science education. Janet Collett, emeritus biology lecturer at Sussex who also holds a post at Harvard, warned the committee of "serious slippage of standards". She said many leading American academics believe "sharp critical thinking and fostering independence are no longer the hallmarks of British university education". Collett said this weekend that American colleagues complained that even Oxbridge science graduates "just didn't know enough".

Higher education is now more popular than ever, with figures released last month showing applications to start degrees this autumn up 7.8% on last year, when 413,000 started at university. However, there are signs that head teachers at the most academically successful state and independent schools are starting to steer the brightest pupils to join a steady trickle across the Atlantic. Andrew Halls, headmaster of the independent King's College school in Wimbledon, south London, claimed that at a recent parents' meeting, half the 200 or so present said they would consider sending their children to America. "US universities are starting to have a real edge," said Halls. "The more they [British universities] water down their degrees, which they patently are, the worse."

David Willetts, the shadow universities secretary, said there was still widespread excellence, but added: "A lot of students who get in touch with me are raising issues such as how crowded their seminars are, how rapidly they get work returned with a mark. Those are the types of issues students and parents really worry about. Universities have to listen."

Universities contacted this weekend to respond to the submissions denied there were quality problems or that staff were pressed to change grades. A spokeswoman for Manchester Metropolitan added: "Miss Evans expresses a lot of very personal views but presents very little objective information. There is no evidence staff are put under any pressure to bump up grades. We are extremely disappointed and upset that a colleague has chosen to raise these issues externally."

David Boucher, head of the school of European studies at Cardiff, said: "The school does not recognise the picture of students Dr Dorey paints."


Sunday, March 08, 2009

Mayoral Control improves schools

But teachers' unions are still hostile

Mayoral control of public education has gained currency in recent years, including in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Washington, D.C. Results vary from place to place, but one clear success story has been New York City, where the policy deserves to be extended.

Upon taking office seven years ago, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg waged a campaign to abolish the city's 32 community school boards; hire and fire the schools chancellor; and appoint a majority of members on the city's Board of Education. Prior to the change, two out of three public schools in Gotham were underperforming and graduation rates were stagnant. Meanwhile, the Board of Education would blame the mayor, who pointed to the schools chancellor, who cited the Board of Education, and so on.

Mr. Bloomberg sought to end this circular blame game by taking responsibility for school performance in return for more control over education policy. In the event, test scores have improved and more kids are graduating. The New York State legislature has until June to reauthorize mayoral control, and it would be a breeze if not for teacher-union hostility. "Today, more than 10,000 additional students are graduating than we took over in 2002," said schools Chancellor Joel Klein last month. "Today, many more students are meeting and exceeding standards in math and reading. And today, the gap separating African-American and Latino students from their white and Asian peers is shrinking."

Mayoral control has also been a boon for reformers looking to expand school choice for low-income families. In 2002, New York City had fewer than 20 charter schools; next year it will have more than 100. This is a direct result of charter-friendly policies pushed by the mayor that would have been blocked by teacher union control of the school board. Mr. Klein's long tenure -- now seven years -- also makes for more policy staying power.

Eva Moskowitz, whose Harlem Success Charter Network operates four schools, says the change has been "fundamental" to her efforts to offer disadvantaged kids an alternative to failing schools. "The only way to fix the problem of the education monopoly is competition," said Ms. Moskowitz, a former member of the City Council. "And you can't have competition unless you have mayoral control. The local forces -- the teachers unions -- are fundamentally opposed to competition, whereas the mayor is responsive to the voters and the parents."

The United Federation of Teachers, the local union, claims to favor mayoral control. Yet it's urging state lawmakers to scotch the mayor's ability to appoint a majority of school board members -- a modification that would increase the union's influence and end real accountability. State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a union ally, says he favors renewing the law but also wants to give parents a greater voice in the system, whatever that means. In fact, a recent poll found that parents with children in public schools favor mayoral control by 57% to 39%.

The way to truly empower parents is to let them decide where their children attend school. Mayoral control is no education panacea, but to the extent that it is aiding competition and raising standards in New York it is saving thousands of kids from the tyranny of union-dominated failure.


Identical British twins go to schools 18 miles apart

Adam and Luke Bolton are identical twins who do everything together, but this week they were told that not only have they been allocated places in different secondary schools, but also that the schools are 18 miles apart. The news has come as a bombshell. The ten-year-old boys read the same books, play the same computer games and, although they have separate bedrooms, have sleepovers in each other's rooms every weekend. They have different hobbies - Luke plays piano and is a footballer, Adam prefers reading - but most of the time they stick together. To date their biggest anxiety has been being asked to sit at different tables in their class at Tewin Cowper Primary School, in Hertfordshire.

Their mother, Ann Connolly, said: "When we applied to secondary school we tried to prepare them for the fact that they might be put in different classes. That would be a huge step for them. So for them to find themselves in different schools is very distressing. "Twins are not like other children. They have a total reliance on each other to be their primary friend and they look to each in stressful situations."

Adam and Luke are a living example of a problem highlighted this week by Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary. Hertfordshire is one of 25 local authorities that use a lottery system to allocate places in oversubscribed schools. The aim of the lottery is to make school admissions fairer and prevent middle-class parents from playing the system by buying or renting homes close to the best schools.

Ms Connolly said that the thinking behind the system was muddled. "It makes it impossible to make a rational choice of school because you can have no idea in advance what will be your chances of getting in," Ms Connolly said. "I asked the local authority if they could allocate places to two children together via the lottery process but they said that would bias its random nature and so couldn't be allowed. It is ludicrous."

Mr Balls agrees and has asked the Schools Adjudicator to look at the issue of twins being split in lottery-based systems. "I am asking the Schools Adjudicator to look at how we can make crystal clear in guidance and in the [School Admissions] Code that splitting up twins when parents don't want them to be split is the wrong thing to do," Mr Balls said.

Luke was allocated a place at the twins' first choice, Richard Hale school in Hertford, which is a six-mile (9km) bus ride from the Bolton home, while Adam was given a place at their second choice, Verulam School in St Albans, which is 12 miles from the house in the opposite direction and an hour away by train and bus.

Ms Connolly, who works in the pharmaceutical industry, said: "All I can do is put Adam on the waiting list for Robert Hale and hope that a place becomes available, but it could be months before we hear and in the mean time we just have to sit and wait." What is particularly frustrating to her is that now that one twin has been allocated a place at the Robert Hale, the family can take advantage of the school's sibling rule to get the other one in. This effectively means that Adam will be higher up on the waiting list than he otherwise would be. Ms Connolly said that it was bizarre that the boys counted as siblings only after the first round of applications but not when they first applied. [Indeed. British bureaucracy at its best]