Saturday, January 09, 2010

Stonewalling Charters

New York could dramatically improve its chances of winning up to $700 million in federal Race to the Top dollars by eliminating its cap on the number of charter schools allowed to operate in the state. But the United Federation of Teachers would rather forgo those much-needed funds than let Gotham's (typically) non-unionized charter-school sector expand. The UFT is making a desperate effort to confuse the state legislature into inaction, so that the deadline to compete for Race to the Top--now less than two weeks away--passes, hoping that the pressure to remove the cap will then subside. Hence the UFT's new report, in which it charges that charter schools only seem to be more effective than traditional! public schools. "No one should be surprised," the UFT report said, "that some researchers find that charter schools have higher test scores, given that charters enroll students who are, on average, less poor, less disabled, and more likely to speak English." The success of New York's charter schools, then, becomes a mirage.

But take a closer look, and you'll see how groundless the UFT's charge is. Though the UFT didn't identify the "researchers" in question, it's surely referring to Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby and her recent, high-profile study of New York City's charter schools. According to that study, the positive impact of attending a Gotham charter school rather than a public school is so large that five years of charter-school attendance nearly closes the proficiency gap between students in Harlem and those in upper-class Scarsdale.

Despite the UFT's claims, Hoxby's findings are absolutely valid. True, charter schools have smaller enrollments of special-education and ELL (English Language Learner) students than non-charter public schools. But Hoxby's study takes this into account. Her study works like a medical trial. All students who apply for seats in an oversubscribed charter school--which describes nearly every charter in New York City--must enter a lottery for admission. Hoxby's study compares the achievement of lottery winners and lottery losers. If the pool of applicants is big enough--as is the case in New York City--the laws of probability ensure that the group of students randomly selected to attend a charter school is essentially identical to the group that lost the lottery. The Hoxby study doesn't compare all charter students with all non-charter students; in essence, it compares the performance of a charter student with his nearly identical colleague who was sent back to a ! traditional public school.

Of course, Hoxby's study relies on the randomness of the lottery results. In its report, the UFT complains that the lower percentage of special-education and ELL students in charter schools proves that the lotteries are rigged. But the fact is that when disabled and ELL students enter a charter-school lottery, they are just as likely as other students to win a seat and to enroll in the charter school. Examination of the lottery results reveals no differences between lottery winners and losers in any observed characteristic, including disabilities and ELL. (The higher percentage of disabled and ELL students in non-charter schools results mainly from differences in who applies to charters, as well as the fact that charters are less willing than non-charters to diagnose marginal students as disabled.)

Granted, the Hoxby study was designed to test whether students who want to attend a charter school actually benefit from a charter-school education. It has nothing to tell us about students who don't choose to apply to charters--for example, whether those students would benefit from somehow being forced to attend one, which would be wholly inconsistent with the entire idea of charter schools as schools of choice. But that's inconsequential for our purposes. What matters is that the study results are in no way contaminated by differences between the lottery's winners and losers.

The UFT may not like it, but it's simply true: students who attend New York City's charter schools do much better than if they had remained in their previous public schools. Claiming otherwise without offering any plausible supporting evidence, as the UFT did this week, only obscures that important reality.


British socialism at work: Schools face millions of pounds in cuts for being prudent

Thousands of schools face having hundreds of millions of pounds cut from their budgets as a punishment for being prudent. A third of schools, including nurseries and special schools, have amassed almost £500 million in surplus cash in case of future cutbacks, official figures revealed. The league table was produced by the Government, which wants to name and shame the 7,196 schools with “excessive balances” that it accuses of hoarding money. It is the first time that schools have been ranked according to their account balances.

Ministers warned that head teachers must discuss handing the money back with their local council or face being forced to pay it back under new laws to be introduced next year.

Teachers’ leaders accused the Government of punishing schools for careful financial management and said that there should be no limit on the amount that schools can save. Most of the money was allocated for buildings and other projects, they said. Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “There should not be an artificial ceiling on planned expenditure. If a school can demonstrate it has proper plans for the money then they should be able to keep it to spend later. It is only unacceptable if a surplus is being saved for no purpose as the money is lost to the system.”

Thousands of head teachers have saved an average of £70,000 to spend on books, salaries and IT equipment in case of funding shortages while some have run up budget deficits of £75,000. But as town hall budgets are squeezed this year, council leaders will be tempted to raid school coffers. They have powers, rarely used up to now, to recall money if head teachers at secondary schools have saved more than 5 per cent of their budgets, or more than 8 per cent at primary level.

Vernon Coaker, the Schools Minister, said that the surpluses were too high. “While it is clearly sound financial management for schools to retain a small surplus from year to year, we expect revenue funding to be used to support the education and wellbeing of pupils in school now,” he said. “It is, however, important that schools spend their funds wisely while ensuring best value for money.” A report by the National Audit Office last June warned that hoarding was not good value for the taxpayer. But this is the first time that the schools doing so have been named.

Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, said this week that he would increase spending on education. But head teachers fear that spending cuts will come whichever party wins the coming election and have braced themselves by holding money back rather than spending the entire budget.

Mark Wallace, campaign director at the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said that it was wrong to punish schools that had been careful. “There will be no incentive for schools to do anything that comes in under budget or to set anything aside for a rainy day,” he said. “Schools will simply spend as much as they possibly can and there won’t be a pound left. “We have got to avoid huge amounts of money festering, but simply allowing it to be scavenged and punishing the organisation that was wise enough to save is quite foolish.”

Town halls can decide case-by-case to recall the money but must spend it on education provision. A spokeswoman for Tower Hamlets Council in London, which has the most schools in the top 20 surpluses, said: “The local authority takes the issue of surplus school balances extremely seriously and works very closely with schools to ensure these are managed carefully. Schools with surplus balances have approved three-year expenditure plans which are monitored regularly.”

Vanessa Ogden, head of the Mulberry School in Tower Hamlets, which has an uncommitted budget surplus of £3,474,270, refused to comment. The council said: “Plans are already in place for Mulberry School to use their surplus balance to expand provision for pupils at the school and a local partner primary school, as well as to build new community facilities.”

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said that the figures were grossly misleading. “Politicians and the public will assume that schools are awash with extra funds,” he said. “This is not the case. Most of these funds are identified and allocated and may be for a project for the following year. Schools will have saved money and carried it over.” He accused the Government of releasing the league table without knowing how much money was earmarked for projects. “It is mischievous . . . and done in order to soften politicians and parents up for cuts to the schools budget,” he said.

The figures also highlighted a rise in the number of schools in debt. More than 1,800 (8.4 per cent of schools) were in debt in 2008-09, up from 1,695 in 2007-08. Primary schools were in the worst position, comprising 1,200 of all schools in deficit.

Schools in wealthier areas were more likely to be sitting on large surpluses. The greatest surpluses were at schools in the South East and London. The Hurlingham and Chelsea Secondary School in London has a surplus of £1,619,121. The greatest number in debt were in the North West and London, suggesting a huge disparity in budget allocations. Warren Comprehensive School in Barking and Dagenham had the highest deficit, at £1,828,981.

Statisticians said that the definition of “uncommitted” revenue differed between local authorities and comparisons could not easily be drawn.


The loss of a poetry education in Australian schools

Knowing great poems can be a lifelong source of pleasure, satisfaction and wisdom but that knowledge is being withheld from many young people today

It is a welcome if rare event to see poetry on prime time television. The ABC's Bush Slam is an attempt to put poetry front and centre in the national consciousness. If we believe that 19th-century bush poets such as Henry Lawson and A.B. (Banjo) Paterson were representative of a golden age of wordsmiths, then Bush Slam at least gives word nerds an opportunity to enter our living rooms. And don't we need it? ...

Unlike Britain, Australia has no national poetry day. We no longer have a national search, sponsored by the ABC, for the most popular Australian poem. The website was archived in 1999.

The pity is that schools are generally not teaching much poetry. Don't hold your breath that poetry will undergo a renaissance in the new national English curriculum. Besides NSW being prepared to teach canonical works, including poetry, this is more the exception than the rule.

It is no accident that 18-year-old student Laurie Wallis topped the NSW Higher School Certificate extension 2 English course with a suite of Japanese-inspired poetry, Water Sounds. Such work would not have been possible in any other state. Here's why.

Responding to the draft of the English national curriculum, the West Australian government has not made any defence of the place of poetry, and in fact has asked for a broader definition of literature to include "spoken, non-verbal, visual and aural texts".

Meanwhile, the Tasmanian government has argued that any study of literature needs to embody "the critique of the attitudes and values underpinning the text" -- this sounds like the codling grub of critical literacy in the Apple Isle. Tasmania is marked by a core of poor school literacy results and the lowest adult literacy figures in the country.

The question is whether there needs to be a mandatory requirement in the national English curriculum regarding poetry teaching. The new chairman of the Australia Council's Literature Board, Dennis Haskell, thinks there is room for this. In September last year, Haskell saw the black hole of Australian literature in the nation's schools, saying it's about "getting it taught at all, the canon or otherwise"...

What must change is that Australian children need to be introduced to the rich heritage of the nation's verse. The ideological angst that the mere mention of the word "canon" creates for some teachers needs to be seen for what it is. Such a position actually prevents children from knowing their literature. They are denied discovering the voices of Thwaites, John Shaw Nielson, Judith Wright, A.D. Hope, Les Murray and others.

The blunt reality is that today, in the majority of classrooms across the country, few children could name two Australian poets, and few teachers could either. I know this to be so. Having taught in Australian schools, I have been shocked at how little poetry is taught, never mind the awareness of Australian verse.


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