Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The National Standards Distraction

Accountability and choice remain the best drivers of reform

The Obama Administration wants to standardize what is taught in American public schools, and there's nothing wrong in principle with setting benchmarks for what the average child should know by a certain grade. But national standards are no substitute for school choice and accountability, which are proving to be the most effective drivers of academic improvement.

With the Administration's blessing, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers have proposed a set of uniform K-12 math and reading standards for all states. Compliance will supposedly be voluntary, but Education Secretary Arne Duncan said states that support the effort will have a better chance of receiving Race to the Top money. And President Obama suggested that states that opt out risk losing millions of dollars in Title I grants for low-income students.

Not surprisingly, all but two states—Texas and Alaska—quickly expressed support for uniform standards. But over the past week, a half dozen or so others—as varied as California, Massachusetts, Virginia and Minnesota—have had second thoughts. Governor Rick Perry said Texans should determine what's taught in their state, while Massachusetts and California rightly say their standards are superior to what's been proposed.

The biggest challenge may be reaching agreement on what a national curriculum should include. In the 1990s, the Bush and Clinton Administrations advocated national history standards. But the process became dominated by educators with a multicultural agenda preoccupied with political correctness and America's failings. The Senate censured the history standards by a vote of 99 to 1. The recent brawl over the Texas social sciences curriculum suggests that what works in Nacogdoches isn't going to fly in Marin County, and vice versa.

Under the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, states are free to set their own standards, and it's certainly true that some have dumbed-down their exams to meet the law's requirements. The latest national standards effort is intended to correct this practice and ensure high-quality standards across all 50 states.

However, national standards won't tell us anything we don't already know about underperforming states. The U.S. already has a mandatory federal test in place—the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam (NAEP)—to expose states with weak standards. Mississippi may claim that 89% of its fourth graders are proficient in reading, according to the state test. But when NAEP scores show this is true of only 18% of fourth graders, Mississippi education officials aren't fooling anyone.

It's true that some countries with uniform standards (Singapore, Japan) outperform the U.S., though other countries with such standards (Sweden, Israel) do worse. On the 2007 eighth-grade TIMSS test, an international math exam, all eight countries that scored higher than the U.S. had national standards. But so did 33 of the 39 countries that scored lower. The U.S. is also commonly regarded as having the best higher education system in the world, though we lack national standards for colleges and universities.

National standards won't magically boost learning in the U.S., and if this debate distracts attention from more effective reforms, then public education will be worse off. State and local educators don't need more top-down control from Washington. They need the freedom and authority to close bad schools, recruit better teachers and pay them based on effectiveness rather than tenure.

Most important, families need more educational choices. Some 2,000 high schools are responsible for half of all drop-outs in America, and forcing those schools to compete for students and shape up or shut down is the main chance. Higher standards will be the fruit of such reforms, not the driver.


Unions, Public Schools and Minority Children

Speaking a couple years ago about technology and education, Apple CEO and founder Steve Jobs said that technology wouldn't matter as long as you can't fire teachers. "I believe that what is wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way," he said. Jobs likened schools to running a small business that he said could never succeed if you can't hire and fire. Reasonable? I think so.

Would anyone question that there is no single thing more critical to a nation's future than educating its children? Yet, consider that 88 percent of our children get K-12 education in public schools and that 70 percent of the teachers in these schools have union protected jobs.

Gallup has been polling public opinion about unions since the 1930's. Last year, for the first time, less than half (48 percent) of those surveyed approved of unions. Fifty one percent said unions "mostly hurt" the U.S. economy and 39 percent said they "mostly help."

The percentage of the nation's private sector work force that belongs to a union has dropped precipitously. In the 1950's, over 30 percent belonged to unions. Today it's a little over seven percent. But in our public schools, the direction is completely opposite. In 1960, about 35 percent of public school teachers belonged to unions and today it's twice that at 70 percent.

Is it not counterintuitive that most Americans feel unions hurt us, that we allow increasingly fewer goods and services produced in our private sector to be controlled by unions, but we turn increasingly more of our most precious commodity -- our children and their education -- over to a union-controlled workforce?

In an article in the latest edition of Cato Journal, Andrew Coulson notes that, on average, compensation of public school teachers is about 42 percent higher than their counterparts teaching in non-unionized private schools. Yet, according to Coulson, research shows that private schools consistently outperform public schools. He attributes the higher average wages of public school teachers less to union collective bargaining and more to the political clout of unions to maintain the public school monopoly over K-12 education. Over 95 percent of the political contributions of the two national teachers' unions -- the NEA and AFT --- go to Democrats or to the Democrat Party. Their $56 million in political contributions since 1989 equals that of "Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Lockheed Martin, and the National Rifle Association combined."

The main beneficiaries of education alternatives are minority children. Yet, at the state level, unions provide a unified lobbying front to block such initiatives. A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed reported on the glowing success of charter schools in Harlem. "Nationwide the average black 12th grader reads at the level of a white eighth grader. Yet, Harlem charter students ....are outperforming their white peers in wealthy suburbs." Yet, in 2009 the New York teachers union successfully lobbied the state legislature to freeze charter school spending and now is pushing to limit penetration of charters in school districts.

Kids in Los Angeles' public schools are overwhelming Hispanic and black. According to the Los Angeles Times, "just 39 percent of L.A.'s fourth-graders are even basically literate." Yet, the Times attributed union lobbying to undermining a recent attempt by the L.A. school board to open failing schools to non-unionized charters.

Similarly, unions played a major role in recently killing the successful private school scholarship program in Washington, DC.

But there's a significant and promising sign that blacks are beginning to fight back. Rev. James Meeks, founder and senior pastor of the largest black church in Illinois, who is also a Democrat state senator, is taking on the unions. He has introduced a bill opening the door for vouchers for kids in Chicago's public schools.


British students revolt as 150 are crammed into one tutorial

Tutorials -- as distinct from lectures -- are supposed to be fairly intimate events, with opportunites for interaction between teachers and students

Hundreds of engineering students at Manchester University have become the latest undergraduates to stage a revolt against the poor quality of teaching they receive. More than 200 have signed a petition against low standards on their course, which have included “tutorials” of more than 150 students taken by one academic and work returned after several months with no marking except one sentence and a tick.

At an angry meeting with senior academics, students have complained that some lecture notes were simply copied from textbooks.

The National Union of Students has approached David Willetts, the Conservative shadow universities secretary, to advise on the dispute.

Student “consumer militancy” over teaching quality — which has hit other leading universities including Bristol — is set to grow as universities implement Lord Mandelson’s budget cuts and sack staff. It will become more widespread if tuition fees rise as expected. The “revolt” at Manchester comes as Willetts considers the establishment of a new universities inspectorate, one of whose jobs would be to police teaching standards. Willetts is concerned that too many universities have simply demanded the right to charge higher tuition fees without giving any undertakings about improved teaching in return.

His proposed inspectorate would be set up by universities rather than the government and modelled on the Independent Schools Inspectorate which monitors private schools. Willetts said: “Universities have to focus on high quality education for their students. Now students pay thousands of pounds in fees they have a very consumerist attitude and we can all understand why.”

At Manchester, the vice-chancellor, Alan Gilbert, recently described the low level of student satisfaction with the university’s teaching as “totally unacceptable”.

Colin Bailey, dean of engineering and physical sciences, said students had raised issues on the quality of teaching. “[We] discussed possible solutions. This has resulted in addressing the quality of class notes, improving tutorials, improving communication, improving quality and timeliness of feedback.”


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