Sunday, April 11, 2010

Teachers between a rock and a hard place in NJ

When the Hackettstown School District presented its $28.5 million 2010-11 budget April 1, the document lacked 18 full-time positions -- seven of them classroom teachers -- who are working this year.

The district is hardly alone in making staff cuts to cope with aid cuts and rising costs. However, Superintendent Robert Gratz told the audience that at least the teaching positions could be restored, if the teachers agreed to a wage freeze advocated by Gov. Chris Christie.

The district teachers union was unable to provide an answer that night, and representatives could not be reached for an update on their discussions this week. "They missed a great opportunity," Gratz said, acknowledging a concession also could help convince voters to approve the budget April 20.

The prospect of a wage freeze has New Jersey educators in a difficult position. Unions that consent could save teachers' jobs. The alternative is to resist the pressure from the governor and lose not only colleagues, but possibly standing in public opinion, experts say.

Since taking office in January, Christie has come out strongly against teachers unions, particularly the largest: the New Jersey Education Association. In his budget address last month, when he proposed reduced total aid to schools by $819 million, he referred to an "arrogant" teachers union that used "intimidation tactics, political bullying and smears" to maintain its "empire."

Before that, he reduced the current year's school aid by $415 million, forcing districts to tap surpluses. Late last month, he offered to restore some state aid to districts where teachers took a wage freeze.

"Certainly the governor is trying to run a public opinion campaign" against teachers, NJEA spokesman Steve Baker said.

The state-level union is not guiding local unions to a decision, he said, because it must be done on a case-by-case basis. However, there will be "massive cuts" around the state no matter what direction they go.


Leftists want to "protect" unpaid internships out of existence

Thus closing off a valuable opportunity for otherwise useless graduates to learn something practical

As the recession rolls on and workers continue to scramble for employment, there's one group of people who haven't seen any diminishment of their employment prospects: those who are willing to work for free. Unpaid internships are booming. At Stanford, employers listed 643 of them on the college's job board this year.

That's more than triple the number they posted two years ago. Experts estimate that somewhere between one-fourth and one-half of all internships are now unpaid. This isn't a trivial number when you consider that internships are increasingly becoming a crucial resume-builder, even for college graduates: A national 2006 study showed that 84 percent of college students at four-year institutions had completed at least one internship before graduation.

In an increasingly competitive job market, internships have become crucial for graduating students or people looking to change careers. In some professions (especially the arts and the world of nonprofits), the unpaid internship is nothing new. But as unpaid internships mushroom in the for-profit world of business, government officials need to step in and ensure that interns aren't being exploited.

Some of these unpaid internships violate federal workplace laws: They displace regular employees, fail to pay interns who should be paid, and don't provide "educational benefits" for those who are legally allowed to work for free.

To put it bluntly: For some employers, the internship has become about taking advantage of free labor rather than a mutually beneficial exchange of work and training for employers and students.

Federal officials are concerned, and they're starting to pay attention. Nancy Leppink, who's the acting director of the Department of Labor's wage and hour division, has said that there aren't many circumstances where for-profit employers can refuse to pay interns.

And yet, as any college student can attest, there's no shortage of for-profit employers who are seeking to hire free interns. Part of the problem is that the six federal legal criteria for unpaid internships were written in a different era (1947), for a time when most internships were more like apprenticeships for production and manufacturing jobs that have vanished.

The criteria need to be updated. And Congress needs to step in, too, with new legislation - unpaid interns should be eligible for the same workplace protections against harassment and discrimination that regular employees enjoy.

Informally, the Department of Labor has already started to update the criteria. It's offered opinion letters about unpaid internships that offer college credit, for example - such internships must provide "educational experiences unobtainable in a classroom setting" and there must be a burden on the employer in terms of training and supervision. But opinion letters are only designed to represent a single specific case. What would be best for both students and employers would be a specific set of standards that apply to all for-profit employers.

Unpaid interns also need protection against workplace harassment and discrimination. There have been court cases where such suits were dismissed since, under current law, only employees receive such protection. That's unfair, and Congress needs to write and pass legislation to set it right.

The Labor Department is right to focus its attention on this issue: In tough times, for-profit companies shouldn't be taking advantage of the loose rules around internships to get people to work for free. There are wide societal implications for the rampant growth of unpaid internships - for one thing, they disadvantage lower-income students, who can't afford to work for free. So at the very least, employers need to follow the current laws that do exist around unpaid interns (e.g. train them and don't use them to displace regular employees). And both the Labor Department and Congress need to fix the laws so that they reflect the contemporary issues these interns are facing.


1930s books revived in the hope of teaching pupils traditional British history

Not much hope of government schools using them

History books first published in the 1930s have been revived in a bid to tackle schoolchildren's ignorance of Britain's past. Acccording to the publishers, the 1930s books are needed to address a 'crisis' in the teaching of the traditional narrative of British history

The series, called A History of Britain, was first published in 1937 and was widely used in schools for decades. It has now been updated and relaunched for a modern audience amid growing concerns that schools are failing to give children a good grasp of history.

It comes as a group of leading history experts called for reform to the school curriculum so secondary schoolchildren are taught a single chronological history course, stretching from the Norman conquest to the 20th century.

Currently, pupils study topics such as the Nazis, Soviet Russia, slavery or the Victorians, often taught in isolation and repeated in different years.

According to the publishers, the 1930s books are needed to address a "crisis" in the teaching of the traditional narrative of British history. "For more than half a century most intelligent youngsters in Britain have grown up to live in the half-darkness of historical ignorance," said Tom Stacey, chairman of Stacey International.

"I have seen this ignorance creeping up on three generations. I count their loss as incalculable deprivation. There has been a parallel discarding of the fabric of biblical history and the Christian narrative."

He said that traditional history had "all but vanished" in schools, replaced by a diet of "projects on slavery, Victorian slums, the labour movement or, again and again, the Second World War".

The 1930s series was written by E H Carter, who was chief inspector of schools, and R A F Mears, a history teacher. Subsequent volumes covered British history up to the 1950s. The updated books are edited by David Evans, an historian and former head of history at Eton College. The first two books to be re-released cover the Tudors and the Stuarts. Eight more will follow, beginning with the Roman invasion.

The last two books, From Churchill to Thatcher; 1951 – 1990, and Into the 21st Century, are new but will be in the same style as the original series.

Concerns that schools are failing to instil a good understanding of the timeline of British history have been raised by a long list of commentators, including academics David Starkey and Niall Ferguson, Andrew Marr, the BBC presenter and author of A History of Modern Britain, and the Prince of Wales.

"There can be no justification for the excessive focus on the history of the Third Reich," said Professor Ferguson, "What we urgently need is a campaign for real history in schools."

A group of experts, lead by Sean Lang, a senior lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University, have just published a report, Better History, calling for a single chronological history course for 11 to 16 year olds. It should be compulsory and have historical knowledge at its heart, the group say.

Mr Lang said: "The current situation whereby students study one set of topics in the early years of secondary school and then embark on a quite separate set of topics in later years has gone unquestioned for too long. "The building up of an extensive body of historical knowledge should be a central aim of the history curriculum."

Fears about current history teaching are backed by a damning Ofsted report which found that although the National Curriculum demands that children develop a "chronological framework", in practice pupils' knowledge was "often very patchy and specific" and that children were "unable to sufficiently link discrete historical events to answer big questions".

The Conservatives have pledged to give children a "clear sense of how British history developed", if the party wins the general election, and the Anglia Ruskin group hopes to influence a Tory rewrite of the National Curriculum.

The group, which includes Martin Roberts, a member of the academic steering committee of Prince Charles's Teaching Institute, and Nicolas Kinlock, a former school head of history, author and former deputy of the Historical Association, will hold a seminar in the summer to sort out details of the new proposed course of study.

Alan Hodkinson, principal lecturer in educational research at Liverpool John Moores University, whose three year study showed that even young children can grasp chronology, said: "Historical time is vital to the study of history. "Without a comprehensive grasp of such, children will fail to understand how to sequence events, periods and people chronologically.

"My research suggests that rather than being de-emphasised, dates appear vital to historical study and should be employed consistently. "It is time that the people responsible for the curriculum stopped underestimating what our children are capable of."

A report published last year by the Historical Association found that thousands of pupils get only two years of teaching in the subject at secondary level, instead of three.

Official figures show that fewer than a third of students sat GCSE history in 2008, raising concerns that the subject is becoming the preserve of independent and grammar schools.


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