Friday, October 01, 2010

Why give tenure to bad teachers?

By JOEL KLEIN (Joel Klein is New York City's schools chancellor)

Even before Davis Guggenheim's powerful documentary "Waiting for Superman" opened in theaters, critics were discounting the film as charter-school propaganda and suggesting it vilifies public-school teachers. The problem with that logic is twofold: First, charters are public schools. Second, the teachers within them -- the good and the bad -- are also public-school teachers. The difference is that most don't belong to the teachers union.

The film, along with NBC's aptly timed education summit and the recent defeat of DC Mayor Adrian Fenty -- an education reformer whom the teachers union spent $1 million to unseat -- have helped ignite a long-overdue national conversation about the state of public education.

But it's a conversation some don't want to have -- because it threatens the status quo and exposes those who protect it for their own gain.

The heart of the problem is that, for too long, we have had a public-education system that values the future of the adults who work within it more than the kids it is meant to serve. "Superman" documents the damage that putting the interests of adults first has done to millions of children and why it must change -- now.

As President Obama has said, the single most important factor in determining student achievement is not the color of your skin or where you come from, it's who your teacher is.

Teachers are the heroes of every education success story. But, for too long, the system has treated teachers as if they're all the same -- no matter how their students perform. There is no business in America that would survive if it couldn't take into account results when making personnel decisions.

That is why Mayor Bloomberg on Monday unveiled a new policy for how we grant teachers tenure in New York City. Right now, as Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, likes to say, teachers can get tenure if they just keep breathing for three years. This week, that ends.

Under a new, four-tiered system, tenure will only be offered to great teachers who have demonstrated two straight years of success in moving students forward. Teachers who don't earn tenure right away will be mentored and supported -- or, ultimately, replaced.

Seems simple, but for years the teachers union has resisted such a system. Earlier this summer, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote on The Huffington Post: "Are there bad teachers? Of course there are, just as there are bad accountants, and lawyers, and film reviewers. I wish there weren't any bad teachers."

What she doesn't say is that when you have a bad accountant, a bad lawyer or even a bad film reviewer, you can choose to replace them with someone better. But in New York, the law makes it exceedingly difficult to remove a bad teacher.

State law also forces the city to spend $100 million a year on something called the Absent Teacher Reserve pool -- a thousand teachers whose positions have been eliminated by their local school, but who remain on the Department of Education payroll.

The best teachers get hired quickly by schools with open jobs. But hundreds don't -- because their skills don't fit current needs; because they have "unsatisfactory" ratings; or, in many cases, because they don't try and are content with a guaranteed paycheck. It also ties the hands of our principals, who must hire from the pool if there is a teacher who fits an open position, rather than just finding the best teacher for their school.

It's bad practice and a waste of taxpayer dollars. But we can't change it without help from Albany -- which is why I am calling on the state Legislature to require displaced teachers to find a job within six months, or else leave the system.

This change won't be easily won -- the teachers unions spend millions on elections and lobbying Albany every year. But we need to put that money where it belongs -- in the classroom.

We have to mean it when we say that every child deserves the best teacher available. Not the best teacher who happens to have tenure and the protection of the teachers union -- the very best teacher available, period.


British Prep schools know how to inspire boys

No wonder so many parents are removing boys from the state system and placing them in single-sex prep schools, writes Rowan Pelling

When I attended a village primary school in Kent, the majority of the clever-clogs were boys. They thrived on competition, which was encouraged in and out of the classroom with a house points and merit badge system. Discipline was strict and the inspiring headmaster, whose limp was rumoured to be a war wound, took clever children into his study for extra coaching.

Many of the brighter boys, my older brother included, won 11-plus places at the nearby grammar. A few years after I left, the headmaster retired and a female head teacher was appointed, who brought a raft of trendy, feminised teaching practices with her. One of the school's best teachers promptly resigned, and within four years the school's reputation for academic excellence had gone, never to be recovered.

Most of those teaching practices have become the default setting of state education. While I am thankful for the equal opportunities afforded to girls and the disappearance of the cane, there is now widespread acknowledgment that most of these changes have been disastrous – particularly for boys. So much so, that BBC2's Gareth Malone's Extraordinary School for Boys has proved gripping prime-time viewing. Every parent of boys I know applauded the zippy choirmaster's attempts to re-engage a class of 39 wayward young males with the pleasures of learning. In just eight weeks, the boys' reading ages had improved by five months and a couple of notable under-achievers saw their results rocket.

None of Gareth's conclusions was revolutionary – boys need discipline and to be challenged, thrilled and inspired, or their concentration quickly lapses – but the fact remains that these elements are routinely lacking from Britain's junior classrooms, as are the necessary male role models.

No wonder so many parents are removing boys from the state system and placing them in single-sex prep schools. According to the Independent Association of Prep Schools, 61 per cent of their 600 member schools have seen a rise in numbers, despite the biting recession. David Hanson, the chief executive of the association, cited the fact that prep schools turn out "fully rounded little boys" who aren't pressurised to play the fool.

Many parents will recognise that portrait. A good friend of mine used the money previously earmarked for moving from their tiny village semi to upgrade her precociously clever seven-year-old son's education instead. She removed him from the local primary, where he was "profoundly bored and playing up" to a private prep school where, within a year, he walked off with a shelf of prizes.

My local primary is wonderful in most aspects, but I can't help lamenting the fact that there's only one full-time male teacher in a school of around 400 pupils. It's not that the women teachers aren't good, but I know my son responds to men on a more intuitive level.

Take the time I was asked to rein him in, because he had been frightening other children by talking about demons and zombies. I couldn't help thinking that a male teacher would have shared my belief that this was entirely appropriate subject matter for a small boy with a lively imagination.

Meanwhile, competition is verboten, so when I tried to explain to him last week that he would perform poorly in his spelling test if he didn't practise, he looked at me as if I was barmy and said, "There are no marks – everyone does well, Mummy." A number of my son's brightest friends are already lagging behind the girls in general literacy and I only improved his reading by taking him off the dull school learn-to-read texts and giving him Tintin and Roald Dahl.

Indeed, the best way to galvinise boys is often to take them off an easy task and give then something far harder. Prep schools recognise this truth – the big question is whether state schools can gain the will, imagination and freedom to emulate them.


South Australian schools cutting the crap

Demand for Year 12 humanities subjects has collapsed because of changes to the South Australian Certificate of Education.

Schools have told The Advertiser students choosing their subjects for next year are shunning languages, history, arts and social studies in preference for more "conservative" subjects. Most students are choosing a more traditional pattern of "maths one, maths two, physics and chemistry", meaning schools are likely to axe humanities subjects from their curriculum.

It has raised concerns the cuts could put less academic students at risk as they often rely on the humanities subjects to pass Year 12.

The new SACE, to be rolled out to Year 12 next year, will reduce subject choice from five to four. The new SACE will no longer require final-year students to complete a compulsory humanities or maths subject. They will instead have to complete a compulsory independent research project on a subject of their choice.

Adelaide High School is likely to cut tourism, social studies, economics and geology, while history is also at risk, despite the nationwide push for it to become a core subject in the national curriculum. Assistant principal Michael Black, who is in charge of timetabling, said next year's enrolment for languages in Year 12 had also halved.

"We usually have interest of 12 or 15 but we are down to seven or eight. Because we are a specialist language school we will offer them and (look) at combining Year 11 and 12 classes," he said. "It is narrowing the curriculum and without the comprehensive (choice) it's pigeon-holing students."

A survey of other school leaders by The Advertiser found other subjects at risk include: legal studies, visual arts and geography with principals reporting preliminary enrolments of fewer than 15 students, which meant they were unlikely to survive. They say many subjects could also be reduced from offering multiple classes to just one.

Le Fevre High School principal Rob Shepherd said humanities and biology had taken the biggest hit. "Studies of Society has collapsed ... it was a really strong subject," he said. "Biology has taken a big hit (and) some of our art programs, which means there are a lot less offerings. "The curriculum has narrowed to the same conservative subjects - physics, chemistry, maths 1 and 2." Mr Shepherd said they also expected to take on Woodville High students studying Indonesian, because of low interest in languages at that school.

The Mathematical Association of SA collected data from about 30 schools and said that "surprisingly" maths enrolments for next year were remaining steady - at the detriment of humanities subjects, particularly languages. President-elect Carol Moule said they had feared maths enrolments would drop drastically under the changes. "If kids are happy to take four subjects: double maths and physics and chem ... I would be delighted to see our numbers stay up," she said.

South Australian Secondary Principals Association president Jim Davies said "no doubt" it was an emerging issue. "There is significant variability in subject shifts from school to school ... (it's) complicated because of the reduction in subjects," he said.

Mr Davies said schools were further left in the dark over which subjects they could staff because the state government is yet to release the new funding model.

The SACE Board of SA chief executive Dr Paul Kilvert said the new SACE would provide a broad curriculum for students.

"The Research Project subject, gives students the flexibility to investigate topics from any SACE subject while developing learning and research skills they can use throughout their lives," Dr Kilvert said. "The responses we have received from schools piloting the Research Project indicate the new subject is an ideal vehicle for students to pursue a topic of interest in areas that can come from other SACE subjects, the workplace or the community."


Australia: School building programs eating up play space

Government food obsession not matched by promotion of exercise

There was a small flurry of aghastness recently when primary school canteens were exposed as serial breachers of government healthy-food nazism. By "healthy", here, we mean essentially non-fattening, worried as we are that before they hit 30 the roly-poly little dears will blow the nation's entire health budget on diabetes, heart disease, joint replacement and fully funded lap-banding.

Schools across the country, force-fed by Julia Gillard's "education revolution" funding, are eating their own playgrounds. Two-and-a-half thousand in NSW alone, yet we're all happy about this, since it plumps the economy and could, we tell ourselves, drag our education system out of the toilet.

In construction are thousands of brick-veneer multipurpose halls and aluminium-windowed air-conditioned computer rooms with not a single string attached. No requirement to be carbon-neutral (kick-starting a new industry), or to be as gracious as their 19th-century counterparts, so steadfast in presenting education as a dignified pursuit. And no consideration at all, apparently, of what this rampant playground-guzzling might mean to the kiddies.

Perhaps, in Quirindi or Euchareena Heights where land is still (seen as) limitless, it's fine. But here in mid-metropolis - where play space is already scarce and school rolls are still swelling after decades of naked government profit-taking neglected the inevitable city-centre revival as habitat for breeding pairs of young professionals - here it's a problem.

Already, schools have lunchtime "no running" rules. This is true. No big balls (I'm refusing the obvious joke here, but have you ever tried to play soccer with a tennis ball?) and no chasey, barring the tamest possible version. Now that almost every school has a major chunk of its "open" space fenced and scaffolded, what will give?

Boys, and boy-ness, for a start. As even boisterousness becomes frowned-upon and the fighting that is bound to erupt in such pent conditions becomes punishable by that boys' own worst-possible penalty, endless hours of raking-it-over talk, just being a boy becomes a problem.

The incentive is to stay static, watch the screen, make like a girl, gossip, get fat. Which is where the double whammy kicks in. Estrogen. Double whammy, double mammy. For not only does estrogen generate fat; fat also generates estrogen.


No comments: