Friday, April 23, 2010

FL: Crist signs school voucher legislation

With the stroke of a pen and solid bipartisan support, Gov. Charlie Crist on Thursday ushered in the most sweeping expansion of private-school vouchers in Florida history. Crist signed Senate Bill 2126, which significantly increases the value of a ``tax-credit voucher,'' offers more incentives to corporations to fund the program and essentially removes a cap on how much they can collectively give.

``This is the largest expansion of a voucher program in the country,'' said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who sponsored the House version of the bill. ``It's a good day for parents, good for students.''

``It's gone too far,'' countered Pinellas school board member Linda Lerner, who was among the plaintiffs in a successful effort to overturn another voucher program in 2006. ``It's time to get legal opinion about a legal challenge.''

Tax-credit vouchers are available to low-income students and funded by corporations that get dollar-for-dollar tax credits in return for contributing to them. Currently, 27,700 students - including 2,500 in the Tampa Bay area - use the vouchers, which are valued at $3,950 each.

But under SB 2126, the value of a voucher would grow over several years until it reached 80 percent of the state's per-pupil funding figure. At the current per-pupil rate of $6,866, the voucher amount would grow to $5,492, putting the cost of private school in reach for even more low-income families.

"Our sense is, the demand is there," said Jon East, spokesman for Step Up for Students, the Tampa-based outfit that provides the scholarships.

With little marketing, the program has grown an average of 22 percent a year for five years, East said. At that pace, it will have 70,000 students by 2015.

Vouchers have been controversial and divisive since former Gov. Jeb Bush led the fight for them in 1999. Supporters consider them a lifeline for high-poverty students and a competitive lever that forces public schools to improve. Critics see a drain on public school funding and, because so many private schools are faith-based, a dangerous blurring of church-state lines.


Pupil behaviour 'poor in fifth of British schools'

Behaviour is still not good enough in more than a fifth of secondary schools, according to figures. At least 700 state secondaries in England are failing to keep order to a high standard, it was revealed, despite hundreds of millions of pounds spent by Labour to crackdown on unruly pupils.

In some [minority] areas, behaviour was poor in more than half of comprehensives, figures suggested.

The disclosure comes just weeks after Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, told headteachers to take parents of the worst offenders to court for failing to control their children.

He said behaviour had improved dramatically under Labour but mothers and fathers had to play their part to make sure all pupils followed school rules.

According to figures, the number of schools with good or outstanding behaviour – the two top rankings on a four-point scale operated by Ofsted – has increased year-on-year since 2006.

But it suggests behaviour is still not good enough in more than 21 per cent of secondaries.

The conclusions follow a survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers last month that found a quarter of teachers had been forced to deal with violent pupils in the current academic year.

The Conservatives accused Labour of “undermining adult authority in schools”. Michael Gove, the Conservative shadow schools spokesman, said: “Over the last ten years teachers have been denied the power to keep order in the classroom and stop violent incidents. Unless there is good discipline pupils can't learn and teachers can't teach and the children who suffer most are the poorest.”

Mr Balls said: "It's encouraging that the number of schools judged good or outstanding for behaviour continues to increase and there are fewer schools with poor behaviour standards, even under the new inspection framework. "But I know there is more to do to make sure every school is an orderly place with strong discipline so no child's learning is disrupted by the bad behaviour of a minority."

Figures from the Department for Children, Schools and Families show that 78.6 per cent of secondaries had good or outstanding behaviour in December 2009. The figures – based on an official breakdown of judgments made by Ofsted – show that standards have steadily improved since 2006. Four years ago, some 73.7 per cent of schools imposed order to a high standard, rising to 74.5 per cent a year later and 76.1 per cent in 2008.

But the latest statistics reveal stark differences between areas. In Bradford, Hull, Brighton and Stockport more than half of schools were rated merely satisfactory or inadequate for behaviour – the watchdog’s bottom two rankings.

Last month, the Government suggested schools could crackdown on the worst pupils by targeting parents. Under plans, headteachers can apply for parenting orders, forcing mothers and fathers to attend counselling sessions and parenting classes, as well as setting out strict rules on how they should bring up sons and daughters.

This includes making sure children do not stay up late, ensuring they cannot get access to alcohol at home, getting them to school on time and making sure uniform rules are followed.

New powers for teachers to use force and search pupils without consent for alcohol, drugs, stolen property or weapons have also been introduced


British High School exams HAVE got easier, says Cambridge exams chief

GCSEs and A-levels really have got easier, an exams chief has admitted. Tim Oates, a key figure in Cambridge University's exams board, admitted his warning over 'grade inflation' could amount to a 'Ratner moment'.

In a paper designed to provoke debate about exam standards, he drew a comparison with jeweller Gerald Ratner, who in 1991 sent the value of his stores plummeting by admitting they sold 'crap'.

Mr Oates admitted exam boards had bowed to political pressure to make exams more 'accessible'. Pupils and teachers are also helped by guidance on how tests are marked. At the same time, A-levels, and increasingly GCSEs, had changed in structure to become 'modular', with pupils examined on their courses in bite-size chunks.

The measures had, over the years, led to 'subtle drift', Mr Oates admitted. It is thought to be the first time such a senior figure in the exams world has publicly acknowledged the possibility of the tests getting easier.

Mr Oates is head of research at Cambridge Assessment, the parent company of the OCR exam board, one of four offering GCSEs and A-levels in England and Wales. The company is a department of Cambridge University, and a non-profit agency.

His paper was published ahead of a conference on exam standards to be staged by Cambridge Assessment next week.

The controversial remarks emerged as another speaker at the conference - testing expert Professor Roger Murphy - warned that trusting GCSE and A-level results was 'dangerous' because grades were only 'approximations' of pupils' ability.

The men's comments are part of a drive to shine a light on the shadowy world of exam grading.

The proportion of typical A-level students gaining three A-levels has risen to 17 per cent from 7 per cent in the mid-1990s.

Mr Oates said: 'Giving the benefit of the doubt to pupils - consistent with the general moral sense of "access" and "best chance" which was foremost in the political agenda - can result in subtle grade inflation.'

He went on: 'Increasing access, updating content, switching to modular/unit provision - and being as transparent as possible over mark schemes, grade criteria and guidance - have all been fervent pre-occupations of policy makers and the education establishment. Awarding bodies delivered on that agenda. 'To investigate possible grade inflation, to publicly acknowledge that there may have been subtle drift, and that a reorientation of standards might be required, sounds like a "Ratner moment" for awarding bodies.' But he said boards must not shy away from self-criticism.

But Professor Murphy, of Nottingham University, said it was wrong to try to turn grading into an 'exact science'. He said: 'Most examinations require the person taking them to undertake a sample of tasks and do not attempt to provide a comprehensive examination of the area under assessment.

'Give the candidate a different sample of tasks and almost certainly they will produce a different performance. 'Give them the tasks on a different day and their performance may vary again. 'Give their responses to a range of different examiners to mark and again you will probably get different judgments.'


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