Monday, April 12, 2010

Behind the NJ school problems: Bloat

Gov. Chris Christie is trying to solve New Jersey's chronic budget problems by cutting spending, including state aid to local schools. But the state's powerful teacher unions and many school boards are balking -- claiming that this will either drive up local property taxes or result in devastating cuts to school services.

In fact, there's plenty of fat to cut. For proof, just take a close look at the recent hiring and spending patterns of Jersey's school districts: Both hiring and spending have risen far faster than can be justified by the mild growth in enrollment. Thus, most should have plenty of room to cut spending without major impact.

Given the state's chronic budget woes, the schools' hiring spree defies logic. Since 2001, just as budget problems began in earnest, public-school enrollment in Jersey has risen by less than 3 percent, or slightly more than 36,000 students. But total school hiring (full-time employees and equivalents) has jumped by 14 percent, or nearly 28,000 employees, according to federal Census statistics.

That's right: Jersey's schools have added three-quarters of an employee for every new student -- during a period of deep fiscal pain for the state. Most of the new hires were teachers -- which is more than one new instructional worker for every two new students.

The hiring spree, along with rich benefit increases, has fueled payrolls. Wage costs alone have increased 43 percent since 2001 -- well ahead of the inflation rate plus enrollment growth.

But the real budget-buster has been health and pension costs. Between 2001 and 2006 (the latest year data are available), total benefit costs rose by a whopping 115 percent, adding several billion dollars to school costs.

After this runup, outlays are now a whopping $16,000 per student, nearly 60 percent above the national average. Jersey already was a leader in this spending category back in 2001; the spending spree has widened the gap, at great taxpayer cost.

Jersey now has the highest combined state and local tax burden in the country -- yet has been in an almost perpetual budget crisis since 2001.

But the tax hikes didn't solve the budget crisis. The key reason: As the above data suggest, the spending hasn't slowed.

If anything, the numbers suggest that Christie's approach, which is to finally start weaning local schools off continual increases in state aid, is the only way to bring spending in line.


British school inspection shambles

Emphasis on bureaucratic trivia rather than looking at how the school is doing in facing its challenges

Three schools judged to be "inadequate" by Ofsted were later told that they were actually "outstanding", in a move which has raised concerns over the quality of inspections.

A total of nine schools inspected by Ofsted last term were initially given wrong judgements, it can be revealed. In three of the cases cases, schools told by inspectors that they faced a "notice to improve" – the category just above a failed inspection – were reassessed and then given the very best official rating.

Critics said the U-turns cast serious doubt on the accuracy and fairness of Ofsted's new inspection regime, introduce at the start of this academic year. The regime has already been accused by the state and independent sectors of focusing on the wrong things.

Head teachers said they were appalled that schools could be misjudged to such a degree and that primaries and secondaries were facing ruin on the basis of "arbitrary" rulings. A poor inspection report can sound the death knell for a school, as rolls dwindle and staff leave.

Mick Brookes, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "How can you possibly have a judgement of inadequate and in the next breath, rate the school as outstanding? "It totally undermines the validity of the inspection and raises serious questions about the quality of inspections. "There is mounting pressure for a review of this system and this revelation adds to it."

Christine Blower, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "Whether the judgement of inspectors is at fault or schools are being initially failed on trivial matters, both are very serious flaws. "This calls in to question the whole Ofsted regime."

Every time a school is judged "inadequate" during an inspection, the finding is subjected to a "moderation process" in which Ofsted reviews the reasons for the provisional rating. Among six schools inspected last term and initially rated "inadequate", three - one primary and two secondaries, all in the south of England - had their rating raised after moderation to the top category of "outstanding". Another had its rating improved to "good", while two became "satisfactory".

Three further schools which were facing "special measures", the category that schools are put in to when they fail their inspection, had that rating scrapped and were instead found after moderation to be merely "inadequate".

Head teachers said many more schools may have been given the wrong judgement but the mistakes would never be remedied because only initial verdicts of "inadequate" or "special measures" were put through the moderation process.

From September to December last year, Ofsted received 110 complaints relating to the 2,140 inspections carried out, but no ratings were changed as a result of the complaints. Ofsted refused to name the nine schools whose judgements had been overturned at moderation.

It said: "Schools may be moderated out of a provisional category. Moderation is a routine, rigorous and robust process. It is an integral part of our work to ensure consistency and high quality in our inspections and demonstrates that Ofsted is fair and transparent in its work."

As The Sunday Telegraph has revealed, schools in the state and independent sectors have fallen foul of stringent new rules on child safety and the early years curriculum which came in to force in September.

Transgressions which have resulted in schools being marked down during inspections have included failing to supervise a car park that did not belong to the school, and not giving child protection training to cooks. Other schools have been marked down over the wording of their school policies or how they store information.

Ofsted claimed that no school would fail an inspection for minor breaches, but the widely-differing judgements applied to some schools after the moderation process support claims that inspectors' judgements are overzealous or suspect.

Earlier this month, more than 80 MPs told Parliament they were "seriously concerned" about reports of Ofsted making "arbitrary" judgments leading to schools being marked down. Miles Coverdale Primary, in Shepherd's Bush, west London, was initially given a "notice to improve" after inspectors who carried out a two-day visit in January said it was "inadequate".

Tara Baig, the head teacher, was stunned – three years earlier Ofsted had rated the school as "good with outstanding features". Staff and governors became convinced they had been subjected to a flawed inspection process.

The school was marked down for failing to recycle its food waste, for not linking with a "leafy, suburban white" school to promote "community cohesion", even for the content of some pupils' packed lunches. A faulty electrical gate was deemed a risk to children's safety, even though the school was waiting for local authority contractors to fix it and it was kept locked at all times.

A recent improvement in attendance figures was not taken in to account and the verdict on teaching was only "satisfactory" despite a "good" rating for three-quarters of the lessons observed.

Evidence of an upward trend in results generally across all ages, including a massive jump in maths results for 11 year olds from 49 per cent to 90 per cent, was given much less weight than a dip in writing results, which the school had identified and was addressing.

Days after the school lodged a complaint with Ofsted, it was told that the moderation process had removed the notice to improve and raised the outcome to "satisfactory". But Mrs Baig still refuses to accept the rating and said the reputation of the school had been undermined by an "unjust" process. "The staff here work relentlessly and are highly committed. For them to be told that they were on the bottom rung was an absolute outrage," she said. "We are a good school and we have the evidence to prove it."

Inspectors visited St Thomas More Catholic Primary, in Coventry, after it was forced to move buildings because of structural defects discovered at the school. Rather than praise the school for coping in extreme circumstances over which it had no control, inspectors graded it as "satisfactory", in part because of shortcomings with the emergency accommodation.

Although some pupils were moved into the old junior school building, others were taught in six temporary classrooms which inspectors said lacked space, led to overcrowding and offered limited accessibility to outside areas.

Mary Wilson, the head teacher, said: "I expected officers to come here pleased with what we've been able to achieve considering what we were faced with. We are still in an emergency situation and I felt the report was unfair." Although Ofsted amended the wording of the published report after the school complained, the grading remained the same.


Australian teachers' union wants censorship of school information

THE Australian Education Union is preparing its position against next month's National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy tests.

There is a distinct possibility of a national boycott. Such a move will be a direct challenge to Education Minister Julia Gillard's resolve. She must hold the line on NAPLAN and the availability of data on the MySchool website.

At the centre of the mooted boycott of the NAPLAN tests, scheduled to roll out across the country from May 11 to 13, is one pressing issue. This is how data collected by the government can be used in league tables. Next Wednesday in Hobart, the Tasmanian branch of the AEU will ask members for a decision on the boycott. It is expected to pass. This will give momentum to the national AEU push for a boycott.

Already, the industrial journals of the AEU are using combative language. In last month's issue of Public Education Voice, the official journal of the AEU's ACT branch, the following call to arms summarises the union position:

"As our union has been called upon in the past, we are once more called upon to stand proudly for the principles of our profession against the political expediency and indeed stupidity of our political representatives . . ."

But besides the battle cry of the AEU, Gillard is coming under increasing pressure to change the MySchool website. Last month, talks were undertaken between the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority, which developed the MySchool website, and the AEU to see how they could placate teachers threatening to boycott.

As a measure of the AEU angst towards the accountability of school performance the MySchool website enables, Jo Earp, editor of Australian Teacher Magazine, had this to say in an editorial headed "Rank smell of unwanted website" in the March edition: "It is hard to gauge how Gillard would deal with a teacher boycott of NAPLAN testing, as she remains tight-lipped on the legal options open to her, but it seems highly unlikely that the stalemate will be broken."

At the centre of the AEU opposition to the My School website is the issue of alleged misuse of the data and league tables. According to AEU Victorian president Mary Bluett, "All that's being sought is a protection of the data and that it not be, in our view, misused to generate unfair league tables."

This position presents what amounts to a direct attack on the availability of information to parents and the media. Data protection must be resisted. It is a form of censorship that denies parents data they should be able to access.

It is, however, seemingly acceptable to make school comparison information available to the AEU but not elsewhere. Why else would AEU Tasmanian president Leanne Wright say last month of the NAPLAN results, "To a point they can be useful for teachers because they give an overall indication of how things are going"?

Being useful to teachers does not include being useful to parents, it seems.

It is not just the AEU that is against providing the specifics to parents. Responding to the MySchool website, Viewpoint, the March newsletter of the Victorian Independent Education Union, asked that "reporting of students' average scores be replaced with a graphical representation of relative performance or an alternative proxy such as percentage achievement above minimum benchmarks". This is nothing more than data protection by stealth.

But beyond the persistent claims by the AEU and its federal president Angelo Gavrielatos that the MySchool website data is "invalid", it is curious that parents are overwhelmingly in favour of not less data being available but more.

In a survey before the launch of the website, more than 90 per cent of polled parents believed they had a right to know how their school compared with others.

Still, calls for legally binding conditions pertaining to use of the MySchool data are reason for concern. While it is arguable that organisations should be prevented from collating the MySchool data and selling it to parents, as one organisation did on the website's launch, the media should not be prevented from making information available in whatever form it chooses.

To restrict this is tantamount to a union, at best an unrepresentative body in community terms, choosing what the public should and should not be able to access.

What the AEU persists in doing is trafficking in false information, generating an unreasonable fear about whether league tables will show some schools to be better than others and that sinking schools will be exposed.

If this logic is taken further, it is acceptable for poorly performing schools to continue to fail their students as long as people do not know. This is data protection.

What Gillard must resist, on all counts, are calls for legislation restricting the free availability of comprehensive data generated from the NAPLAN test results and posted on the MySchool website. She must also hold the line against the kind of criticism made by Waleed Aly in the April edition of The Monthly.

In a comment piece on the new national curriculum, Aly, not known as an educationalist but as a lecturer in politics at Monash University, takes aim at Gillard's "meat and potatoes curriculum", which he says is distinguished by "common sense" and "practicality" that amounts to "a very conservative revolution indeed. [John] Howard with a smile."

It may be conservative to measure children, tell parents how their schools are going in comparison with others and offer a curriculum that gives children the kinds of content that it is utilitarian rather than ideological.

But it is the kind of conservatism we need. This is why the Education Minister must stare down her opponents, protect the school performance principles that parents broadly share and provide accessible data on schools for all.


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