Monday, October 04, 2010

“Superman” versus “‘The Blob”

Nobody is indispensable, and Superman lives only in comic books. The nation’s public education system won’t be reformed through more top-down mandates, vain attempts to nationalize the schools, or cheap sloganeering.

Lasting school reform requires the education dollar following the child, eliminating the bureaucratic “middle man,” and restoring accountability at the parental level. Above all, it means giving families real choices. You don’t need to be a brainiac to figure that out.

The arrival of Waiting for “Superman,” a new documentary from the maker of An Inconvenient Truth, and the likely fate of one of the film’s main subjects should help persuade parents, teachers, and others concerned about the dismal state of U.S. public education that one person really can’t make a difference.

Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington, DC public school system, is one of the heroes of Davis Guggenheim’s film, seen waging a solitary battle against the powerful, reactionary Washington Teachers Union. The film ends with a question as to whether Rhee will prevail.

Odds are she will soon add “former-“ to her job title. On September 14 the District of Columbia’s voters turned out incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty in the city’s Democratic primary. The repudiation of Fenty was essentially a repudiation of Rhee.

Hired in 2007 by the pro-reform mayor, the outspoken and hard-driving Rhee gained national prominence a year later when she appeared on the cover of Time standing in front of a blackboard with a broom in her hand. The message: This dynamic young administrator would clean up the corrupt, violent, hidebound DC public school system.

The education “blob”—the bureaucracy, the unions, and their kept politicians—had other plans.

Fact is, Rhee accomplished relatively little in her tenure as chancellor. The District of Columbia still spends more than $20,000 per pupil per year for poor test scores, violent schools, and a dropout rate below 50 percent.

Rhee’s signature accomplishment was to negotiate a new contract with the union. Teachers traded away some job protections in exchange for pay increases and the promise of performance bonuses. The union consented to a new teacher evaluation system, which went into effect earlier this year. In July, Rhee announced she would fire 241 teachers, including 165 who received poor ratings under the new system.

Rhee’s triumph took more than two-and-a-half years to achieve—and the union said it would challenge every one of the firings. Plus, the contract comes up for renewal in 2012. With Rhee’s departure all but assured and the new mayor, Vincent Gray, a beneficiary of union largesse, it isn’t hard to imagine how long her hard-fought reforms will last.

Rhee’s story should serve as a reminder to reformers that public opinion is important, and people want to know that proposed reforms are in their interest. Rhee, however, famously said, “Collaboration and consensus-building are quite frankly overrated, in my mind.” With “consensus-building” in public education usually meaning rolling over for the unions, she’s right. But Rhee never made a good case for her reforms to the constituency that matters most: Parents.

Ironically, the teachers union—which exists not to serve the interests of parents or students but instead to protect the salaries and benefits of dues-paying members— exploited perceptions of Rhee’s management style as top-down and imperious, to rally parents against her.

Rhee’s likely ouster shows the perils of placing the mantle of change in the hands of one person, however capable. Her charisma earned her plenty of fans among reformers—and the lasting enmity of the education establishment. Their money brought down the mayor who appointed her.

It doesn’t matter that Rhee was right. She became a lightning rod, a tragic hero of reform.

Fixing the nation’s failing schools isn’t a matter of personalities. It requires electing people willing to dismantle the existing public education monopoly, decentralize authority, and give parents and students the freedom to escape a failing school system. Instead of funding bureaucrats and union bosses, we should be funding kids.


Several British Muslim schools forcing EVERY pupil to wear the veil - and regulators approve

At least three Muslim faith schools are forcing girls as young as 11 to wear face-covering veils with the blessing of Ofsted inspectors, it emerged yesterday. One of the schools insists that fees are paid in cash and warns parents against speaking to the local education authority.

All three schools have been approved by education watchdog Ofsted, which inspects private faith schools to ensure they prepare pupils for life in modern Britain and 'promote tolerance and harmony between different cultural traditions'.

The schools' dress codes yesterday provoked anger among mainsteam Muslims, who warned that pupils were in danger of being 'brainwashed'.

The three schools causing concern were Madani Girls' School in Tower Hamlets, east London, Jamea Al Kauthar, in Lancaster and Jameah Girls' Academy in Leicester. All three are independent, fee-paying, single-sex schools catering for girls aged 11 to 18.

They insist that when girls are travelling to and from school they wear the niqab, a face veil leaving the eyes exposed, or the head-to-toe burka, which covers the eyes with a mesh screen.

School uniform rules listed on Madani's website have been removed but an earlier version, seen by the Sunday Telegraph, said: 'The present uniform conforms to the Islamic Code of dressing. Outside the school, this comprises of the black Burka and Niqab.'

The admission application form warns that girls will be 'appropriately punished' for failing to wear the correct uniform.

Madani, which charges fees of £1,900-a-year, also says on its website: 'All payments should be made in cash. We do not accept cheques.' Its school rules state: 'If parents are approached by the Education Department regarding their child's education, they should not disclose any information without discussing it with the committee.'

Ofsted's 2008 assessment gives the school a 'satisfactory' rating and makes no mention of the uniform code or warning to parents.

The 260-pupil school was at the centre of a separate row in 2008 when Conservative councillors accused Labour-controlled Tower Hamlets Council of subsidising Madani school by allowing the school to buy its premises for £320,000 below market value.

The council sold the Victorian building to Madani's trustees for £1.33 million even though a valuation at the time said it was worth £1.65 million. Tower Hamlets said the agreed price of £1.33million was market value in 2004 and the sale was delayed to allow the school to raise funds.

At Jamea Al Kauthar - rated 'outstanding' by Ofsted earlier this year - rules which appear on its website state: 'Black Jubbah [smock-like outer garment] and dopatta [shawl] is compulsory as well as purdah [veil] when leaving and returning to Jamea. Scarves are strictly not permitted.'

The website also lists a wide range of banned items, including family photographs, and warns: 'Students must not cut their hair, nor remove hair from between their eyebrows. Doing so will lead to suspention (sic).'

Jameah Girls' Academy, which charges £1,750 a year for primary-age pupils and £1,850 for secondary, was rated 'good' by Ofsted in 2007. It states in its rules: 'Uniform, as set out in the pupil/parent handbook, which comprises of headscarf and habaya for all pupils, and niqab for girls attending the secondary years, to be worn during journeys to and from The Academy.'

Critics claimed the policies could damage relations between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Ed Husain, co-director of Quilliam, the counter-extremist think-tank, said: 'It is absurd that schools are enforcing this outdated ritual – one that which sends out a damaging message that Muslims do not want to fully partake in British society.

'The enforcing of the niqab on young girls is not a mainstream Islamic practice – either in Britain or in most Muslim-majority countries. 'It is a desert practice which belongs to another century and another world.'

Independent schools will be able to apply to become state-funded 'free schools' under the Coalition's education policy, although faith schools will be required to offer a quota of places to pupils of other religions first.

Mr Husain added: 'Although it is not the government's job to dictate how its citizens dress, it should nonetheless ensure that such schools are not bankrolled or subsidised by the British taxpayer.'

Dr Taj Hargey, an imam and chairman of the Muslim Educational Trust of Oxford, said: 'This is very disturbing and sets a dangerous precedent. 'It means that Muslim children are being brainwashed into thinking they must segregate and separate themselves from mainstream society.'

Philip Hollobone, the Tory MP who has attempted to bring in a Private Members' Bill to ban wearing of the burka in public, said: 'It is very sad in 21st century Britain that three schools are effectively forcing girls as young as 11 to hide their faces.

'How on earth are these young ladies going to grow up as part of a fully integrated society if they are made to regard themselves as objects at such a young age?'


British school STAFF to be given English lessons so their bad habits don't hamper pupils

Primary school staff are to be given English lessons because Ofsted inspectors believe their accents, poor grammar and use of slang set pupils a bad example.

Two teaching assistants at Trosnant Junior School in Havant, near Portsmouth, were heavily criticised in a report for their weak grasp of written and spoken English. Now, a consultant has been drafted in to teach staff to use ‘the Queen’s English in the classroom’.

The Ofsted inspectors claimed the assistants’ strong accents and use of slang were hampering children’s learning. Their report said: ‘Adults do not always demonstrate grammatical accuracy in speaking and writing.’ It cited the phrase ‘I likes football’ as an example, and gave the school 12 months to improve.

Headmaster Jim Hartley admitted there was a problem with the use of regional dialect, known as ‘Pompey slang’, in the classroom. He said: ‘This is not denigrating the Pompey accent or dialect – we are all proud of where we come from. ‘I accept however that bad grammar is not acceptable in the classroom, which is why we have taken the inspectors’ criticisms constructively.’

Kathryn Cooke, 43, whose eight-year-old son Ryan goes to the school, said: ‘The Pompey accent is not far off being Cockney. It is very common and very lazy. You would hope they would tone it down while in the classroom.’

Nick Seaton, of the Campaign for Real Education, said: ‘Youngsters cannot be expected to improve their English if they are set a bad example by the adults who are supposed to be teaching them.’

A building society has introduced grammar lessons for staff after senior executives found recent graduates could not write properly. Leeds Building Society has recruited a retired teacher to introduce a ‘more formal and consistent approach’ to writing.


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