Monday, September 06, 2010

Unions Prevent Kids from Learning in L.A.

By Warner Todd Huston

The L.A. Times has been publishing a great series about how the city's schools have been dropping the ball on education. Specifically, the Times points out that the L.A. schools district has had at its disposal stats that could have helped it to engineer a better education policy for its students but has ignored these stats. Why have they ignored these stats? Fear of unions.

The Times has a database of the effectiveness of nearly 6,000 L.A. area teachers. These findings, the Times informs us, were based on a method called "value-added analysis. It is a method that is beginning to be used to rank teachers and help administrators design a more effective education for kids all across the country.

The Times also says that the L.A. school administrators had this info all along and never used it. Why would that be? (my bold below)

L.A. Unified has had the underlying data for years but has chosen not to analyze it in this way, partly in anticipation of union opposition. After The Times' initial report this month showed wide disparities among elementary school teachers, even in the same schools, the district moved to use value-added analysis to guide teacher training and began discussions with the teachers union about incorporating data on student progress into teacher evaluations.

That's right, fear of the recalcitrant unions that are more interested in making sure that teachers are unaccountable and cannot be questioned. Unions that are more interested in fat pensions and rich benefits and are less interested in the education of our kids.

It just goes to show that the ideals of former teacher union bigwig Albert Shanker are still ruling the roost in our system of mis-education. In 1985 Shanker said:

"When school children start paying union dues, that's when I'll start representing the interests of school children." -- Albert Shanker, former president American Federation of Teachers

And now our school systems and administrators are cowering in the face of teachers unions instead of sticking up for our children.


Chicago district thinks that quantity will substitute for quality

In an effort to extend what is one of the nation's shortest school days, Chicago Public Schools plans to add 90 minutes to the schedules of 15 elementary schools using online courses and nonteachers, sources said.

By employing nonteachers at a minimal cost to oversee the students, the district can save money and get around the teachers' contract, which limits the length of the school day. Mayor Richard Daley has scheduled an announcement about the "Additional Learning Opportunities" pilot program at Walsh Elementary School in the Pilsen neighborhood. School officials declined to comment on the initiative.

The program's cost is expected to exceed $10 million, the majority of which will be spent on capital improvements like technological infrastructure, wiring and broadband, a source said. Five schools will begin the program this fall, and another 10 are expected to begin in the second semester. If the program proves successful, it could be expanded to all schools, a source said.

The extra time will be tacked on to the end of the school day. The block will be divided between math and reading, with a short break for a snack and recess, a source said. Much of the cost of the program will be covered by federal economic stimulus money, a source said.

The initiative is unpopular with leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union, who view the effort as a way to undermine their contract with the city schools. Because mostly nonteachers will be used to staff the initiative, the district will not have to pay union wages. Many of those who will oversee the classrooms will likely be either after-school providers or community partners.

"I'm not against anything that helps children," said Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union. "If this is more drill and kill (testing,) then I am totally against it.

"But if it's a way to keep schools open longer and engage parents and the community, I am for it," Lewis added. "I just want to make sure that (kids) are engaged and excited and they're enjoying learning."

The district already has a stable of online initiatives, including high school credit recovery programs and summer school courses to help students advance. More than 4,000 students gained credits through online summer school, officials have said.

But the new initiative is the product of a separate online pilot program the district launched last year, which provided online math courses to certain elementary school students. In those schools, students were encouraged — but not required — to attend extended school hours. District officials say math scores increased dramatically as a result of the online classes.

Nationally, online learning is a white-hot education trend. More than a million students engaged in online learning in the 2008 school year, an almost 50 percent increase over 2006, according to the Sloan Consortium, a group of organizations that support online education.

While there is limited research regarding the effectiveness of online schools, what is out there is largely positive. In some cases, research has shown that online learning can be better than face-to-face instruction.


British bureaucrats oppose crackdown on "Mickey Mouse" degrees

Civil servants who allocate billions of pounds to university teaching are secretly opposing moves which would ban spending on “Mickey Mouse” degree courses.

A far cry from the conventional humanities and sciences, a modern university education can involve studying subjects like pop music, puppetry, or the unorthodox combination of "waste management with dance".

An analysis of courses available through the university clearing system has disclosed that while most traditional courses are now full up, there are empty places in scores of "eccentric" degree courses. Education experts said it was unfortunate that such courses appeared to be proliferating at a time when school-leavers with good grades could not get places in core academic subjects.

The Sunday Telegraph has learned that officials who allocate billions of pounds to university teaching are secretly opposing moves which would allow spending on such courses to be cut back.

Civil servants at the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) want to avoid a debate over whether to change laws which currently prohibit ministers from instructing them to award money for "particular courses of study".

When approached by this newspaper with questions about unconventional degree courses, the agency accidentally released copies of internal emails which had been exchanged between its officials as they discussed how to respond to the questions.

An email from Toby West-Taylor, the agency's head of funding, which was intended only for colleagues, said: "The risk in highlighting this to a journalist at a time when a new HE [higher education] Bill could be on the horizon, is that it might prompt a lobby for there to be change to such sound legislation."

The funding agency even referred to the questionable degree subjects in a derogative way, with one of the accidentally-released emails carrying the subject heading "Response to The Sunday Telegraph on Mickey Mouse courses." This newspaper did not use that phrase when posing the questions.

Following the revelations, David Willetts, the universities minister, predicted the end of "odd" courses as students face up to the new economic climate.

The clearing system, by which candidates who failed to get into their chosen university or college try and get places on other undersubscribed courses, began more than a fortnight ago. Yet despite record demand for places at top universities, hundreds of places are still available in less well known higher education institutions, many of them offering unconventional courses.

Northampton University initially had 250 places available through the clearing system, including such courses as Third World Development with Pop Music, Dance with Equine Studies and joint honours in Waste Management and Dance.

The clearing web-site also invites school-leavers to consider a Tournament Golf foundation degree at Duchy College in Camborne, Cornwall. The two-year course offers students the chance to "improve your tournament golf skills", and its admissions requirements indicate: "No handicap is definitive but the guide parameters are +5 to 3."

A spokeswoman for the college said: "The innovative programme gives young talented golfers the opportunity to chase their dreams whilst having the safety net of a UK university qualification to fall back on."

Glyndwr University, in Wrexham, still had 15 places available on its BSc (Hons) in Equestrian Psychology, which "investigates the unique partnership between horse and rider".

Subjects which were on offer through clearing at the start of last week, but which filled up during the week, included a degree course in Australian Studies, a joint honours degree in Criminology and Pop Music Production, and another combining Geology and Popular Culture.

Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, said: "It seems that many universities are going for the lowest common denominator just to get bums on seats and maximise their funding. "It seems crazy that youngsters are getting good grades in serious subjects at A-level and then being denied places, while these sort of courses are proliferating." He added: "The Secretary of State is the person democratically responsible and should be able to change things if necessary, and the law should be changed to allow him to do that."

Unprecedented demand for university and college degrees this year has left an estimated 150,000 students without a place.

Mr Willetts said: "In tough times I suspect some of these more eccentric courses, which date from the excesses of the dying days of the Labour government, will disappear because students see they are not a route into a well-paid career. "Some of them sound like very odd courses indeed.

"I think the way forward is providing students with better information about the employment outcomes from individual course at individual universities."

Farnborough College of Technology still had places available last week on its two-year foundation degree in Holistic Therapies. But if applicants find that course to be full they could turn to Warwickshire College which is offering Beauty Therapies Management, Hairdressing Management and Spa Management courses.

Writtle College in Chelmsford, Essex, offers a foundation degree in Professional Floristry which covers the "practical and theoretical aspects of floral design". There is still one place available on a three-year degree in Theatre Practice: Puppetry at London's Central School of Speech and Drama.

Jessica Bowles, the course tutor, said: "The major leads in War Horse [the successful West End play] are all from Central's Puppetry course. This leads to very concrete career opportunities."

A spokesman for the HEFCE, which allocates £4.6 billion a year for university teaching and £1.6 billion for research, said: "Universities have the discretion to spend the money according to their own priorities. "We don't stipulate which subjects universities should teach and which they should not teach. That is a matter for them. They have to make their own decisions on their own mission and their own goals."

Although the HEFCE has introduced priority funding for subjects such as sciences and modern languages, the freedom granted to universities meant that less-conventional degrees still receive funding even at a time of budget cutbacks.

When Northampton's Dance with Equine Studies was pointed out to the funding council spokesman, he said: "You are talking about some pretty out-lying courses. "They are regulated through the Quality Assurance Agency and what we can do is try to steer the sector into offering subjects that employers might value more than others.

"We do not count unfilled places in our funding allocations. If institutions cannot fill places in clearing they have the flexibility to provide additional places on other courses provided they keep within the funding agreements with us."

Asked about the use of the "Mickey Mouse" phrase, the HEFCE spokesman said: "Our use of 'Mickey Mouse' is pretty indefensible. I think the use of that phrase was a mistake, but it's a fair cop."


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