Monday, November 22, 2010

Teachers Unions Not Representative of Teachers’ Changing Views

Education and education reform are hot topics in today’s headlines. Movies like Waiting for “Superman” have put the problems with American education center stage. Everyone seems to be aware that the crisis in public education is growing. Despite record level spending, students from 16 countries are outperforming their American counterparts. To top it all off, 50 percent of teachers in the classroom today will be retiring in the next ten years. This is not the recipe for a well-educated public.

Unfortunately, teachers largely have been pushed aside as education reformers determine how to help America’s students catch up with the rest of the world. Teachers can thank the teacher union leadership for being excluded from the education reform decisions. While American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten claims that teachers are being “scapegoated” for the nationwide lack of student achievement, administrators, parents, policymakers, and business leaders are working together to develop innovative strategies to help America’s students catch up with countries like Finland and South Korea.

Ms. Weingarten and her allies at the National Education Association have an arsenal of sound bites that are nothing more than double talk. It’s as if they are saying “we are part of the solution but only if you do it our way.” So who can blame policy makers for tuning out the unions when their prescription for improving public education is more money and less accountability?

The unions have done a masterful job at branding teachers and their unions as essentially the same. This could not be further from the truth. The fact is that there are hundreds of thousands of teachers who are not members of the teacher unions and do not support the unions or their positions.

There is hope for teachers, however. An alternative to the teachers unions called the Association of American Educators is a non-partisan, non-union professional association for educators. This summer the organization randomly surveyed its members from all fifty states to understand the changing sentiments of teachers relating to education reform. The findings show that teachers are indeed warming to reforms - a shocking blow to union-held stances relating to accountability, tenure and compensation.

For instance, the unions generally oppose using student test scores for teacher evaluations even when using a value-added system, which takes into account important student characteristics like special education services, free and reduced lunch status, and other factors out of a teacher’s control. Although our survey finds teachers do not want to be evaluated solely on student test scores, 80 percent of those surveyed supported using a value-added assessment when student test scores are part of teacher evaluation. In fact, AAE members believed that student test scores ranked near the top in evaluating teacher effectiveness, second to only administrative/ faculty review. Notably, years in the system ranked dead last among quantifiers of teacher effectiveness.

With regard to tenure, teachers unions promote it as a crucial means of protection for teachers to be able to perform their jobs. However, AAE’s survey shows that teachers have a different opinion. Eighty-one percent of those surveyed responded that tenure is not necessary for an educator to properly perform his or her job effectively, and the vast majority of respondents – 80 percent – asserted that achieving tenure does not indicate an effective teacher.

Also debunked in the survey is the myth that all teachers believe that they should have a job for life. Seventy-three percent supported a Colorado policy that strips tenure if a teacher is deemed ineffective for two consecutive years. Further, seventy percent disagreed with the statement “Last hired, first fired.”

When it comes to compensation, unions hold the line for a rigid, structured pay scale. AAE teachers showed that 79 percent of them supported educators being paid more to teach in high-needs schools and 80 percent agreed with paying teachers for taking on more responsibilities and additional roles at their schools.

It is this kind of data that demonstrates that teachers unions are out of step with their membership base. In fact, those teachers who think their unions are properly handling their interests have a false sense of security. Thousands of teachers have already left the union and have joined non-union, professional associations that offer many of the benefits they need without the union baggage. The growth of these organizations is the greatest hope that one day the unions will be forced to listen to their members rather than the other way around.


Charters give education in New Orleans a fresh start

When Hurricane Katrina struck five years ago, it displaced families and destroyed schools. And the storm unwittingly provided a chance to reinvent public education in a failing school district. So was launched the nation's biggest charter school experiment.Today, 70 percent of New Orleans public school students attend a charter school. No other city comes close. (Dallas' rate is 10 percent and growing.) So educators, lawmakers and researchers are watching for results.

One early lesson: The relative freedom of charter schools – they're independently run and exempt from many state education laws – appears to have been key to an overall boost in student performance in New Orleans. But the charter school setup alone did not guarantee success. The best ones have strong leaders, capable teachers and a relentless focus on learning. In other words, freedom in the right hands works.

The results in New Orleans are of high interest to Texas, where the number of charter schools has exploded over the last decade despite state limits on charters. There is talk that the Legislature may raise the cap this session, as many parents, high-dollar education donors and even Hollywood filmmakers embrace the concept.

The New Orleans school system once ranked among the country's worst. And one of the worst schools was Sophie B. Wright Middle. Wright chronically bore the state's lowest rating, academically unacceptable. Just a handful of students passed state exams. Kids got into fights and skipped class. Today, Wright carries a two-star rating out of five, around the state average. Fights are down. Attendance is up.

What changed? Five years ago, Wright became a charter school with its own governing board. Principal Sharon Clark said that autonomy has made all the difference. "You are given the ability to really work with your community and your parents and make decisions that really benefit kids," said Clark, a 43-year-old New Orleans native who came to Wright in 2001. Under the old school system, superintendents came and went along with their pet reading or math programs. Teachers ran short on textbooks and basic supplies.

Wright was one of the few city schools to become a charter before Hurricane Katrina. And it was among the first to reopen after, in January 2006. Clark said she can make swift decisions like never before. She holds up a list of requests from her teachers. One wanted a digital projector, another needed workbooks. Yet another teacher asked for a smaller fifth-period class. Everything teachers asked for, they got within 30 days, Clark said.

As a charter, Wright was able to buy its own school buses, which saved money. And Clark could decide to put middle-schoolers in single-sex classrooms ("fewer distractions," she explains) and do away with D letter grades (to push students to work harder for a C rather than fail).

Wright also enjoys the freedom to not try new things. Of all the reading programs to cycle through under the old school system, Wright instructors preferred one called Success For All, so they kept it.

Some schools or districts favor a lock-step team approach, with teachers teaching the same thing the same way, to ensure consistency. Not at Wright. "Teachers just know that they have to teach," Clark said. "We give you anything and everything you need – the rest is up to you."

Another charter school, New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy – nicknamed Sci Academy – opened two years ago. Benjamin Marcovitz, Sci Academy's 31-year-old principal, said the charter structure makes it easier to customize to student needs. Two weeks into the first school year, instructors realized that most freshmen read only at a fifth-grade level. Over one frenzied weekend, the staff overhauled the English curriculum. Out went novels like Lord of the Flies. In came an extra class on writing and grammar.

Charter schools also have more power to hire and fire teachers. When promising candidates apply to Sci Academy, Marcovitz observes them teaching. He makes suggestions and returns a week later to observe again. It's a lengthy recruiting process, often six to eight weeks. Marcovitz said the most successful teachers work 12 hours a day, six days a week the first year. Teachers post their phone numbers in their classrooms and take calls from students as late as 9:30 p.m.

Sci Academy staff members are mostly in their 20s or early 30s, with degrees from Yale, Harvard, UC-Berkeley and other top universities. Many are veterans of Teach For America, a national program that recruits promising college graduates to teach in poor communities. "We get teachers who buy into this model, who really believe that kids can come in way behind grade level and that they can achieve college success," said Morgan Carter, the school's chief growth officer.

Junior Alexandra Harris said the teachers push students even when they don't want to be pushed. "And they're going to always be there," she said. "Whatever the teachers do, they do it for a reason, for you to succeed."

Before Hurricane Katrina, more than 60 percent of New Orleans public schools were rated unacceptable. After Katrina hit, the state placed the worst campuses into a state system, the Recovery School District. Many of those schools became charters.

The charter schools are doing better on average – state figures show that 13 percent of them rated unacceptable this spring, compared with 65 percent of the Recovery district's traditional schools.

That doesn't mean charter schools are inherently better than traditional schools, experts say. "The truth is there are good charter schools and there are bad charter schools, and there are good traditionally operated schools and ones that are failing," said Shannon Jones Couhig, executive director of the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, a Tulane University think tank.

Cowen experts say that for many reasons, comparing performance of Recovery charter schools with traditional campuses can be misleading. For instance, many charters formed after Katrina and therefore got to start from scratch.

They also say the autonomy that charters foster does not guarantee success. "It takes strong leadership. It takes somebody who's been in education, who knows what has worked in the past," said Joy Askin, a curriculum coordinator at Sophie B. Wright. "It's not always about, 'Let's just pour a lot of new stuff into the school.' "


Muslim children in Britain being taught Sharia

Children in Britain are being taught brutal Sharia law punishments, including how to hack off a criminal’s hand or foot.

So-called ‘weekend schools’ for Muslim pupils as young as six also teach that the penalty for gay sex is execution and that ‘Zionists’ are plotting to take over the world for the Jews.

One set textbook challenges youngsters to list the ‘reprehensible’ qualities of Jews. Another for six-year-olds asks them to answer what happens to someone who dies who is not a believer in Islam. The answer being looked for is ‘hellfire’.

A BBC Panorama investigation, to be screened tonight, identified a network of more than 40 weekend schools teaching around 5,000 children, from age six to 18.

The schools – which offer the hardline Saudi National Curriculum – are run under the umbrella of ‘Saudi Students Clubs and Schools in the UK and Ireland’.

They are not state-funded, and do not use Government buildings. They are able to exploit a loophole which means weekend schools are not inspected by Ofsted.

Last night, experts at the Policy Exchange think-tank warned that similar extremists could seek to exploit the Government’s policy of giving greater freedoms from state control to free schools and academies. They call for the establishment of a due diligence unit to check whether those applying to open the schools have an extremist background. Current checks are largely limited to fraud, criminal convictions and funding.

Education Secretary Michael Gove, who is believed to be supportive of the idea, said he would not tolerate anti-Semitism and homophobia in English schools.

The Panorama investigation identified a book for 15-year-olds being used in the classes which teaches about Sharia law and its punishments. It says: ‘For thieves their hands will be cut off for a first offence, and their foot for a subsequent offence.’

There are diagrams showing children where cuts must be made. One passage says: ‘The specified punishment of the thief is cutting off his right hand at the wrist. Then it is cauterised to prevent him from bleeding to death.’

For acts of ‘sodomy’, children are told that the penalty is death and it states a difference of opinion whether this should be done by stoning, or burning with fire, or throwing over a cliff.

Panorama alleges that a building used for one of the schools, in Ealing, West London, is owned by the Saudi government.

Mr Gove told the programme: ‘I have no desire or wish to intervene in the decisions that the Saudi government makes in its own education system. ‘But I’m clear that we cannot have anti-Semitic material of any kind being used in English schools. Ofsted are doing some work in this area. ‘They’ll be reporting to me shortly about how we can ensure that part-time provision is better registered and better inspected in the future.’

The text books for 15-year-olds revive the so-called ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, which teach that Zionists want to establish world domination for Jews. The Saudi text books instruct pupils: ‘The Jews have tried to deny them (the Protocols) but there are many proofs of their veracity and their origin among the elders of Zion.’

The text books say the ‘main goal’ of the ‘Zionist movement’ is ‘for the Jews to have control over the world and its resources’ which, the book allege, Zionists seek to achieve partly by ‘inciting rancour and rivalry among the great powers so that they fight one another.’

Mr Gove said anyone who cites the Protocols of Zion is ‘indulging in one of the oldest and foulest anti Semitic smears that, that we know of’.

In a written response to the findings, the Saudi ambassador said the schools had nothing to do with the Saudi embassy. It stated: ‘Any tutoring activities that may have taken place among any other group of Muslims in the United Kingdom are absolutely individual to that group and not affiliated to or endorsed by the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia.’

Referring to the lesson that tasks children to list the ‘reprehensible qualities of the Jews’, in a letter to the BBC, the Saudi ambassador said it was ‘dangerously deceptive and misleading to address such texts and discuss them out of their overall historical, cultural and linguistic contexts’.

Panorama separately claimed some Muslim private schools have expressed extreme sentiments on their school websites. These include: ‘We need to defend our children from the forces of evil’, and ‘our children are exposed to a culture that is in opposition to almost everything Islam stands for’.

Policy Exchange says Britain’s faith and other schools are increasingly vulnerable to extremist influences. It claims in a report that the Department for Education, Ofsted, education authorities and schools are ‘not equipped’ to meet such challenges. Current checks for extremism are described as ‘piecemeal’.

The report adds: ‘The Government’s policy of opening up the education system to new academies and free schools programmes could be exploited unless urgent measures are taken to counter extremist influence.’


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