Saturday, November 20, 2010

Schools that Serve

Ten years ago James Tooley, a professor of education with a doctorate and a World Bank grant to study private schools in a dozen developing countries, took the standard path toward helping the poor: He flew first class and stayed at 5-star hotels.

But something happened in India as he visited private schools and colleges that cater to the privileged. At night, lying on 500-thread-count Egyptian-cotton sheets, he meditated about the "con" that he was now part of: Wealthy Indians enjoy foreign aid because they live in a poor country, the poor fall further behind, and the researchers live richly.

Then Tooley broke the rules. With guilt feelings and some spare time, he actually went into the slums instead of riding past them with his driver. He was surprised to see little handwritten signs announcing the existence of private schools: He thought private schools are for the rich. Guided through alleys and up narrow, dark, dirty staircases, he entered classrooms and found dedicated teachers and students.

Tooley found schools that survive not with government money or international bequests, but through $2-per-month fees paid by rickshaw pullers who scrimp and save to give their children a chance not to pull rickshaws. He went on to visit 50 Indian private schools in poor areas over the next 10 days. Did some foundation make them possible? No, these were for-profit schools created by poor but persevering entrepreneurs.

Tooley was astounded to see high motivation and better results than at the better-funded government schools. He then visited other private schools for the poor in cities and villages throughout India, Africa (Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya), and even China. In The Beautiful Tree (Cato, 2009), he describes how he regularly found government schools with better-paid but poorly motivated teachers, and private schools somehow surviving on very little income.

Why did Tooley slog through the mud when he could have hung out in hotel bars with other international researchers? I emailed him and asked. Tooley responded: "I was brought up as an evangelical Christian, baptized at 14, but lost my faith by 16. For the next thirty years I was a searcher. Age 46, I said a prayer again recommitting myself to Jesus. Ups and downs in the faith since then." No surprise: When someone goes beyond the call of duty, it's often because Someone else is calling him—and the path isn't always straight.

Throughout most of The Beautiful Tree Tooley shows rather than tells, but in the interest of space here I'll need to quote his summary: In poor countries "private education forms the majority of provision. In these areas parents have genuine choices of a number of competing private schools within easy reach and are sensitive to the price mechanism (schools close if demand is low, and new schools open to cater to expanded demand)."

Tooley's crucial conclusions: "In these genuine markets, educational entrepreneurs respond to parental needs and requirements. . . . Their quality is higher than that of government schools provided for the poor." And his findings are not merely anecdotal. Governmental officials showed little interest in his findings, but a Templeton Foundation grant allowed him to create research teams that tested 24,000 fourth-graders from a variety of schools in India, China, Nigeria, and Ghana. The result: Children in private schools scored 75 percent better than comparable students in government schools. You'd think this would excite other World Bank researchers—but like Darrow Miller, Hernando de Soto, and William Easterly (see "Don't be a Bepper," WORLD, Jan. 13, 2007), Tooley looks for bottom-up rather than top-down strategies, and that could put a lot of Big Economic Planners out of work.

The title of Tooley's book comes from his sense that parents don't need government officials to tell them what to do: A beautiful tree can grow without supervision from "development experts" who believe that poor children will be educated only if governments, with funding from rich nations, establish free, universal public schooling.

The better way: Poor parents pay teachers directly. Voucher plans "if done in the right way" can help, but that's a vital caveat, because it's easy to end up with good ideas killed via fraud and unintended market distortions. The essential strategy is this: If students don't learn, teachers don't eat.


Alabama Board of Education adopts common English and math standards

Australia too has accepted that there should be common standards for all States but the devil is in the detail. No agreement on actual contents yet

The state Board of Education Thursday adopted English and math standards that Alabama will share with at least 40 other states, allowing the states to compare their students' performance.

After hearing comments from 40 people in the audience -- 18 who supported the initiative and 22 who opposed it -- the board voted 7-2, with members Stephanie Bell and Betty Peters dissenting, to approve a resolution supporting the Common Core State Standards for Alabama's schools.

The initiative was launched more than a year ago by state leaders through the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices. It provides consistent standards in English language arts and mathematics, regardless of what state students live in.

"The Common Core State Standards enhance and strengthen Alabama's standards," said Caroline Novak, president of the A-Plus Education Partnership. "It does not dismiss them."

The board has had three work sessions on the issue, and state education officials have held four meetings around the state to get public comment.

The initiative is controversial. Alaska and Texas have opted out because officials there believe it is a step toward a nationalized education system. Many in the board's audience Thursday felt the same way. "We've seen numerous efforts of reform and they are all well-intentioned, but, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions," said Wayne Wood, a retired teacher who spoke at the meeting. "It's a national curriculum. I know it's not being called a national curriculum, but, hey, if it walks like a duck..."

Gov.-elect Robert Bentley asked the board early in the three-hour meeting to postpone the vote until his policy team had a chance to thoroughly study the standards. State Sen. Scott Beeson read Bentley's statement, which said he feels "it is unfair to pass standards such as this when there is an incoming newly elected school board."

In his statement, Bentley said if the board adopted the standards, he would "go on the record opposing this action." "It is a state function and the standards to educate our children should be based on state and local standards that are set by Alabama local school boards and parents and not by the federal government or a consortium of states," his statement read.

Gov. Bob Riley, who is president of the school board but typically attends the meetings only when something controversial or important is on the agenda, voted in favor of the standards Thursday and said they are not an attempt at a federal takeover of education. "This was set up primarily to make sure the federal government could not dictate the curriculum," he said. "There is nothing that says the next governor or the next board can't come in here next year and reverse this decision. I hope they don't, but we don't need to delay this anymore."

When discussion about the standards began several years ago, it was a state-led initiative. However, President Barack Obama got involved last year when he gave states extra points in their applications for federal Race to the Top grant money if they adopted the standards, board member Peters said.

Board member David Byers, who supports the standards, agreed he didn't want the Obama administration getting involved with the state's curriculum. He amended the resolution adopted by the board to add a clause saying the board had the right to revoke the standards at any time.

The standards are meant to keep students in all states on a level playing field, said state Superintendent Joe Morton. Previously, all 50 states had their own sets of standards, and some were weaker than others, making it nearly impossible to compare student achievement in Alabama to other states.

The Common Core State Standards clearly define what students are expected to learn in every grade in English language arts and math. This means if a student in third grade is learning the multiplication tables in Georgia and transfers to Alabama, that student will be learning the same thing here. "It allows for a more seamless transition," Morton said.

A team of educators at the request of the state Department of Education conducted a comparison between the Common Core State Standards and Alabama's Course of Study and found that Alabama's standards address 92 percent of the English language arts national standards and 96 percent of the math. "Quite simply, they are better than what we currently have," Morton said of the Common Core standards.

The standards will go into effect at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year.


Grammar is back in British schools ... and spelling will also score marks under exams shake-up

A-levels and GCSEs are to be toughened up with fewer but harder exams and a crackdown on poor ­grammar and spelling under sweeping reforms being unveiled next week.

In a five-year blueprint for schooling, Education Secretary Michael Gove will signal a return to traditional A-levels and GCSEs, taken at the end of courses.

Teenagers will be able to bypass ‘bite-size’ exams taken throughout the school year amid fears ‘the art of deep thought’ is being lost ­following reforms by Labour.

Candidates for all written GCSEs will be marked down for poor ­grammar, spelling and punctuation, while universities will be given a bigger role in setting questions at A-level and GCSE to protect exams from political meddling.

The reforms will undermine AS-levels, one of Labour’s most ­controversial exam reforms. Taken in the first-year of the sixth-form, they were part of a drive to break down A-level courses into six separately tested modules. Critics claim the trend towards ‘modular’ examining has led to grade inflation and left pupils ill-equipped for ­university study.

In further measures, Mr Gove plans to overhaul the exam league tables system amid evidence that schools are attempting to boost rankings by entering pupils for non-academic courses such as ­‘personal effectiveness’.

Meanwhile a new school curriculum – scheduled for introduction in September 2013 – will give renewed attention to core knowledge and concepts, key events in history and the classics of English literature.

Next week’s White Paper follows claims by Mr Gove that the credibility of the country’s exam system has been weakened by constant change and political interference under Labour. He has been particularly scathing about science GCSEs, which now include questions such as ‘which is healthier – a battered sausage or a grilled fish?’

Moves to restore ­rigour to the system include ­allocating marks in all written GCSEs to spelling, grammar and punctuation.

Between 1992 and 2003, five per cent of marks for most GCSEs were designated for these disciplines. But an overhaul of the exams simply said accuracy in written communication should be incorporated into wider marking. Practice across examiners is said to be inconsistent. Even in English GCSE, only around 13 per cent of marks are awarded for accurate spelling and punctuation.

The White Paper is also expected to commit the Coalition to a significant review of the curriculum at primary and secondary level. The 18-month review will spell out what children should know at each age amid claims the current National Curriculum contains too many vague statements.

Under reforms, schools will be encouraged to teach subjects such as history as stand-alone lessons rather than mixed into theme-based humanities projects.

Mr Gove also plans to scrap a rule limiting headteacher observations of lessons to just three hours a year. Currently teachers must also be given notice of the observation and told which aspects of the lesson will be evaluated.

Ending this will put Mr Gove on a collision course with the unions, but he said: ‘I would like to change the culture so that it is more routine and normal for teachers to be observing and learning from each other.’

The White Paper, expected to be unveiled on Wednesday, also includes measures for discipline, including tougher powers for teachers to restrain unruly pupils.


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