Monday, December 06, 2010

Arne Duncan sees the light

For about two years now, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have been co-opting much of the GOP playbook on education. They support charter schools. They endorse merit pay. They decry teacher tenure and seniority. On alternate Thursdays, they bracingly challenge the teacher unions.

But on one key issue—spending—they have acted like traditional borrow-and-spend Democrats, only more so. The 2009 stimulus bill included over $100 billion for schools, most of it designed to simply save teachers’ positions. A 2010 “edujobs” bill showered another $10 billion in bailout bucks on K-12 systems to forestall hard choices. And Duncan’s insistence last summer that school districts had already cut “through, you know, fat, through flesh, and into bone,” only served to pull the rug out from under those state and local leaders inclined to swing the budget ax, by making their tough medicine seem mean-spirited—and unnecessary.

Well. We’re not sure if the Secretary of Education had a conversion experience, had a secret plan to woo the ed establishment and then hit it with tough love, or is simply reading the Tea Party leaves, but what a difference a couple months can make! The week before Thanksgiving, Secretary Duncan sang the praises of productivity in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute titled “The New Normal: Doing More With Less.”

It was a humdinger. Duncan opened: “For the next several years, preschool, K-12, and postsecondary educators are likely to face the challenge of doing more with less… [This] can, and should be, embraced as an opportunity to make dramatic improvements… It’s time to stop treating the problem of educational productivity as a grinding, eat-your-broccoli exercise. It’s time to start treating it as an opportunity for innovation and accelerating progress.”

We couldn’t agree more. Throughout the federal spending spree of the past two years, we’ve worried about the pernicious effects of dumping so much cash on our already-bloated schools. All this did, we argued, was prop up an unsustainable system whose revenues grew by one-third since 1995, thanks to the dot-com bubble and then the housing bubble. After three generations of steady growth in per pupil spending, education is going to have to face its day of reckoning and schools are going to have to start spending dollars smarter.

Duncan’s was a speech unlike any we have heard from a U.S. Secretary of Education-Republican or Democrat. He said resources are limited, embraced the need to make tough choices, urged states and districts to contemplate boosting some class sizes and consolidating schools, and didn’t spend much time trying to throw bones to the status quo.

Duncan called for wide-ranging reforms in the name of cost-effectiveness. He said, “The legacy of the factory model of schooling is that tens of billions of dollars are tied up in unproductive use of time and technology, in underused school buildings, in antiquated compensation systems, and in inefficient school finance systems.”

He rightly argued that schooling had to abandon the notion that reform is always bought and paid for with new dollars and argued that it’s essential to think of technology as a “force multiplier” rather than a pleasing add-on.

His to-do list was comprehensive and spot on. He said, “Rethinking policies around seat-time requirements, class size, compensating teachers based on their educational credentials, the use of technology in the classroom, inequitable school financing, the over placement of students in special education—almost all of these potentially transformative productivity gains are primarily state and local issues that have to be grappled with.”

In one speech, this (Democratic) Secretary of Education came out swinging against last hired, first fired, seniority-based pay raises, smaller class sizes, seat time, pay bonuses for master’s degrees, and over-bloated special education budgets. Which means he declared war on the teachers unions, parents groups, education schools, and special education lobby. Not a bad day’s work!

To be sure, Duncan has control over almost none of this. Still, this is classic bully-pulpit stuff, and we expect it will resonate big-time in state capitols all over the country. When the unions start busing in kids, parents, and teachers to rally against increases in class size or pay freezes, expect a lot of Republican governors to start quoting their good friend Arne Duncan.


The climate of fear that has poisoned British schools

Ousted teacher exposes the tyranny of liberalism that has betrayed a generation of children:

By Katharine Birbalsingh

I am the teacher who spoke at the Conservative Party Conference and then found herself out of a job. Some might argue that had I criticised the education system at a National Union of ­Teachers conference, I would have been cheered on by the delegates.

Had I blamed our broken education system on lack of funds, institutional racism or the challenge of private education, I would have been the darling of the Left and all would have been well. It was the fact that I sided with the Right that has turned me into a mortal enemy.

But we are all in pursuit of the same utopia, aren’t we? We want every child to have the best possible education, to feel safe and happy, to reach for the top, and for schools to provide environments where this is possible.

Or do we? It is interesting that teachers come up to me in the street, voicing their support, agreeing with everything I’ve said, yet refuse to tell me their names because they are scared to speak out ‘given the current climate’. By ‘the current climate’ they are pointing to Leftist ideology that insists private-style education for a comprehensive intake of students is simply a contradiction in terms.

The Left has a stranglehold over teachers and gives them little ­freedom to think outside their ideological box. For a long time, I have been a victim of that ideology.

The other day, I had tea with a friend to bring her up to date with the details of my personal drama. She is originally from Calcutta, married to a very liberal Scot and has two children. I begin, as I always do these days, defending my actions. I try to explain my reasons for voting Conservative, why it doesn’t mean that I’m a bad person, why I believe Right-wing thinking is what we need in schools. My friend leans forward. 'Well, you know, Katharine, I never told you, but I voted Conservative, too.’

Such is the state of political freedom in this country. We may believe we all have freedom of speech, but when we diverge from the pack, we don’t tell even our closest friends.

Peer pressure is not only the main force that keeps children in gangs, walking as if they’re constipated, speaking as if they’ve never read a book and permanently playing on their portable video-game machines; it is also the principal reason most adults vote the same way from the day we were born until the day we die. Political persuasion is tribal and no one is ever meant to change their minds.

I grew up in a very Left-leaning family and went to a state school. Fresh out of Oxford, where I read the magazine Marxism Today, I began teaching, firm in the belief that racist, white teachers were responsible for black under­achievement. I thought that state schools had no money and that the poor (both black and white) were left to languish.

I wanted what was best for the underprivileged. So I decided to teach only in the inner city. Not much has changed, except that I no longer read Marxist magazines and I have stopped dabbling with the Socialist Workers Party.

Why? Because my experiences in teaching have taught me that it is not lack of money or prejudice that keep my children poor, although clearly money is useful and prejudice is to be found everywhere.

Over time, I came to realise how mistaken I had been in my understanding of the education system. I remember taking a white colleague to Diane Abbott’s Black Child ­conference, aimed at tackling ‘educational underachievement in black communities’. It was Saturday ­morning and so dedicated was he, even after 20 superb years in the classroom, that he followed me there, always ­willing to learn from new experiences.

As the speakers expounded on the inner racism in the teaching profession, on the fear white teachers have of their black pupils, I will never ­forget the sense of shame that consumed me. Why? Because not only were the speakers talking utter nonsense, but I knew how much this teacher had done for black boys over the years, and here was I, dragging him out of his bed on a Saturday morning so that he could be called a racist just for being white and for being a teacher.

For years, I soldiered on in the classroom, working hard to change the minds of children who were paralysed by a sense of victimhood.

They found it impossible to believe that I had chosen to be their teacher, that I wanted to be there, that I loved being around them. Eventually, like any good teacher, I won them over by using all the tricks of the trade, from gold stars to phone calls at home with positive comments, to holding breakfast clubs in the early morning when I would spend my own money on croissants. My students felt grateful. Like me, other teachers give their life to the job, and we ‘succeed’ despite the shackles of the system.

The regular dumbing-down of our examination system is obvious to any teacher who is paying attention and who has been in the game for some time.

The refusal to allow children to fail at anything is endemic in a school culture that always looks after self-esteem and misses the crucial point, which is that children’s self-esteem depends on achieving real success. If we never encourage them to ­challenge themselves by risking ­failure, self-esteem will never come.

I started to climb the professional teaching ladder, rising to positions of middle and senior management. There, too, I succeeded, but often only by fighting against people’s innate liberalism. Indeed, I would sometimes find myself arguing with my own deeply embedded liberalism: ‘Take pity on the boy. Don’t punish him. It isn’t his fault he didn’t do his homework; just look at his home situation.’ Or: ‘Why ask them to do their ties to the top or tuck in their shirts? What does any of that have to do with learning?’

I had become indoctrinated by all the trendy nonsense dictating that if children are not behaving in your classroom, it is because you have been standing in front of them for more than five minutes trying to teach them. If only you had sat them in groups with you as facilitator, rather than teacher at the front, then you’d have the safe environment conducive to learning that we all seek.

The basic ideology is that if there is chaos in the classroom, it is the ­teacher’s fault. Children are not held responsible for their actions. Senior management fails to establish systems that support teachers and punish pupils for not doing their homework, whatever their home situation.

I argued constantly with my ­colleagues and bosses. Often I won and, almost as if they were inextricably linked, as the innate liberalism within people waned, the department or the school would improve.

In every instance, I could see for myself that a move away from liberalism was a step in the right direction, a step that brought calm out of chaos, learning in place of trendiness, and success instead of failure. At first, I had no idea that my natural inclinations were ‘Right-wing’. I just argued for what I knew would work to improve schools.

But, in 2007, I began to blog anonymously about my experiences and people unknown to me from around the country, and indeed the world, would comment on my thoughts. The Left-wingers insisted I was bitter and twisted, that I hated children and was clearly disillusioned, while the Right-wingers tended to support my natural inclinations.

Writing my blog was a kind of ­therapy and I never sought to publicise it. I loved writing it because it allowed me to vent my frustrations. What I didn’t know at the time was that it did far more than that: my blog and its respondents taught me that my thinking was Right-wing.

Eventually, the 2010 election came. While Labour’s education manifesto had a tone which reminded me of the ‘all must have prizes’ culture I had come to despise, the Conservatives were promising to abolish the 24-hour rule for detention (one ­cannot give a lengthy detention without 24 hours’ notice to parents). So I did the unthinkable: I voted Conservative and never told a soul.

Why did I choose to stand at the Conservative Party Conference and announce to the world that I voted Conservative? Because October 5, 2010, was the day I threw off the weight of the Leftist ideology that had weighed me down for so long and shouted: ‘Free at last! Free at last!’

The law says we have the freedom to think as we please; social ­conformity says we do not. For more than a decade I have been fighting for my freedom and I have finally taken it back.

Back at the cafe, my Calcutta friend and I laugh at the absurdity of ­neither of us feeling comfortable enough to tell the other that we voted Conservative. She turns to me and says: ‘But just because I voted Conservative this time does not mean I will do so in the next election. These politicians need to earn my vote.’

And she’s absolutely right. That’s why the recent reforms announced by Education Secretary Michael Gove were so exciting. Finally, here is a politician who genuinely cares about education, who has listened to what critics of the existing system have had to say and who has reacted with a set of ­common-sense proposals that I naively thought no one could take issue with.

But almost before he’d sat down in the House of Commons, Labour MPs were accusing him of promoting a ‘two-tier education system’. But that, in fact, is exactly what we have now and what these reforms are trying to address.

Mr Gove’s proposals represent several steps in the right direction. I particularly warm to the changes that will increase the power of teachers - abolishing the need to give 24 hours’ notice of a detention, giving them the right to search bags and restrain violent pupils.

But it’s the way they offer the prospect of bringing state schools - or certain parts of the state school sector - more into line with fee-paying private schools that is most exciting.

Middle-class parents, perhaps ­university-educated themselves, know how the university system works and - whether their children are state or privately educated - can help ensure their children choose appropriately rigorous academic subjects when it comes to GCSEs.

But those children at state schools, with working-class parents who have little or no knowledge of further education, don’t get that sort of help. They need to be guided towards the right subjects, something which the current system definitely does not do.

After all, what carefree 14-year-old, considering their GCSE options, isn’t going to choose something soft like media studies or PE over a tough subject such as ­physics, or plump for the four GCSE passes that information and communications technology offers over the one that German does?

We have a system that offers too much choice without enough ­direction. Universities and employers are crying out for young people with a good command of the basics, which is why Mr Gove’s proposal to concentrate on five core subjects - English, maths, a science, history or geography and a foreign language - is such a sensible one. These are precisely the subjects you need to get a decent start in life.

I’m keeping an open mind about Mr Gove’s headline-grabbing Troops to Teachers programme; let’s see how it goes. And I certainly applaud his ­initiatives to improve the standard of teachers - better aptitude tests, more stringent degree requirements - although I think he may need to go further if the new powers that heads now have to get rid of the small minority of under-performing teachers are actually going to be used.

Lazy or incompetent teachers are not only a waste of taxpayers’ money, they can have a devastating impact on young lives, too. They must be moved on, not just for the sake of the children, but for their own sakes, too. Just because they haven’t excelled at teaching doesn’t mean they won’t excel at something else.

What schools are crying out for are teachers who can inspire but also control an unruly class, teachers who can effectively impart the basics to everyone but who can also help the more able achieve their highest potential. They’ve certainly been a long time coming, but Mr Gove’s reforms are certainly a very good start.


Birthday cake row led to British headteacher's firing

Incredibly trivial minds in a British school system. Thin skins and nastiness to one-another is very British. It's why the expression "jobsworth" is unknown outside Britain. It refers to a person who uses any excuse to refuse a service to others -- even though the "jobsworth" is paid to provide that service. And when it comes to social-class-based contempt for others ....... ! Britain is a very miserable and unhappy country

A row over an uneaten slice of birthday cake triggered a disciplinary case which cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds.

When Diane Hill took over as head teacher of Devonport High School for Girls it was near bottom of the grammar school league table. Within months she had begun a massive programme to turn around an institution that many parents believed had become "lazy". But little did she know that the biggest challenge for her would be the delicate nature of the staff.

When a slice of birthday cake was left for the head teacher in her in-tray by an office worker, she failed to eat the gift. The member of staff took offence and lodged a complaint with school governors. The head teacher was also said to have failed to commiserate after the death of a staff member's dog.

She was further accused, wrongly, of confiscating a kettle from the staff room during a row over unwashed crockery. Another complaint to governors centred on Miss Hill's failure to ask a colleague about her mother's health.

In yet another incident, cleaners and dinner ladies at the Plymouth school complained they had been excluded from a "secret Santa" present-buying list – and when Miss Hill investigated the matter, she was accused of intimidating the person who had compiled the list.

Friends of Miss Hill say that the flurry of trivial accusations stemmed, in fact, from resentment among a small group of staff that the new head teacher was changing the established way of doing things – or in some cases by personal dislike of her.

Yet after hearing the litany of complaints, the school's governors decided to suspend the head on full pay, leading to a full-on war of allegations and counter-allegations. The local authority, Plymouth city council, then launched a full investigation which ultimately led to Miss Hill's dismissal.

Now she has been awarded undisclosed damages after the city council agreed an out-of-court settlement just before an employment tribunal was due to take place.

The total cost to taxpayers of the payout, the investigation, and other costs arising from the case is understood to exceed £300,000.

A parent at the school, Fiona Kerr, said: "We have lost the most fantastic head teacher, and for what? A few people's hurt feelings. It's disgraceful. "The school had become lazy. Other schools had improved immensely and Devonport had stood still. Diane was a great loss."

Miss Hill's friends say that the case raises important questions about the powers of school governors and about reforms proposed by Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, which would hand them even more control.

The former head teacher is bound by a confidentiality clause which prevents her from talking about what happened at the school. But a friend speaking on her behalf said Miss Hill was concerned that other heads could suffer similar treatment – and may be left even more isolated by the Government's plans.

The friend said: "The outcome of this whole sorry incident is that they have potentially destroyed Diane's career. "She had a 25-year unblemished record and that has been taken away from her. "The education authority found no misconduct and no incompetence after the investigation. It begs the question – why did they dismiss her?

"Her case should act as a warning to others, particularly since governing bodies are now being given more power and independence by the Government."

The final report by city council education officials made numerous comments about the head teacher's frosty relationship with staff, but nowhere did it claim there had been serious incompetence or misconduct on her part.

The birthday cake incident stands out as the most extraordinary complaint in Miss Hill's case – particularly because the 48-year-old has dietary requirements which mean she cannot eat cake. "She is allergic to milk. This was a sponge cake with cream in the middle," said her friend, who declined to be named. "It would be funny if it were not so serious. I don't think there was a single allegation that amounted to anything substantial." .....

Despite the decision to pay damages to Miss Hill, which her friends regards a vindication of her case, the head teacher's opponents remain unrepentant.


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