Saturday, May 29, 2010

Economic segregation rising in US public schools

The share of public schools with high concentrations of poor students jumped from 12 to 17 percent in eight years, a federal report shows. Economic segregation is tied to the persistent achievement gap

More than 16,000 public schools struggle in the shadows of concentrated poverty. The portion of schools where at least three-quarters of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals – a proxy for poverty – climbed from 12 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2008.

The federal government released a statistical portrait of these schools Thursday as part of its annual Condition of Education report. When it comes to educational opportunities and achievement, the report shows a stark contrast between students in high-poverty and low-poverty schools (those where 25 percent or less are poor).

Economic segregation is on the rise in American schools, and that “separation of rich and poor is the fountainhead of inequality,” says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a public policy research group in Washington. High-poverty schools “get worse teachers ... are more chaotic ... [have] lower levels of parental involvement ... and lower expectations than at middle-class schools – all of which translate into lower levels of achievement.”

Cities aren’t the only places facing this challenge: Forty percent of urban elementary schools have high poverty rates, but 13 percent of suburban and 10 percent of rural elementary schools do as well. In some states – Mississippi, Louisiana, and New Mexico – concentrated poverty affects more than one-third of K-12 schools.

Hispanic and black children make up the majority of students in high-poverty schools – 46 percent and 34 percent, respectively, compared with just 14 percent white and 4 percent Asian/Pacific Islander.

In tests of reading, math, music, and art, students from high-poverty schools routinely score lower than their peers in low-poverty schools.

“There have been gains in achievement in high-poverty schools over the last decade or so ... but what we don’t see in most cases is a closing of the gap,” says Daria Hall, director of K-12 policy at the Education Trust in Washington, which aims to eliminate such gaps.

In graduation rates, there’s actually been a backward slide. In 2008, high-poverty schools reported that 68 percent of seniors graduated the previous year, compared with 86 percent in 2000. For students in low-poverty schools, the rate remained about 91 percent.

Solutions have been hard to come by, but there are some hopeful signs, Ms. Hall says. The attention to the subgroup of low-income students is relatively new, and some schools and districts are showing success in bringing up their achievement. “The willingness of educators to learn from these schools is heartening,” she says.

To address the gaps, education reformers are trying to connect stronger teachers with the most disadvantaged students. In 2008, about 21 percent of teachers in high poverty schools had less than three years of experience, compared with 15 percent in low-poverty schools. And fewer teachers in high-poverty schools have master’s degrees and standard certifications.

Since 2006, the federal government’s Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) has been aimed at helping districts improve teacher quality, particularly in high-needs schools. The Department of Education will distribute an additional $437 million in TIF grants this fall.

While efforts to improve high-poverty schools are valiant, they’ve haven’t worked very well, Mr. Kahlenberg says. He advocates reducing the number of high-poverty schools altogether, by giving families more opportunities to choose schools outside of poor neighborhoods, for instance.

About 70 school districts have plans to draw a mix of income backgrounds to different schools, Kahlenberg says, and there are indications that low-income students achieve better in mixed-income settings.

Cambridge, Mass., for instance, strives for income balance in all its schools through a magnet school system. It has similar graduation rates for low-income students as for all students combined (about 85 percent), and outpaces the state average for low-income students (67 percent).


Australia: Black educational handicaps CAN be beaten

With disciplined instruction and enthusiasm -- NOT with currently conventional methods

If you want to see a real Education Revolution then you should go to the remote Cape York town of Aurukun, where Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson has imported a radical teaching program into a school in which more than half of the students were barely reading at kindergarten level, if they could read at all. In terms of indigenous disadvantage, Aurukun was at rock bottom, with NAPLAN test results 70 per cent below the national benchmark, and every year the achievement gap widening.

The social dysfunction of the Cape's most violent town, driven by gambling, drugs and alcohol, was being played out in the schoolyard. But Pearson says the children's backgrounds has always been used by principals, teachers and education department bureaucrats as an "alibi for schooling failure". His philosophy is that if a student is at school and ready to learn, "a learning failure is a teaching failure".

Already, after just one-and-a-half terms, the American-designed Direct Instruction program in which teachers deliver scripted lessons, according to a strictly prescribed, methodical program in literacy and mathematics, has surpassed even Pearson's extraordinarily high hopes. It is a program on which he has staked his reputation, forced into being against the will of much of the educational establishment, and on which his legacy will be judged.

This week, the 17th week of the DI program, a year 4 girl named Imani Tamwoy became the first in the school to have caught up to her grade level in reading. The grade 5 to 7 students managed to master 76 per cent of the kindergarten program in the first 11 weeks, and the prep - or pre-kindy class of four-year olds - is already 40 per cent through the kindergarten language program.

"I'm surprised," Pearson said on Thursday, during a visit with his five-year-old son Ngulunhdhul, aka Charlie, to Aurukun school, two hours by charter flight from his Cairns home. "I thought in Aurukun we'd have a hell of a time with behaviour … I thought Aurukun would be special case, with the notoriety of the school and the community. But it hasn't been, and the great thing is we're doing it with your stock standard Education Queensland teacher. This is the biggest surprise and they're doing a bloody great job."

Pearson travelled to Oregon last year to meet the architect of DI, Professor Siegfried Engelmann, and after a series of bruising negotiations, and entrenched opposition from some teachers and bureaucrats, installed a $7 million three-year trial in Aurukun and Coen schools at the beginning of the year, with the cautious support of the Queensland Education department.

The new principal, Geoff Higham, 59, drafted early this year to replace his less than enthusiastic predecessor, remembers how students in years 8 and 9 used to bring iron bars to school. "The senior boys were out of control. They were reading at kindy level and they hated everything about school," he says. "It's hard to believe the transformation in just 15 or 16 weeks. "This is a wonderful system. All the children are put into ability groups so no one is failing. The teachers aren't failing. The children aren't failing … It's a magnificent successful educational experiment."

Having taught in hardscrabble schools from Kenya to Thursday Island, the former Victorian describes himself as an old-fashioned "chalk and talk" teacher. His previous schools have been described as places where "even the grass sits up straight". He says DI accords with his educational philosophy, that every child can learn, given a disciplined routine and effective instruction. But even in his wildest dreams he hadn't known how effective DI could be.

"I have no doubt the pupils will be at the national level in maths and English in three years' time, and many children will be one, two or three years above that level."

Walking through the collection of modest white buildings nestled among stringybark and palm trees at the school of 250 pupils, you see everywhere, on teachers' shirts, on banners and in classrooms, the motto Pearson has coined for his education revolution: "Get ready. Work Hard. Be Good."

In Sarah Travers's kindy class, she wears a microphone around her neck to amplify her voice for children with chronic ear infections. It seems to work, because her 10 five-year-old students sit attentively on the floor, calling out sounds as she points to phonetic symbols in a book. At 1.45 pm at the tail end of a busy school week, their concentration and focus is remarkable.

In another classroom, children are sounding out words as the teacher clicks her fingers rhythmically to speed up their voices so that the sounds soon join up to become a fluent word.

Colleen Page, a 24-year-old teacher from the Sunshine Coast, in her third year at Aurukun, says the change DI has had on her pupils is marked. "They thrive on it. It's really good to compare the last two years with this year … Previously the kids would be running around your classroom … not listening. Now they're confident about participation in class."

She tells the story of the eight-year-old boy who came to her one morning proudly telling her how he had applied his previous day's lesson. "Miss, I saw a frog, and I said, 'You are an amphibian. You are born in water and raised on land."'

An essential part of the DI program is weekly testing and data crunching. Every Thursday, 120 pages of detailed test scores and information about each student and class is faxed to a DI centre in North America to be analysed. The following Tuesday, the school leaders have a conference call with DI experts in Oregon, about any problems identified.

For example, the data may pinpoint a deficit in a particular child's understanding that came from a particular work sheet in a particular lesson that may have been taught six weeks earlier. The solution is prescribed and the process repeats itself.

The children seem to thrive on the organised routine. Even those difficult older children in years 9 and 10, who have not gone away to boarding school like most of their peers, and who were expected to be too far behind to reap many rewards from DI, have responded in a way that is heartening and heartbreaking, as you consider countless lost opportunities.

The next stage in Pearson's plan is to extend the school day to run from 8.30 am to 4.45 pm, with direct instruction of basic skills until 2.15 pm. Afternoons will be devoted to two crucial areas of learning: Club, which is physical activities such as Auskick, and Culture, which is devoted to learning their traditional Aboriginal culture and becoming literate in the first language of most Aurukun children, Wik-Mungkan.

With growing community delight in the new DI system at school, and the charismatic leadership of Pearson, there is a feeling of renewal in the air. Or, what Principal Higham calls a corner of light.


British university graduates 'preparing to take low-paid jobs'

Only a quarter of arts and humanities final-year students expect to start graduate jobs this summer, research has found

The majority of students leaving university in coming months do not expect to land decent jobs, it was revealed, as the recession continues to have a “profound effect” on the employment market.

Thousands of final-year degree students are preparing to accept low-paid work in bars, supermarkets and call centres, according to figures. As thousands of undergraduates take end-of-course exams this month, it emerged that only a quarter of those on arts and humanities courses were preparing to secure work in graduate professions.

The disclosure came in a survey of more than 16,000 final year students – a fifth of those nationally – by analysts High Fliers Research. It comes despite fears that graduates are facing record levels of debt this summer, with the average student being forced to repay £18,100 for a three year course. Debts rise to £25,700 in parts of London.

The jobs shortage was blamed on a “substantial backlog” in the number of jobless graduates from previous years – creating additional pressure on the employment market in 2010. Researchers said 8,000 extra job applications had been made to leading companies by the end of October as students attempted to steal a march on competitors.

It was also disclosed that thousands of students are preparing to take a postgraduate course as an alternative to finding a job. Some 26 per cent of students will remain in higher education after completing degrees this year, figures show.

Martin Birchall, High Fliers Research managing director, said students takings courses such as arts and humanities courses, such as fine art, drama, dance, music, history and geography, were likely to be hardest hit.

“The recession may be officially over, but with a record number of students due to complete degrees in the coming weeks and tens of thousands of last year’s graduates still looking for work, there is widespread concern on campus that competition for graduate jobs has never been fiercer,” he said. “The research highlights that students from arts and humanities courses and those who’ve had little or no work experience during their time at university are the least confident about the future.”

According to the study, 36 per cent of students believe they will start a graduate job – or start looking for one – when they leave university this summer. Numbers slump to 25 per cent among arts and humanities students.

Some 26 per cent of all students are preparing to move on to postgraduate courses, while a third will take “any job they are offered”, the study said.

This suggests large numbers of students will embark on low-paid jobs in shops, cafes, call centres and building sites – failing to use their degree for many years.

The disclosure comes despite mounting concerns over graduate debt. In 2010, the average debt being faced by students on a three-year degree was £18,100. Students preparing to leave Imperial College London were expecting to pay back as much as £25,700.


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