Sunday, June 13, 2010

School Choice Victory in Oklahoma

School choice efforts took a substantial step forward yesterday when Oklahoma’s Democratic Governor Brad Henry signed into law the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Act. Special needs children in the state will now be able to attend a school of their parents’ choice through the help of vouchers. This program will provide significant opportunity for an estimated 15 percent of Oklahoma children and their families.

Support for the new law came from both sides of the political spectrum. The principal authors of the bill, Sen. Sally Kern (R) and Rep. Jason Nelson (R) were joined by representatives Anastasia Pittman (D), Jabar Shumate (D) and Sen. Patrick Anderson (R), to maneuver the legislation through the state congress and senate before its signing by Governor Henry. Nelson thanked Governor Henry in The Daily Oklahoman for his support and explained that the bill will provide children with special needs “a chance at a better education and a better life.”

Betsy DeVos, chairman of The American Federation for Children, commented on the school choice victory:
We salute Governor Henry for his leadership in enacting this transformational new program, and we congratulate the bipartisan team of Oklahoma legislators who worked together and put politics aside for the sake of helping children with special needs.

Oklahoma joins a growing list of states who offer school choice for parents of special needs children, including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Utah. The president and CEO of the Foundation for Educational Choice, Robert Enlow encouraged other states to take similar action:
Because of the governor’s and legislature’s courageous acts, Oklahoma’s children with special needs have been afforded a new, better chance to succeed in life. … Other states should emulate Oklahoma and its willingness to put the interests of kids and parents first.

Back in Washington, the Obama administration has been turning back the clock on school choice, working to phase out the highly successful and popular D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. But states like Oklahoma are moving forward with policies to put power in the hands of parents and opportunity in the reach of children. Many families will now have the opportunity to send their children to those schools they feel will best meet their needs. Hopefully the administration will see state choice victories as a sign that it is indeed parents – not bureaucrats or union leaders – who should have control of their children’s educational future.


Teacher fraud rife

The staff of Normandy Crossing Elementary School outside Houston eagerly awaited the results of state achievement tests this spring. For the principal and assistant principal [Pix above], high scores could buoy their careers at a time when success is increasingly measured by such tests. For fifth-grade math and science teachers, the rewards were more tangible: a bonus of $2,850.

But when the results came back, some seemed too good to be true. Indeed, after an investigation by the Galena Park Independent School District, the principal, assistant principal and three teachers resigned May 24 in a scandal over test tampering.

The district said the educators had distributed a detailed study guide after stealing a look at the state science test by “tubing” it — squeezing a test booklet, without breaking its paper seal, to form an open tube so that questions inside could be seen and used in the guide. The district invalidated students’ scores.

Of all the forms of academic cheating, none may be as startling as educators tampering with children’s standardized tests. But investigations in Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, Virginia and elsewhere this year have pointed to cheating by educators. Experts say the phenomenon is increasing as the stakes over standardized testing ratchet higher — including, most recently, taking student progress on tests into consideration in teachers’ performance reviews.

Colorado passed a sweeping law last month making teachers’ tenure dependent on test results, and nearly a dozen other states have introduced plans to evaluate teachers partly on scores. Many school districts already link teachers’ bonuses to student improvement on state assessments. Houston decided this year to use the data to identify experienced teachers for dismissal, and New York City will use it to make tenure decisions on novice teachers.

The federal No Child Left Behind law is a further source of pressure. Like a high jump bar set intentionally low in the beginning, the law — which mandates that public schools bring all students up to grade level in reading and math by 2014 — was easy to satisfy early on. But the bar is notched higher annually, and the penalties for schools that fail to get over it also rise: teachers and administrators can lose jobs and see their school taken over.

No national data is collected on educator cheating. Experts who consult with school systems estimated that 1 percent to 3 percent of teachers — thousands annually — cross the line between accepted ways of boosting scores, like using old tests to prep students, and actual cheating.

“Educators feel that their schools’ reputation, their livelihoods, their psychic meaning in life is at stake,” said Robert Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, a nonprofit group critical of standardized testing. “That ends up pushing more and more of them over the line.”

Others say that every profession has some bad apples, and that high-stakes testing is not to blame. Gregory J. Cizek, an education professor at the University of North Carolina who studies cheating, said infractions were often kept quiet. “One of the real problems is states have no incentive to pursue this kind of problem,” he said.

Recent scandals illustrate the many ways, some subtle, that educators improperly boost scores:

* At a charter school in Springfield, Mass., the principal told teachers to look over students’ shoulders and point out wrong answers as they took the 2009 state tests, according to a state investigation. The state revoked the charter for the school, Robert M. Hughes Academy, in May.

* In Norfolk, Va., an independent panel detailed in March how a principal — whose job evaluations had faulted the poor test results of special education students — pressured teachers to use an overhead projector to show those students answers for state reading assessments, according to The Virginian-Pilot, citing a leaked copy of the report.

* In Georgia, the state school board ordered investigations of 191 schools in February after an analysis of 2009 reading and math tests suggested that educators had erased students’ answers and penciled in correct responses. Computer scanners detected the erasures, and classrooms in which wrong-to-right erasures were far outside the statistical norm were flagged as suspicious.

The Georgia scandal is the most far-reaching in the country. It has already led to the referral of 11 teachers and administrators to a state agency with the power to revoke their licenses. More disciplinary referrals, including from a dozen Atlanta schools, are expected.

John Fremer, a specialist in data forensics who was hired by an independent panel to dig deeper into the Atlanta schools, and who investigated earlier scandals in Texas and elsewhere, said educator cheating was rising. “Every time you increase the stakes associated with any testing program, you get more cheating,” he said.

More here

British University tuition fees don't really discriminate against the poor

Claim: Regardless of their background, people who are bright enough to get to university are also bright enough to be able to figure out that a university education is worth it

When David Willetts hinted last week that the cost of tuition fees might have to be increased, there were sighs of relief from most university administrators, and for one simple reason: the present level is unsustainably low, and will lead to the closure of whole departments.

The most obvious solution is to make those who benefit from a university education pay for more of its cost. No one likes to foot the bill for something that used to be paid for by someone else, so it's no surprise that most students (and the Lib Dems) are vehemently opposed to that idea. Their argument is that fees – which stand at £3,225 a year in England and Northern Ireland – deter people from poorer backgrounds from going to university.

If this were true, it would indeed be a powerful argument against fees. But it isn't true: since tuition fees were introduced, the number of poor students has increased rather than diminished. Regardless of their background, people who are bright enough to get to university are also bright enough to be able to figure out that a university education is worth it.

But hasn't social mobility been in decline? And haven't tuition fees accelerated that trend? Charles II once asked the Fellows of the Royal Society why a dead fish weighed more than a live one. Various sophisticated explanations were produced. Charles then pointed out that actually, it didn't. According to Peter Saunders, a professor of sociology at the University of Sussex, Britain's lack of social mobility is a "dead fish" problem. In a new pamphlet, he shows that social mobility has not declined at all – and that Britain is not significantly less mobile than other comparable economies.

There is a problem, in that far fewer students from the poorest backgrounds go to university. Although there has been an enormous expansion of university places over the past three decades, the people who have benefited are those from the richest fifth of the population: they now make up nearly half of all university students, which is double the proportion of 30 years ago. Over the same period, students from the poorest fifth have only increased from six to nine per cent of the total.

Yet the faster increase of students from wealthier families long predated the introduction of tuition fees. Partly, it is a result of many more middle-class women going to university: the increase in places helped to improve equality between the sexes, rather than equality across social classes. Indeed, it is hard to maintain that it would have been better to prevent more middle-class women from going to university in order to ensure that a larger number of working-class men ended up there – but that sometimes seems to be what those who insist that "universities must admit more students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds" are calling for.

What could universities do to increase the number of poor students? Short of drastic steps such as diminishing the qualifications required from applicants from that group, it's not obvious that they can do anything. Very few would wish to see universities discriminate against people who have proved their scholarly or scientific ability, solely in order to promote students of the "right" social background: that would be to make inverse snobbery the basis of educational policy.

The real problem is that the gap between the children of the advantaged and disadvantaged opens up very early on. By the age of 11 it is already very marked, and without intervention by the state on a massive scale (the outcome of which would certainly not be the one intended) it is very difficult to have much impact on it.

All of which points to a simple conclusion: it is better for universities to focus on being centres of educational excellence, than trying to make them engines of social transformation. If they try to do that, they will fail – both to transform society, and also to provide a decent education.


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