Monday, September 27, 2010

Rocking the Boat on Education

A review of "Waiting for Superman"

David Guggenheim, the man behind An Inconvenient Truth and Obama’s 2008 DNC bio-infomercial, has just released another film — this one a stabbing indictment of teachers’ unions and a plea for more charter schools, titled Waiting for Superman. Democrats for School Choice hosted an advance screening of the documentary, to which black clergy, New York City education chancellor Joel Klein, and National Review were invited. The school-choice cause evidently transcends traditional ideological boundaries.

Waiting for Superman intends to influence policy, yet its narrative follows not politicians, but five children. Bianca, Daisy, Emily, Anthony, and Francisco come from diverse locales — Harlem, L.A., Silicon Valley, D.C., and the Bronx — and are black, Hispanic, and white, but they share the same basic problem: Each is consigned by geography to an inadequate public school. Each wants a choice.

The stories — of Bianca, whose single black mother struggles to afford parochial school but misses the final payment that would let Bianca attend graduation, and of Anthony, who carries a picture of his dead, drug-using father as he seeks a spot at a rare charter boarding school that might keep him away from the streets, to name two — are heartbreaking. But the real message of the movie is revealed in the scenes of the adults who produce this heartbreak. Superman’s most memorable episode is the cartoon illustration of the “lemon dance,” in which school principals waltz their “lemons” (teachers who just can’t teach but can’t be fired) from school to school. The musical number would be hilarious if it weren’t so devastating. So, too, for the shots of the infamous “rubber rooms,” where middle-aged teachers sit in school kids’ chairs, playing cards or laying their heads on their desks to sleep, collecting full pay and pensions.

Guggenheim chooses one champion and one villainess. Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of D.C. schools, is energetic and assertive. She bluntly admits that D.C. students “are getting a crappy education right now,” she fires a couple hundred incompetent educators, institutes some incentive pay, and starts to turn D.C.’s schools around. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and Rhee’s foil, is on the defensive. She seems most solicitous about the egos of teachers; a speech to her union culminates in the cry, “You are heroes!” In her interviews, Weingarten reminds us what good-hearted people teachers are, and condemns school-choice advocates for demonizing teachers. She has maintained this pattern off-screen as well. “It’s in vogue to bash teachers and unions rather than celebrate the work they do to help kids,” she said, responding to Superman. “That being said, I’m a big girl.”

Weingarten, obviously, can take the criticism, but she hasn’t rebutted it. Perhaps it augurs victory that the only thing she can find to fault is her opponents’ tone of voice. For now, though, Weingarten still has the power and the money. Weingarten’s AFT funneled over $1 million to defeat D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty (who appointed and supported Rhee) in the recent Democratic primary. The winner, Vincent Gray, used his victory speech to announce his desire for “a strong, empowered chancellor who works with parents and teachers.” Translation: Rhee is out. This is part of a pattern. Guggenheim, whose political sympathies are normally liberal, admits that the Democratic party is, on education policy, a “wholly owned subsidiary of the teachers unions.” The AFT and NEA — combined, the biggest campaign contributors in the U.S. — send more than 90 percent of their donations to Democrats.

Last week’s D.C. primary is a fitting political backdrop to the narrative of Waiting for Superman. Unions stood in Rhee’s way every step of her chancellorship. An unforgettable scene in the documentary shows Rhee sitting aside from a podium, shouted down from her speech by members of D.C. teachers unions, full of sound and fury. “We will not be silenced,” a teacher snaps. Don’t doubt her.


Gifted children crippled by the system

One problem is that no allowance is made for the fact that they see the world differently -- Another is that the world is designed around average people. Report below from Britain

Exceptionally talented children are just as likely to fail in life as succeed according to a new study. In one of the most extensive studies carried out, research found that out of 210 gifted children followed into later life, only three per cent were found to fulfil their early promise.

Professor Joan Freeman, said that of 210 children in her study, 'maybe only half a dozen might have been what we might consider conventionally successful.' 'At the age of six or seven, the gifted child has potential for amazing things, but many of them are caught in situations where their potentials is handicapped.'

Professor Freeman tracked the development of children who had exceptional ability in fields such as maths, art or music from 1974 to the present day. Many of those who failed to excel did so because the 'gifted' children were treated and in some cases robbed of their childhood, the study found. In some cases pushy parents put the children under too much pressure, or they were separated from their peer group, so they ended up having few friends.

The research findings follow a decision earlier this year to scrap a £20 million National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth set up by the government eight years ago. While meant to aid high achievers in state schools, it was considered to have failed to live up to its intended purpose.

Professor Freeman is keen to emphasise that 'the gifted' are no more emotionally fragile than anyone else - and may even have 'greater emotional strength.' But she said that 'being gifted means being better able to deal with things intellectually but not always emotionally.' She adds: 'I want to stress that the gifted are normal people. But they face special challenges, especially unreal expectations, notably being seen as strange and unhappy.

'Others such as parents and teachers, can feel threatened by them and react with put-downs. What they need is acceptance for who they are, appropriate opportunities to develop their potential and reliable moral support.'

An example of a child prodigy who failed to achieve early promise includes Andrew Halliburton, who studied maths at secondary school level at the age of eight. He quit university and ended up working at a McDonald's burger restaurant, although he now plans to return to study.

Other examples of the differing paths gifted children can take is illustrated by Anna Markland and Jocelyn Lavin, who both started at Chetham's school of music, in Manchester on the same day at 11.

Markland, now 46, from Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire, went on to be the BBC Young Musician of the Year, 1982. She went on to study music at Oxford, did two years postgraduate study, and now is a profesional musician, which for her is 'the best job in the world.'

By contrast, her friend Jocelyn turned her back on music to pursue science, and got the best A-level grades of all 210 children in the study - six A grades. But after going to University College London at 17 she failed her finals in Maths and Astronomy and left without a degree. After 20 years as a school maths teacher she has resigned, and her home is under threat of repossession because of mortgage arrears. She said: 'I didn't know what I wanted to do, apart from go into space', she said in the book.

Part of the problem for the gifted, Professor Freeman says, is that often the gifted excel in many areas - and may have to try out several things before they settle in one discipline.

Ultimately attempts to 'hothouse' children will fail if they are put under enormous pressure to perform. She writes: 'The pleasures and creativity of childhood are the basis of all great work. Don't take childhood away from children.'


One Australian State holding out against dumbed-down education

NSW school curricula have not been dumbed down as much as in other States because of the influence of long-time NSW Premier Bob Carr. Carr is a scholarly man and blocked any erosion of standards during his time in office

State Labor governments are under pressure to fall into line with the new national curriculum. A statement from the national curriculum authority seems to assume state education ministers will not object to the final version of its national curriculum plan. The statement says: ‘‘Once Ministers endorse the curriculum in December, it will be available for implementation from 2011’’.

The 20-year history of numerous failed attempts to develop a national curriculum are also spelled out in full. The message is clear that the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority wants any obstruction from the states to stop.

The NSW government said nothing to criticise the national agenda in the lead up to the federal election this year. The order for silence had come from above.

The NSW Board of Studies quietly posted its objections to the national curriculum in late July. That is according to the state government which issued no press release at the time. The response went unnoticed for several weeks.

The Board was blunt in its criticism of the national curriculum draft. This view was widely supported by NSW science, English, history and maths teachers. Their collective view is that the national curriculum draft is vastly inferior to existing NSW standards.

The Board of Studies said the draft curriculum for kindergarten to year 10 students lacked an overarching framework and was overcrowded with content. It said the draft maths and science curriculums failed to cater for the full range of student abilities. Year 10 science was said to be too difficult for most students. The draft history curriculum was described as "far too ambitious to be taught effectively".

The question is whether Labor state governments will be brave enough to take on their Federal colleagues later this year when the nation’s education ministers meet to discuss adoption of the final version of the national curriculum.

The head of the national curriculum authority, Barry McGaw, said his press release was not an attempt to pre-empt their decision. He is confident that any grumblings from the states will have been sorted out in the final curriculum documents.

However, teachers and school principals remain unconvinced that this state will not be selling out what they believe is a gold standard curriculum in NSW.


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