Monday, July 26, 2010

Many States Adopt National Standards for Their Schools

Less than two months after the nation’s governors and state school chiefs released their final recommendations for national education standards, 27 states have adopted them and about a dozen more are expected to do so in the next two weeks.

Their support has surprised many in education circles, given states’ long tradition of insisting on retaining local control over curriculum.

The quick adoption of common standards for what students should learn in English and math each year from kindergarten through high school is attributable in part to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition. States that adopt the standards by Aug. 2 win points in the competition for a share of the $3.4 billion to be awarded in September.

“I’m ecstatic,” said Arne Duncan, the secretary of education. “This has been the third rail of education, and the fact that you’re now seeing half the nation decide that it’s the right thing to do is a game-changer.”

Even Massachusetts, which many regard as having the nation’s best education system — and where the proposed standards have been a subject of bitter debate — is expected to adopt the standards on Wednesday morning. New York signed up on Monday, joining Connecticut, New Jersey and other states that have adopted the standards, though the timetable for actual implementation is uncertain.

Some supporters of the standards, like Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, worry that the rush of states to sign up — what Ms. Weingarten calls the “Race to Adopt” — could backfire if states do not have the money to put the standards in effect.

“I’m already watching the ravages of the recession cutting the muscle out of efforts to implement standards,” she said. “If states adopt these thoughtful new standards and don’t implement them, teachers won’t know how to meet them, yet they will be the basis on which kids are judged.”

The effort has been helped by financial backing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to most of the organizations involved in drafting, evaluating and winning support for the standards. The common core standards, two years in the making and first released in draft form in March, are an effort to replace the current hodgepodge of state policies.

They lay out detailed expectations of skills that students should have at each grade level. Second graders, for example, should be able to read two-syllable words with long vowels, while fifth graders should be able to add and subtract fractions with different denominators.

Adoption of the standards does not bring immediate change in the classroom. Implementation will be a long-term process, as states rethink their teacher training, textbooks and testing.

Those states that are not winners in the Race to the Top competition may also have less incentive to follow through in carrying out the standards.

“The heavy lifting is still ahead, and the cynic in me says that when 20 states don’t get Race to the Top money, we’ll see how sincere they are,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of an education research group in Washington, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a longtime advocate of national standards. “They could just sit on their hands, chill out and say, ‘Well, we don’t really have the money right now to retrain our teachers.’ ”

Yet even promises of support for national standards are a noteworthy shift. Many previous efforts to set national standards have made little headway. In 1995, for example, the Senate rejected proposed history standards by a vote of 99 to 1.

The problem of wide variations in state standards has become more serious in recent years, as some states weakened their standards to avoid being penalized under the federal No Child Left Behind law. This time, the standards were developed by the states themselves, not the federal government. Last year, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers convened English and math experts to put together benchmarks for each grade.

Texas and Alaska said they did not want to participate in developing the standards. And Virginia has made it known that it does not plan to adopt the standards.

Increasingly, national standards are seen as a way to ensure that children in all states will have access to a similar education — and that financially strapped state governments do not have to spend limited resources on developing their own standards and tests. “We’ll have states working together for the first time on curriculum, textbooks, assessment,” said Mr. Duncan. “This will save the country billions of dollars.”

An analysis by Mr. Finn’s institute, to be released Wednesday, determined that the new common core standards are stronger than the English standards in 37 states and the math standards in 39 states.

In most others, the report found that the existing standards are similar enough to the proposed common core standards that it was impossible to say which were better.

States that adopt the standards are allowed to have additional standards, as long as the common core represents at least 85 percent of their English and mathematics standards.

In closely watched Massachusetts, even those who see the common core standards as a comedown for a state whose students score highly on national assessment tests say they have lost the battle. “They’re definitely going to be adopted,” said Jim Stergios, executive director of Pioneer Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy organization.

Mr. Stergios’ group found the common standards less rigorous than Massachusetts’ existing ones. “Vocabulary-building in the common core is slower,” he said, citing one example. “And on the math side, they don’t prepare eighth-grade students for algebra one, which is the gateway to higher math.”

Others analyzing the two sets of standards disagreed. Achieve Inc., a Washington-based education reform group, found the common core standards “more rigorous and coherent.” WestEd, a research group that evaluated the standards for the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, found them comparable. And Mr. Finn’s group said the Massachusetts standards and the common core standards were “too close to call.”

But Mr. Stergios pointed out that the other groups had either funding from the Gates Foundation or connections to those who developed the standards. “We’re really the only ones who had no dog in this fight,” he said.


Just When You Thought New Orleans Schools Were Improving…

…you see something like this piece in the Huffington Post and you lose all your optimism.

It’s an article about a group of left-wing propagandists hard at work in the public schools in Orleans Parish who are using the middle-schoolers in their charge as fodder to spread sheer insanity. And of course, the adults responsible for managing those schools think it’s actually a good idea.
But when these 12- to 14-year-old judges delivered their verdict, the party they held chiefly responsible was the American people. And as members of a student-based school reform group called the Rethinkers, these young people now have a recommendation for New Orleans schools: Move toward becoming oil-free by 2015, the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

“If we want to prevent another oil spill, we need to start weaning ourselves off this product and begin searching for new ideas,” says ninth-grader Danny Do, whose father is a shrimper. “Now is the perfect time to get moving, and schools are a great place to start!”

This may sound about as plausible as “the dog ate my homework,” and the Rethinkers acknowledge that their vision is an ambitious one. But they have both the track record and the supporters to suggest that they are not a bunch of naïve kids who can be easily dismissed.

The press conference they held last week to announce this and other recommendations for school reform in New Orleans attracted The Times-Picayune, ABC News, and other media outlets as well as community and education leaders–notably, Paul Vallas, whose work as CEO of Chicago Public Schools was praised by President Clinton and is now superintendent of the Louisiana Recovery School District, which is focused on transforming underperforming schools into successful ones.

“Paul is obsessed with the Rethinkers and wants Rethinkers clubs in all schools,” says Siona LaFrance, Vallas’s chief of staff. “He likes that the kids are thinking and challenging authority, and that all of their suggestions are based on a lot of consideration. And he likes that this is a continuing effort.”

The article goes on to describe a withering array of psychobabble and lunacy being foisted on Orleans school kids by these “Rethinkers,” including a campaign to do away with sporks in school cafeterias, replacing metal detectors with “mood detectors,” namely, student hall monitors who assess kids as they come to school to see if they’re dangerous and getting more toilet paper into schools (as though kids can’t come up with all kinds of uses for toilet paper beyond what schools buy it for).

There’s even a quote from the founder of this movement which might cause an aneurism among our more susceptible readers…
“I say to the kids, ‘You live in a country where people don’t respect kids. If we’re trying to give dignity to your voice, we have to give you something to talk about where you are the stone-cold expert. There is no one on Earth who can say you’re not an expert on schools.’”

So it’s hardly a surprise when one of these child abusers, who learned her craft at Middlebury College in Vermont and describes herself as a “community organizer,” decides to leverage the oil spill into an assault on the industry in South Louisiana which offers perhaps the most lucrative employment opportunities available to kids in Orleans schools. Meet Mallory Falk…
“We know “oil-free schools” sounds easy to dismiss because it’s such a big vision,” notes Mallory Falk, a recent Middlebury College graduate and community organizer who came to New Orleans to work with the Rethinkers. “That is why our focus over the coming year is to come up with realistic, practical ways for schools to move toward being oil-free.”

This year, for example, they have offered four simple suggestions: Start measuring energy waste (including air conditioners set too high and lights left on unnecessarily), form student green teams to identify ways to reduce waste and convince other kids to get with the program, eliminate the use of incandescent light bulbs, and recycle.

A simple beginning, but stay tuned. The Rethinkers plan to meet throughout the new school year to develop more specifics. And they have already received a grant from the U.S. Green Building Council to film a documentary about their experience.

It’s bad enough that these people are sinking their hooks into school kids in the first place. What’s worse – unforgiveably so – is that the brains they’re poisoning with the ridiculous and poisonous ideas they’re pushing are Orleans public school kids. These are overwhelmingly at-risk students; Orleans is beginning to see a renaissance in education thanks to the advent of school choice and competition since Katrina, but dropout rates are still high and test scores are still low. And Orleans public school kids are still very economically disadvantaged, still in desperate need of marketable skills and still disproportionately lacking in strong parental guidance.

In other words, while it would be bad enough if kids in Montgomery County, Maryland or Beverly Hills were subjected to left-wing pablum like the Rethinkers push, they’re doing this to some of the most vulnerable children in America.

These kids are 12, 13 and 14 years old. Before attempting to turn them into environmentalist freaks, has this cabal insured that they read at grade level? Can they certify their charges in basic math? Can these kids find Omaha on a map? Do they know the difference between a federalist and an anti-federalist?

Didn’t think so.


Many British school buildings not fit for purpose, say teachers

More than one in four teachers says their school buildings are not fit for learning, according to a new survey. A quarter of teachers said the design of their classrooms was "poor" and did not provide an environment suitable for lessons, with bad ventilation, lighting and layout.

More than nine in ten agreed that pupils' behaviour is influenced by the school environment, according to the poll of 503 teachers, with more than half saying their surroundings had a negative impact.

The poll came days after hundreds of teachers, parents and pupils staged a protest at Parliament against the government's decision to axe a £55 billion school rebuilding programme.

The decision has infuriated schools, with more than 700 told they will be denied funding for building projects promised by the previous government.

Teachers surveyed by the Teachers Support Network and the British Council for School Environments (BCSE), with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said many school buildings lacked space for students to relax and criticised classrooms for being too small and uninspiring.

One teacher told researchers: "We currently have 250 more students in our school than we were designed to accommodate."

Others raised concerns about lavatory facilities, with one teacher commenting: "Students are very vocal about inadequate toilet facilities, which makes them feel unrespected."

BCSE chief executive Ty Goddard said: "The survey shows school environments matter. Money invested in school buildings is an investment in teachers and children, not a wasted luxury. We need professional environments which support our teachers to do their jobs."

Julian Stanley, chief executive of the Teacher Support Network, added: "Continued long-term investment to improve many of the dilapidated school premises that still exist across the UK must surely be a wise use of tax payers' money, benefiting communities for generations to come."


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