Friday, July 23, 2010

Bright lights, bad teaching

Teachers’ unions on the big-screen

Facing thousands of worried members at the annual convention of the National Education Association on July 3, the head of the nation’s largest teachers’ union sounded a little whiny.

“Today, our members face the most anti-educator, anti-union, anti-student environment that I have ever experienced,” said Dennis Van Roekel, the NEA’s president.

Leaving aside the bizarre suggestion that there is burgeoning anti-student sentiment in America, Roekel’s concerns are well-founded: For the first time in living memory, poor-performing teachers and the unions that protect them are under real scrutiny. So much so that even documentarians—the most liberal enclave of the most liberal institution (the entertainment-industrial complex) in American society— are now taking aim at union excesses.

Theaters across the country have seen an explosion of films that cast a critical eye on public schools and the reasons for their failures. First up was The Cartel, a look at the impact teachers’ unions have had on schools in New Jersey. Bob Bowdon’s documentary betrays its limited budget​—it’s the roughest-looking of the new releases​— but successfully drives home the fact that throwing money at the problem of our public schools will solve nothing: New Jersey has one of the highest per capita rates of spending on education in the country. Governor Chris Christie has taken this lesson to heart; he is waging a fierce battle to improve New Jersey’s failing public schools while also tamping down runaway costs.

Currently in theaters is The Lottery, an alternately heartbreaking and infuriating work. Madeleine Sackler follows a quartet of students as they enter a lottery to attend a charter school in New York City. Heartbreaking are the scenes of parents who want little more than the chance for their kids to get a decent education; infuriating are the scenes of union-organized protests against charter schools (including a guest appearance from ACORN rabble-rousers), local politicians firmly in the pocket of the city’s unions railing against charter schools, and statistics underscoring how hard it is to fire terrible teachers.

Union leaders have said they are just as frustrated by lousy teachers as parents are and just as committed to getting underperforming educators out of the classroom. This would inspire laughter if it weren’t so maddening: Citing Department of Education statistics, The Lottery reports that in the 2006-07 school year only 10 of 55,000 tenured teachers were fired from New York City’s public schools at a cost of $250,000 per removal. It’s a problem we see across the nation: Whereas one in 57 doctors loses their license and one in 97 lawyers, only one in 2,500 tenured teachers is ever removed from the classroom.

That last statistic comes from Waiting for “Superman,” arguably the most important of the new releases. Directed by Davis Guggenheim—the Academy Award-winning director of An Inconvenient Truth—it was the Centerpiece Screening at Silverdocs, an important film festival for documentarians. Guggenheim unloads on teachers’ unions with both barrels in his film, lambasting them for protecting terrible teachers at the expense of students and for stymying efforts to improve the schoolhouses they have captured.

Like The Lottery, Waiting for “Superman” follows a group of schoolchildren vying for spots in charter schools. But Guggenheim’s work is broader and more ambitious; he tackles school districts across the country, in both urban and suburban areas.

Time and again, Guggenheim and the reformers he interviews come back to the troubling aspects of teacher tenure. Like its cousin in higher education, tenure is a guarantee of employment for life. Unlike in higher education, however, tenure is handed out to virtually every public school teacher after a short wait, typically two to three years. When layoffs occur, school districts are forced to operate on a “last hired, first fired” basis instead of deciding who to keep based on merit. The one-two combo of tenure and seniority has made it almost impossible to fire poor teachers.


Score 47% for an A: Watchdog says standards are still too low in British high school science exams

Teenagers have gained A grades in GCSE science despite scoring less than 50 per cent, the exams watchdog revealed yesterday. In a damning report, Ofqual said standards were still 'too low' in the subject and questions not difficult enough despite a warning to exam boards to toughen up their papers.

The watchdog found evidence of over-reliance on multiple choice and questions that pointed candidates towards the answer instead of testing scientific knowledge.

On some papers, 'grade boundaries were too low to ensure candidates showed a satisfactory range of knowledge and understanding'. One exam board gave a pupil a C grade GCSE despite scoring only 20 per cent and another an A after getting 47 per cent in a paper.

Too many questions placed 'low demands' on pupils and failed to provide a 'sufficient challenge' for the most able.

Ofqual reserved its harshest criticism for exams set by two boards: OCR and Edexcel. They awarded significantly higher proportions of A and C grades than other boards and statistical indicators would warrant.

But it declined to name the boards which had allowed marks of 47 per cent for an A grade and 20 per cent for a C grade.

Ofqual first warned about standards in GCSE science in March last year, stating that the courses gave 'serious cause for concern'. Boards were ordered to make changes and more challenging papers were prepared for use in September this year. But these were rejected for still being too easy, forcing exam boards to try again.

Today's report, carried out in collaboration with DCELLS, the Welsh watchdog, said: 'The findings of this investigation did not differ significantly from those found in previous investigations, thus adding further evidence that standards are currentlytoo low in GCSE science and additional science qualifications.'
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Ofqual chief executive Isabel Nisbet said: 'There is still some way to go to ensure that these important qualifications meet the high standards that Ofqual requires.'

An OCR spokesman said: ' Following Ofqual's 2008 scrutiny, like all boards, OCR made some changes to science examination papers but these did not affect the papers for the 2009 series, which were the subject of this report. 'The first series in which examination papers were issued with a revised structure was January 2010.'

An Edexcel spokesman said: 'We are committed to ensuring GCSE science remains a credible, highly recognised qualification.'

Schools Minister Nick Gibb said: 'It is worrying Ofqual has found that such weaknesses remained in GCSE sciences last year. 'We want all qualifications to be as rigorous as possible and as good as any in the world.'


Australia: Young should get research grants priority

I can see some point in this. Scientists are at their most original and open-minded in their youth. After about 30 they tend to ossify mentally

AFFIRMATIVE action for young research-grant applicants is among the recommendations of a report on ways to drive international collaborative research. The report, Australia's International Research Collaboration, also calls for action to streamline the processing of visa applications from overseas academics sponsored to work here.

The Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Innovation, which wrote the report, was told that it could take up to a year for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to process visa applications, and some applications had been rejected. But the department defended its performance.

The report comes as Australia, which produces less than 3 per cent of the world's knowledge, moves to embed itself more deeply in the international scientific community in an increasingly globalised world.

The committee considered written submissions and evidence given in public hearings by government, academe, industry and embassies. The report identified problems facing early career scientists as some of the biggest obstacles to international collaboration.

Young scientists, up against researchers with proven track records, had trouble getting their projects funded. "Research funding has been found to have the tendency to invite further funding," the report says. "As research continues, and publication and citations increase, researchers are more likely to be successful in funding rounds, but many younger early-career researchers have found it difficult to break into the funding regime."

The report recommends allocating 10 per cent of Australian Research Council and National Health and Medical Research Council grants to early-career researchers who are first-time award winners.

Meanwhile, some "non-scientists viewed overseas travel . . . as an indulgence", the committee heard. Many scientists, especially those at the start of their careers, could not fund travel to forge links with colleagues overseas and use offshore facilities. The committee called for a small-grants scheme to support the travel expenses of early-career scientists who had won time on foreign instruments.

It also expressed concern about delays in the processing of visa applications. "The witnesses were upset that . . . dependable academics, who were coming to Australia only to work on research projects and were no risk of overstaying, had their applications rejected," the report says. Some eminent researchers and academics have refused to come back to Australia after experiencing difficulties in getting to the country in the first instance, it found.

But the Department of Immigration and Citizenship told the inquiry that cases of long delays were rare and many universities had been using the wrong visa sub-class.

The report also expresses concern about uncertainty surrounding the international science linkages program. The program, which supports scientists who have joined forces with colleagues overseas on projects, is under review, and due to wind up at the end of the financial year, the report says.

The committee recommended that the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research announce a successor program as soon as possible.

The Australian Academy of Science, which spearheaded a campaign on international collaboration, welcomed the report. The government is due to respond to the report in September.


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