Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Groundbreaking School Choice Movement in Illinois

School choice is on the march in Illinois. And if the Rev. Senator James Meeks (D-15) has his way, 22,000 children stand to gain a lifeline out of failing public schools in the Prairie State. Senator Meeks introduced the school choice bill, which passed out of the Senate in March. Last Thursday, the Illinois House Executive Committee approved the measure, and the legislation now awaits action any day in the full House. A press release from the Illinois Policy Institute lauded the school choice bill:
“‘The highest-quality research is clear on two points’, said Collin Hitt, Director of Education Policy for the Illinois Policy Institute. ‘School vouchers improve education for students who use them, and the resulting competition improves the performance of surrounding public schools. This is bold policy, but it can change the course of education in Chicago. If the Illinois House passes this legislation, families will have a better choice of schools, public schools will compete for students and improve. This can all be accomplished at no additional cost to taxpayers or public education’.”

The Chicago Sun-Times also came out in favor of the bi-partisan measure.
“Studies in Milwaukee, Charlotte, New York and Washington, D.C., documented gains for voucher students. Reading and math scores improved for African-American pupils on vouchers in New York, Washington and Dayton, research showed.

”What’s more, competition produced by voucher programs prompts improvement in public schools, according to research on programs in Florida, Milwaukee and San Antonio… Meeks’ bill is a modest one. It would offer a lifeboat to 22,000 kids drowning in Chicago’s lowest-performing elementary schools, 37 of them under state or federal sanctions for at least nine years. If government can’t provide good schools for these kids, politicians, unions and educrats shouldn’t block the private school door offering them hope of a better life.”

In cities where voucher programs have been in operation, children have benefited significantly. Students in the now embattled D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (D.C. OSP) have made statistically significant gains in reading achievement equivalent to 3.7 months in additional learning. Extrapolate that out over the lifetime of a child’s educational career, and that’s nearly two full years in additional reading achievement. And while children are making tremendous academic gains, they are also safer and their parents are happier.

Ironically perhaps, Illinois’ landmark school choice language is making its way through the state represented in the U.S. Senate by Richard Durbin (D-IL), author of language now in law that could spell the end the successful D.C. OSP. While Senator Durbin may have been able to thwart the chance for a promising educational future for low-income District children for the time being, the horizon has the potential to get much brighter for children in his home state.

We know what works in education: empowering parents with the ability to choose the best school for their child. School choice puts families in the driver’s seat and holds schools accountable to parents. For 22,000 low-income families in Illinois, they could soon hold the key to their children’s educational future.


Elite colleges thawing on ROTC

Administrators at Harvard, Brown, and other elite universities are softening their resistance to the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps more than four decades after the military scholarship programs were driven from campus in the face of fierce antiwar sentiment.

Many professors, students, and administrators say the more welcoming climate is a result of growing support for the military since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But they contend it has become pronounced since February, when Pentagon leaders for the first time advocated overturning the law that bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the ranks.

Some college administrators consider the ban on gays in the military discriminatory and have cited it as a reason to keep full ROTC programs off campus long after the Vietnam War ignited the controversy.

“The declaration of military leaders regarding abolition of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy means the fig leaf that university administrators and professors have been hiding behind is about to be withdrawn,’’ said Army National Guard Captain Marc Lindemann, a Harvard Law School graduate who completed an analysis of the issue for the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.

Harvard, which has not fully recognized ROTC since the antiwar protests of the early 1970s, now allows the small number of its students who participate in the program at nearby MIT to be commissioned as officers in Harvard Yard upon graduation. And in a highly symbolic show of support, the president of the university, Drew Faust, has attended the ceremonies the past two years and is expected to attend again next month. Harvard also now allows cadets to include their ROTC affiliation in yearbooks.

“They have been far more receptive,’’ said retired Navy Captain Paul E. Mawn, a 1966 Navy ROTC graduate who runs the group Advocates for Harvard

ROTC, which he said has 2,300 members. Last year, he said, Harvard “even invited General David Petraeus,’’ the top US commander in the Middle East, to the commissioning ceremony.

At Brown University in Providence, where Army ROTC students must commute to Providence College for drills and military science classes, a top dean has pledged to do more to support students in ROTC, including finding ways to award them academic credit for their military courses.

Last month, the Faculty Senate at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., established a committee to study whether to overturn its ban.

And in another sign of a thaw, the president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, predicted after an April 10 meeting with Admiral Mike Mullen, the nation’s top military officer, that “the campus will be much more receptive — this and other universities, if not almost all of them — to rebuilding that relationship.’’

“I think the policy has been anachronistic for a long time,’’ said David Kennedy, a history professor at Stanford who, along with William J. Perry, the former secretary of defense, proposed the university’s committee that’s studying the issue. “We are developing a separate military caste that the [nation’s] founders never intended.’’Continued...

The policy reviews come at an opportune time; ROTC scholarship applications nationwide are increasing between 12 and 15 percent each year, according to officials.

The ROTC program dates to 1862, when the federal government established land-grant colleges and required them to offer military instruction as part of their curriculum. In recent decades, it has provided cadets college tuition in return for a commitment to serve at least four years as an officer in the Army, Navy, or Air Force.

ROTC cadets first studied at Norwich University in Vermont, and the program had deep roots in the Ivy League until the turmoil of the Vietnam War, when the cadets were the most visible sign of the military on campus.

The Army ROTC unit at Harvard abandoned the campus in 1970, followed a year later by the Air Force and Navy units. Other universities did not renew their contracts with the Department of Defense.

While the number of ROTC units rebounded around the country in subsequent years, the program remained exiled from some of the nation’s most selective universities, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, Brown, and the University of Chicago.

In the 1990s, these universities maintained that the military’s stance on gays conflicted with their own antidiscrimination policies, justifying a continued refusal to recognize ROTC.

Some universities, including Harvard, also took steps to bar military recruiters from campus, but a 1996 law and a 2006 Supreme Court ruling stipulated they must provide access to recruiters and allow their students to participate in ROTC programs. Still, for ROTC students at universities that do not fully recognize the program, this means not only commuting to another school for military instruction — which is commonplace for other universities that have consolidated ROTC programs — but also not receiving credit for their military science courses.

This year, Harvard has 20 undergraduates enrolled in ROTC at MIT. But it does not credit their ROTC courses or share program costs. Instead, private funds from Harvard graduates cover the estimated $400,000 to provide the students with classroom space, instructor salaries, and other support, according to Mawn.

“We want to get official recognition and create a long Crimson line of ROTC graduates,’’ he said.

Other influential alumni voices say a policy change is long overdue, especially now that the military leadership has changed its view of the “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy on gays and lesbians serving in the military.

“The emperor has no clothes,’’ said Theodore Roosevelt IV, a Navy ROTC graduate of Harvard who served two tours in Vietnam. “If the Harvard faculty thinks it’s inappropriate [to embrace ROTC], then they are being intellectually dishonest. Harvard has a long, distinguished history of creating future leaders, including military leaders.’’

A Harvard spokesman, John Longbrake, said there are no plans to significantly change its stance on ROTC, but indicated that the Pentagon’s ongoing review of the policy on gay military service could change that. The university administration, he said, will “follow any federal policy changes with interest.’’

Other schools are doing more. At Brown, which has only one student enrolled in the ROTC program at Providence College, a new student group called Students for ROTC at Brown is circulating a petition calling for Navy or Air Force ROTC departments to be reinstated and urging the university to award credit for Army ROTC cadets at Providence College.

“Our main goal is to reinvigorate the program and increase the population,’’ said Keith DellaGrotta, a senior who started the group but is not in the ROTC.

The university administration, for its part, says it is highly receptive. “We have had some very good conversations about how we can better support students in the program,’’ said Katherine Bergeron, the undergraduate dean of the university. “We are looking forward to, or anticipating, a day when more students are interested in participating.’’

While she said the issue of awarding credit would have to be voted on by the faculty, “I think it would be a very worthwhile thing to do.’’ But she acknowledged there are practical challenges. For example, official recognition might require Brown to have its own department of military science, staffed by members of the Brown faculty.

As for the military, leaders are eager to see the program fully embraced.

After his meeting with Columbia’s president this month, Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he sees a “transformative moment’’ for the ROTC debate. “I think representation . . . in particular [at] universities in the Northeast would be of great benefit to both the universities as well as the military, as well as the country,’’ Mullen said.


Shakespeare vanishing from British classrooms

On the anniversary of Shakespeare's birth and death, Anthony Seldon asks why we are allowing the world's foremost playwright and England's cultural figurehead to disappear from the classroom

Forget the election, the Clegg bounces and the Brown gyrations. Blank out Icelandic volcanoes and flight disruptions. For today is the happy conjunction of St George's Day and Shakespeare's possible birthday, his 446th no less, as well as the day he died. It is as good a day as any to be celebrating all that is English, and the world's greatest playwright.

Whichever party wins on May 6 must champion a renaissance of Shakespeare in our schools and restore him to his rightful place across the nation. Shakespeare should make us proud to be British.

Familiarity with Shakespeare must begin early, because it is there that the roots are laid for the rest of life. Yet the Bard has been on the retreat in schools. The dropping in October 2008 of tests for all pupils at 14 may have had much to recommend it in our exam-drunk country, but it has damaged the study of Shakespeare, as his plays were a compulsory element. The numbers of pupils in this 11-to-14 age group who have seen one of his plays in the theatre has halved since then.

The new English Language and Literature GCSEs, beginning this autumn, downgrade the importance of studying Shakespeare through live performance in favour of Shakespeare on film. Schools increasingly are turning to "International" GCSEs, which are more rigorous than traditional GCSEs, but do not require pupils to focus on Shakespeare.

He remains central to English Literature at A-level, but a declining percentage of students are now opting for the subject, while media and film studies are growing apace. Increasingly, there are teachers joining the profession who hardly studied Shakespeare at school, and lack the same passion of older colleagues who were reared on him.

Why does this matter? If our aim is to turn out, not civilised and sensitive young men and women, but unthinking automatons, then the dwindling of Shakespeare does not matter. But few Telegraph readers will agree with the new philistinism.

On St George's Day, thanks to Shakespeare, we can feel proud of our English heritage. No writer has contributed more to our national identity. In times of crisis, we turn to him. Churchill's government did so during the Second World War, funding Laurence Olivier's Henry V as morale-boosting propaganda. How many of today's young can quote Hal's Saint Crispin's Day speech: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother"? Most who revelled in the television miniseries Band of Brothers would never have known the origin of the phrase.

Shakespeare has given us so many of them – "more in sorrow than in anger"; "in my mind's eye"; "old men forget"; "a sea change"; "all that glisters is not gold"; "all the world's a stage"; "as dead as a doornail"; "vanished into thin air"; "fight fire with fire"; "wild goose chase"; "foul play"; "good riddance"; "in a pickle"; "more fool you", "mum's the word", "my journey's end", "sent him packing", "the game is up"; "the truth will out". Studying Shakespeare opens the young to a world of language that will enrich their lives for ever.

His plays give unparalleled insights into human nature. He is the greatest psychologist of all time. I have just returned from directing my sixth formers in Othello in the Far East. In Beijing and Ho Chi Minh City, many in the young audience did not understand a word uttered; but they were engrossed. No spinmaster in this, or any other, election has ever approached the manipulative subtlety of Iago.

As with the Greek playwrights, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, the dramas move deeply into the human psyche. They portray all the seven archetypal plots described by Christopher Booker: Henry V thus typifies "the quest"; The Tempest "voyage and return"; Richard III "killing the monster"; Twelfth Night "rags to riches"; As You Like It "comedy"; The Winter's Tale "rebirth and redemption", while Hamlet gives us true "tragedy", with the perceptive young recognising the same story as The Lion King.

Shakespeare is the best representative of the English renaissance, the age of our greatest artistic and intellectual flowering. Our young need to know about it so that they can gain a better understanding of how English culture – their culture – has developed, with Shakespeare its finest example.

The British obsession with exams is a principal factor in the decline. The imperative of drilling students to learn the dross that examiners expect risks killing our best literature. Instead of being a delight to the imagination and spirit, classes can become a dull drudge of learning "correct" quotations and answers.

Teachers increasingly find that they lack the time to bring Shakespeare to life by allowing the students to read the whole play and act out scenes. Instead they do extracts. "I'd like to be more creative, but playing with the text will not attain the school's academic targets," said one teacher, responding to a survey commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). Unsurprisingly, less than one fifth of the students agreed with the proposition that "Shakespeare is fun".

Seeing Shakespeare in the theatre is much profounder for students even than watching wonderful films such as Franco Zeffirelli's (1968) or Baz Luhrmann's (1996) Romeo and Juliet, or Kenneth Branagh's (1993) Much Ado. But many professional productions are too long and worthy, even for adults. It is little fun for the students, their teachers or parents, when the coach arrives back at the school gates at 1am.

The RSC, with its special abridged school versions, has it right, and its productions for schools are proving justly popular. You do not need much more than two hours to appreciate a Shakespeare production. The excellent 2007 production of Othello at the Globe Theatre on London's South Bank was marred by its length; the first Act lasted nearly 40 minutes. It could have been cut to 20.

None of the political parties has produced a manifesto on Shakespeare. Let me propose one. All children at primary level should know the stories and see simplified forms of all the major Shakespeare plays. They should learn passages from Shakespeare. At eight, I had to learn "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more" from Henry V, and have always been grateful for that (memorising poetry is the entitlement of every child).

Those in their first two years of secondary school should be offered opportunities to act in a Shakespeare, and should study "easier" plays such as Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Thirteen to 16-year-olds should all study a tragedy – Hamlet or Macbeth would be ideal, a comedy such as Twelfth Night, and a history, perhaps Richard III. Lessons should involve acting key scenes, because that helps to create a deeper understanding, and brings character and plot to life. The RSC and other bodies should hold annual conferences and festivals to encourage a love for Shakespeare, and implant passion lost.

On St George's Day, let us remind ourselves that England is a "precious jewel set in a silver sea". Readers will recognise this line from Richard II. How many of our young will continue to do so unless we act now?


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