Monday, May 17, 2010

Many American public schools are so bad that even some on the Left are beginning to see the need for parental choice of schools

THE STORIED ANTI-DEFAMATION LEAGUE, one of the nation's oldest civil-rights organizations, is fervent -- very fervent -- about the separation of church and state. It devotes an elaborate page to the subject on its web site. It files friend-of-the-court briefs when church/state issues come before the federal or state judiciary. Whether the controversy is over school prayer, religious displays in public, or the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, ADL argues with much passion for keeping the "wall of separation" between government and religion as high and impenetrable as possible. "The more government and religion become entangled," it has often warned, "the more threatening the environment becomes for each."

No surprise, then, that ADL takes a hard line against school-choice voucher programs, which give parents the wherewithal to rescue their children from failing public schools and enroll them in private schools instead. Since those private schools are often church-affiliated, ADL contended in an amicus brief the last time the Supreme Court took up the issue, vouchers have the unconstitutional effect of directing "government funding to religious schools for religious purposes."

That case was Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, a landmark decided in 2002, in which the Supreme Court disagreed with ADL. As long as vouchers enable parents to "exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious," the majority ruled, nothing about them offends the Constitution.

But ADL's opposition hasn't softened. When the Senate was poised earlier this year to vote on funding school vouchers for the District of Columbia, ADL signed a letter calling for the program be killed. "Instead of sending federal money to private schools," it urged, "money should instead be invested in the public schools." In a five-part essay posted online, ADL claims that "vouchers pose a serious threat to values that are vital to the health of American democracy" and "threaten to undermine our system of public education."

Needless to say, the ADL position, widely shared on the left, has plenty of critics on the right, including your humble servant. From the conservative editorialists at The Wall Street Journal to the libertarian litigators at the Institute for Justice, supporters of vouchers have frequently excoriated those who oppose them -- especially teachers unions and the politicians who genuflect to them -- for their willingness to keep poor kids trapped in wretched schools.

But while there may be nothing extraordinary about conservatives or libertarians embracing school choice, it takes real grit for liberals or Democrats do so. Especially when they do so from within ADL.

Three months ago, the executive committee of ADL's Philadelphia chapter voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution endorsing vouchers. Now it is urging the entire organization to follow suit.

"We believe school choice to be an urgent civil rights issue," the committee argued in a brief being circulated among ADL's 30 regional offices. Despite decades of increased spending on K-12 education, "the evidence that our public education system is failing to educate our children is staggering." ADL should reverse its longtime position "as a moral imperative," the Philadelphia leadership urges, and "issue a resolution in favor of school choice."

Pennsylvania State Senator Anthony Williams, bucking the teachers unions, is an outspoken champion of vouchers.
As it happens, the ADL regional board's isn't the only liberal voice in Philadelphia calling for greatly expanded school choice. State Senator Anthony Williams, a black Democrat and a candidate in Pennsylvania gubernatorial primary this week, is the founder of a charter school, a champion of vouchers, and an ardent believer in the power of competition to improve the quality of education. His position puts him sharply at odds with the state's largest teachers' union, which opposes choice and has endorsed his main opponent. But Williams -- like the local ADL leadership -- sees school choice as the great civil-rights battle of the day.

"Anybody who was for Brown v. Board of Education -- it baffles me that they would be against vouchers," Williams told me last week. "Brown condemned schools that were separate and unequal. Well, that's exactly what we're back to now -- schools that are segregated by income, by ZIP Code, by race."

Of the 20,000 children who annually enter Philadelphia kindergartens, Williams notes, almost half will drop out before finishing high school -- and fewer than 2,000 will go to college. The way to fix the dreadful public schools that produce these results isn't to shower them with more money, he says. It is to empower parents to pull their kids out and enroll them in better schools elsewhere.

Williams may not win Tuesday's primary. Philly's ADL chapter may not persuade the national board to follow its lead. But in swimming against the tide, both have set examples that will inspire others. Educational inequality persists. But thanks to some gutsy Philadelphia liberals, it has just lost a little more ground.


British School-leavers and graduates are lacking basic skills, says survey

School-leavers and even graduates lack basic literacy and numeracy skills, according to a survey of big employers published today.

More companies are having to provide remedial training to new staff, who cannot write clear instructions, do simple maths, or solve problems. Even those with degrees are failing to impress: one in seven firms said that graduates’ reading and writing skills were inadequate, and one in ten said that they had poor numeracy.

Both graduates and school-leavers were also criticised for their sloppy time-keeping, ignorance of basic customer service and lack of self-discipline.

The report by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) said: “There is understandable frustration among business that they continue having to pick up the pieces to support those who left full-time education with weaknesses in the basic skills they will need in their working lives.”

It conducted a survey of senior executives at 694 companies, which between them employ more than 2.4 million people, or one in 12 of the workforce. Seven in ten companies said that action was needed to improve the employability of school-leavers, and this should be the top education priority of the new Government. Almost two-thirds of employers said that standards of numeracy and literacy should be tackled.

There were also weaknesses in the “soft skills” of graduates and school-leavers, such as time management or working in a team. “These personal competencies are not simply ‘nice to have’ but are a core factor in business success in a competitive market place,” the report said.

“General educational standards — including basic skills of literacy and numeracy — have long been concerns for employers. “Employers’ particular concerns over numeracy and literacy inevitably vary but there is broad agreement about how shortcomings in basic skills affect employees’ ability to perform everyday tasks.

“They can hinder employees in being able to draw out information effectively from basic texts, compose coherent written communications or work through basic arithmetic and percentages, such as working out a discounted price.”

The report added: “Only half of young people currently leave school having achieved the benchmark of an A* to C grade in English and maths GCSE. “And although this is the standard for which schools and students should aspire, it is not necessarily an accurate proxy for basic numeracy and literacy.

“But the large number of young people falling well below this measure is perpetuating the basic skills deficit among major sections of the UK workforce.”

The CBI found that 18 per cent of firms had invested in remedial training for workers in literacy and numeracy, up from 15 per cent in 2008. Its report added: “Employers do not expect schools, colleges and universities to produce ‘job-ready’ young people — they recognise it is their responsibility. But at the very least, young people must enter the labour market literate, numerate and employable.”

Of graduates, the report said that a quarter of companies were dissatisfied with their problem-solving skills and a similar number were unimpressed by their self-management. A fifth said that graduates had limited careers awareness. Job applications from young people were too often “slapdash, containing spelling mistakes, omissions and errors”.

Half of companies are not confident that they will be able to fill graduate-level posts in the next few years and a third are concerned about finding the right candidates for intermediate jobs [A-level equivalent].

Even though the previous Government strove to increase the number of young people taking science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects, firms said that there was still a shortage. “It is of significant concern that despite lower recruitment and more applicants for each position, over two fifths of employers still struggle to find the Stem talent they need.”

Richard Lambert, director-general of the CBI, said: “As we move further into recovery and businesses plan for growth, the demand for people with high-quality skills and qualifications will intensify.

“In the future people with qualifications in science and maths will be particularly sought after, and firms say it is already hard to find people with the right technical or engineering skills. The new Government must make encouraging more young people to study science-related subjects a top priority.”

Employers rated business studies and maths A levels highest and sociology and psychology lowest.


Education without innovation?

I recently traveled to Singapore to research their national education system. During my visit, I stopped by the campuses of the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the National Institute of Education (NIE)—Singapore's only teacher-training institute—to talk to professors, administrators, and students.

According to the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings 2009, both universities rank in the global top 100. NUS is ranked 30th in the world. NIE is an autonomous institute of Nanyang Technological University, which is ranked 73rd in the world.

Singapore students are among the best in the world at math according to the results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). First administered in 1995, the TIMMS has assessed the science and math performance of fourth- and eighth-grade students from several countries every four years.

In 1995, 1999, and 2003, Singapore students in both grades were in first place in math. In 2007, Singapore fourth graders were in second place and eighth graders were in third place. Fifty-nine countries participate in the 2007 TIMSS.

The math textbooks and workbooks used in Singapore have produced the best results in the world. Titled "Primary Mathematics," but often referred to as "Singapore Math," the book series is based on the national math curriculum of Singapore.

The focus of Singapore Math is on depth, rather than breadth; a few important concepts are covered in great depth so that students can master them. In contrast, the focus of the math curriculum in the U.S. is on breadth.

Singapore Math differs from the way math has been traditionally taught in the U.S. in several ways. Instead of teaching students how to apply formulas, Singapore Math teaches students different ways to solve problems. Rather than using paper and pencil, problems are often solved mentally. Rote memorization is replaced with understanding the "why" behind each concept. Concepts are taught once, not repeated year after year. Worksheets have no instructions so that students learn concepts in school rather than at home.

Because of the success of Singapore Math, many schools and homeschool parents in the U.S. have adopted the method.

Even with all their success in math, Singaporean educators are not content with their education system. Three years ago, the "Washington Post" published an article titled "Asian Educators Looking to Loudon for an Edge." The article was about educators from Singapore who visited classrooms in the U.S. to learn how to teach students to think more creatively. Apparently, the U.S. is admired by Singaporeans for its ability to produce scientific and technological innovations.

Even though American students do not score nearly as well as Singaporean students in math, they tend to be more innovative. The latter skill is more important than the former in our increasingly globalized world where moving up the value chain means transforming from an industrial-based economy to a knowledge-based economy to an innovation-based economy.

This is not to say that knowledge in math is not important, because it is. However, knowledge alone is not enough. It must be combined with the ability to apply knowledge in new ways. Applying knowledge in new ways is how innovation occurs, and innovation is critical to any nation's economic and national security.

Perhaps American students tend to be more innovative than Singaporean students because the societies in which they live are different. Americans enjoy much more freedom of thought than Singaporeans, and freedom of thought engenders a state of mind conducive to innovation.

Education systems do not operate in a vacuum; they are influenced by the societies they serve. In Singapore, freedom of thought is discouraged by the limitations posed on freedom of expression. For example, the Singaporean government severely restricts public speeches and censors the media.

If Singaporean educators want to learn how to teach students to think more creatively so the nation can increase its ability to produce scientific and technological innovations, then it would be useful for them to look beyond the classroom.


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