Thursday, January 14, 2010

Perry: Texas Rejects Federal Education Funding

Too many strings for the Lone Star state

Texas won't compete for up to $700 million in federal stimulus money for education because the program "smacks of a federal takeover of our public schools," Republican Gov. Rick Perry said Wednesday.

The funding is from the U.S. Department of Education's "Race to the Top" program, a $5 billion competitive fund that will award grants to states to improve education quality and results. The program, created in the economic stimulus law, is part of Democratic President Barack Obama's efforts to overhaul the nation's schools.

Perry has been critical of the federal stimulus program and the federal bailout of the nation's financial institutions. He previously turned down $555 million in federal stimulus money for the state's unemployment fund because it would have required Texas to expand its unemployment benefits. However, the state did accept billions of dollars of federal stimulus money to help balance its two-year budget in 2009.

Perry stood next to Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott and representatives of teachers' unions and said taking the money would force the state to adopt national education and testing standards and result in Texas losing its autonomy in educating children.

The education program is pushing for a link between student test scores and teacher pay. Other reforms it is asking for include turning around the lowest-achieving schools and building data systems that measure student growth and success and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction.

Leaders in states such as Michigan and Wisconsin have been pushing hard for lawmakers to overhaul their education systems so they have a better chance at qualifying for the money. At least 10 states have changed laws banning the use of student test scores to judge teachers, eased charter school restrictions or backed off budget cuts to boost their chances.

Perry said Texas' education system is doing well under state and local control -- standardized test scores are up, the dropout rate is down and Texas has been recognized as one of only four states that is closing the achievement gap in math. The grant program doesn't remove schools from state and local control but it gives Obama considerable leverage as he pushes education reform. "Here in Texas, we don't have broad consensus on every issue facing our school system," Perry said. "We do agree we'd rather work those differences out in Texas with solutions that work for Texans instead of accepting a top down mandate from some distant bureaucrats."

Texas Democrats were quick to criticize Perry's decision. State Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, said he didn't agree with all of Race to the Top's mandates, but the grants could help the state lower the achievement gap and better prepare Texas children for college. "By throwing in the towel before the competition has even begun, Gov. Perry has officially won the race to the bottom," said Dunnam, chairman of the House Select Committee on Federal Economic Stabilization Funding.

But several teachers' unions and groups promoting fiscal responsibility supported Perry's decision, saying the state's curriculum serves students well and they have no interest in the federal government dictating teaching practices. "The dollars being dangled have far too many strings attached and for Texans the price would be far too high," said Jeri Stone, executive director of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association.


Why computers should be banned from British schools

Have you been inside a primary school recently? The old blackboards are gone, and so are the wooden desks with those little inkwells. No great loss, perhaps, but what has replaced them is frightening. Those handsome, Victorian red-brick board schools, set up under the 1870 Education Act, might look pretty much unchanged on the outside. But on the inside they have become little offices. Whiteboards, hooked up to computers, are the main teaching tool in the classroom. Whole areas are given over to ranks of gleaming screens. In one North London classroom I visited recently (to deliver a lecture on journalism) every single child had their own laptop.

I was astonished - and not a little dismayed - by this wholesale reliance on technology. Yes, the children were on the whole polite, attentive and curious; the teachers committed and good at keeping discipline. But the moment the teacher's attention was diverted for more than a minute, the children all turned to their computer games.

And, just like in any office, the school IT system then went on the blink (while the children's computer games kept on going). The pupils were unable to complete their work (they had to produce a mock newspaper) because the printers had gone down. Cue another half an hour of computer games, while the teacher tried and failed to get the printers working again.

That's why I was so dismayed by Gordon Brown's latest misguided wheeze. At the beginning of the week, he announced he's going to give away £300million worth of free laptops and broadband access to 270,000 poor families, with priority for those with educational needs. His aim is to make every family a 'broadband family', in the naive belief that the internet, because it's modern, is some kind of magic wand that will help lift them out of poverty.

It's no such thing. For the moment you hand a laptop to a child, the child will treat it the way most adults do - as a device beautifully designed to waste their time, avoid long periods of concentrated work, play games on, indulge their obsessions, narrow their horizons and reduce their attention span.

This might not matter so much were it not for the fact that widespread use of computers and the internet now lie at the heart of our education system. There is no doubt technology can be a wonderful tool in the classroom. But I'd argue there is a pretty neat equation showing that the greater the use of computers in teaching, the less likely the pupils are to concentrate on what they are being taught, or retain information. After all, the very nature of computerised learning involves 'surfing' from one page to the next, from one subject to another, flicking through reams of material in seconds; only pausing on subjects that instantly seize your attention; never needing to memorise anything because it's all stored digitally. That, surely, is anathema to the academic rigour that was once the foundation of a worthwhile education.

The simple truth is that sticking children in front of the internet, whether at school or in the home, is like sticking them in an enormous library - with every book in the world; and every computer game, too. Yes, as Gordon Brown hopes, they might be reading War And Peace on their laptop - or even writing on it - but, much, much more likely, they'll be playing Grand Theft Auto IV or emailing each other graphic definitions of rude words.

It's not the children's fault. Us grown-ups are just the same. That man tapping on his laptop throughout the train journey to Norwich might be finding a cure for cancer. More likely he's sending his wife a YouTube clip of a panda waking up. Surely, though, we adults (especially teachers) should be encouraging children away from such time-wasting temptations, not driving them headlong towards them?

My fear is, as schools become increasingly dependant on computerised learning tools, so their teachers will become too lazy or uninspiring to seize their pupils' attention by traditional methods. That would not only be a terrible sadness, it would be an educational disaster. For the increasing use of computers for schoolwork has led to widespread plagiarism: copying other people's work is the easiest thing in the world with the internet, making it almost impossible for teachers to assess their pupils' true ability. Even for those pupils who resist the temptation to cheat, the luxury of constant self- correction has undermined-intellectual discipline.

I count myself lucky to belong to the last generation that had to do my essays at university by hand - I graduated in 1993. Now, if I make a mistake, I can hit the backspace key. I can make up an argument on the hoof, and restitch my line of thought. In pre-laptop days, it was fatal to put pen to paper before you had gone through the mental process of first constructing a pretty good argument in your mind or on paper.

I am no Luddite who wishes we could return to the days of chalk-on-blackboard. Modern technology - used sparingly and wisely - can enhance the learning experience. But wide-eyed Gordon Brown treats it with absurd reverence, ignoring the evidence that its influence is harming the way children interact with the world around them.

Only this week, the Government's adviser on children's speech, Jean Gross, warned that teenagers are becoming unemployable because they use a vocabulary of just 800 words. Although most of them have a vocabulary of 40,000 words by the age of 16, they choose to limit themselves to the smaller range they use for texts and electronic media.

This is an example of how limiting computers can be. Precisely because everything under the sun is on the internet and you pick what you want, you end up tailoring your content to yourself and what you know. You rarely venture into the odd, obscure or the difficult but worthwhile.

That's why Gordon's latest political gimmick is so flawed. Throwing money at the poorest children, and filling their schools and homes with expensive hardware, is an abdication of responsibility.

Go to the best schools in the country - independent and state - and, yes, they'll be using computers. But only in the way they use books, pens and paper: as tools to guide children away from childish interests and into more difficult areas. That is what teachers are for, as the inspirational teacher in Muriel Spark's The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie put it. 'Education,' she says, is from the Latin 'ex, out, and duco, I lead - education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil's soul'.

A computer, however high-tech, remains an inert object; it can only follow what it is instructed to search for. Only another, older, better, human brain can do the best sort of 'leading out'.


Teachers attack British government for subjecting schools to an ‘initiative a week’

A leading headmistress has criticised Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, for subjecting schools to an “initiative a week” without any sense of a coherent plan. Gillian Low, the president of the Girls’ Schools Association, cited last week’s announcement that all pupils should be offered lessons in Mandarin. This came on top of proposals for lessons on debt management, parenthood and domestic violence. In an interview with The Times, she said: “I think we need time to pause and actually think, ‘Is there a cohesive plan here?’ Because it doesn’t come across that way.”

Mrs Low appealed to politicians to use the general election as an opportunity to rethink the demands placed upon schools and the impact on their core mission of education.

Her comments, which coincide with the publication today of school league tables of last summer’s A-level and GCSE results, were echoed by other head teachers. Andrew Grant, the chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, said: “This Government has been hyperactive in heaping responsibilities onto schools ever since it came to power and crowding the curriculum with bright new ideas. Something has to give.” John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We have had wholesale changes to the curriculum for 11-14 year olds ... Whatever merits these changes have, they have presented a huge burden on schools.”

Mrs Low, whose association represents 186 independent schools, said that private schools had to take account of government initiatives. Referring to Mandarin lessons, she said: “While independent schools may choose not to do that, we need to take note of it because, in simply a commercial way, our parents may be saying to us, ‘Why aren’t you doing Arabic? They can do Arabic in the school down the road’. “But, also, we need to think is it appropriate? I have a big, big question about how far they get in those languages, particularly Mandarin, which is an incredibly complex language.”

She added: “I am hoping that the election, whether we get a change of government or not, will give people time to think, ‘Right, what are we trying to do in education? What are the priorities? How do we best achieve those ends?’.”

Mrs Low, the headmistress of Lady Eleanor Holles School in Hampton, West London, said that the intervention trend began under the Conservatives, with the introduction of the national curriculum in 1992, but had increased, particularly under Mr Balls.

Mrs Low began her career in state schools before moving to the independent sector. The biggest change, she said, has been to give schools a greater role in what she called a “socialising agenda”. “These are all important issues,” she said. “I am not suggesting for a moment that these are not important things in our society to deal.” But she added: “As more is going in, the length of the day and the school year remain the same. What is either going out or getting less attention?”

Pupils might learn some skills better beyond the classroom, such as by being given a budget to run a school club or society, and learn values though a school’s “hidden curriculum”, she said.

Mr Balls’s ministry was unrepentant. The Department for Children, Schools and Families said: “We make no apology for providing the modern and diverse education that parents demand, while maintaining our focus on traditional subjects such as maths, English and the sciences, which are all seeing record results. “Parents can choose to send their children to independent schools but, with record investment, record numbers of school staff and sustained improvements year on year, state schools are better than ever.”

Bright ideas

January 11 Consultation on personal tutors for all secondary pupils

January 4 “Aspiration” that all secondary pupils have chance to learn Mandarin, right, Japanese or Arabic

January 3 Savings, credit cards, mortgages, financial markets to be compulsory in curriculum from the age of 5

December 31 All secondary schools to get 15 new books for libraries from department list of 260 titles

December 16 Parents of children with special needs given more rights to complain if dissatisfied with schools

December 10 Schools given new requirement to record and report serious or recurring bullying to local authority

November 26 Smart meters for every school to help them to cut electricity use as part of efficiency drive

November 19 Theory of evolution to become compulsory part of science curriculum in primary schools

November 13 New guidance says that schools need clear plans to educate pupils about drugs, alcohol and smoking

November 6 New guidance for teachers leading school trips

November 4 Sex education to be compulsory for all pupils, ending parents’ rights to withdraw children once they reach 15

November 2 Consultation on new complaints system over admissions to academies

October 20 New programme to help school pupils who stammer

October 16 All new secondary school buildings to be subjected to £6,000-a-time acoustic tests

September 30 All schools to have good or outstanding behaviour rating from Ofsted by 2012

September 16 One-to-one tuition pledged for pupils who fall behind in English and maths from this school year


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