Thursday, August 05, 2010

Massachusetts on track for $655 million from feds for Medicaid, educrat welfare

Massachusetts stands to receive some $655 million in federal Medicaid and education funding to prevent budget cuts, under a state aid package that narrowly cleared a key hurdle in the U.S. Senate this morning.

The money would save more than 2,400 public education jobs in Massachusetts, according to Sen. John Kerry, who supported the measure. “Gov. Patrick, mayors, teachers, parents, and first responders are breathing a sigh of relief now that the Senate has finally thrown them a lifeline,” Kerry said in a statement after the vote.

Final approval in the Senate is expected later this week, before the measure goes to the U.S. House, where it would be expected to pass.

The legislation, a $26 billion national aid package, is paid for by spending cuts and a tax hike on multinational corporations. The bill prevailed over a Republican filibuster by a vote of 61-38.

Sixty votes were required to overcome the GOP's procedural roadblock. Two Republicans broke ranks and supported the measure: Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine.

The Bay State's junior senator, Republican Scott Brown, voted against the bill, saying there were better options for paying for it. “We can pay for that by not increasing taxes in the middle of a two year recession,” said Brown, in an interview after the vote.


Britain's coming good degrees guide: Consumer crackdown on 'Mickey Mouse' courses by showing future prospects

Degree courses will be rated for teaching quality, salary prospects, tuition time and value for money under plans to unleash 'consumer power' on universities. Poor quality 'Mickey Mouse' courses will be exposed on a website - similar to those used to select car insurance or electricity - allowing potential students to compare them.

The 16 statistics students most want to know about courses before making their applications were revealed in a report published yesterday by England's higher education funding quango. They include the proportion of graduates employed in professional or managerial jobs, their average salary, the quality of teaching on the course, weekly hours of teaching time and the quality of library and IT facilities.

All measures should be published 'as a minimum' for each degree course in the country in a web-based format that will allow comparisons, the report said. The higher education watchdog should assess the 'accuracy and completeness' of statistics provided by universities and publicise failure to give full information.

Data on university courses is currently limited and scattered around several sources. So ministers hope the move will drive up academic standards by harnessing consumer pressure. Weaker courses would be forced to improve or wither on the vine. They also believe drop-out rates from university will fall if students have a better idea of what to expect from their degrees.

Yesterday's report, commissioned by the funding council and carried out by Oakleigh Consulting and Staffordshire University, said universities are facing increasing competition. Lord Browne's forthcoming proposals on reforming university fees and grants are 'likely to reinforce the idea of students as consumers or customers', it said.

The researchers questioned nearly 2,000 prospective and current students about university statistics they would find 'very useful'. The answers showed 'very little variation' between students.

The most valuable information was considered to be current students' satisfaction with standards of teaching on the course and overall satisfaction with the experience.

Employment data, including details of professional bodies recognising the qualification, was also rated highly, as were costs linked to the course, such as hall of residence charges and maximum available bursaries. 'A standard set of information should concentrate on satisfaction with teaching, actual employment outcomes and costs,' the study said.

Women, Asians and applicants with top A-level grades were most likely to seek out course information, it found.

The information must be attractive to all groups and available either through institutions' own websites or the UCAS service, the report recommended.

But Professor Alan Smithers, of Buckingham University, urged students not to be put off studying subjects such as philosophy or classics which may not guarantee immediate salary returns. 'The point of a degree is to enhance your life and there's no guaranteed route to a well-paid job from any particular qualification - that depends very much on the person you become,' he said. 'You are most likely to become yourself if you are study something you find fulfilling at university.'

The development follows calls by Universities Minister David Willetts for prospective students to be given a wealth of information about courses. He has previously criticised the 'reluctance' of universities to release data on their graduates' success on the job market - and has threatened to compel institutions to publish information if they fail to do so voluntarily. Speaking after taking up his ministerial brief, Mr Willetts called on universities to embrace 'transparency'.


Fear of information from Australian education elites

School league tables splashed across newspapers earlier this year, heralding an unprecedented era of education openness in this country, are on death watch.

A coalition of teachers unions, academics and public education advocates are well advanced with their mission to strangle through technological modifications any further league tables in 2011.

The tables ranking of individual schools for literacy and numeracy were the most sensational outcome the MySchool website, arguably Prime Minister’s greatest reform triumph as Education Minister.

The information they so succinctly presented in a ranking form offered fodder for a million dinner table and bus stop debates about education choice. Overnight, parents were empowered with knowledge, even if it was a brutal outing of school performance.

But the league tables, run in various forms in newspapers including The Australian, Herald Sun and the The Sydney Morning Herald, were not an authorised part of MySchool, more like its bastard child.

MySchool helpfully compares individual school results on national literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) tests to the Australian average and a group of “statistically similar” schools. It was the media that took the next obvious step of producing league tables ranking schools.

Many of the 1.4 million visits to MySchool in its first four days were due to teams of journalists and support staff making thousands of repeat visits to strip out its NAPLAN data to create their league tables.

While the MySchool website will be back in 2011, possibly with enhanced features that will be welcomed by parents, a new round of league tables may not be possible.

The website changes, should they not be stopped, could mean attempts to collect the data in 2011 for league tables will now take weeks or months of commitment, possibly putting their creation beyond the resource availability media organisations.

The tables were an extraordinary tearing to shreds of the secrecy shroud that hid the vast differences in the performance of individual schools based on national tests and between private and public systems.

As popular as the league tables were with parents, they also enraged teachers unions and the public school lobby which saw them as the education equivalent to opening the gates of hell.

Australian Education Union federal president Angelo Gavrielatos said that the league tables were based on “simplistic” data that was highly damaging to individual schools, teachers and students.

It was never publicly stated, but there was a fear in the public school lobby the rankings might further encourage the flight to private schools.

Following threats of industrial action to stop the next round of NAPLAN tests going ahead in May, Ms Gillard appointed a working party of teacher unions, school representatives, academics and professionalised parent groups, to respond to their concerns about use of NAPLAN data.

That working party has already reported back to the national education watchdog, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), with a list of technological proposals to prevent league tables when MySchool 2.0 is launched in 2011.

The ACARA media unit has confirmed that work is progressing on making the NAPLAN data much more difficult to strip out of the MySchool website next year.

Under one likely change, anyone logging on to check a school in 2011 will be confronted by a lengthy “click wrap” of up-front terms of conditions banning commercial use of the data they must formally agree to every time they log in, slowing down all access to a crawl.

A letter by ACARA chief executive Peter Hill, dated June 21, outlines options for changes to the 2011 MySchool website to “address” concerns expressed by the Australian Education Union and other groups.

Along with other recommendations, like adding information on funding sources, the document states that “Ministers have endorsed” investigating “action to minimise misuse” of the information on MySchool. It is clearly stated that ministers had endorsed the working party presenting “ways of deterring or preventing automatic scraping of data from the website”.

A final decision on the measures would be presented to a ministerial council of education ministers in August and October.

Australian Parents Council Executive Director Ian Dalton, a member of the appointed working party, said technical changes would stop “unauthorised usage” of MySchool data next year. Mr Dalton could not say whether the changes would prevent league tables, although he said it was important “to stop publishing data that misrepresented information included on the MySchool website”.

A spokeswoman for Education Minister Simon Crean, Ms Gillard’s replacement, would not comment on the proposal, referring all questions to ACARA.

Despite the move towards blocking league tables, there is strong evidence that the publication of league tables in NSW was handled sensibly by parents. There were no walk outs from schools that performed poorly, or any immediate flight to private schools.

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act 1989 from the Department of Education and Training on enrolment changes on all schools between the period January 27 to February 28, 2010 showed no unusual enrolment changes compared to the same period in 2009.

Among those placed near bottom of league tables, Airds High School had more students withdraw in the 2009 period than in the 2010 period after My School was available and league tables were published. The school had 24 students leave in 2010 compared to 51 in 2009.

Another struggling performer, Lurnea High School had 84 students leave in 2010, compared to 100 in 2009, while another high school that was placed low in tables, Chifley College, Bidwill, had 52 enrolment withdrawals, down from 60 last year.

As well as no evidence of walkouts from individual schools, there was also no evidence of a flight from public to private schools. The documents showed there were 23,570 students who left the NSW public school system, about 2000 fewer than the same period in 2009.

But there were some parents who did react. Mum Gaynor Reid admits she quickly changed the kindergarten enrolment of her daughter Kiara Inman-Ried from Fort Street Public to Paddington Public after examining the MySchool website the night before. Fort Street recorded results below the average of schools in the inner city area in the NAPLAN test areas, so she contacted Paddington public immediately the next morning.

Ms Reid, a public relations manager with a large hotel group, even had to borrow a school uniform from a friend for the new school. “We literally had to change that very day. We had already bought the uniform for Fort Street and Kiara had even done an orientation and met a ‘buddy’ to look out for her,’’ Ms Read said.


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