Wednesday, October 06, 2010

'Superman’ tackles public education in America

Would you want to live in a country where the most accessible route to learning -- the public education system -- is failing its students? A country where, according to the nonprofit research organization Editorial Projects in Education, three out of every 10 high school students won't earn a diploma?

Sounds like a regressive nation, right? Well, it's where you live: the grand ole U.S.. And Davis Guggenheim, the director of the Academy Award-winning global warming warning An Inconvenient Truth, isn't afraid to talk about it.

His latest documentary, Waiting for ‘Superman,' presents a stirring chronicle of the lives of five public school kids to more intimately reveal the American education system's chronic missteps, setbacks and disadvantages.

"Ultimately, I said, if I don't do it, who will?" Guggenheim said of the decision to take on the controversial topic. "That's when the rubber hits the road. It's easy to be angry at the man," he said. "But when you actually have to discover stuff that's really uncomfortable and still write it, even if it's unpopular, that's a real tough journalistic choice."

At a time when the country's economy is still recuperating from a devastating downturn, picking apart the underwhelming rank of its education system is increasingly important. Many education advocates from both major political parties believe graduation rates affect employment rates positively: increased graduation makes for a more employable workforce, and vice versa.

Math scores of fourth-grade students in the U.S. ranked 11th worldwide, according to a 2007 study by Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which is associated with the National Center for Education Statistics and globally facilitated by the International Association for Evaluation of Educational Achievement. Countries ahead of the U.S. include Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Singapore and Hong Kong (first place). Eighth-grade students in the U.S. fared slightly better, ranking ninth.

In science, fourth-grade pupils landed in the eighth spot, slightly behind England and only 39 points above the international average. Singapore, the top-ranking nation, is in the lead, with almost 50 points more than the U.S. and a total of 87 notches above the average. Among eighth-grade students, scores placed the U.S. in the 11th slot.

‘Superman' does more than nudge at viewers' emotions. The portrayals of earnest yet underprivileged youths grip the heartstrings with an iron fist, and yank repeatedly-hard. It's difficult to not be moved by Daisy, the L.A. fifth-grader intent on success, or Anthony, a child in the same grade, living with his grandmother after losing his father to drugs. And Bianca, the adorable Harlem kindergartner, whose mother cannot afford to maintain her enrollment in parochial school, is also quite the tearjerker. To make emotional matters even more unstable, all of these students and their families gamble their educational hopes in a lottery, where random winners gain entrance to high-performing charter schools.

Guggenheim features several charter schools with high success rates: the KIPP schools (a network of national college-preparatory schools focused on enrolling disadvantaged students), YES Prep Public Schools, Aspire Public Schools (California-based) and Harlem Children's Zone (Harlem-centric). All of them, some of which boast astounding numbers like 100 percent acceptance rates of high school seniors entering four-year colleges, are free and open to the public-but only if your number is drawn in a lottery, which is, by law, a random ordeal.

Though some criticized the documentary for relying too heavily on charters as a solution (one that's clearly not available to all youth) to the country's educational woes, Guggenheim said that he wanted to express that the methods of charters should be considered an ideal model for public schools.

"You can use [those high-performing charters] as an incubator for what works. Take those ideas and put them in mainstream schools," Guggenheim said. "It's really easy. Great teachers, high standards focusing on a pathway to college and longer school days. I know that's unpopular, longer hours and longer days. But the point is, it's not a mystery what works.".

The complexities of incorporating charter school practices into public schools, however, are vast. In particular, ‘Superman´ points to teachers unions as an obstacle.

"I'm a liberal, so I believe in unions. I really believe. I'm a member of a really good union; I believe unions are really important. To realize when you really dig in that they have been a real obstacle to real change…that really put me at a crossroads," he said.

The film points to tenure, a union-driven plus for teachers, professors and other instructors that protects them from being fired for personal or political reasons, as a well-meaning endeavor that's backfiring in a harsh way. The film positions tenure as a scapegoat for sub-par and even completely reckless teachers, as firing a public school teacher who's earned tenure is costly, time-consuming and, as a result, an unlikely possibility.

Guggenheim's documentary also calls out the Democratic Party as the largest beneficiary of funding from teachers unions, but a stagnant contributor to progressive change.

"When you look at some of the culprits to [the education system's problems], finding out that my own party, the Democratic Party, which stands for protecting the little guy, has been mostly quiet on this issue because it gets so much money not to do it…blew my mind," he said.

But the documentary opens with Guggenheim driving past an allegedly failing public school as he takes his own children to private school. Guggenheim admitted some hypocrisy in his decision to opt for private learning.

"If we're going to fix the schools, all the adults have to clean up their act. Starting with me-I pulled my kids out of public school and I sent them to private school. People like me have to recommit to helping their local school," Guggenheim said.

He explained that most educational funding is generated and delegated at the state level, and that "the real change has to happen in the state capitols," and encouraged political participation.

"For those students in your college, you're the ones who made it," he said. "When you see this movie, it should feel really, really unfair that there are many kids [who] don't have the opportunity that you guys have. That are just as bright, that want just as many things, but were not given a great education. And that sense of unfairness, I think, should inspire people to get more involved."


Ex-Marxist head wants to axe bad British teachers and drive out the unions

A deputy headmistress delivered a damning indictment on state schools yesterday, saying she hoped education reforms would smash teaching unions. In the most passionate moment yet at the Tory autumn conference, Katharine Birbalsingh attacked a state system which she said was ‘broken as it keeps poor children poor’.

The former Marxist confessed she had voted Tory for the first time at the general election, saying that teachers were too ‘blinded by leftist ideology’ and refused to admit they were failing children.

After a decade of teaching in state schools, the 37-year-old Oxford graduate plans to publish a book exposing the ‘chaos’ in the system. Miss Birbalsingh later told the Mail she hoped the Coalition push for free schools – which will be able to set their own pay and conditions – would reduce the influence of unions.

Her intervention came as Education Secretary Michael Gove pledged to give heads more powers to discipline children and put teachers back in charge.

During a fringe event, Miss Birbalsingh laid bare the failures of state schools, where, far too often, teachers were expected to be social workers as well. She said: ‘In schools and in society, we need high expectations, of everyone, even if you’re black, or live on a council estate – why can’t they sit exams at the end of the year? ‘We need to instil competition amongst the kids and help build their motivation by ensuring they’re not given everything and that they are held to account for what they do.

‘We have a situation where standards have been so dumbed down that even the children know it. ‘When I give them past exam papers to do from 1998, they groan and beg for a 2005 or 6 paper, because they know it’ll be easier.’

She added: ‘Exclusion quotas bind our headteachers, league tables have all of us pursuing targets and grades. Instead of teaching properly ... the ordinary child … is lost in a sea of bureaucracy handed down from the well meaning.’

Ranking children by ability was viewed as poisonous by teachers, she said, which meant that pupils ‘live in darkness, without any idea of how they compare to those around them, let alone to those who are educated in the private sector’.

She added: ‘Black underachievement is due in part to the chaos of our classrooms, and in part, to the accusation of racism. ‘If you keep telling teachers that they’re racist for trying to discipline black boys, and if you keep telling heads that they’re racist for trying to exclude black boys, in the end, the schools stop reprimanding these children. ‘Black children underachieve because of what the well-meaning liberal does to him.’

Miss Birbalsingh, who has just started as a deputy head teacher at St Michaels and All Angels Academy in South London, said the biggest problem in the system was the destruction of behavioural and academic standards.

‘I don’t think ordinary parents have any idea about what goes on in their schools. But it is totally and utterly chaotic. Teachers spend most of their time telling children to sit down or stop disrupting the class rather than teaching.’

Miss Birbalsingh said there was a conspiracy of silence in staffrooms because teachers were too afraid of being branded as failures if they admitted how bad the true picture was. ‘League tables tell you nothing about how good a school really is, just how good the school is at playing the system and picking the easier exams,’ she said. ‘I’d like to see bad teachers getting fired and heads given the powers to discipline children.’

The daughter of immigrant parents from the Caribbean, Miss Birbalsingh said she remained ‘on the fence’ over free schools as she was worried that unqualified people would run them. But she added: ‘I suspect the rationale for free schools is to get the unions out. If they achieve that, it will be worth it because the unions are keeping bad teachers and bad support staff from being fired.’

At conference yesterday, Mr Gove announced that head teachers will be given powers to punish students who misbehave on the way to and from school. ‘At the moment heads are prevented from dealing with their pupils if they run wild in a shopping mall or behave anti-socially in town centres,’ he said. ‘So we will change the rules to send one clear and consistent message. Heads will have the freedom they need to keep pupils in line - any time, any place, anywhere.

‘We have to stop treating adults like children and children like adults. Under this Government we will ensure that the balance of power in the classroom changes – and teachers are back in charge.’

History, grammar and spelling will return to the heart of the school curriculum, Michael Gove vowed yesterday. Warning against the ‘trashing of our past’ and poor standards of English, the Education Secretary said children were leaving school without knowing their nation’s history or being able to communicate properly.

He said he ‘couldn’t live’ with himself if he stopped ‘pressing, pushing, fighting’ to give every child the chance to succeed. ‘It is every child’s right to be taught how to communicate clearly,’ he said, as he attacked the way that the ‘basic building blocks of English have been demolished’. Mr Gove added: ‘Thousands of children leave school unable to compose a proper sentence, ignorant of basic grammar, incapable of writing a clear and accurate letter.’

Examiners will take account of spelling, punctuation and grammar when marking tests, he said.

He spoke of the need to go back to traditional subjects of maths and science. ‘We urgently need to ensure our children study rigorous disciplines instead of pseudo-subjects. Otherwise we will be left behind,’ he said.

He attacked the piecemeal approach to history, where children are given a mix of topics at primary, ‘a cursory run through Henry VIII, and Hitler at secondary’ before giving up the subject at 14. He has asked historian Simon Schama to advise on putting British history at the heart of the curriculum.

Mr Gove also called for tougher school discipline standards, but said he drew the line at hitting children.

Christine Blower, of the National Union of Teachers, said children ‘are being failed through the testing and assessment regime’. ‘It leads to a narrowing of the curriculum and teaching to the test,’ she said.


LOL! Plants boost grades


Plants in the classroom have been credited with helping Queensland school-children achieve huge improvement in their grades. New research to be presented to a “Plants at Work” conference in Brisbane this week shows plants have the power to boost student performance in maths and spelling by up to 14 per cent.

The conference will also hear how plants in hospitals are helping patients get out up to two days earlier. Other research includes a study showing indoor plants improve performance and productivity in adult workers with stress and negativity at work -- cut by up to 40 per cent for staff surrounded by plants.

The news of plants’ psychological benefits for workers comes as the State Government recently moved to remove plants from several of its department offices in Brisbane to save money.

“Our research has shown that plants can benefit body, mind and spirit," University of Technology Sydney adjunct professor Margaret Burchett said. Prof Burchett conducted a study in 15 Year 6 and 7 classrooms in three independent schools late last year.

More than 200 students were tested with standard maths and spelling exams before plant placements and retested after six weeks of plant presence or absence. “In two schools, there were 10 to 14 per cent improvements in scores in spelling and maths tests in those classes which had plants in their rooms,” she said.

Prof Burchett said some of the improvements could have come about because of plants’ ability to cut pollution. “International research has shown that plants can significantly improve indoor air quality in buildings with or without airconditioning by reducing levels of carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds.”

Hire plants have been removed from offices of the Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation and the Department of Public Works as a cost-cutting measure this year.

DEEDl’s Michael Jones said they recognised the value of having plants in the workplace, “but we also need to exercise financial responsibility". “The cost of hiring and maintaining plants in departmental offices in Brisbane’s CBD was equivalent to 1.5 full- time staff members,” he said,

The report above by Suellen Hinde appeared in the Brisbane "Sunday Mail" on 3 October 2010

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