Sunday, May 02, 2010

Can Louisiana education reform survive teachers unions' assault?

HAVING THWARTED efforts to revamp teacher evaluations in Florida, teachers unions are now aiming to block reform in Louisiana. An intense lobbying campaign is underway to defeat Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal's ambitious education reform agenda. State lawmakers should follow his lead in standing up for student interests.

Why should anyone outside Louisiana care? The debate taking place in Baton Rouge is echoing across the country. Many states are competing for a slice of federal funds from President Obama's Race to the Top competition. The reformers stress accountability -- saying teachers, schools and principals should be judged according to results. Unions retort that test scores are an unreliable and one-dimensional measure of student success and that it is unfair to judge teachers by how well their students do because other factors, such as a student's home life, affect performance.

We don't discount those arguments, but then neither do Mr. Jindal and other reformers. They are simply asking that test scores be one component of teacher evaluation. Louisiana has one of the country's highest dropout rates, and one-third of its students don't perform at grade level.

Yet nearly 99 percent of tenured teachers are, according to information from the state education department, rated satisfactory. Reform legislation would allow student achievement, including test scores, to be considered in teacher and principal evaluations, making it easier to dismiss those who fail repeated reviews, and it would give traditional public schools the autonomy and flexibility enjoyed by charter schools in seeking waivers from state policies.

The Obama administration has sent mixed signals in this debate. It said it would reward bold reforms in the Race to the Top competition, but in its first round it seemed to favor states with union buy-in. That seems to have emboldened state union efforts to block reform. Florida lawmakers were willing to shake up the status quo, but Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, launching an independent run for the U.S. Senate, rewarded unions with a veto. As recently detailed by Education Week, states from Massachusetts to Colorado are seeing unions yank their support for Race to the Top applications in a bid to temper education reform efforts. So pronounced was the trend that Education Secretary Arne Duncan in recent days has pointedly warned against states weakening their overhaul plans.

Collaboration is the ideal outcome, but not if it is built on watered-down reform. Mr. Jindal is right to push for meaningful change.


British Pupils lose a slice of real science as schools drop dissection

FOR decades it was an unforgettable part of school biology lessons, but dissection has now fallen victim to health and safety fears.

Schools, sensitive to squeamish pupils and the risks of their misusing scalpels, have abandoned cutting up frogs or animal organs and replaced them with computer simulation or plastic replicas.

Lord Drayson, the science minister, is known to be concerned about the decline in dissection and has commissioned the Society of Biology to devise an accreditation scheme to ensure universities teach it.

Lord Winston, the fertility specialist and broadcaster, is about to begin offering dissection classes for comprehensive pupils in a new laboratory at Imperial College London.

“At so many schools what pupils do is watch teachers dissecting, which means they are divorced from practical work,” Winston said. “Online doesn’t begin to compare. It is a bit of a cop-out — it is very convenient and you can do it en masse [but] practical work is what engages children.”

Schools contacted last week said they were increasingly using on-screen animations or demonstrations by teachers, while reducing dissection by pupils. At most, pupils are likely to dissect individual organs such as a kidney or an eye rather than, say, a whole rat. In addition to health and safety fears, schools cited changes to the curriculum which place more emphasis on issues such as the environment than on practical skills.

Mark Downs, chief executive of the Society of Biology, said: “The reason practical dissection is so important is that it doesn’t sanitise the process. If you have kids thinking of becoming pathologists, they are actually handling a heart — the feeling, texture and smell is a very different experience from a video.”

Downs said the decline of dissection in schools and even universities was so severe that pharmaceutical companies were recruiting hardly any new British graduates for their research units.

Robert Wicks, head of biology at the King’s school in Grantham, Lincolnshire, a boys’ grammar, said dissection had fallen because of changes to the syllabus and added that, elsewhere, “teachers have concerns over the use of dissecting equipment with problem pupils”.

Dominic Cheng, head of science at Cedar Mount school, a Manchester comprehensive, said teaching the skill had fallen dramatically. “There’s no call for it,” he said.

Helen Wright, headmistress of the private St Mary’s Calne, a girls’ school in Wiltshire, said her pupils were taught dissection once they reached the age of 15. Occasionally they worked with pickled rats or fish heads, but more often with pigs’ hearts and kidneys “usually sourced from a very nice butcher in Devizes”.


British school refuses to see severe bullying

It took the light of publicity to get any action at all

Emma and Ian Nagington took special care when trying to find a secondary school for their daughter. They were particularly concerned because Nicole, aged 12, is ‘moderately to severely deaf’ and needs to wear a hearing aid to keep up with lessons.

Knowing children can be cruel, they feared their daughter might be singled out, particularly because she was so hard of hearing her teachers had to wear special microphones.

But they were reassured when staff at the Phoenix School in Telford, Shropshire, told them about the safe, caring environment at the comprehensive.

So when Nicole stopped eating and became bad tempered within a fortnight of starting at Phoenix, Mr and Mrs Nagington at first thought she was just being a typical adolescent. It was only when she ran home from school in tears two months ago that they realised something was terribly wrong.

Nicole shook with fear as she told them she was being badly bullied – not because of her deafness, but because of her red hair. The final straw was a series of poison pen notes, one containing death threats.

The bullying began within days of the start of the school year, when 15 girls in her class began calling her names, including ‘ginger nut’ and ‘ginger bitch’. The nastiness escalated and in March she received a note reading: ‘I shall see you after school and I am going to kill you.’

Yet months went by and Nicole said nothing. ‘I didn’t want to be called a grass as well as everything else,’ she says. Instead she faked illness to try to stay at home and nagged her parents until they let her dye her red hair blonde in a desperate attempt to halt the daily verbal abuse. ‘When we finally discovered what was happening, and how petrified she was, I felt terribly guilty because I had been forcing her to go to school,’ said Emma.

Mr and Mrs Nagington immediately complained to the school, but say they were ignored for more than a week. Even when they managed to raise their concerns, they say senior staff tried to downplay the bullying. ‘We were fobbed off,’ said Ian. ‘The best response we got was that they had no evidence of bullying.

‘I can’t believe that not only did they take no action over the note, but that in all those months they didn’t see that something was going on.’

Nicole, who is pretty, polite and rather shy, started wearing a hearing aid when she was five. It did not cause any problems at primary school, she had lots of friends and her attendance record was 99 per cent.

When it came picking a secondary school, Phoenix School was only the family’s third choice. Nicole did not like it from the start. She said: ‘In my first week one of the girls in the class started calling me names. ‘Over the following weeks, other girls joined her until all the girls in the class were calling me names and telling me I was ugly. ‘Break times were terrible and one or other of them kept pushing me up against one of the walls or on to the ground, but none of the teachers seemed to notice.’

At home, she did not dare mention what was happening. Instead her behaviour deteriorated and she lost her appetite.

After the Christmas break the bullying continued and Nicole then persuaded her parents to let her dye her hair blonde. ‘It didn’t take all the red away and it didn’t stop the bullying. I had a note that said, “You are still a ginger ... All gingers should die”,’ says Nicole.

Meanwhile she kept faking illness to try to stay at home. In early March, a girl threw a plastic bottle of water at her during class, which hit her on the side of her eye, leaving a bruise. The class teacher saw what happened but, according to Nicole, was not surprised or cross. Girls also began leaving nasty messages on Facebook.

Then, during a class on March 17, Nicole was passed notes insulting her hair and lack of hearing. Then they said they would kill her after school. She took the threat literally and, when school was over, dashed home.

‘Nicole was crying and shaking from head to foot,’ Emma recalls. ‘I put my arms around her and asked her what was wrong. She was too upset to speak and instead passed me the notes. I couldn’t believe how shocking they were.’

The school maintains that it was unaware anything was wrong. But so far as Nicole and her parents are concerned, this is because no one at Phoenix took the trouble to listen.

Emma says she rang the school numerous times trying to speak to the deputy head, but kept being told she was in meetings. Nicole begged her parents not to send her back and a place was soon found at Wrockwardine Wood Comprehensive. But this meant the head or deputy head of Phoenix would have to sign a transfer form.

Ian said: ‘When the deputy head finally rang us she refused to sign, saying there was no evidence of bullying and therefore no need for Nicole to leave. 'I disagreed and told her Emma had read out the poison pen letters to the form head, but she said words to the effect that children will be children. ‘She asked me to come in and see her, but there was no point as we were determined not to send Nicole back.

'After six weeks, when I felt Phoenix had dragged its feet long enough, I told our story to our local newspaper and they got in touch with the deputy head for a comment. It might have been a coincidence but the papers were then signed.’

Nicole’s story looks as if it will have a happy ending. She has started her new school and things are going well. She said: ‘The girls in my form have been really friendly. I feel very happy and I can’t wait for the dye to grow out and to get my bright red hair back again.’

A Phoenix School spokesman said: ‘The school is committed to resolving bullying issues and supporting young people, has signed up to the anti-bullying charter and has robust systems in place.

'We are confident that when informed of alleged bullying we take suitable measures to deal with it. Unfortunately in this case, parents withdrew the pupil without reporting the concerns they have raised in the Press.’


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