Saturday, February 13, 2010

State meddling hamstrings schools

To show the results of union dominance of the public education system, John Stossel, host of Fox News' "Stossel," on a recent show held up a convoluted chart that detailed, in small print, the amazing lengths to which New York school administrators must go to fire an incompetent teacher. The viewer sees a long and detailed chart filled with boxes connected by arrows. Then, Stossel reveals that what he's holding up for the camera is only the beginning, as he lets falls to the floor several more pages that had been hidden, accordion-style, behind the first page of the termination procedures chart.

The joke - actually much sadder than funny - is on us, as we realize that there's no way that even the worst teacher can get sacked and that it's basically impossible to reform the public school system as it is currently structured. Yet local, state and federal officials go on proposing reforms that will surely turn the nations' bureaucratic, government-controlled public school systems into models of efficiency and high-performance learning.

Many proposals have a point, but trying to reform these unruly systems is like trying to improve a crumbling, crooked old building resting on a cracked foundation by installing new dual-pane windows and nicer carpeting. No one, quite frankly, wants to strike at the root of the problem, which is the existence of a monopoly school system run by the government, financed by tax dollars and dominated by union employees who don't have to please any customers.

California's Legislative Analyst's Office, which has a deservedly fine reputation for analyzing budgetary matters, last week released a report, "Education Mandates: Overhauling a Broken System," which jumps into the fray. It identifies a real problem - the proliferation of state mandates that require districts "to perform hundreds of activities even though many of these requirements do not benefit students or educators." The report pins the annual compliance cost for school districts at more than $400 million. Furthermore, because of a voter-approved 1979 initiative, Proposition 4, the state is supposed to reimburse local school districts for the mandates it imposes on them. California owes districts more than $3.6 billion - and the state tends to defer these reimbursements, rather than paying up in a timely manner.

"In short," the report explained, "districts are required to perform hundreds of activities - many of dubious merit - without regular pay, resulting in billions of dollars in state debt."

Of course, many of these mandates were imposed by the Legislature to improve the often-poor quality of public education across the state and try to assure that all districts were teaching some standardized curricula. But whenever education is politicized (and all public education is political, in that the decisions are made through a political process), this is what will happen. Legislators will pass reforms, many of which are transparent attempts to promote one special-interest group's agenda over another's. You get the good, the bad and the ugly. And all of it is expensive and, ultimately, counterproductive.

The LAO report points to a chart evocative of the long, pointless chart Stossel displayed. This "Mandate Determination Process" reveals a convoluted route by which local districts can seek reimbursement from the state. This reimbursement issue is going to become increasingly contentious in these tough budget times.

Ironically, on the same day the LAO released its report, the leading Democratic contender for state attorney general, San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, advocated some costly new education mandates during a Senate Public Safety Committee hearing on school truancy. Harris has been particularly aggressive in using law enforcement in her city to battle truancy, implementing a controversial program that prosecutes the parents of truants and subjects them to jail time and fines. She also proposed a statewide database to track truants - a system that would tie a district's state funding to the adoption of such a tracking system.

Truancy issues typically are local issues, which prompted a reply from Republican attorney general candidate Tom Harman, a state senator from Huntington Beach: "What I wonder is how creating another statewide bureaucracy to monitor it will keep kids in school. I don't think the state is in any position to create yet another new program - especially regarding an issue traditionally handled by locals."

None of this will actually improve the functioning of the school systems. At best, the Harris approach will coerce more people into sending their kids to ill-performing schools, which epitomize the "customer service" approach common in government: Offer poor products and inefficient services, then force people to buy them.

Harris' campaign, by the way, boasts her endorsement by a former state superintendent of public instruction, Delaine Eastin, best known for trying to use her authority to shut down home schools, under the theory that home schooling is a form of truancy. Let's hope a Harris victory doesn't signal a return to these dark days of California education policy. Home-school advocates already are fearful that Harris' approach could endanger home-schooled kids.

The LAO offers this solution to the mandate issue: "We recommend comprehensively reforming K-14 mandates. If a mandate serves a purpose fundamental to the education system, such as protecting student health or providing essential assessment and oversight data, it should be funded. If not, the mandate should be eliminated."

Whom do we thank for that groundbreaking suggestion? Of course, good mandates should stay, and bad ones should go, but in a political process, there's no way of waving a magic wand and making that happen. Maybe the LAO can develop a wall chart with the detailed process the Legislature can follow to attain that unquestionably worthy goal.

The state already spends more than 40 percent of its budget on education. There are stacks of mandates and volumes of legislative reforms passed in recent years. The system still stinks. The only solution is competition. Only competitive systems value the customer and create incentives for efficiency and performance. Happy customers are a better sign of success than long flow charts and endless calls for new legislation and reform.


British private school pupils 'being rejected from university'

Leftist class war still raging in Britain. Karl Marx would be proud

Private school pupils with straight-A grades are being rejected from elite universities in unprecedented numbers, it can be disclosed. Headmasters are blaming a shortage of university places caused by funding cuts, combined with the effect of Labour’s “social engineering” drive that prioritises bright children from under-performing comprehensives.

Two out of three top independent schools approached by The Daily Telegraph said teenagers were finding it harder to get into higher education this year compared with 12 months ago. In some cases, pupils predicted to get three A*s at A-level – along with a string of perfect GCSE results – are being turned down from all five of their choices. Entry to Oxbridge is especially hard this year, heads claim. Some schools reported a drop of around three-quarters in the number of students with offers from Oxford and Cambridge.

Heads said the squeeze was being exacerbated by the Government’s “widening participation” policy. It encourages universities to give lower grade offers to bright pupils from poor schools showing the most potential. It is also feared that universities are prioritising foreign students who can be charged far higher fees.

Richard Cairns, head of Brighton College, said: “The financial pressures and the social mobility agenda are leading to a situation where children who have worked very hard to get the grades that their forebears got are finding it more difficult than their predecessors to get into university.”

One student from Brighton – rated among Britain’s top 20 schools in a recent league table – has been rejected from Oxford, University College London and Durham, despite being predicted three A*s at A-level, on top of straight As at GCSE and AS level.

The Telegraph interviewed the heads of 30 leading independent schools and two-thirds reported concerns over the admissions process. In many cases, they said universities imposed last-minute rises in A-level entry requirements – often after students had applied.

The disclosure follows the publication of figures this week showing applications to degree courses are up 23 per cent compared with 2009. More than 100,000 extra applications have been made and demand for places at some institutions has doubled in just 12 months. The rise is being driven by students reapplying after being turned down last year combined with a dramatic increase in demand from mature students returning to education because of a shortage of jobs in the recession.

Despite the surge, separate research from the Telegraph suggests that as many as a quarter of universities are actually cutting the number of places for British undergraduates after a drop in budgets. Last week, universities were told that spending would be slashed by £449m in the autumn, including a £215m reduction in cash for teaching and warnings of further reductions in the future.

Steve Smith, the president of Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, told the Telegraph that admissions tutors still had a “duty” to identify good students with poorer grades despite the admissions crisis – potentially placing further pressure on places for independent school pupils. “Many students who have shown a desire to go to university are going to be very disappointed this year,” he said. “But data shows that people often do better coming in with lower grades from a poorly-performing school then if they come in with higher grades from a well-performing school.”

Antony Clark, the head of Malvern College in Worcestershire, said outstanding candidates who would have received five offers from top universities were now lucky to receive one or two. “I think admissions tutors are looking closely for the rough diamond who has not been through the private school system but is showing huge potential,” he said.

Peter Roberts, the head of Bradfield College, Reading, said: “We will have some boys and girls who are turned down for all five universities they apply for in the upper-sixth and that’s very hard for a young person who has worked hard and done well.”

Many independent schools send a small number of students to Oxbridge every year. But some told the Telegraph that numbers had plummeted in 2010. Woodhouse Grove School, West Yorkshire, said it usually had three offers, but only received one this year. Elizabeth Enthoven, head of sixth form, said: “I think the competition is much fiercer, and they have their agenda about open access.”

Sunderland High School said it had no Oxbridge offers, despite normally receiving around two. One boy had three A* predictions and straight As at GCSE and AS level but was rejected.

Queen’s College, Taunton, said the three or four places pupils normally gained had dropped to one, while Emanuel School, Battersea, said numbers dropped from around three a year to one in 2010.

Mark Hanley-Browne, Emanuel headmaster, said: “It’s harder to get into the top universities in 2010. We had very good students that didn’t make it who in previous years would have done - people with 10 A*s at GCSE and four As at AS level.”

Other schools told how students were finding it significantly harder to get into other universities, suggesting that the squeeze is being felt across the sector.

In a separate disclosure, the Telegraph surveyed 30 top universities. A quarter said they planned to cut student numbers. This included Lancaster, Leicester, Manchester and the West of England. At least half said numbers were being frozen. In all, between 750,000 and 800,000 students are expected to compete for around 480,000 places. Graham McQueen, head of sixth form, Warminster School, Wiltshire, said: “It’s never been more competitive to get into the Russell Group universities.”

King’s School, Rochester, said the grades offered for red brick universities were noticeably higher. Kevin Jones, head of senior school, said: “My main concern is what happens in the summer. The people who miss their grades by a whisker are going to have problems. “It’s going to be much more difficult to negotiate on results day.”

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, denied that private school pupils faced discrimination. “Although admissions are rightly a matter for individual institutions, the Government is committed to ensuring that entry to university is determined by aptitude, potential and merit, not where a student was educated,” she said. “There are a record number of students – over 2m – at university. That’s 390,000 more than in 1997 and next year we expect there will be more students than ever before. “But getting a place at university has always been, and should be, a competitive process. Not everyone gets the grades and some decide university is not for them. “But, it is early days and students haven’t even sat their A-levels yet.”


Australia: Bullsh*t program to help poor readers

Teaching them about phonetics and spelling rules is what is needed but instead they get anything but

PRIMARY school children with poor reading skills are making bug-catchers in a summer school program run in Queensland with federal government money allocated to improve literacy skills. The summer school for literacy held in January and last September is intended for children in Years 5 to 7 whose skills are below the minimum standard in the national literacy tests.

The focus of the school is to teach them how to evaluate and make inferences from what they read and to analyse the way authors have expressed their points of view about a topic.

The need for knowledge of letter-sound relationships and sounding out words to read them -- known as decoding -- is downgraded. "The summer schools literacy emphasis is on discussing the meanings of texts and on making judgments about topic sentences and word choices rather than on coding and decoding," information provided for teachers says. "Teachers are encouraged to read texts aloud so that learners can concentrate on the higher-order thinking involved in making reliable inferences. "Teachers are also able to annotate their students' work where necessary, so that encoding difficulties do not prevent students from showing what they understand and can do."

In information provided to parents, the department says the literacy summer school will teach students "how to evaluate texts". "It is important that students understand that authors (the creators of written text, documentaries, stories, films, advertisements, screenplays, video clips, chat shows etc.) all have a particular purpose and point of view," it says.

One of the literacy activities outlined for teachers to do with their students is to build an insect catcher, or "pooter", after reading a magazine about invertebrates. The instructions for making the pooter are out of order and students must rearrange them before they can make the insect catcher. The summer school program is one of the strategies devised by Queensland under the national partnership on literacy and numeracy, for which the federal government has provided $540 million to help struggling students. It will also pay financial rewards to states that lift their performance in the national tests. The Queensland government is spending $5m of its $139m allocation over the next four years on the summer schools.

Queensland Education Minister Geoff Wilson said summer schools had been popular, with parent satisfaction ratings of about 95 per cent. He said about four in five students who attended the September summer school showed improvement in at least one area of literacy or numeracy, with 85 per cent of students saying it made them feel more confident about reading, writing and maths. Other initiatives introduced by the Queensland government included literacy and numeracy coaches in schools and "turnaround teams" to help schools identify and solve problems.

Macquarie University education professor Kevin Wheldall, developer of the remedial reading MULTILIT program, said the Queensland Education Department was ignoring the recommendations of the national inquiry on teaching reading. Professor Wheldall said the inquiry echoed the findings of similar studies in the US and Britain that teaching children letter-sound relationships and how to put sounds together to form words was the necessary first step in learning to read for all students. "I don't understand how they're allowed to spend federal money doing this, given that the money was earmarked for kids struggling with reading," he said. "We know this doesn't work, it's precisely the approach that's failed these kids in the first place. and they're just offering more of the same at summer school."

Award-winning literacy teacher John Fleming, who advocates the teaching of letter-sound relationships, said the summer school approach showed the need to ensure reading was properly taught from the first days of school. Mr Fleming, now at Haileybury school in Melbourne and the 2006 winner of the national award for outstanding contribution to literacy and numeracy, said if students failed to pick up decoding skills, that was difficult to overturn when they were at the end of primary school. "What they're advocating is trying to engage the kids because a lot of them by this age feel reading is not their go," he said. "To be fair, at least they're trying to give them an opportunity to engage in the activity first, but if these kids didn't pick it up when they were in the first two or three years of school, they will find it difficult now."

Mr Fleming said the students' main problem was "instructional deficit" and that they had not been given the skills needed to develop as readers in the first years of school. "They've been immersed and gone through a school that said `When the kids are ready, they will pick it up'," he said. "Unfortunately, for these sorts of kids, that's not true."

A spokesman for Education Minister Julia Gillard said the summer schools program was one of a number of initiatives by Queensland to improve literacy and numeracy, and all the measures adopted by the states and territories under the national partnership were required to be backed by evidence. The spokesman said the bug-catcher activity aimed to engage students in literacy through a practical activity.


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