Tuesday, June 08, 2010

DC and other cities give new teacher breed a proving ground

Keen teachers are a good start but even keen teachers get discouraged if there is no effective control over misbehaviour -- and that will probably ensue in many of the cases below

The new contract ratified by D.C. teachers has inspired speculation about who is going to get the most out of it. Will Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee be able to impose her test-driven evaluation system with no more teacher resistance? Will the American Federation of Teachers, and its president Randi Weingarten, garner new prestige and influence for endorsing reform?

Nope. That’s not it. This is not about District or union leaders. It is about teachers, particularly the innovative ones who have been taking jobs in city schools and joining Weingarten’s union in large numbers the last several years. The new contract in D.C. and related developments in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Houston and elsewhere give this new bunch an opportunity to prove their creative and aggressive teaching will help inner-city children realize their untapped potential.

D.C. is a hot spot for the movement because the city has large numbers of top college graduates recruited by Teach for America and similar organizations. They now serve as teachers, principals and in Rhee’s case, chancellor. Like Houston, New York and Boston, D.C. also has many of the most effective public charter schools and several regular public schools that are innovative.

In Los Angeles, teachers with similar intentions are pushing the change even further. In the summer issue of the journal Education Next, University of California at Berkeley education and public policy professor Bruce Fuller reveals how renegade teacher groups outbid even the best charter organizations to run underperforming L.A. schools their way.

If this doesn’t work, it will be leaders like Rhee who get the blame. Test scores will deliver the final verdict, as far as the public is concerned. Tests are flawed measures, but they are pretty much all we have. That is why the new breed of teachers takes them seriously, and why Weingarten agreed to test-driven teacher evaluations. The fastest-growing part of her membership demanded them. If scores don’t continue to improve, the headlines will say Rhee failed. But the teachers driving schools in these new directions will blame themselves and try something different, a useful habit if we want urban schools to work.

One crucial element in all this can’t be easily measured — attitude, both in teachers and students. Leaders like Rhee have insisted on hiring only teachers who believe that they can make big gains despite the drag on learning that comes from poverty. This is evident in what happens in their classrooms. Students who fail to pay attention, taunt others or do anything to distract the class get a quick teacher response — a warning, a whisper in the ear, a lost privilege, something to underline the importance of what they are doing.

The way some of the new principals instill this emphasis in teachers is interesting. Susan Schaeffler, who created the most effective charter school network in the city, KIPP DC, told me what she said privately to a teacher who was five minutes late for a meeting: “Is there a problem? Should we rewrite your contract to let you come late? We can’t demand that kids stick with the rules if we don’t follow them ourselves.”

No matter how much salaries rise under the new contract, the teachers who make a difference will not dwell on that. They know that how much their students grow in knowledge and character will decide everything.


International examinations will be offered to state school pupils, says new British Government

State school pupils will be able to take the tougher International GCSE after the Government announced it was introducing the qualification, which is favoured by the private sector.

The move to recognise the IGCSE — which is likened to the old-style O level — is the strongest indication yet that the standard GCSE is no longer seen as fit for purpose. Independent schools have been using the international qualification, which lacks a coursework component, for some time but until now the Government had refused to allow it in the state sector.

Teachers’ leaders said the move would cause confusion for parents and pupils, but exam boards said the move would increase flexibility and choice.

Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, said he wanted to give institutions greater freedom to offer qualifications that employers and universities demanded. The IGCSE would put state school pupils on a level playing field with their private school peers, he said. “For too long, children in state-maintained schools have been unfairly denied the right to study for qualifications like the IGCSE, which has only served to widen the already vast divide between state and independent schools.

“By removing the red tape, state school pupils will have the opportunity to leave school with the same set of qualifications as their peers from the top private schools — allowing them to better compete for university places and for the best jobs.”

From September state heads will be able to offer the IGCSE syllabus in dozens of subjects including English, maths and science.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, criticised the move. “GCSEs are well established as the major route at age 16, and have been hugely successful in giving many more young people the opportunity to achieve,” he said.

“Introducing the IGCSE more widely will increase uncertainty for parents, pupils, employers and the general public. Exams are not products on a store shelf. They determine young people’s futures and should not be subject to market pressures.”

The results of IGCSEs, which have no modules, will be placed in league tables and be regarded as equivalent to GCSE results. Until now private schools that take the qualification have been excluded from national league tables. The Government said that the move was not intended to discredit the GCSE examination, which has been part of the culmination of pre-16 education since 1986.

A spokeswoman for Edexcel, one of the largest exam boards in England, said: “It is vital that any education system offers flexibility and choice to ensure learners achieve their full potential. Teachers will now have more freedom to choose an exam format that best suits their learners’ needs.”

As part of the shake-up of qualifications for over 15s, the Government also said yesterday that it would scrap the next stage of the Diploma qualification — which was designed by Labour to bridge the gap between academic and vocational qualifications.

It will not fund the development of science, humanities and language diplomas that was expected to begin in September, saving £1.77 million. Diplomas in hair and beauty, and hospitality began last year.

Mr Gibb said: “It’s not for government to decide which qualifications pupils should take, or to force the development of new qualifications, which is why we are stopping development of the state-led Academic Diploma.


Not all British sink schools are "failing". Sometimes it's the pupils

The new Education Secretary’s eagerness to fire ‘underperforming’ headteachers could result in an own goal. Exam results do not tell the whole story in some instances

The brisk abolition of two quangos and the General Teaching Council was a good start, since teachers and parents on the whole prefer money to be spent on children rather than extra bureaucrats. The offer of academy status will be welcomed by many, though it will be interesting to see which local authorities (there are some) work so well and economically that their schools all turn it down. But in an interview at the end of last week, Mr Gove showed worrying signs of waving his scissors around too excitedly and stabbing himself.

What he said was that schools deemed “failing” and placed on special measures by Ofsted, the inspectorate, would have 12 months to climb out of that status before the heads were sacked and the school handed over to “organisations with a track record of educational excellence”. It sounds good — zero tolerance of failure, urgent repair of a broken system, every child a winner, all that. But I do not like to see a clever and principled minister veering away from reality.

For schools to fail children is obviously terrible. But know this: in the real world, unnoticed by amateur educational harrumphers, the definition of “failing” was sharply changed last autumn. Ofsted moved the goalposts, and the proportion of schools labelled as failing nearly doubled: from 4 to 7.5 per cent. This is not because they suddenly got worse. The change hinges on the word “attainment” replacing the word “achievement”: basically, under the new inspection criteria, all that really matters is a tally of exam results. More than 30 per cent must get five A-C grades at GCSE, including English and Maths.

Not only is it hard to raise everyone to the average (do the math!) but the raised bar takes little account of what a school adds to the lives and minds of pupils who started at a low mental, social and emotional level. Inspectors now have less flexibility to judge the difficult realities in front of them, but must tick boxes on exam results and compliance with “safeguarding” and “equality”.

For schools flying well above the average, this hardly matters. But for those who lead the most difficult ones it is a disaster. One gifted and dedicated secondary head who serves a tough estate in a middle-sized and otherwise affluent town says sadly: “There is absolutely no way that in a year’s time we cannot be still ‘failing’.”

The only thing that cheers him up is the reflection that if Mr Gove fulfils his rash promise of sacking, he’ll have the devil of a job finding any “organisation with a track record of educational excellence” willing to risk its reputation by taking on his particular lot — especially since the golden, long-awaited promise of decent new school buildings is now receding into the mists of recession.

This school serves one sprawling estate (nobody else would choose to go there) where many children are born to poverty, chaotic broken families and a drug culture fed by hard-eyed and armed dealers who target the most vulnerable. They grow up knowing that their patch of ground is shunned and feared by the comparatively affluent communities around, their school dubbed a “sink”.

Yet they are well cared for by this very school: it is the only calm, focused, kindly place in many of their lives, the only place they see an actual book. The head greets every one by name each day, they wear uniform, the teachers rejoice in every raising of interest and ability. Before the change, its last Ofsted report called it “good with outstanding features”, and spoke of inspiring leadership and staff commitment. Some of its pupils do remarkably well.

But to get a third hitting five A-C grades at 16 is probably a chimera. More than half the intake are on “special needs” registers. “Social needs” — that tidy euphemism — are high, as is the dread phrase “emotional and behavioural difficulties”. The poorest- performing local primary schools feed it. Among the parents, broken families, worklessness and criminality are common. The staff work hard to involve them, but many have negative memories of their own schooldays, resent the law that makes them send their children in, abuse the staff and counteract attempts at discipline.

There are not many schools like this, perhaps only a couple of hundred. Many are not in the multicultural and notoriously troublesome inner-city areas that get all the attention: they are in deprived corners of provincial towns that everyone forgets about. Of course they need help, and generous funding, and to be watched lest their morale plummet irretrievably. But they also need understanding, realism and some relief from the mass of legal, curricular and procedural stringencies loaded on them by decades of trigger-happy ministers.

To judge them on other things than raw grades is not to undervalue their children’s chances. It is just that there are more sophisticated measurements than pure exam grades: measures that set the entry level of pupils against their final academic and social achievements. On those criteria, schools such as this hit the same targets as top grammar schools.

And — since life goes on after schooldays — some of their alumni will later amplify their education and social progress, because they have been valued and shown a different path to that of their parents. But if Mr Gove means what he says, their failure to hit a statistical winning post from a start miles behind the line will get their school shamed and their heads sacked. Perhaps Mr Gove plans to get real and look again at the criteria for shouting “Failure!” I hope so.


No comments: