Monday, March 22, 2010

Miss. prom called off over lesbian ruckus

One would have thought that once the school had called off the event, there was nothing left to litigate but litigation is apparently still going on. Can a school be ordered by a court to hold a social event? If so, the attendance would probably be very sparse, now that a private, invitation-only event has been arranged elsewhere

An attorney for the Itawamba County School District said in a U.S. District Court filing late Friday that the school board decided to call off the high school prom to settle the "very explosive and disruptive issue" of the district's ban on same-sex dates.

The filing by school board attorney Benjamin Griffith states that Itawamba Agricultural High School senior Constance McMillen "wishes to make the defendant district the site for a national constitutional argument over gay and lesbian rights."

McMillen, 18, petitioned the school district to allow her to attend the April 2 prom with her girlfriend at the school in Fulton, Miss. She also asked to be allowed to wear a tuxedo. Both requests were denied. When the American Civil Liberties Union wrote a letter giving the district until March 10 to reverse its decision, the school board canceled the event.

The ACLU filed suit in federal court the next day asking the court to reinstate the prom and declare the school board's behavior as a violation of McMillen's constitutional rights to free expression.

Griffith said the student's rights were not violated. "This is not an issue where anyone has been denied an education or suffered a constitutional deprivation," he wrote in the filing. "Rather, this is a social event that, in light of rapidly escalating circumstances, was disruptive to the school environment because people are on all sides of the issue."

An affidavit filed Friday in support of the school board by attorney James Keith claimed school board members have been been under "tremendous pressure" as a result of the controversy. "The school board was caught in a no-win situation as this matter developed," Keith wrote. "One board member received threats at his place of employment because of the stance he had taken on the matter. Board members have received emails, telephone calls and Facebook messages regarding this matter."

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Christine Sun called the argument "preposterous." "Long before this became an issue in the media they had told Constance that she could not bring her girlfriend to the prom," she said. "Really if was the school board's decision to cancel the prom that became the big news story."

While the demand letter from the ACLU drew some media attention, including an article by the Associated Press, the story spread internationally when the school board announced it would call off the dance. Since then, McMillen has appeared on numerous television shows to tell her story, including an appearance Friday on the nationally syndicated "Ellen DeGeneres Show."

The school board's response states that parents have organized a private prom at a furniture mart in nearby Tupleo. Now that the school district has withdrawn from the event, any constitutional claims are irrelevant, Griffith wrote.

More here

Don’t let feds control local education

A standardized national curriculum wouldn’t make California’s kids smarter or well equipped to compete in the global economy, or even better citizens. But a national, one-size-fits-all curriculum would be highly political, beset by special interest lobbying, and almost certainly diluted by teachers unions and education bureaucrats unaccountable to parents and voters.

Yet President Barack Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, 48 governors – including Arnold Schwarzenegger – and a host of education “reform” groups are rushing headlong to embrace the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The coalition of state governors and state school superintendents last week released its draft reading and math standards for kindergarten through 12th grade.

The standards are billed as “voluntary,” but that's a joke. The Obama administration has already announced plans to make $14 billion in federal Title I funds and another $15 billion in future Race to the Top grants contingent on states adopting the national standards. In short, the standards would be as “voluntary” as reporting personal income to the IRS, regulating the drinking age or maintaining the speed limit. Just try to opt out and see what happens.

The standards are also supposed to be “flexible,” but it’s difficult to see how. The draft reading and math requirements include detailed, year-by-year prescriptions for every child, regardless of ability. A student who struggles with reading, writing or arithmetic would have an even tougher time keeping up, as teachers would face mounting pressure to cover all the material in federally sanctioned lesson plans. Of course, that assumes the final standards won't be homogenized and dumbed down to the point they would be considered "high standards" in name only. Judging by history, that's probably a bad assumption.

One thing's for sure: Transforming common core standards into a common curriculum would turn an already contentious policy issue into a brawl as bruising and divisive as the fight over health care reform. Where health care is about our bodies, education is about our children's minds.

Texas provides an idea of how the fight over a national curriculum might play out. The Lone Star State happens to be the second-largest textbook market in the United States. Thanks to California's budget woes, which preclude the state from buying new textbooks until at least 2016, Texas is poised to reshape the content of U.S. history books for the next decade or so. The State Board of Education, bitterly split along ideological lines, has been overrun with demands from every interest group imaginable to render history into a politically correct mishmash.

Ironically, Texas was one of two states that refused to join the CCSSI. (The other was Alaska.) Texas also sat out of the competition for a slice of the $4 billion in Race to the Top grant money. "Our states and our communities must reserve the right to decide how we educate our children and not surrender that control to a federal bureaucracy," Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, said in January.

California could learn something from Texas’ declaration of independence from the ever-widening federal dictates over education policy. When arguments about curriculum are hashed out at the state level, at least somebody can be held accountable. Federal government education bureaucrats and teachers union officials aren't accountable to voters or taxpayers.

An honest effort to create good standards would allow for extensive public input. Instead the CCSSI has given the public until April 2 to comment on the draft language and math standards. What's the hurry? Could it be the standards’ authors fear that a long public conversation would lead to changes reflecting the public's concerns?

Truly voluntary national standards would let states reject them without fear of punishment or sanction. Why should California, which has exemplary mathematics standards, submit to a document that puts political consensus above educational excellence? Why should Massachusetts, which experts generally acknowledge as having the best standards of any state, have to settle for less?

The problem with the proposed national standards is the same thing that bedeviled No Child Left Behind and nearly every reform since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965: The remorseless needs of bureaucracy always trump the needs of children. Educators, parents and children deserve choices, not uniformly dismal dictates from Washington.



Three comments below

Battle looms over cuts to history curriculum

As a 5th generation Australian who is mightily pleased to be an Australian, I don't think I can be accused of ill motives in what I am about to say but I do think that the teaching of Australian history can be overdone. It is a very praiseworthy history but it is small beer on the world scene. American, British and European history are far more important for study in schools

WRITERS drafting the national curriculum need to reduce the amount of Australian history taught - raising the spectre of another fight over what is cut when the document is finalised later this year. The chairman of the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority, Barry McGaw, told the Herald that he was open to reducing the history content in response to concerns that it contains too much for teachers to cover. Professor McGaw said he was "open to any advice the history teachers want to give to us". "We need quite specific advice," he said. "They need to say what needs to come out."

The president of the Australian History Teachers Association, Paul Kiem, said feedback from around the country confirmed the draft curriculum was too content-heavy, particularly in years 9 and 10 when the bulk of Australian history was taught. "There has to be some culling," he said. "There needs to be a pause and discussion about what is significant knowledge in Australian history and what we expect people to know by year 10. "Australian history dominates years 9 and 10 and it is one area in which decisions will have to be made about reducing content or introducing options."

Drafters of the curriculum, which is open for public consultation until May 23, have so far satisfied a range of political interest groups by covering as much as possible within a framework of 80 teaching hours each year. Some also believe there will not be enough time to teach world history in the depth outlined in the draft curriculum. At present, NSW is the only state that tailors its curriculum to a specific time frame: 50 hours for history.

Those involved in the curriculum drafting have confirmed the history outline is overly ambitious and will need to be condensed, have topics removed or have core areas taught as electives. Teachers believe the curriculum authority is nervous about stirring up political tension over which topics it will remove.

The NSW Board of Studies and the state government have been silent on any contentious national curriculum debate issues this federal election year. Mr Kiem said his and other teacher organisations were frustrated at the silence of state and territory Labor governments. "It is a very significant problem," he said. "There is no transparency. No one is saying how many hours we will have to work with. "We have been saying for a long time that we need to get a response … about implementation and from universities about teacher training. If we don't get answers from state and territory governments, there will be inconsistent implementation."

Mr Kiem said he was concerned that the national curriculum authority was not open or flexible enough to offer core history curriculum in the form of options. "We are looking at a document that can be implemented flexibly," he said. "My impression with ACARA is that there is a generic template approach to designing the curriculum, the notion that all students will be studying the one history course. There is a real need to consider those implementation issues. What is needed is flexibility. How you do that is develop core and options."

A spokeswoman for the NSW Minister for Education, Verity Firth, declined to comment on details of the history curriculum. "From day one, the NSW government has supported the development of the national curriculum and we are currently examining the details of the draft," she said.


The grammar you teach when you are not teaching grammar

The gobbledegook below sounds like a face-saving way of admitting that the abandonment of grammar teaching was a big mistake

THE problem is huge: low levels of literacy among up to half of Australians. The solution: a new national school curriculum, literacy for the 21st century and, gasp, grammar. Some say dropping grammar in the 1970s began the slide to today's textese - "yng peeps cant rite proply". But many older Australians live with literacy levels lower than young people. The issue is the needs of people and the economy are changing and so is the curriculum.

Is boring old grammar the answer? Well, not really. It's a modern approach to grammar that's being introduced. And the ambitions are broad: lift children who slip through cracks in the education system to a level of reading and writing that reflects Australia's wealth.

Almost half of adult Australians have literacy skills lower than those needed to meet the demands of everyday life and work in a knowledge-based economy, Bureau of Statistics figures show. Scarily, nearly two-thirds of those whose first language is not English scored below the minimum.

Even so, compared with other countries, Australia rates well on high-school students' scores in reading, maths and science tests. The problem is that achievement differs across the country - and between the disadvantaged and the better off. Last year's national tests reveal nearly one in three year 9 students in the Northern Territory is below the minimum standard in reading, writing, spelling and grammar and punctuation - they do not have rudimentary literacy skills. In NSW, about one in 10 students is at this low level.

The draft national curriculum puts grammar, spelling and punctuation at the centre of English teaching and learning. But why now?

Grammar was cut in the '70s because of a view it didn't help students' writing, said Dr Sally Humphrey from the University of Sydney's linguistics department.

"It was like, 'We're just going to give you building blocks; we're not going to show you how it works in text."' The grammar starring in the new curriculum "isn't a set of rules for 'correct' use", she said, but "a set of resources or a tool kit" to be used according to the situation - whether it's texting, giving a presentation in class or writing a history essay.

"Each of those three situations would require different resources, different patternings of grammar, to do the job properly in that particular context," Dr Humphrey said. "We want to give kids the grammatical resources for being able to do lots of different things."

Reintroducing grammar was also part of an effort to strengthen the literacy of children from multilingual and disadvantaged backgrounds, said the lead adviser to the new English curriculum, Professor Peter Freebody from the University of Sydney. "Our teachers and our systems are geared to doing well for the mainstream," he said. Imagine that school results, including literacy, are shaped like a tadpole. The fat body, representing the bulk of students, does well or quite well. But there's a long tail of people left behind.

Professor Freebody said students didn't learn to read by year 3 and then just build content knowledge. Different kinds of texts demanded different understandings, he said, "and those things don't come free with the territory just because you're good at reading and writing when you're in year 3".

While grammar's return may sound like going back to the '50s, the modern educator's knowledge of grammar, and its use for teaching "reading and writing and enriching kids' understanding of content areas, that's not going backwards", Professor Freebody said.

The new curriculum was arranged into three strands - language, literacy and literature - with grammar an "integral component" of each strand.

It's about "letting kids in on the 'secret' of how good writers and good text producers do their work through the resources of language, through the resources of grammar - 'hey, this is how it's done!'," Dr Humphrey said. "And that's an equity issue … Kids who haven't got access to middle-class homes and middle-class ways of using language that are valued in the schools, they do need [the workings of language] made explicit."

The Australian Industry Group has highlighted the negative effect of low literacy and numeracy on productivity, safety and training. Group chief executive Heather Ridout said the new curriculum was "a long overdue step, so we're strongly supportive of it". Ms Ridout stressed the need for more specialist expertise in language across the board. "We don't just not have it in schools; we don't have it in TAFE, in the VET sector, and we don't have it in the workforce."


Is the national curriculum overdue, or spoiled by political correctness?

By BRETT MASON (Senator Brett Mason is a former university lecturer and Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Education and School Curriculum Standards)

A necessary and long overdue step in education reform in Australia or the further entrenchment of a politically correct agenda in our primary and secondary schools? Or, indeed, both?

These will be some of the questions that parents and others interested in the education of our children will be asking when considering the draft National Curriculum in English, Mathematics, History and Science, recently released for public consultation by the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority.

The idea that all Australian primary and secondary students, regardless of which state or territory they attend school in, should be studying the same things, at the same time in their academic progression, and according to the same standards, has been bandied around for years. It is no longer seen as controversial, and now enjoys broad public support. The devil, as is so often the case with Rudd government initiatives, will be in the detail – of both the finished Curriculum and its implementation.

With the draft National Curriculum now publicly available we can start forming an opinion on the former; and with the Rudd government’s past track record in implementing its lofty programs we are inclined to fear the latter.

While some aspects of the Curriculum, such as the greater emphasis on achieving practical literacy and numeracy, are welcome improvements, there are serious concerns about the direction the Curriculum drafters chose to take in a number of other areas, such as history and science. Perhaps the root problem with the draft Curriculum is ACARA’s decision to weave through all the subject areas three “cross-curriculum perspectives”, no matter how relevant these over-arching themes are to each subject. They are the “Indigenous perspective”, “a commitment to sustainable patterns of living”, and an emphasis on Asia and Australia’s engagement with the region.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with our primary and secondary students learning more about Aboriginal culture, the environment or the history of our region. It is, however, a question of weight, priorities and perspective as to how much, when and in what context students are required to absorb these themes. And the picture presented in the draft Curriculum does not look promising.

Thus, for example, in the Science curriculum, year 9s are to study traditional Chinese medicine, before being given their first opportunity a year later to look at the periodic table of elements, arguably the most important document of modern chemistry, which systemises and informs our understanding of the physical world around us.

Or take 4 year olds in preschool being taught the significance of ANZAC Day and Sorry Day at the same time, while having to wait until Grade 3 to learn about Australia Day and its meaning and place in our nation’s history.

Indeed, the Curriculum contains 118 references to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, culture and history (with Grade 5s studying “White Australia” and Grade 9s Aboriginal massacres and displacement). But there is only one reference to Parliament, and none to Westminster or the Magna Carta, the aspects of our political and cultural heritage that have made Australia perhaps the most peaceful, successful and prosperous democracy in the history of humanity.

If the new National Curriculum sounds like the return and the entrenchment of the “black armband” view of our history, you can be forgiven for being confused. Unlike its drafters, the Coalition – as well as a large majority of Australians - believe that, on balance and for all its faults, Australia’s history is a cause for celebration rather than constant breast-beating.

Here again we have all the ingredients of another Rudd government disaster in the making: a grand but not unattractive idea (the National Curriculum), a tight schedule (2011 is to be a pilot year involving a number of schools around the country), and little thought given to the practicalities of making it all work. There are no resources coming from the Federal government for all the additional teacher training and development required, while extra burdens will be imposed on those who have to deliver the initiative.

Primary school principals in particular are already worried about their capacity to deliver the science, history and math components according to the detail prescribed. We are already experiencing teacher shortages, particularly in areas like science, and the demands of the new Curriculum will merely exacerbate the problems while leaving others to pick up the pieces. For instance, it has been highlighted that only 16 universities in Australia train history teachers and 10 of these are in NSW. It will be necessary for universities to significantly adjust to meet this new demand, particularly given that the Curriculum mandates as many as 80 hours of history a year. Bear in mind that NSW, the only state that currently teaches history as a stand-alone subject, only sets aside 50 hours per year for teaching this subject in years 7 to 10.

Quite apart from the technicalities, the Australian Education Union and legions of individual teachers will in the end have a considerable influence on how the final product is translated for consumption in the classrooms. In the past this has proven to be a game of Chinese whispers where Australia’s mainstream often misses out in favour of elite preoccupations. In its 2007 Curriculum Policy Document, the AEU states, for example, that the first task of schooling should be to "assist in overcoming inequalities between social groups".

To that end, a curriculum entails "recognising that Australia is a multicultural society and that therefore students come to school with a variety of backgrounds, cultures, histories and values, all of which are equally valid" – a statement of cultural relativism that not many outside of the AEU head office would actually agree with.

Or that through a curriculum “students should gain an understanding of the role that the construction of gender has played and continues to play in society”, another exposition of political correctness of little obvious benefit to making our children better educated and productive citizens.

With a die-hard commitment to these sorts of values, parents could be forgiven for fearing that no matter how balanced the National Curriculum will be the ideologues in our education system will always find a way to teach what they want and how they want it.

Parents and other interested parties have just under three months to provide feedback on the draft; that is if they manage to access the information and navigate the rather user-unfriendly feedback website. Perhaps the "digital education revolution" should have started with the government. All we can do at this stage is make our voices heard and hope that a more balanced and mainstream vision of a National Curriculum will prevail.


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