Friday, September 10, 2010

L.A. Unified's cold shoulder to charter schools

Charter school operators are receiving separate but unequal treatment from the L.A. school district.

The Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools cluster, scheduled to open this fall on the site of the former Ambassador Hotel, was built at a cost of $578 million, or nearly $140,000 per student seat. It is without question the most expensive public school ever built in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and quite possibly the most expensive public school in the country.

The project's astronomical cost raises a question about whether the school district is using resources efficiently. It also raises issues of fairness.

Proposition 39, which was passed by voters in 2000, requires school districts to provide charter schools with facilities that are reasonably equivalent to those of other schools in the district. About 60,000 students in L.A. Unified have opted to attend charter schools. But administrators have in no way tried to meet the "reasonably equivalent" standard.

Take the new school at the Ambassador site: It will consist of several small, independent schools sharing facilities such as playing fields and auditoriums. But will any of those small schools be a charter? Not a chance.

When charter schools manage to get funding to build their own schools independent of the district, they do so for far less money than the LAUSD does. Recently, the Alliance for College Ready-Public Schools broke ground on a facility within sight of the Watts Towers that will serve 550 students and will cost $8.8 million. That is $16,000 per student seat, or one-ninth the cost of the Ambassador site project.

And the Alliance site is no exception. Over the past several years, Green Dot built seven charter schools in the vicinity of the RFK Community School, and it spent less than $85 million for all of them. Those schools currently serve about 4,300 students, which means they were built for under $20,000 per student seat.

If the district had given the $578 million it spent on one school to charter schools, we would have created many more seats for students, and the seats would have been in schools that are providing great results for kids and their families.

Not only does the district overspend on the schools it builds; it consistently denies dozens of charter schools equitable use of its existing facilities. Each year, as required by Proposition 39, charter schools submit applications for space in LAUSD schools. But while some charters have been granted adequate facilities in the district's existing schools, many have to rent their own space, which takes about 13% of their general funds on average.

This year, under Proposition 39, 81 of the 163 charter schools in the LAUSD applied to the district for facilities. About half received offers, but in our view the offers were not compliant with the law. Not only were none of the offers for space in the lavish new schools like Robert F. Kennedy, which were built at huge taxpayer expense, some were for far too little space — they would have housed only a portion of the students attending the charter. Other offers would have required schools to move far from their existing locations. As a result, my organization — the California Charter School Assn. — has filed a lawsuit against the LAUSD accusing it of failing to live up to the law.

Charter students deserve better, particularly when the schools many of them attend are making great strides in academic achievement in Los Angeles. The LAUSD has every reason to help charter schools grow, because that would help parents gain more faith in local public schools. As more families see the successes our schools are having, the charter movement will continue to grow, and the need for facilities will continue to expand. The LAUSD needs to work in partnership with the charters instead of treating our students as second-class citizens.

Separate and unequal is simply not OK.


British school outsources teaching to India

A school has become the first in the country to contract out its teaching to India. Ashmount Primary in north London is using call centre-style staff more than 4,000 miles away to lead mathematics lessons for 11-year-olds. The service – which costs £12 an hour for each pupil – is being used as a cheaper alternative to employing one-to-one tutors for children falling behind in the subject. A private tutor in the capital normally costs around £40 an hour, it was claimed.

Academics said the move could be expanded to other schools nationally but warned that it risked undermining teaching standards.

The service – run by the firm BrightSpark Education – involves each pupil logging on to a special website and talking to a tutor via a headset. Children complete work on their computer that can be checked remotely by the Indian teacher.

The Islington primary school is currently using the technology with half of its final year pupils, with plans to offer it to nine and 10-year-olds. The school had been approached by the company to pilot the system.

Rebecca Stacey, assistant head teacher, told the Times Educational Supplement that the service had made a significant difference to her pupils’ grasp of maths. “We intend to roll it out so the whole of Year 6 is using it and perhaps down to Years 4 and 5,” she said. “We try to keep every pupil with the same tutor. The kids really enjoy it. It is a different way of approaching the subject with children who might find it harder to engage with maths.”

The school told the TES that it was far cheaper than paying £40 an hour to hire private tutors to teach maths to pupils falling behind in the subject.

Dylan Wiliam, director of London University’s Institute of Education, said such a system could work for more schools, but warned of potential dangers. “It will depend on how good their English is,” he said. “They will also need to understand the cultural conventions of this country. For example, long division is laid out differently in different countries. “Having said that, I am sure that this will become commonplace in time. If brain surgery can now be done remotely, why not maths teaching?”

He added: “As with many things in education, it¹s not a silly idea, but as we have discovered in recent years, a lot of things that appeared to be good ideas at the time turn out to be useless, or worse.”

The system was devised by a British-based entrepreneur, Tom Hooper, who employs 100 Indian-based tutors full time. All are maths graduates with teaching experience who are required to undergo security checks.

“I was a tutor myself to make a bit of extra money when I was at university and after I graduated,” he said. “But paying for additional tuition can be very expensive, in London you can be spending up to £40 an hour.” He added: “So it just seemed to make sense when I thought of providing live learning online, which could be flexible and engaging.”

All of the tutors are trained in the English mathematics curriculum.


Fewer British students 'will take residential degrees'

Traditional university courses could become the preserve of an elite as growing numbers of students take on-line degrees, according to a report. Three-year residential degrees are likely to be limited to undergraduates at top research universities because of public spending restrictions, it was claimed.

The study by Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, suggests the emergence of a two-tier higher education system in the future as universities struggle to accommodate large numbers of new students.

The conclusions – published to coincide with the group’s annual conference on Wednesday – come weeks after record numbers of students were rejected from university. As many as 180,000 applicants failed to get on to degree courses this summer following a huge rise in applications combined with an effective freeze on new places.

This week, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development warned that the UK had slipped from third to 15th in a global league table for the number of graduates being produced in each country.

Prof Geoffrey Crossick, vice-chancellor of the University of London, said the current system of delivering higher education was “no longer financially sustainable”. In a UUK report, he said the number of flexible courses – including part-time study, on-the-job training and internet-based qualifications – would “explode” in the future.

This would lead to a drop in the proportion of students taking full-time degrees and living in traditional student accommodation, he said, an experience that was likely to be limited to those at top universities.

“Fundamental rethinking will be needed in a world where the proportion of those who experience higher education in the traditional fashion will decline, where the range of alternatives will explode, and where the variety of providers will grow with it,” said his report. “There will remain a core of comprehensive, primarily residential and (most of them) research-based universities, but for the rest new markets and new business models will make them seem increasingly different.” It added: "Higher education as a life-course stage will narrow to just one part of the population who experience it."

David Willetts, the Universities Minister, has already called for more students to consider apprenticeships as an alternative to university.

And the Open University, which runs courses on-line, has seen applications for degrees soar by around a third this year.

Prof Crossick said ministers would have to allow more private universities to receive state-funded students to accommodate the growing numbers of young people seeking to complete alternative degree courses.


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