Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Ban on inflated grades in Texas

Students in Texas must get the grades they earn and not an inflated score on report cards under a new state law that bans minimum grade policies, a judge decided Monday in a ruling that backed arguments from state education officials.

Eleven school districts sued Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott over his interpretation of the law, which he said should apply to class assignments and report cards. The districts, most of them in the Houston area, said it should only apply to classroom assignments.

Some districts have long had policies that establish minimum grades of 50, 60 or even 70. That means if a student failed and earned a zero, his or her grade would be automatically brought up to the minimum score.

The schools contend that not allowing students a grade below 50, for example, gives them room to improve and eventually receive course credit, since one low score could bring down the overall average. Otherwise, they argue, failing students would be more inclined to drop out.

State district Judge Gisela Triana-Doyal ruled that the law, which took effect last year, applied to both assignments and overall grades on report cards.

"She said we were interpreting the law correctly," Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said. "We've always said the legislative intent was clear, this law was supposed to apply to all grades, including report card grades. The judge today agreed with that."

The lawsuit argued that minimum grade policies help improving students. For example, if a student were to earn a 30, but then 74, 74, 73, 75 and 74 on report cards throughout the year, the only way the student would pass is if the 30 was increased to a 50.

"You do have situations where the student makes a really low grade and decides to turn things around and work hard," Mesquite Schools Superintendent Linda Henrie told the Dallas Morning News before the ruling. "If that average is too low, it's an impossible situation."

Henrie said districts would prefer to be able to set their own policies.


Tough Texas school Superintendent

Houston's new school Superintendent Terry Grier didn't flinch as 750 teachers packed a meeting in February to protest a policy that puts their jobs at risk if student test scores don't rise enough. The teachers booed as more than two dozen parents and business leaders voiced support for the hard-line approach. In the world of public education, job security traditionally is a given.

At the time, Grier had been leading HISD for six months, and while the school board drove the policy, he said he backed it "110 percent." Grier became the hero or the villain, depending on who's telling the story. "I didn't hear me getting booed," Grier joked with reporters after the board vote. "In my job, you get as old as I am … you do what's right for children. I don't expect everyone to agree with what I do or what the board advocates."

To Grier's supporters, his thick skin, independence and kids-come-first mantra are proving a successful recipe for shaking up the status quo in Texas' largest district.

But his rapid rollout of reforms in his first school year — including ousting staff, shutting down the regional offices, removing razor-wire fencing around campuses and ordering schools to serve students breakfast at their classroom desks - has cut short the happy honeymoon with teachers, principals and parents skeptical of hasty decisions.

"Terry's first 10 months have shown him to be all about children and results," said HISD board member Paula Harris. "Through this process, he's definitely ruffled the feathers of adults. "I have told Terry and other people have told him that we're nice here in the south," she said. "We say things nice. And I don't think that's a skill he has or he cares to have."

Grier, while more charismatic than his predecessor, Abelardo Saavedra, speaks bluntly about the problems he sees in the district. While most HISD schools aren't failing under Texas' rating system, Grier, a North Carolina native, has focused instead on the national Stanford test and on the dismal college graduation rates among HISD students. Grier, like his teachers, ultimately will be judged on whether his ideas improve those statistics.

"How do you celebrate when 70,000 kids (out of 200,000) cannot read on grade level?'" Grier said. "How do you sugarcoat that?"

Such frank talk appeals to the business community. "He isn't trying to succeed by setting the bar low," said Larry Kellner, the vice chairman of the Greater Houston Partnership and former chief executive of Continental Airlines.

'Gestapo tactics'

But Grier's decision to close the powerful regional offices and his "Apollo 20" school improvement plan - which forced 160 teachers and principals out of their jobs - have shaken morale.

Principals generally keep quiet during their monthly meetings with the superintendent, though some have begun speaking out, which Grier says he encourages.

State Sen. Mario Gallegos, a Democrat who has blasted the new superintendent since day one, said Grier rules with "Gestapo tactics."

"Principals are scared," Furr High School Principal Bertie Simmons said, before adding that the fear isn't all bad for the district. "We've been complacent for a long time, and I think a little tension causes people to really be more productive."

Grier, the first outsider to run HISD in 15 years, has brought in consultants and auditors, costing more than $386,000, to help with facilities, communications, special education, literacy curriculum and grant writing for magnet programs.

The 60-year-old Grier has stumbled some in assembling his new leadership team - with his new chief of high schools abruptly resigning this month - and the district has lost five principals to the popular charter school network KIPP, which Grier himself has praised. "You always hate to lose good principals," Grier said, "but some of the principals that left for KIPP had a track record of being successful principals and some did not."

Mary Nesbitt, the vice president of Parents for Public Schools, criticizes Grier's strategy as "fire, aim, ready." As examples, she says, the district is seeking a grant to fund new magnet programs without first evaluating its current ones. Grier also announced he wanted to sever ties with Community Education Partners but then backed down after the for-profit discipline program received a good external evaluation and had majority board support.

"For many parents the jury is still out, but we are increasingly cautious and concerned that changes are happening for change sake," Nesbitt said.

Caronetta Jones, a member of the Superintendent's Parent Advisory Committee, said she was frustrated after Grier missed two meetings but appreciated that he ordered his staff to prevent future scheduling conflicts. "He is very personable, and I like that," said Jones, the president of HISD's Council of PTAs.

Course, college credits

Perhaps Grier's biggest triumph, or at least the easiest to measure, is his first effort to improve the graduation rate. His $4 million initiative to hire graduation coaches and to put mobile computer labs in most high schools - a feat his staff accomplished in only three months - has helped nearly 700 seniors recover 944 course credits.

In addition, HISD officials estimate that students took as many as 5,000 more Advanced Placement exams under Grier's push to pay for all those enrolled in the classes to sit for the test, which can count for college credit.

State Rep. Harold Dutton, upset over Grier's investigation of former Key Middle School Principal Mable Caleb, a popular leader in northeast Houston, said HISD needs leaders who are more in touch with local communities. He is considering reintroducing a bill that would split HISD into four subdistricts with their own superintendents.

Dutton did, however, offer a hint of praise for Grier, noting that he has been more open than Saavedra to communicating. "Dr. Grier at least gave me his cell phone number," he said.


As Britain swelters in the soaring heat, school head bans sun cream for children saying 'hats are enough'

What's gone wrong in the head of this petty dictator?

A school has banned young children from applying sun cream during the heat wave, angering parents and health experts. The policy risks putting children's health at risk, according to cancer experts and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.

The primary school has told parents it is sufficient to apply sun cream before their children go to school. It says that it has also provided shady areas in the school grounds and is advising children to wear sun hats.

One of the parents at the school in Wales is considering taking legal action to ensure her daughters can take sun cream to school. Claire Quince's daughters Bronte, seven, and Erin, five, are fair-skinned and have a skin condition which means they are particularly sensitive to the sun. The mother of three, 39, a fashion design student, has lived in Australia where she says the effects of sun exposure are taken very seriously.

'We had a letter from the acting head saying sun cream will not be applied by teachers and will not be allowed in school,' she said. 'My daughters are able to put it on themselves and have been brought up to put it on. I want the maximum protection for them.

'The school is putting children at risk. I've rung four other schools in the area and they all allow children to bring suncream in, or compromise on the application process.'

The school involved, Ysgol Bro Sannan in Aberbargoed, in South Wales, has refused to comment on the matter. Mrs Quince's stance was supported by Julie Barratt, director of the CIEH in Wales, who said: 'There is a concern about teachers not being willing to touch children because of being accused on inappropriate behaviour. But the point is that children can apply the cream themselves and the teachers can supervise.

'There is plenty of evidence that a severe episode of sunburn in childhood means you are more likely to see skin cancer as an adult. 'It is no good suggesting children stay in the shade. We are supposed to be encouraging them to run about and take exercise.' She added: 'The effectiveness of suncream starts to diminish after two hours. Consequently, it is just not good enough to tell a parent to put it on before they go to school.'

Caroline Cerny of Cancer Research UK said: 'Our recommendation to schools is to allow children to bring in their own suncream and supervise its application. But we recognise that this can be difficult.'

A spokesman for the local authority Caerphilly Council said: 'Guidance has been provided [to schools] on sun protection. In this particular case the school has provided shaded areas, purchased suncare hats for all pupils and advised parents to apply a high-factor suncream before children attend school.' The council said the school is reconsidering its policy.

The controversy came as weathermen said the heat wave could continue for another week. Weather forecaster Gareth Harvey said temperatures would drop slightly compared to yesterday, with rain predicted for tonight. He said: 'It looks as though it's going to stay very warm into next week, especially across the south-eastern quarter of the UK.

The warning came as much of Britain was on course for another hot week. Yesterday saw temperatures rise to 82.6f (28.1c) at Heathrow - down on the weekend's peak of 87.6f (30.9c) at Gravesend, Kent. It was so hot yesterday that some roads began to melt.

However, the wall-to-wall sunshine of the last couple of days is expected to be replaced with occasional light showers and cloud elsewhere in the UK.


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