Monday, January 25, 2010

Tennessee works to stem college dropout crisis

Getting students into college isn't the problem in Tennessee. It's keeping them there. Of every 100 college freshmen in this state, only 45 will have degrees by the time they turn 26, and the longer the wait for a diploma, the longer the odds that it's going to happen at all.

The governor and legislature passed an ambitious plan to improve the graduation rate in a state with one of the most lackluster educational attainment rates in the nation. The idea is to eliminate as many barriers to graduation as possible — from course credits that don't transfer, to university-level remedial classes that could be taught for less money, and with less stress, at a community college.

But the fact is, most Tennessee colleges and universities have been working for years to improve their graduation rates, only to find that there are no quick fixes to the problems that can come between a student and a degree.

There's nothing the legislation can do about the fact that tuition goes up every year in Tennessee, or that many students here are first-generation college students, or that the real-life pressures of families and jobs can pull older students out of the classroom for good.

At Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, Caleb Hendricks sat at a lunchroom table with three classmates, sharing one textbook among them. Two weeks into the semester, one of them finally had enough money to spring for the book. "The biggest problem (with higher education) is paying for it," said Hendricks, a freshman working toward a degree in management information systems.

After high school, he worked for a few years before deciding that a job at Home Depot might be nice for now, but it wasn't what he wanted for his life's career. The halls and classrooms at Vol State are crowded with students like Hendricks who are enrolling in college in record numbers as the economy pushes people out of a job and back to school.

Many of these new students have been out of high school too long to qualify for HOPE scholarships, and many earn too much money at their day jobs to qualify for financial aid. Those end up going to school part time, or at night, or dropping out for a few semesters to earn extra money for tuition.

Going to school part time takes time. And the longer it takes to graduate, the more likely it is that life will get in the way and derail a student's college plans permanently. "I've had students bring their little kids to classes because they couldn't get child care," said Leonard Assante, chairman of the Department of Communication at Volunteer State.

Volunteer State casts a wide net to try to keep students in class — from teachers like Assante, willing to let a class double as an emergency day-care center, to intensive advising sessions for at-risk students and peer-to-peer tutoring for students who don't respond to traditional remedial classes. "If a student has a point of contact, they have a much better chance of staying in school," Assante said.

Community college redo

Gov. Phil Bredesen's emphasis remains on colleges, universities and degrees. He wants to lure more high-tech industries to Tennessee. High-tech industries want highly skilled workers.

According to 2008 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau, workers with a bachelor's degree earn $26,000 more than those with just a high school diploma. Nationwide, just 29 percent of adults age 25 and older have a four-year degree or higher. In Tennessee, the rate is just 21 percent.

When Bredesen's legislation passed last week goes into effect, Tennessee's community colleges — where graduation rates have dipped as low as 5 percent at some schools — will get a dramatic overhaul. All 13 community colleges in the state will begin teaching identical core courses, with teachers working off identical syllabuses, in the hope of producing students who can transfer their credits to any other school in the state system.

Right now, more than half the students who start college in Tennessee need remedial course work, repeating the same math, reading and writing courses they took in high school. Universities will get out of the business of remedial education.

Instead, students who need remedial course work will be steered into community college, where classes are smaller and tuition is half the price of university courses. Universities, meanwhile, will be able to free their professors and resources to focus on more advanced courses.

This sounds fine in theory to the community colleges, where more than 60 percent of students already take remedial coursework, and the schools have spent years fine-tuning their outreach efforts. But Tennessee is in the middle of a budget crisis, and it will cost money to provide the teaching staff, equipment and classroom space to handle the thousands of new students who will be diverted into the two-year schools...

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The £100 billion schools scandal in Britain

The British Labour Party has doubled spending on schools since 1997. But critics say this tidal wave of money has achieved little

For Richard and Jan Brearley, from Lichfield in Staffordshire, the choice was clear: they had to employ a private maths tutor. Their daughters weren’t falling behind their classmates, but the girls’ comprehensive school was failing to provide the teaching they needed. Celia, 14, and Esther, 17, now receive an hour’s tuition a week, costing £15 each, to compensate for the shortcomings at their school.

Their father, Richard, 57, a homeopath, said: “In maths, Celia in particular has suffered from bad teaching, but the tutor can show her the things in private she doesn’t understand and have them clarified.”

The Brearleys are far from exceptional. Last weekend it emerged that private tuition is one of the few industries to have boomed during the recession. Some agencies report a doubling in business — largely fuelled by parents who are disenchanted with the quality of education provided by their local state schools.

This should not be happening — certainly if the picture painted by the official figures told the whole story. Earlier this month Ed Balls, the schools secretary, published figures for GCSEs that suggested more than a decade of unstinting improvement under Labour. More than 600,000 more pupils than in 1997 were leaving school with five GCSEs at grades A*-C, considered the basic level of qualifications. Grades in both GCSEs and A-levels have also risen consistently under Labour. “The entire system has shifted up a level and we are determined to keep it shifting,” said Vernon Coaker, Balls’s deputy.

As public spending cuts begin to bite in the face of the downturn, Balls has been one of the few ministers to keep his budget intact so far — indeed, few ministries have benefited as much as Balls’s since Labour came to power. In real terms, spending on schools has almost doubled to more than £42 billion a year since 1997. By some measures, Labour has provided a cumulative total of more than £100 billion extra to schools.

However, many within the educational establishment dispute ministers’ rosy picture of the system. On Friday, Barnaby Lenon, the head master of Harrow, launched a broadside against the quality of GCSEs and A-levels. “Let us not deceive our children, and especially children from poorer homes, with worthless qualifications so that they become like the citizens of Weimar Germany or Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, carrying their certificates around in a wheelbarrow, or produce people like those in the first round of The X Factor who tell us they want to be the next Britney Spears but can’t sing a note,” he said.

Education is set to be one of the most bitter battlegrounds of the election campaign, with Balls fighting off claims by Michael Gove, his Tory shadow, that Labour has failed the poor and presided over a dumbed-down education system.

Amid all the claims and counter-claims, what are children, parents and taxpayers getting now from the extra billions that the government has ploughed into our schools? At the heart of Tony Blair’s mantra of “education, education, education” was the pledge to bring decent schooling to sink comprehensives. New schools sprang up across the country and complaints about rotting roofs and leaking lavatories were replaced by accusations that too much was being spent on shiny new designer buildings, such as Norman Foster’s £46.4m Thomas Deacon academy in Peterborough. Hundreds of millions of pounds have also been poured into computers and, more controversially, into management consultancy firms, who were paid £61m in fees in 2008 alone.

To keep teachers in the profession and attract new ones, salaries were increased sharply — the average of about £32,000 is 20% higher than in 1997, even allowing for inflation. Labour insist that the results justify the money spent. Earlier this month ministers boasted that 50.7% of state school pupils had gained at least five GCSEs — including English and maths — at grade C or above. A-level grades have shown a similarly relentless rise, with 26.7% of papers awarded an A grade last year.

The government and the teaching profession insist the rise in grades shows that teaching is better and pupils are working harder. It is the claim that has been made annually by parties of both stripes since the seemingly inexorable rise in grades began in the 1980s.

Experts, however, argue that, while there has been progress, grades are easier to achieve than they once were. Robert Coe, reader in education at Durham University, tracks the value of grades by comparing pupils’ results with their performance in a series of tests whose difficulty is kept constant from year to year. “The grades have gone up, but the amount you have to do to get each grade has clearly gone down,” said Coe. “At Alevel the story is of a steady slide, about a tenth of a grade a year over the past 20 years in terms of what you get for what you do.” In simple terms, those who received a B in 1997 would now be awarded an A.

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British expert says parents must be given more data to compare schools

Comments by Sir Cyril Taylor:

PARENTS and the public need to be given far greater access to basic data about schools if they are to be able to judge their performance, hold them to account and drive them to improve. While the government has proposed that civil servants or Ofsted draw up an annual “report card” to judge every English school, I believe the approach of giving a single grade for performance is mistaken.

Schools should instead be legally required to publish a wide range of indicators, ranging from staff turnover to truancy rates. This would enable parents to assess a school’s performance and make an informed choice of school for their child.

After discussions with those drawing up Conservative education policy, I am confident that, if they win the general election, they will require schools to publish almost all this information. This is just a selection of the data schools should be required to publish:

* For secondary schools, all GCSE and A-level results. Not only should the raw score — the proportion of pupils obtaining at least five A*-C grades at GCSE, including maths and English — be published but also Professor David Jesson’s “value-added” measure, which compares the measured by their primary test results of pupils entering the school with their GCSE grades. Crucially, results should be published for the past three years to indicate what progress is being made.

* Average daily attendance. Computer-based swipe cards should routinely be used to record attendance and truancy. Most good schools achieve a 95% attendance rate, but at some as few as half of pupils attend regularly.

* Turnover of staff and vacancies. If a school has a high turnover or high vacancy rate, this may indicate that all is not well.

* The proportion of pupils who stay on in full-time education at age 16.

* The proportion of pupils who gain entry to university.

* The numbers of excluded children.

* The ratio of applications to places in the previous year. Popular schools are usually good schools.

Sceptics might say that some schools would supply inaccurate data. However, Ofsted could be required to check the data periodically to ensure it is accurate. Transparency and accountability are vital to ensure all children can attend a good school.


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