Tuesday, May 11, 2010

La.: Teacher sues over right to flunk her students

Sheila Goudeau, by all accounts, was a good teacher. In fact, she was the only nationally certified teacher at Riveroaks Elementary School, and she was a nominee for teacher of the year. But that didn’t qualify her to grade her students, according to a suit she has filed against the East Baton Rouge, La., school and its administrators.

According to the civil rights suit filed in federal court in Baton Rouge, Goudeau was asked to teach fourth grade last year by the school’s principal, Shilonda Shamlin, in order to help raise grades and have students prepare for the state mandated Louisiana Educational Assessment Test (LEAP), which all students in the state must pass to move on to the next grade.

After she took the job, the suit alleges, Shamlin ordered that no student was to get a failing grade and that teachers were not to record any grade lower than a "D."

Goudeau’s attorney, Craig Sterling Watson, said the suit doesn’t specify why Shamlin gave the orders, and he said Goudeau still doesn't know. He said Goudeau complied with the orders and didn’t fail students, but she complained about the orders and filed a grievance with the school district. At that point, the suit claims, Goudeau was monitored, harassed and disparaged in front of her students. She has since transferred to another elementary school in the district.

The suit seeks unspecified damages for Goudeau's severe and extreme mental pain, suffering, and anguish; physical pain, suffering and anguish; loss of sleep; loss of quality of lifestyle; loss of reputation and standing in the community; humiliation and embarrassment; medical expenses; counseling; wages; and loss of earning capacity from the principal, the school district, and current and former school superintendents of the district.

Principal Shamlin did not reply to repeated requests for comment. Domione Rutledge, general counsel for East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, said the school district couldn’t speak about the allegations “because it still hadn’t been served with the papers.”

Lawsuits like the one Goudeau filed are rare, said Perry A Zirkel, a professor in education and law at Lehigh University says. He explained that while courts generally agree that a teacher's right to grade is protected by the First Amendment, they also find that administrators have the same right and can change grades as they like. “So the teacher wins the right to give a D and the school has the right to change it to an A,” he said.

But the suit has already served one purpose. It brought about a wave of criticism aimed at the principal and school administrators and showed that the school staff was bitterly divided. When a story about the lawsuit appeared in The Advocate, a Baton Rouge daily, a chorus of complaints charged that Shamlin ruled the school with a heavy hand and demanded regimentation of studies and classrooms.

“It's a crippling work environment at Riveroaks and the school's reputation is well-known throughout the parish," wrote an anonymous poster to the newspaper's website. "Just consider the teacher turnover at the school. There is almost an entire new staff hired each year. This year won't be any different.”

But another responded, "Mrs. Shamlin has done more to improve the quality of education at Riveroaks in the last four years than any other principal. Ask any parent that has had more than one child there over the years. She cares about the students and has high standards for them and the teachers."

The case is unlikely to go to trial for some time, Watson said.


British teachers hate being assessed too

They know that exam results give some idea of how good their teaching is

Tens of thousands of primary children missed Key Stage 2 tests yesterday as head teachers took direct action and refused to hand out papers.

Despite preparing themselves all year for the tests, formerly known as Sats, 10 and 11-year-old children across England learnt yesterday that they had been cancelled. They were due to start with reading tests while writing, spelling and maths papers were due later this week. However, the tests remained sealed, boxed and locked away in many schools, where heads and teachers took unprecedented action after a year of sabre-rattling.

They claim that pressure to teach to the tests narrows the Year 6 curriculum, and puts undue stress on children, teachers and head teachers whose careers depend on the results, which are used to judge the school’s performance.

Ed Balls, still in place as Schools Secretary, recently raised the stakes by telling governing bodies and local authorities they had a duty to try to ensure the tests went ahead, and suggesting they could suspend heads who failed to comply.

Yet the boycott, organised by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and the National Union of Teachers (NUT), went ahead in more than half of schools in some areas.

In Hartlepool, all 31 schools took action, as did about three quarters of schools in Calderdale. Other areas involved in the boycott include Manchester, Reading, Stoke-on-Trent, Norfolk and several London boroughs.

In Barnsley, West Yorkshire, about three fifths of schools refused to administer the tests. At Athersley South Primary School, children cheered when it was confirmed at 9am that their tests would not be taking place.

The art room had been prepared, with rows of tables and a pencil and wooden ruler for every child. Vibrant art work and colourful pottery were covered with black paper or tablecloths, as pupils are not supposed to sit the tests in an atmosphere that could inspire or distract them, the head teacher Steve Iredale said.

“We had to sterilise the room, which makes it quite scary for the children,” Mr Iredale said. “I will offer the unopened packet of tests back on Friday when Parcelforce come to collect the papers. If they won’t take them, they will gather dust in the store cupboard.”

Mr Iredale, an executive member of the NAHT, told the children that they might not sit the tests, and wrote to all parents explaining why. He claims to have received 100 per cent support.

His school assesses all children’s progress, with local officials acting as external monitors, and will provide information on what academic stage each pupil has reached to the local authority and the Government.

This, Mr Iredale says, is more accurate than the Key Stage tests, because a school’s results can be skewed by one clever child being off sick or having a bad day. “You live or die by a set of good or bad results,” he said.

His Year 6 children were instead immersed in drawing pictures and designing a woodland garden for the school grounds.

One girl said of the tests: “If you’re doing a writing test you have to do a detailed plan before you write anything, you have to use an introduction, paragraphs and a conclusion. It’s a lot of pressure and because of that you might get a lower mark because you’re feeling nervous.”

Her classmate said: “My dad didn’t like it because I used to go home and ask him things like what the biggest mountain in the world is. All I’ve been saying this year is what level I’m at. We haven’t done much geography this year. I liked doing geography and history especially learning about the Second World War.”

Teachers complain that, not only is most of the last year of school geared toward the tests in May, but also that the last two months of term are wasted as children’s behaviour and concentration wanes afterwards.

Mr Iredale said heads would be keeping up the pressure on whoever comes to power, to ensure the tests were abandoned. “This isn’t over,” he said. “We need to know very quickly what is happening for next year.” He said head teachers felt frustrated. “This isn’t a militant group of people — we are school leaders: conservative with a small c, but we’ve been driven to this.”

The tests are normally taken by about 600,000 children each year. Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, said enough schools had taken action to scupper the primary school league tables drawn up from the test results, which was a key aim of the campaign.

“There are reports from many areas that a significant majority of primary school pupils will not be sitting Key Stage 2 tests this week. I am delighted that so many schools have taken the brave step of taking part in the boycott, despite the many pressures not to.”


Australia: Surveyor rejects 'insane' school building costs

THE nation's most respected construction costs surveyor will exclude the "insane" cost of school buildings delivered under the $16.2 billion schools stimulus program from its cost calculations because they would distort its data.

The principal of Rawlinsons in Australia, Paul McEvoy, said the group, which publishes the renowned industry costing guide Rawlinsons Construction Handbook, would discard the high cost of buildings delivered under the scheme as "anomalous".

As revealed by The Weekend Australian, state governments are charging public schools as much as $5800 a square metre for basic school halls being erected across the nation -- more than three times the amount Rawlinsons reports those buildings should cost.

"We produce this handbook each year and we have people undertaking cost research all year round to ensure its accuracy," Mr McEvoy said. "We discard anomalous projects where it looks like something is erroneous. We would never say it is going to cost $5000 (per sq m) to build a school hall. "We have so many examples of projects where buildings are consistent with our cost estimates; we would simply not use this (scheme) information."

Mr McEvoy said level-one or two primary school buildings typically cost between $1300 per sq m and $1400 per sq m to build, plus "professional services" fees of no more than 12 per cent.

Those costings allowed for contingencies for cost overruns and the full cost of preliminaries, substructure, superstructure, finishes, fittings, and services such as plumbing, electrical, fire and mechanical.

Mr McEvoy said he had no idea why school halls and libraries in NSW were being delivered at $5400 per sq m and $5800 per sq m respectively. "I can offer no explanation for such a high figure," he said."Insanity comes in many forms".

Education Minister Julia Gillard has been unable to explain why public schools are being charged so much for buildings under the BER, except to claim media reports were not comparing "apples with apples". "I often find when these figures are used in the newspapers there isn't a clear apples-to-apples accounting," Mr Gillard told Sydney radio host Alan Jones this week.

The high cost of buildings delivered to public schools under the BER has caused anger among school principals, with buildings delivered by state governments twice as likely to be viewed as poor value for money compared with those delivered independently.

The Australian National Audit Office's report into the schools stimulus, released on Wednesday, found 82 per cent of schools that were self-managing projects -- almost exclusively private schools -- believed they had received value for money compared with 40 per cent for other schools. Private schools have been obtaining buildings within industry standard costings, delivering them for far better value for money than their public peers.

The International Grammar School in the Sydney suburb of Ultimo is building an architect-designed four-level building, complete with arts and crafts centre, library and rooftop deck -- for $3.9 million. That equates to $2785 per sq m for the multi-level complex, less than half the cost by area of the modest school halls being given to public schools.

The Mount Evelyn Christian School in Melbourne's west is building a 1600sq m architect-designed hall to house two basketball courts, a rock climbing wall and a stage, for $2.27m. That equates to $1420 a square metre.

Mr McEvoy said CBD banks were among the most expensive type of buildings covered by Rawlinsons, and cost $5030 per sq m.


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