Thursday, February 25, 2010

Chaotic race obsession in San Francisco schools

After years of complaints from parents, the San Francisco Unified School District has just taken a serious step toward revamping its well-meaning but labyrinthine student-assignment system, which decides the educational homes for tens of thousands of children.

The current system — designed to meet the terms of a settlement in a long-fought federal desegregation case — involves a complicated computer algorithm that creates student “profiles,” using various economic and educational factors, with the aim of sending students of different backgrounds to the same schools. It has resulted instead in more segregation and has aggravated parents to a point where efforts to manipulate the system have become endemic.

This month, the school district rolled out a new plan. It is designed to more closely consider proximity between a student’s home and classroom. It is to be applied to every child headed for kindergarten. And once again, no one seems completely happy. “I’ll be honest with you; we’re really frustrated,” said Michelle Menegaz, the chairwoman of the Parent Advisory Council, which was established by the school board and has made recommendations on how to fix the assignment system. “We’re really concerned that what’s being put forward now doesn’t reflect the best of our research and it doesn’t reflect the needs the community expressed.”

What everyone agrees on is that the current system is broken. In a quarter of San Francisco’s public schools, more than 60 percent of the student body is of a single race, and academic performance by black, Latino and Samoan students continues to lag. In theory, parents choose up to seven schools for their child, but 20 percent of kindergarteners get none of their parents’ choices.

All of which has been a boon for private schools; San Francisco has a larger percentage of students in private schools — nearly 3 out of 10 — than any other major city in the state. Others families simply move away.

And while advocates of the new plan say it offers more flexibility and simplicity, whether that will be the case is unclear. At a school board meeting on Wednesday, Commissioner Jill Wynns seemed perplexed as to whether the plan would meet the board’s elusive goals of diversity and transparency. “If you don’t know it can be done,” Ms. Wynn said of the redesign team, “how can we trust it will be done?”

Such questions are ringing in the ears of parents throughout the city, especially those — like this reporter — who have a child entering kindergarten in the fall.

Here is how the current system works: Let’s say a 5-year-old — we’ll call him Jake, like my son — wants to go to kindergarten. His parents fill out an application and list seven schools they prefer. The more desirable schools get more applications than they have seats; in some cases that ratio is 20 to 1. That’s where the Diversity Index comes in. Known as “the lottery,” the index uses five factors to determine a child’s profile: poverty level, socio-economic status, English-language proficiency, academic achievement and, for upper grades, the quality of the student’s previous school.

Once that profile is built, the child is placed in one of his selected schools, in a class of students whose collective profile is as different from his own profile as possible. As each child is added, the class profile is adjusted, and more “most different” children are placed. Students living near their selected schools are considered first. The district also gives preference to children who have siblings at the same school and apply on time.

But there is no guarantee that a child will get in a selected school. And once the lottery has filled all the slots, those soon-to-be kindergartners who get into none of their choices are offered a place in a school with open positions. Proximity to their home and transportation are considered.

Designed to be race-neutral, the system has instead been widely criticized as too complex and opaque. “It’s all magic and voodoo,” Ms. Menegaz said, only half joking.

What Superintendent Carlos A. Garcia has now proposed is essentially a new algorithm that, in addition to siblings, weighs proximity to schools more heavily and — in a new wrinkle — considers whether a student attended pre-K in the same area as a selected school.

The fine points are of great interest — or frustration — to parents. But the discussion of the overall goal, diversity, is laced with the themes of race, class and equity. So discussions about it are awkward. For example, school officials say that part of the problem with the assignment system is that parental interest and resources can be inherently unequal. White and Asian parents tend to be very involved in the early stages of the process, while black and Latino ones are less so. The result is that more white and Asian children end up in preferred schools. ‘The applicant pools are not diverse,” said Orla O’Keeffe, the district official charged with redesigning the system.

In addition, schools in some low-income neighborhoods also tend to be less well-attended, draining the intangibles — and the fund-raising — that large and active parent-teacher associations can provide. “Not all of our schools are equal,” Ms. Menegaz said. “They’re not equally staffed, not equally resourced and not equally supported.”

All of which has led to a kind of obsessive paranoia among some parents, who chatter about the process endlessly. Amy Graff, a 35-year-old mother of two who writes about parenting at, became an online celebrity in parent circles when she blogged about trying to place her daughter in a good kindergarten, a process she called “crazy and irrational.” “The school you pick becomes your identity,” Ms. Graff said.

The process of picking a school involves many complicated decisions. Then there are the tours, an exercise wherein dozens of nervous parents — many armed with pads and pens, others taking notes on iPods — try to glean a sense of a school by crowding into classrooms and peering around for clues. Are there A-B-Cs on the walls? Are there computers? Are there cute drawings? (The answers are almost always yes, yes, and yes.)

Hopes are raised and dashed. At Grattan Elementary School — in the trendy Cole Valley neighborhood — I was part of a tour that was told about a fantastic kindergarten teacher who was retiring.

The school district tries to help. Every fall it hosts an enrollment fair. Every school in the city sets up a booth and tries to sell itself. (With financing tied to number of students, under-enrollment is a sin to be avoided.) The fair can be one-stop-shopping, and the resulting crush often resembles a middle-aged mosh pit, as parents jostle to grab brochures and ask questions.

There are reasons to be impressed. One of the strengths of the San Francisco schools is their ambitious language programs. And test scores from San Francisco public schools have regularly risen over the last decade, and are now within shouting distance of the state’s performance targets, lagging slightly behind San Jose but well ahead of Oakland and Los Angeles.

Still, the continuing debate over the best way to achieve diversity has led some to question the priorities. Zach Berkowitz, a San Francisco native and real estate developer who has two children, including a son about to enter kindergarten, said he remembered the conversations about diversity when he was a student. “Thirty years ago we were fighting about the same thing,” Mr. Berkowitz said. “And not once do they talk about education.”

As for my Jake, and thousands of other San Francisco children, admission offers will be mailed on March 12. Not that he seems too concerned exactly where. “I like going to school, Daddy,” he told me recently. “In San Francisco.”


We don’t need no state education

Someone recently said that a particular elementary charter school is a big improvement over government schools because the kids have longer days there and are already thinking about college. I wonder if that’s really an improvement. Kids spend too much time in the authoritarian classroom environment as it is. Homeschoolers are proud of how little time they have to put in to cover the state-required subjects.

And the “everybody must go to college” doctrine is hardly a blessing. How many young people are delivering pizzas with a diploma on the wall and a big student loan keeping them up at night? It’s true that the watered-down, increasingly worthless bachelor’s degree today is expected for nearly every job, but let’s not fool ourselves: For most grads it’s little more than a signal to potential employers that they had the perseverance to get up early four years running and jump through all the required hoops. That tells a human-resources (that term!) director enough about an applicant to separate her from a rival who didn’t to those things. It doesn’t say anything about what she knows or can do.

Charter schools and vouchers are much talked about, but they are objectionable on multiple counts. For one thing, they accept the premise that taxpayers should pay for schooling and that cross-subsidization is something government should compel. These things open the door to government control of private, independent schools. Yes, private schools are already regulated by every state, but they are not as regulated as the government’s own schools are. If the voucher plan is ever embraced in a big way, we can expect elaborate criteria for determining which schools may accept vouchers—and which may not.

Advocates of school choice ought to take seriously what some statists have long recognized. The Democrat Leadership Council pointed out some years ago that “A public school is not defined by who ‘owns’ it, but rather by two features: universal access and accountability to the public for results.” Therefore it matters little “whether public schools are run by a local school board, a group of parents, a teachers union, a Fortune 500 company, or the Little Sisters of the Poor.”

In other words, once “public money” is flowing to private schools, they are no longer really private. The government’s hooks will be firmly set, in the name of “public accountability.” “Follow the money” is not a bad piece of advice, but in this matter a better one is: Trace the money back to its source. That will provide good a indication of what to expect of its recipients.

Competition and Entrepreneurship

As long as politicians, bureaucrats, and anointed education experts control the money, competition and entrepreneurship will never reach full blossom. Competition, Hayek taught, is a discovery process, so until entrepreneurship can operate without political inhibition, we won’t know what we are missing. Providers of educational services — must they be schools? — should be accountable not to bureaucrats but to customers — parents and their children. Yet the various “school choice” plans maintain the State as the ultimate judge.

When education entrepreneurs need worry only about actual and potential customers who are laying out their own money — and not State functionaries — the political inhibitions will be gone, or at least will begin to fade. (As for the poor, see this.) Creativity will be unleashed and children’s individuality respected. Joseph Priestley, the scientist, classical-liberal political philosopher, and religious Dissenter wrote in An Essay on the First Principles of Government, and on the Nature of Political, Civil, and Religious Liberty,
[I]f we argue from the analogy of education to other arts which are most similar to it, we can never expect to see human nature, about which it is employed, brought to perfection, but in consequence of indulging unbounded liberty, and even caprice in conducting it…. From new, and seemingly irregular methods of education, perhaps something extraordinary and uncommonly great may spring. At least there would be a fair chance for such productions; and if something odd and excentric [sic] should, now and then, arise from this unbounded liberty of education, the various business of human life may afford proper spheres for such excentric geniuses.

The last thing we should expect from carefully guided “school choice” plans delivered by legislators and education experts is “unbounded liberty, and even caprice.”

It is only once education is free of the State’s yoke that we may begin to rethink the whole idea of school. It certainly needs rethinking. In the nineteenth century a Prussian-trained elite set out to take education away from parents so that children could be molded into homogeneous “good citizens” ready to take their designated places in the factories, bureaucracy, and military. Schools were correctional institutions. Things have changed little since then. Today the rationale for control by an elite is to prepare children for the competitive “global marketplace” that America’s leaders are constructing and determined to lead. (It’s hardly a bona fide free market.) The current White House occupant lectured the children last September that if they do poorly in school, they let their country down. (Conservatives applauded that message, relieved that Obama didn’t pitch his health care plan.)

From the beginning the government’s schools were dressed in the mantle of science. But as philosopher Bruce Goldberg wrote in Why Schools Fail, it is pseudoscience:
What one finds in schools is, not scientifically justified activities, but an assortment of tasks based on various educators’ subjective views of what knowledge is “worthwhile” or “nutritious” or “civilizing.” Those views are then transformed into scientific truths by labeling them as such. And, finally, the claim is made that children are being shaped, for their own good, by a process that has been shown scientifically to be indispensable for proper mental development. In every one of its guises that claim — and the authoritarian treatment of children based on it — is false.

But its falsity did not prevent huge, impersonal schools bureaucracies and dehumanizing schools from being built, mills for which our children are little more than grist. Finally ending the State’s monopoly — which means taking away the money — will let us bring education back to human scale, with all the respect for individuality that this implies.


British professor who claimed that degrees were dumbed down wins his case

But it's a long hard road for those who defend academic standards in modern-day Britain

An academic who took a stand against “dumbing down” the quality of university degrees won a long-running legal battle yesterday when the Court of Appeal accepted that he was forced out of his job. Professor Paul Buckland will be entitled to compensation from Bournemouth University after a previous ruling against him by the Employment Appeal Tribunal was overturned.

He resigned from the university’s chair of environmental archaeology in a dispute over marking after he failed 18 out of 60 second-year undergraduates who took examinations in 2006. When 16 of the students retook the paper, Professor Buckland failed all but two of them. He thought that “many of the papers were of poor quality”, the Court of Appeal heard. A second marker endorsed his scores, as did the university’s board of examiners, although it took note of the high failure rate and the need to address its causes.

But his department then had the exam papers marked for a third time and the marks were increased by up to six percentage points, moving several students from a “clear fail” to a “potential pass” depending on other results, the court heard.

Professor Buckland, who lives in Sheffield, took exception to the papers being marked for a third time, claiming that it was done “by somebody who did not have the relevant expert knowledge”. He accused Bournemouth University of cheapening degrees and making “a complete mockery of the examination process”. He claimed that the move was “part of a much larger process of dumbing down” and amounted to “an unequivocal affront to his integrity”.

The university held an internal inquiry that found in Professor Buckland’s favour. It said that he should have been consulted on the decision to mark the exam papers for a third time. But he remained unhappy and resigned in February 2007. He took the university to an employment tribunal, which decided in August 2008 that there had been a “fundamental breach of the implied term of trust and confidence” in his employment contract and that he had been constructively dismissed.

The decision was overruled in March last year by the Employment Appeal Tribunal but the Court of Appeal rejected that judgment yesterday and restored the original ruling.

Lord Justice Sedley said that the university could not defend the way it had undermined Professor Buckland’s status and it was the “inexorable outcome” that he had been constructively dismissed. Lord Justice Jacob said that it “ought to be entirely at the wronged party’s choice” whether to accept a repudiatory breach of contract and resign, or carry on in the job. If the university does not settle with him, Professor Buckland’s case will go to an employment tribunal for the level of compensation to be assessed.


Phonics to be enforced as part of literacy teaching throughout Australia

Ideology replaced by what works

ALL states and territories will be forced to follow a set program for teaching reading under the first national English curriculum, which stipulates the letters, sounds and words students must learn in each year of school. The curriculum, obtained by The Australian, dictates what students from kindergarten until the end of Year 9 are expected to know and be able to do in English, history, science and maths.

The English curriculum, to be released for public consultation next week, enshrines the importance of teaching letter-sound combinations, or phonics, giving examples of the sounds and words to be taught from the start of school. Students in their prep year will learn to sound out simple words such as "cat", recognising the initial, middle and end sounds; by Year 1, they will have learned two consonant sounds such as "st", "br" and "gl".

The national curriculum ends the piecemeal approach to what is taught in schools, with state curriculums emphasising different course content and teaching it at different stages of school. The new curriculum is a detailed document that provides specific examples and is longer than many existing state syllabuses, some of which are a couple of pages long for each subject.

The curriculum for the senior years of school, from Years 10 to 12, will be released separately by the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority later this year.

The English curriculum places a strong emphasis on the study of grammar, from learning different classes of words such as verbs and nouns in the early years through to the difference between finite and non-finite clauses in high school. In a speech to the National Press Club yesterday, Education Minister Julia Gillard welcomed the "strong appearance" of grammar in the national curriculum. Announcing its release next Monday, she said the curriculum set out the essential content for each year of learning as well as the achievement standards students should be expected to perform.

"This will not be a curriculum `guide' or a supplement to what states and territories currently teach," she said. "It will be a comprehensive new curriculum, providing a platform for the highest quality teaching."

Ms Gillard also outlined the next phase of Labor's education revolution, including the external assessment of schools and the introduction of student identity numbers to enable parents and schools to track a child's individual progress through school.

After the speech, a spokesman for Ms Gillard said the government would investigate different systems for assessing school performance in coming months, including a form of school inspectors and the method used in Britain, where the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills conducts detailed inspections of schools and publishes its findings. "The government believes that some external inspection or assessment of schools would be an additional way of ensuring that our schools are providing the best possible education for our children." the spokesman said.

Ms Gillard said the government would examine "how every school can get the right support and scrutiny to make sure it is performing well and improving in the areas where it needs to improve".

The idea of external assessment of schools was mooted by the national teachers union for public education, the Australian Education Union, in a charter of school accountability reported by The Australian in December. The AEU proposal advocates a system of regular assessments against a set of standards by a panel of principals, teachers and education experts, and then working with struggling schools to lift performance. AEU federal president Angelo Gavrielatos said yesterday teachers wanted to see the detail of the government's proposal on school assessment before giving their support, although they were still committed to the principle of accountability and external review.

"But the government must consult with teachers," he said. "We're seeing announcement after announcement without consultation and the Rudd government has to realise that it needs to consult with the profession. "Ultimately, we're the ones who implement education policy." Mr Gavrielatos said the union was also not opposed in principle to the idea of student identity numbers and welcomed moves to improve the measure of student progress than that currently used on the My School website.

Tony Abbott said students already had unique identifiers in the form of names, and questioned why their results could not be tracked using their names.


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