Sunday, June 06, 2010

Cleveland specialty high schools celebrate first graduates, but resentment remains from traditional schools

The Cleveland School of Science and Medicine and Cleveland School of Architecture and Design, both at John Hay, and all-male Ginn will present diplomas this weekend to a combined 171 seniors. The count would have been higher, but two seniors failed to pass all five sections of the state graduation test.

All the John Hay graduates are bound for college or trade school. Two Ginn grads are entering the military; the rest plan to go to college. That's remarkable in a district where nearly half the students quit before completing 12th grade.

The new schools draw cries of favoritism. Support from foundations, the schools' small, boutique settings and their freedom to pick students stir resentment.

Urban systems face a dilemma: Large high schools are ineffective, but smaller models can be expensive and need union consent for the flexibility that proponents say is essential.

One thing for certain is that Cleveland's niche choices keep more students from dropping out or leaving for charter and suburban classrooms. The alternatives also may save students who would end up in jail or dead.

"When you look at the performance of most of the comprehensive high schools, it's pretty dreadful," said former district innovation chief Leigh McGuigan, describing conditions across the country. "The end game has to be to put in place in every school the characteristics that exist in these schools."

The John Hay Campus, in University Circle, gives off the vibe of a private school. You can't tell now, but not long ago, the building was so out of control that then-Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett resorted to a drastic solution: Shut the classic 1929 structure down for remodeling, kick out the neighborhood kids and start from scratch with new concepts.

Science and Medicine and Architecture and Design require a 3.0 grade-point average for admission, a big reason why John Hay, rated as a single entity, scored "excellent" on its most recent state report card.

"We have tons of good students [in the district]. Shouldn't there be some public options for parents?" said Edward Weber, head of school at Science and Medicine. "I wouldn't say it's cherry-picking so much as students earn the right to be here."


British Schools leave Christianity in the wilderness

Schools have been accused of ignoring the views of their Christian pupils while paying careful attention to children of other faiths. According to Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, teachers are failing to educate children in the core beliefs of Christianity, ignoring their legal obligation to do so.

An Ofsted report released today says stories from the Bible are often used simply to teach children about their feelings or about how to empathise with the sick, but their religious significance is neglected.

The inspectorate finds there has been a sharp decline in the quality of religious teaching, particularly in secondary schools, over the past three years. “Insufficient attention was paid to ... pupils who were actively engaged in Christian practice,” the report notes. “Often, their experience was ignored ... this sometimes contrasted sharply with the more careful attention paid to the experiences of pupils from other religious traditions.”

Critics argue that too many teachers are both ignorant and embarrassed about Christianity and are frightened of causing tension in multi-faith schools.

However, supporters of the approach identified by Ofsted argue that teachers are simply reflecting the secular views prevalent in society.

Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, said: “There is generally in the culture a kind of embarrassment about talking openly about Christianity that doesn’t apply to other faiths.” He warned that teachers were in danger of presenting religions as a “smorgasbord of interesting rituals and feasts”.

Christine Gilbert, the chief inspector of schools, said: “All young people should have the opportunity to learn about religion [and] learn from religion. This requires good teaching based on strong subject knowledge and clarity about the purposes of religious education.”

The teaching of religion has become increasingly fraught. Last year, a primary school teacher from Tower Hamlets, east London, claimed he had been forced out of his job because he had complained to his headmistress about an anti-Christian bias among pupils.

Some had allegedly praised the September 11 hijackers, while one boy had said he was glad about the death of a lawyer who had been stabbed “because he’s a Christian”.

Schools are obliged to teach religion, although it is not part of the national curriculum. Lessons are also supposed to reflect the fact that Christianity is the main religion in Britain, while taking account of the other leading faiths.

To assess how well they were meeting their obligations, Ofsted inspectors studied 94 primary and 89 secondary schools and compared the teaching with what it had found in a similar study three years ago. The report says: “There is an urgent need to review the way the subject is supported.” It adds: “In the sample of primary schools ... not enough [religious education] was of good quality. The quality of RE in the secondary schools visited was worse than in the schools involved in the 2007 survey.”

Ofsted says: “It was common for teachers to use Jesus’s parables to explore personal feelings or to decide how people should behave, but not make any reference to their religious significance.” In one primary school lesson, a teacher told the story of Christ’s healing of a blind man and said the purpose was to understand how it felt to be blind. The pupils were given a “feely bag” and asked to write a poem about what they would miss if they could not see. “The pupils were confused and began to lose interest,” the report notes.

Ofsted also found that teaching about Islam in secondary schools avoided any reference to controversial topics such as the place of Islam in Britain.

Andrea Minichiello Williams, director of the campaign group Christian Concern for our Nation, said: “It’s good Ofsted is starting to recognise the marginalisation of Christianity. Increasingly teachers feel they are not free to talk about faith ... Christianity is not given a level playing field.”

However, Keith Porteous Wood, director of the National Secular Society, said: “In the last week, we have had complaints of children in community schools being forced to pray before lunch and their libraries having far more books on religion than science. Yet Ofsted is pressing for the indoctrination of pupils to be stepped up.”


Black educational achievement can be greatly improved -- by strict drill, not by woolly-headed Leftist methods

By Miranda Devine, writing from Australia

When the Cape York Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson was in year 5 at Hopevale primary school, in the mid-1970s, a fill-in teacher arrived to take his class. She was an older woman, but he can't remember her name. He can remember names of more charismatic teachers.

He just remembers a "long, torrid" year with this nameless teacher, who had once taught high-school English and who drilled the children in literacy so intensively it felt "like doing football practice day in and day out".

That was the year of his "literacy breakthrough", he remembers, and when he went away to boarding school in Brisbane at the Lutheran St Peter's, he outshone most of his contemporaries in English. He continued to do so at Sydney University where he took his history and law degrees.

It was in this teacher's classroom that the seeds were sown for the high-stakes education revolution he has launched on Cape York, to erase a generation's dysfunction and lost opportunity.

It was there that Pearson came to understand that the "essence of the good teacher is above all the quality of their instruction", as he wrote last year. This led him eventually to the door of a 78-year-old professor at the University of Oregon last year.

Pearson remembers his old teacher used a boxed set of cards for the literacy exercises, which the children called "SRA cards" because they were published by the mysterious sounding Science Research Associates. Thirty-five years later he discovered the SRA and its cards had been part of a teaching method known as Direct Instruction, designed by Professor Siegfried Engelmann.

The discovery came via Bernadine Denigan, the inspirational chief executive of Cape York Partnerships, who went to the US on a Churchill fellowship two years ago and discovered the startling successes Direct Instruction was having in similarly disadvantaged schools in places as diverse as Harlem and Nebraska.

As Pearson wrote in a brilliant article entitled Radical Hope in Quarterly Essay last year, Engelmann's contribution is "the most profound of any education theorist in the modern era and yet he labours in near complete-obscurity".

The American adman turned education professor designed the teacher-proof program that allows children, particularly those from disadvantaged background, to excel. The teacher reads exercises to children from a set script, with clear examples, consistent working and explicit phonics, delivered with high energy and at a fast pace. Children are placed in classes according to ability and only progress when they have mastered every lesson in the workbook. Like phonics, it is unfashionable in the "pupil-directed learning" milieu. Pearson had to fight to get the $7 million, three-year trial off the ground at Coen and Aurukun schools this year.

Undermined by elements of the Queensland education bureaucracy, he had to replace both principals this year and a number of teachers.

But he expects the program to work better than what he calls the Groundhog Day of "shameful failure" in which Aboriginal children are two to four years behind their non-indigenous counterparts.

At Aurukun school last week, where I saw the program in action, Lizzie Fuller, a 25-year-old from Orange, says Direct Instruction just "makes sense. It takes all the guesswork out of teaching. You thrive on the results and the kids thrive on the lessons."

She tells of the student who was moved into a higher ability group who came to her at the end of the day and said: "Miss, I am just so proud of myself."

This is real self-esteem, says Pearson, the kind that comes from achievement rather than the illusory sort that comes from people offering you false praise.

Last week, a year 4 girl, Imani Tamwoy, became the first child to catch up to her grade level in reading, a significant achievement in Aurukun.

Colleen Page, a 24-year-old teacher from the Sunshine Coast, in her third year at the school, says her students revel so much in synonyms they now will say, "Miss, I'm feeling indolent today" rather than "lazy".

Another teacher, Patricia Thompson, has also noticed "a big change in my kids - there's been a big improvement in behaviour because they've learned to read … We [teachers] love it."

At Coen School, where Pearson's cousin Cheryl Canon, from Hopevale, is the new principal, results are similarly pleasing after just 18 weeks.

Visiting the school last Friday, Pearson is delighted at what he sees in Majella Peter's class. A tall, elegant Coen local, she is not a trained teacher but a tutor who completed an 18-month traineeship at the school in 2006, and had a four-week crash course in Direct Instruction this year. With her script in front of her she briskly moves her small class through the morning's work. "Is this food?" she says in the instructor's bright, energetic voice. "What kind of food is it?"

"This food is a carrot."

Her pupils sit in rapt attention, calling out answers in unison.

Pearson says it was NAPLAN testing in 2008, showing abysmal scores for Aurukun, Coen and other Cape York schools, that prompted concerns by parents. For all the sophisticated explanations from teachers' unions about why NAPLAN rankings are a disaster for our children's education, there is a countervailing story out in the real Australia.

On Cape York, in the nation's most disadvantaged schools, the NAPLAN tests of 2008 actually empowered parents to demand a better education for their children. When they saw how far below the national average their schools had scored in the 2008 test, they demanded answers.

At Aurukun, test results were at least 70 per cent below the national benchmark in reading, writing, numeracy, spelling, grammar and punctuation. The precipitous step on a bar chart of comparative results says it all.

At Coen School, Pearson's Cape York Institute has been running a successful phonics-based remedial literacy program MULTILIT with Macquarie University. The results were more encouraging, with all year 7 students at or above the national minimum standard in writing, spelling and numeracy.

But having made the commitment to send their children to school - and with attendance rates climbing - Cape York parents felt the schools were letting them down on their side of the bargain.

It was welcome criticism for Pearson, who has spent years drumming up parental involvement in education and has introduced a suite of radical social reforms, including student trust accounts to pay for future education expenses. Education is the crucible around which his plans for Cape York revolve - for welfare reform and economic self-sufficiency to end the cycle of despair that comes from passive welfare dependency.

The next NAPLAN results in 2012 are expected to bear the fruits of his work.


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