Sunday, February 07, 2010

Michigan needs to change tenure rules to remove ineffective teachers

Michigan students deserve the best teachers, not rules preventing bad ones from being removed. Michigan has unfinished business when it comes to improving education. It’s time for the Legislature to tackle the big one: teacher tenure. The state’s teacher unions for decades have prevented change, including last year. But 2010 can and should be the time for reform. Laws must be changed so that good teachers are encouraged, supported and respected. And roadblocks to removing ineffective teachers must be dismantled.

What’s changed? Plenty. Most significant is the wave of teaching reforms rolling across the nation. Making an especially big splash: Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest teachers union. Last month she announced her group backs teacher evaluation systems that take student achievement into account, as well as “a fair, transparent and expedient process to identify and deal with ineffective teachers.”

Her dynamic leadership has given her members new clout in the national conversation on improving and valuing the teaching profession. Meanwhile, the AFT’s rival group, the larger National Education Association, is looking like a dinosaur — and many of its leaders and members know it. Pressure is building on the NEA and member groups (including the Michigan Education Association) to stop defending outdated tenure systems and start creating new systems that support teacher excellence.

Another example: Major urban school districts are crafting teacher incentive pay programs based on effectiveness. Most notably, the Tampa, Memphis and Pittsburgh school districts, plus some Los Angeles charter schools, are taking part in a $300 million teacher excellence program funded by Bill Gates. He has challenged them to create smart and supportive teacher evaluation programs that incorporate mentoring and systems of gathering feedback from students, parents and fellow teachers. He has also set aside $45 million to study fair, reliable measures of effectiveness.

Such national forces make it difficult and unwise for the MEA not to adapt. Feeling this pressure, MEA President Iris Salter recently said she “has no interest in protecting bad teachers,” But she also stated “absolutely no change to (Michigan’s) basic tenure model is necessary.”

An influential reform group, the National Council on Teacher Quality, doesn’t agree. It just released an encyclopedic state-by-state analysis of teacher quality policies. It gave Michigan a “D-” overall, and a “D” for its poor system of “exiting ineffective teachers.” Florida had the highest overall grade, but even that was a “C.” The group’s conclusion: “Taken as a whole, state teacher policies are broken, outdated and inflexible.”

The Press in 2008 dug into what protracted tenure battles can mean for taxpayers. It found that 17 districts had paid $763,251 in salaries and benefits in order to oust 29 teachers for poor performance or bad behavior. And that figure didn’t include the cost of substitute teachers or legal fees, which often hit $75,000 per case.

In December the Michigan Senate made steps toward reforming teacher tenure. It passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Patty Birkholz, R-Saugatuck, who said many teachers support the bill because they are embarrassed by bad performers who demean the profession. The measure didn’t survive intact as part of a successful package of major school reforms to qualify Michigan for the federal Race to the Top grant competition. Birkholz and other supporters shouldn’t let that setback deter them from seeking a successful reform bill this year. The national reform wave is only gaining power. It should sweep Michigan along with it.


A new idea for Britain: Private schools plan to set up a university

A new college would put the emphasis on teaching, not research, The university, to be named after Edward Thring, could be sited at Wye college (below). Britain has a rich tradition of private education at primary and secondary level but tertiary education has long been heavily government-dependant

A GROUP of leading independent schools are studying plans to set up an elite private university for families frustrated by the quality of education at mainstream institutions. The university would be modelled on American liberal arts colleges, which concentrate on providing high-quality teaching for undergraduates rather than research. Fees would be at least £10,000 a year. The plan is being considered by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) of independent schools and has been drawn up by Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of Buckingham, the only private university in the country.

The backers believe complaints about impersonal teaching and oversized classes at many traditional universities mean there will be strong demand for higher education at the standard provided by independent secondary schools. It may also attract pupils worried about government pressure on top universities to discriminate in favour of state school-educated pupils.

Bernard Trafford, headmaster of the Royal grammar school, Newcastle, and former chairman of the HMC, said: “I don’t think you’ll find many parents who are happy that at age 18 their children go to university and get four hours’ teaching a week. “When they paid school fees they got a lot more. I can see an awful lot of independent school pupils would see this as an attractive alternative. It would be all about dependable quality and high accountability to the people paying the fees.”

David Willetts, the shadow universities secretary, said he would welcome the setting up of the institution if the Tories came to power. “A more diverse university sector, with a range of organisations delivering higher education, is no bad thing,” said Willetts. “As long as they reach the required standard, it would be the most blinkered ideology to stand in the way just because they were privately run.”

The plan is at an early stage but its proponents have made approaches to at least two philanthropists about funding the set-up costs. Kevin Riley, headmaster of Harrow International School in Bangkok, an offshoot of the London public school, said tycoons in Thailand might also back it. HMC schools, whose 243 members include Eton, Winchester and St Paul’s, would provide governors and help to design the curriculum.

Kealey has made inquiries about siting the university at Wye college, a disused agricultural teaching institution in Kent which is now owned by Imperial College London. The HMC has held initial discussions and will study Kealey’s plan in more detail in the next few weeks. The provisional idea is for the university to be named after Edward Thring, a 19th-century educationist who founded the HMC and was headmaster of Uppingham school in Rutland. It would offer arts, science and medical degrees to about 2,000 British and overseas students.

James Tooley, professor of education at Newcastle University, who was involved in early discussions and is expected to advise on the development, said: “The idea is that the independent sector should not be dependent on the whims of government dictating who is and is not let into university.”

Initially the university would cater for a small number of students on the Buckingham campus before becoming a separate institution and applying for the royal charter it would need to award its own degrees. Kealey estimates that at least £25m would be needed to launch the project.

The idea of opening a private university is likely to provoke charges of elitism and of private school pupils trying to remain separate from mainstream education. Kealey pointed out, however, that tuition fees in mainstream universities are likely to rise sharply. He added that within 20 years it could be possible for the university to have an endowment fund big enough to offer “needs-blind” admission to successful candidates, regardless of parental income.

Kealey argues in an article in The Sunday Times today that “state-funded universities have been so battered that they are reeling ... step forward our private schools.”


A-level physics is not available at one in four British schools

More than one in four secondary schools are unable to offer A-level [matriculation] physics because of a shortage of teachers. At least 500 secondary schools with sixth forms do not offer advanced study in the subject, an MPs’ inquiry was told yesterday. Peter Main, of the Institute of Physics, who provided the figure, blamed “incoherent” policy changes.

The number of pupils studying A-level physics has fallen from about 45,000 a year in the late 1980s to about 29,000 now, although the figure has begun to rise slightly. Girls make up only 22 per cent of A-level physics students, MPs on the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee were told. Professor Main said the fall coincided with the introduction of GCSE science exams, criticised as being easy.

David Perks, head of physics at Graveney School, Tooting, South London, blamed curriculum changes intended to make science relevant. Changes such as encouraging students to debate the case for nuclear power or the dangers of genetic engineering had moved science from being a laboratory and experiment-based discipline to one more focused on arguments, he said. Such changes failed to recognise that science was interesting in itself. “The essence of all reform to the science curriculum in the past ten or 15 years has been to reduce content and replace it with something else,” Mr Perks said. Schools and students also had incentive to choose vocational courses such as a BTEC in science because they were much easier but had equivalent status to GCSEs, he said.

Sir John Holman, science director at the Department for Children, Schools and Families, said every school should offer separate GCSEs in physics, chemistry and biology.

Several witnesses criticised the Conservatives’ plan to refuse to fund teacher training of graduates with a third-class degree. John Oversby, of the Association for Science Education, said such a move paid no regard to how long ago a prospective teacher took their degree and so might stop a graduate who had spent their early career deepening their subject knowledge from retraining to be a teacher.

Scientists told the inquiry that some physics graduates were put off a career in teaching by fearing they would also have to teach chemistry and biology, and said schools should be more flexible and allow physics graduates to teach mathematics.


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