Saturday, May 08, 2010

Bigot Principal Under Fire for 'Blacks Only' Field Trip

Mike Madison, the principal of Dicken Elementary School in Ann Arbor, Mich., is lashing out at his critics and defending a field trip the school organized for black students to visit a rocket scientist. According to Madison, the trip was merely a part of his school's efforts to close the achievement gap between whites and blacks.

In a letter addressed to parents, Madison wrote, "In hindsight, this field trip could have been approached and arranged in a better way." (Uhh, ya think?) But, Madison says, the opportunity for the black children to be "in the presence of a renowned African American rocket scientist... gave the kids an opportunity to see this type of achievement is possible for even them."

"It was not a wasted venture for I know one day they might want to aspire to be the first astronaut or scientist standing on the Planet Mars," he wrote.

Despite singling out black students in this trip and talking about how achievement is possible for them, Madison insisted the intent of the field trip "was not to segregate or exclude students... but rather to address the societal issues, roadblocks and challenges that our African American children will face as they pursue a successful academic education..."

Such a nice sentiment. Now, who is going to address the challenges the kids will face after having such a doofus for a principal?


One teenager in five leaving British schools unable to read or do maths

A similar proportion to the USA. Most will be blacks going by the U.S. experience

One in five teenagers leaves school illiterate and innumerate despite two decades of education reform, research shows. More than 100,000 lack the basic skills needed to function in society.

A study found there has been little or no change in the last 20 years in the proportion of youngsters rendered unemployable because they have such a poor grasp of words and numbers.

About 17 per cent of 16 to 19-year-olds are functionally illiterate, according to the study led by Professor Greg Brooks from the University of Sheffield.

'People at this level can handle only simple tests and straightforward questions on them where no distracting information is adjacent or nearby,' the study said. 'Making inferences and understanding forms of indirect meaning, e.g. allusion and irony, are likely to be difficult or impossible. 'This is less than the functional literacy needed to partake fully in employment, family life and citizenship and to enjoy reading for its own sake.'

Some 22 per cent of 16 to 19-year-olds are essentially innumerate, according to the study. This means they have 'very basic competence in maths, mainly limited to arithmetical computations and some ability to comprehend and use other forms of mathematical information'.

The study adds: 'While this is valuable, it is clearly not enough to deal confidently with many of the mathematical challenges of contemporary life.'

Levels of functional innumeracy are even higher among older age groups, the research claims.

The Tories claim Labour has been too slow to embrace the 'synthetic phonics' method of teaching children to read, which has been credited with virtually wiping out illiteracy where it has been used. The technique, which involves teaching children the sounds that make up words, was only made mandatory four years ago.

The failure to get to grips with the basics early on is thought to increase pupils' disaffection with school, leading to them becoming alienated and dropping out.

Teachers said a 'long tail of underachievement' had long been a feature of English education.

John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, said the Government should offer one-to-one tuition for pupils, support for parents and more training for teachers. But he added: 'There are no magic solutions.'

The study, which analysed decades of evidence, found that the average reading scores for 13 to 19-year-olds improved between 1948 and 1960 but remained 'remarkably constant' between 1960 and 1988.

They rose 'gently' until 2004 before a further plateau. Writing performance has been relatively static since 1979.

The study was published by the Times Educational Supplement as it emerged that one in three primary schools are failing to meet a Labour performance benchmark and facing greater scrutiny from local authorities and Government. About 6,000 primaries are deemed to be under-achieving or 'coasting' because they are failing to improve results fast enough.

Labour has spent billions on a string of initiatives aimed at raising standards of basic skills. This has included giving teachers extra training in grammar and maths and making them follow prescribed lesson plans.

A 'functional skills' exam for 16-year-olds was devised to tackle employers' concerns, but plans to make passing this a pre-condition of good GCSE results were dropped.

Labour embraced the Conservatives' primary school literacy hour in 1997 and introduced a similar initiative for maths, before extending the drive to secondary schools. But it dropped the prescribed daily literacy and numeracy hours following numerous updates to the programmes and evidence that test results were stalling.


Australian Federal government forced teachers to call off boycott of tests

Julia Gillard has stared down the teachers' unions and forced them to drop their plans to boycott next week's national literacy and numeracy testing in schools.

The Australian Education Union yesterday called off the proposed boycott of the NAPLAN tests after the Education Minister agreed to set up a working party to examine student performance data.

But Ms Gillard did not agree to remove any information from the controversial My School website, concerns about which prompted the union's boycott threat.

A meeting of the union's federal executive yesterday decided to lift the moratorium on administration of the NAPLAN tests. Before the AEU had time to make its backdown known, Ms Gillard angered some in the union by publicly praising its decision.

It is understood Ms Gillard had struck a deal with the union in the past few days and was told the executive would support a backdown by 11am yesterday. Ms Gillard's statement was sent out before the meeting ended.

AEU federal president Angelo Gavrielatos said Ms Gillard had offered to set up a working party to provide advice on the use of student performance data and indicators of school effectiveness.

"The working party will provide a way to advance and address the profession's educational concerns relating to the misuse of student test data including school league tables," he said.

"It will also provide an opportunity for teachers and principals to engage in a genuine dialogue with the government on a sound approach to school accountability and improving results."

Mr Gavrielatos said the working group provided a resolution to the impasse, which had led state governments to seek casual or relief teachers to oversee the tests.

Ms Gillard said the government would ask the Australian Curriculum, Reporting and Assessment Authority to set up a working group with literacy and numeracy specialists, principal organisations and representatives of the Independent Education Union and the AEU.

The AEU had threatened to boycott the tests because it believed the results published on the My School website were misleading for parents.

Ms Gillard said the tests would proceed next week without disruption, saying the union had made a sensible decision.

She denied she had made concessions to the unions. "The government has always said we were committed to the My School website, that all of the information on the My School website would stay and be updated."

Ms Gillard said the working group would help provide advice on the use of student performance data that would be used to improve the My School website.

School principals welcomed yesterday's resolution, but remained cautious about the proposed working party.

The president of the Australian Primary Principals Association, Leonie Trimper, said she hoped it would prevent misuse of the My School website.

The NSW Teachers Federation executive late yesterday endorsed the decision to abandon the boycott.


Friday, May 07, 2010

"For profit" college does well

American Public Education Inc.'s (APEI) first-quarter profit rose by nearly half as enrollment continued to soar, and the company raised the high end of its full-year earnings forecast.

The for-profit college now expects earnings to grow by 36% to 39%, up from its previous view of 36% to 37%. American Public still anticipates revenue growth of 36% to 39%.

American Public, like other colleges, has benefited from the economic downturn as more adults return to school to beef up their resumes. The company, parent of online-only American Military University and American Public University, has also grown from word-of-mouth referrals within tight-knit military circles, to which it appeals with course offerings like intelligence and homeland security. More than half of the company's revenue in the most recent period was derived from students who received Department of Defense tuition assistance.

For the most recent quarter, American Public reported a profit of $7.65 million, or 40 cents a share, up from $5.24 million, or 28 cents a share, a year earlier. Revenue jumped 43% to $47.3 million. Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters expected per-share earnings of 38 cents and revenue of $46 million. Operating margin edged up to 27.8% from 26.3%.

Net course registrations climbed 39% from a year earlier to 64,900, with new student registrations up 26%. Enrollment rose 42% to 70,600 as of March 31.

American Public expects net course registrations to increase 35% to 38% for the full year. The company said in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it expects seasonal fluctuations to become more pronounced as overall growth begins to decline, which could affect overall operational results.

American Public has been a darling of many on Wall Street as its low tuition allows students to attend school without needing to secure additional, high-interest private loans. American Public, which for years has catered to military-affiliated students and their families, has in the past couple of years targeted a more general learning public with its business, history and criminal justice courses. In the most recent period, one-fifth of revenue came from non-military Title IV federal student loans, up from 16% a year earlier.


N.J. education chief plans 'merit pay' evaluations for teachers

Promising to make New Jersey’s public education system "the best in America," state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler yesterday said he plans to introduce a package of reforms next week that will include merit pay for teachers.

"Student achievement will be part of the evaluation process for teachers," Schundler said after giving the keynote address at a in Princeton on urban schools.

During his address, Schundler spoke of the need to "focus on accountability" with "the learning of children ... becoming the yardstick.

Schundler said that in New Jersey, the job of providing a thorough and efficient education is the Legislature’s responsibility and promised to release reforms to reflect that. "You’ll see a proposal very shortly," he said. "The governor and I will support reforms that will make the (state’s) public education system the best in America,"

The commissioner’s list of reforms also includes giving parents more school choice and closing failing schools. He also alluded to possibly tenure reform, saying the state should have a system where ineffective teachers can be more easily replaced.

The measures, he said, will be part of the state’s new application for Race to the Top, a competitive grant program that could award New Jersey up to $350 million for education reform. Schundler said he hoped a merit pay bill could pass the Legislature by June 1, when the grant application is due. "If we do, it will make our (application) extremely competitive," Schundler said at Princeton University, after a conference on urban school reform.

The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, has long opposed merit pay and tenure reform. The union refused to sign on to the state’s last Race to the Top application, which did not win funding.

NJEA spokesman Steve Wollmer said the union has requested a meeting with Schundler to discuss Race to the Top, and plans to meet with him this afternoon. He declined to discuss whether NJEA will soften its positions on teacher evaluations and other issues. "Hopefully, that’s the beginning of a dialogue," Wollmer said. "We are going to bring some new approaches in. We also have some new ideas we want to share."

Since taking office in January, Gov. Chris Christie and the NJEA have battled almost daily. The governor, who regularly attacks the union as "greedy," has dramatically cut state aid to schools, reined in pensions for new hires and supported tax breaks to companies that sponsor poor children going to private schools.

The NJEA says he is lying about most of the issues.

Merit pay proposals generally use data system to support instruction, tying student performance on test scores to teacher evaluations and compensation. Both Delaware and Tennessee, earlier Race to the Top winners, included such measures.

Delaware’s new law on teacher/principal effectiveness, for example, says no educators can be rated as "effective" unless their students demonstrate satisfactory levels of growth; teachers rated "ineffective" for 2 to 3 years can be removed from the classroom, even if they have tenure.

Schundler’s call for changes in teacher pay and tenure policies came on the same day the New Jersey School Boards Association called for new laws to eliminate rules it says give unions the upper hand. The association wants lawmakers to streamline the tenure system, enact an anti-strike law and overhaul seniority and bumping rights so districts making layoffs can retain employees that school leaders see as most qualified, rather then being forced to keep those with the most longevity.

Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the association, said his group is scheduled to meet with the commissioner today to discusss merit pay and other proposed reforms. Belluscio said the association "always thought there is a lot of potential with merit pay," and favors tenure reform. "If he is going to take on the ‘T’ word, we’re all for it," Belluscio said.


More freedom for British schools, no matter who wins in election aftermath

Schools will be given more power to control their affairs under one of the biggest overhauls of state education in a generation. All three main parties have pledged to bring in private companies, charities and parents’ groups to run schools in England in a move designed to promote competition and cut red tape.

In a sign of consensus between the parties, local councils are expected to lose a significant amount of direct control over schools as power over admissions, staff pay, buildings and the curriculum is increasingly devolved to head teachers.

Labour is committed to expanding the number of academies – independent secondary schools sponsored and run by private organisations – beyond the 200 opened in the past decade. It also wants to accredit organisations to run “chains” of primary and secondary schools.

The Liberal Democrats want all schools to have the “freedom to innovate”, although academies will be replaced by “sponsor managed schools”, giving councils the power to appoint organisations to run them.

Conservative plans have attracted the most controversy. They go significantly further than the two other main parties by giving all high-performing primary and secondary schools the power to become academies – removing local authorities’ right of veto. In a hugely contentious move, the Tories would also allow parents, teachers and other organisations to set up and run their own “free schools” at taxpayers’ expense. The plans, which are modelled on programmes in Sweden and the United States, could dramatically expand the number of providers stepping in to run state education.

But while debate over school structures has dominated the election campaign, the future of qualifications, the curriculum and league tables have also been key battlegrounds. Next week, thousands of primary school head teachers in England will boycott Sats tests for 11-year-olds amid claims that they promote a culture of “teaching to the test” and ruin children’s education.

The Lib Dems have pledged to scrap Sats, but they will be retained in the short-term by both Labour and the Conservatives, putting the parties on a post-election collision course with heads.

Qualifications for teenagers will also be overhauled, irrespective of the election outcome. Labour will expand the number of diplomas, which combine practical training with traditional classroom tuition, while the Lib Dems will create a general, overarching diploma, swallowing up all vocational and academic qualifications under one heading.

In a further nod towards school freedom, the Conservatives will allow heads to offer any qualification, including the International GCSE, which is currently favoured in private schools but banned in the state sector. The National Curriculum is also likely to face a significant restructure.

The Tories have pledged to redraft it completely, outlining the core content with a particular focus on the basics of English, maths and science.

The Lib Dems want to introduce a slimmed down “minimum curriculum entitlement”, while Labour will enforce a new primary curriculum, stripping away traditional subjects to allow schools to focus on six broad “areas of learning”.


Thursday, May 06, 2010

‘Emergency Education Jobs Bill’ is Really a Union Dues Bailout Bill

The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, and its counterpart, the American Federation of Teachers, are ramping up attention on Senate Bill 3206, introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), which would create a $23 billion “education jobs fund” to hire or retain “150,000 or more” school employees for the next school year. The NEA is engaged in a “massive, 24/7 lobbying campaign” to pass Harkin’s bill, according to its president Dennis Van Roekel.

That’s $153,333 spent per job just to “retain” them. The most recent data from the American Federation of Teachers concluded the average teacher salary is $51,009. Where is the other $100,000 per job going?

Nevertheless, in a recent Senate committee hearing, Harkin cited the “emergency” for creating the fund. Note he didn’t say teachers, he said “education jobs.” That’s because in many states, like Michigan, teachers unions are losing members that are custodians or food service workers.

Just for the record, billions of dollars have already been spent on “retaining” school jobs. The NEA claims 325,000 public school jobs were “saved” under the stimulus bill.

The NEA released a YouTube video with a title which pretty much sums up the union’s entire existence: “The issue is JOBS.” Of course: the issue is not accountability or test scores or huge amounts of fiscal waste. It’s simply jobs and therefore union dues.

What would Sen. Harkin’s bill mean for the NEA and AFT in terms of revenue? Let’s do the math. The NEA has about three-quarters of unionized school employees within its fold. Its 2010 dues are $162 per full-time member, according to the Indiana State Teachers Association, an NEA affiliate. AFT’s annual dues are $184.20, according to union financial documents found at

Using the membership ratio breakdown, it is estimated an “education jobs” bill would result in a savings of $18.2 million for the NEA and $6.9 million for the AFT.

Surely this never dawned on the two unions when they decided to push for this bill.

There is a direct correlation between the loss of public school jobs – whether warranted due to declining enrollment or because of a money shortage – and the teachers unions’ income. If the NEA and AFT can pass an “education jobs” bill, it will also equate to a huge windfall for Big Labor. Just what the unions put this Congress in to do, right?


British private schools the victim of class war

Leading public schools are victims of a class war being waged by 'bitter' critics who are fixated with privilege, the headmaster of Eton College warned yesterday. Such schools are being forced to operate under a 'deadly cloud' of class obsession, added Tony Little.

He warned that boarding schools such as Eton were too often smeared by 'political posturing' and commentators peddling the outdated claim that they are 'bastions of privilege'.

Mr Little's remarks yesterday will be seen as a veiled swipe at Gordon Brown who claimed last year that Tory tax policy had been 'dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton'.

In a wide-ranging speech at the Boarding Schools' Association annual conference in Torquay, the headmaster also warned that independent schools were coming under increasing pressure from pushy parents whose actions were 'little short of harassment'.

Parents were keen to see 'immediate tangible returns' for their fees and increasingly sought 'go as you please' boarding facilities, exam cramming and more lenient discipline.

Mr Little called on fellow heads to take a tougher line on pushy parents to avoid compromising boarding schools' distinctive ethos and educational principles. Boarding schools 'should not be a pick-and-mix counter of unrelated choices', he said.

'These days boarding schools are highly professional institutions - parents are paying us for our professional expertise. We should not hold back from telling them so.'

Mr Little criticised a continuing 'fixation' among some commentators with class. While lauded abroad, British boarding schools were too often 'unheralded' in their own country, he said.

'For some, the associations with class run deep. They see boarding schools as bastions of privilege. 'It is remarkable given the intensity of public scrutiny, that boarding numbers are as healthy as they are.'

Mr Little called on the next government to revive the old assisted places scheme to send disadvantaged children to boarding school. The schools could act as an antidote to the so-called 'broken society' and should be opened up to children from poorer homes, he said.


Like teachers worldwide, Australian teachers hate anything that might enable their competence to be evaluated

Eve and Katsuya left Sydney at 7.30am and drove home, arriving at 12.30pm. Eve drove for the first two hours at an average speed of 60km/h. Katsuya drove the rest of the way, averaging 90km/h. What was the average speed of the whole journey? a) 67km/h; b) 75km/h; c) 78km/h; d) 84km/h.*

This is an example of the sort of innocuous question that will appear next week in the national NAPLAN tests, which are causing World War III in education circles.

It's hard to believe teachers' unions would stoop so low as to threaten casual and retired teachers brought in by schools to supervise the tests for years 3, 5, 7 and 9.

But their bully-boy tactics are there in black and white on the NSW Teachers Federation website: "You should be aware that if you [supervise the tests], you may quickly find yourself in a hostile environment where the teachers . . . have refused to administer NAPLAN 2010. These teachers and principals will not thank you for your intervention."

It's just part of union attempts to sabotage the popular tests, which are an important tool to improve education, especially for disadvantaged students. We see from last year's NAPLAN tests, for instance, that NSW schools fared disproportionately well, especially in primary reading, which shows former premier Bob Carr was justified in defending the curriculum from the worst educational fads. We can learn from some of the surprise successes, such as Macquarie Fields High School in the oft-maligned south-west suburb, which ranked in the top 100 schools in the country in numeracy.

But the militant ideologues of the Australian Education Union and the NSW Teachers Federation are determined to boycott the tests, ostensibly because they object to the possibility they might be used to rank schools in "league tables".

The only logical explanation for this madness is the unions are frightened of information. They don't want Macquarie Fields to be hailed a success or become a model for other schools in impoverished areas. They want to hide failures and condemn another generation of young Australians to illiteracy.

Even if the union campaign is only slightly successful, it will have contaminated this year's results. As this will be the second national test for students who sat the first test in 2008, it is crucial to measure their progress. It is the children who will suffer from this unseemly squabbling of grown adults.

To their credit, federal Education Minister Julia Gillard and NSW Education Minister Verity Firth are standing firm, determined to introduce transparency and accountability to the nation's classrooms. But it seems those good intentions only go so far. When it comes to a small software company that has turned the test into an easy online tool for schools and students to take regular snapshots of academic progress, education departments have resorted to the same intimidatory tactics as the unions.

David Johnson owns Naplan Online and AUSSAT Online, websites that allow students and teachers to take tests online, with immediate marks, and to track their results over time. He says he is being driven out of business by bullying bureaucrats.

Over the past nine months, he says the NSW Department of Education and Training and the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, have sent him five threatening legal letters alleging copyright infringements and demanding he hand over his domain name and logo and stop people from doing the tests online. On Sunday night, he was intimidated enough to shut down the free online testing site, despite having "tens of thousands" of parents registered.

"We're just a small software business trying to make a dollar," he says. "The schools absolutely love [the website]. It cuts out the bureaucrats and empowers classroom teachers and principals. There is nothing like it available in Australia."

He says inefficient education bureaucracies have spent millions of dollars on IT departments that have not been able to create any comparable tool. Instead, they have trademarked the NAPLAN name and are trying to shut him down. "Why are government bureaucracies trying to operate like businesses? If everyone could use the NAPLAN assessment papers other people could develop new products and services that benefit everyone," he says.

An IT expert married to a schoolteacher, Johnson, 43, came up with the idea for the website after his eldest son sat the first NAPLAN tests in 2008 and he saw the flaws. "It was all paper-based, expensive and controlled by big bureaucracy." The tests are in May but results are not returned until September, giving little time to correct problems.

"If a child is struggling you need to know as quickly as possible so that you can act," he says. He worked out how to overcome the inefficiencies with software, which he patented, and has already sold to 300 schools, to use as a supplement to NAPLAN. His paid subscription service allows teachers to test students several times a year, giving them several data points from which to judge progress.

While NAPLAN is a useful tool for education departments to allocate resources to under-performing schools, in the classroom teachers still need ways to assess the progress of individual students. More data points help them identify where a child is faltering or progressing and to communicate to parents what value has been added over the year.

All the information Johnson uses is publicly available. He has just been more efficient than education bureaucracies at making it useful. There are plenty of commercially available NAPLAN guides in print form that help teachers and parents prepare children for the tests.

As Johnson says: "If our site disappears, someone somewhere will build another site to replace it." But he is running out of money and is now thinking of giving up and taking an IT job overseas. He has shown how private enterprise can solve problems more efficiently than bureaucracies. But his travails show how innovation is crushed when those bureaucracies run out of control.

SOURCE (There is now some talk that the unions will back down under threat of losing pay)

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Race to the Top follows tortuous, imprecise course

The Race to the Top is beginning to resemble a marathon with bizarre twists and turns that take runners in divergent directions with differing degrees of difficulty. Critics of varied political persuasions are warning of grievous flaws in the process and calling for the Race to be scrapped or changed dramatically.

Perhaps the most devastating critique comes from the Economic Policy Institute, a center-left research organization based in Washington, DC.

In an April 20 paper, “Let’s Do the Numbers,” retired marine engineer William Peterson and longtime New York Times columnist Richard Rothstein argue ObamaEd’s 500-point rating system for judging states’ applications for a share of a $4.35 billion stimulus stash “presents a patina of scientific objectivity, but in truth masks a subjective and somewhat random process.”

Forty states and the District of Columbia entered RTTT. Sixteen became finalists, and Delaware and Tennessee were designated in March as the sole winners of the first round, winning $100 million and $500 million, respectively. The Education Department hired 49 anonymous reviewers at $5,000 apiece to evaluate applications according to weighted metrics reflecting Secretary Arne Duncan’s priorities.

States received points for assorted “success factors,” such as approval by teacher unions and school boards, committing to national standards and assessments, using test data to evaluate teachers and principals, adopting federal turnaround strategies for the lowest-achieving schools, and welcoming high-performing charter schools.

Delaware scored 454.6 out of 500, and Tennessee 444.2, but the EPI study found the seeming precision in such marks was a sham. It concluded the selection of those two states was “subjective and arbitrary” and “more a matter of bias or chance” than proof of stellar reform efforts.

The analysts pointed to the dearth of scientific support for the points Duncan assigned to various factors. For instance, why should “Improving Student Outcomes” have a weight of just 5 percent (25 points out of 500), and why just 4 percent for “Using Data to Improve Instruction,” 6 percent for “Using Evaluations [of principals and teachers] to Inform Key Decisions,” and 3 percent for “Ensuring Equitable Distribution [of principals and teachers] in High-Poverty or High-Minority Schools”?

The entirely reasonable decision to increase each of those factors by just 3 percent (with weights of 25 other indicators reduced by just a half-point each to keep the total at 100 percent) would have resulted in Georgia beating out Tennessee. The analysts also showed that if Pennsylvania had been fully credited with its initiatives in early childhood and science education (both supposedly Obama priorities, though slighted in RTTT), the Keystone State would have been the big winner.

Some of the most egregious bias affected Massachusetts, which ranked 13th among the 16 finalists despite topping all states in rigor of standards and achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Massachusetts received scores higher than or equal to Tennessee on half of the 30 metrics. Why no prize? Massachusetts declined to commit to adopting the Obama administration’s national standards by next August. State leaders preferred to have public hearings on whether to embrace the national version. It was docked 15 (out of a possible 20) points on “Adopting Standards.”

“In sum,” the EPI analysis notes, “Massachusetts’ willingness to permit the public to comment on its academic standards, combined with a few quirks in the weighting system, cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.”

States can apply for future rounds of RTTT grants after amending their policies to conform more closely to the Obama/Duncan game plan. But such conformity would encourage more standardization under centralized authority as opposed to innovation and empowerment of education consumers in communities.

The one positive result of the Race to the Top has been to demonstrate that the federal government lacks the competence to influence elementary and secondary education for the better. Of course, the U.S. Department of Education has been proving that very point since its establishment 30 years ago. How many more years before the general public realizes Ronald Reagan had the right idea in seeking to close this monstrosity and return power and taxing authority to the local level?


Britain's blackboard jungle

What the Leftist horror of discipline has wrought

Dylan stands up, dashes across the room to snatch his friend’s pencil case and promptly tosses the contents into the air. When I order him to sit down, he laughs, climbs on to the window ledge and begins to hiss.

Some of the other children in the class of 14-year-olds join in. As I attempt to persuade Dylan to get down, another pupil, Richard, grabs his neighbour Rory by the neck and wrestles him to the floor. ‘Stop it, Richard,’ I shout, trying to pull them apart. His response is to reply: ‘Oi, Miss, you ain’t allowed to touch us. That’s assault, that is.’

His victim, meanwhile, scrambles back to his chair. The hissing has become jeering and a paper ball sails across the classroom, closely followed by someone’s PE kit.

It is a chaotic scene, but don’t be fooled into thinking it is in any way unusual. Like it or not, this is life in the average classroom of an average comprehensive.

And during the ten years that I’ve been teaching in state secondary schools, I can honestly say that the standard of behaviour has imploded.

You may shrug off bad behaviour as being down to a teacher’s inability to control their class but believe me, these days every state school teacher I know, regardless of ability, has been subject to swearing, physical fighting and constant disruption on nearly a daily basis.

What’s more, there are incidents of physical violence towards us too. I, personally, have been shoved aside by one 15-year-old pupil, who was annoyed at being kept for detention. I’ve had coins and pencils thrown at me and colleagues of mine have been bitten, kicked in the stomach and on the legs.

None of the children who assaulted us was expelled. These are the reasons why I am now seriously considering spending at least £9,000 a year to send my four-year-old daughter to private school when the time comes.

As a staunch supporter of the state system, this is something I never believed I would even consider. But my ideals of equality have been well and truly trampled under foot. Behaviour in many schools is now so appalling that I just cannot risk my daughter having to witness the things that as a teacher I have grown depressingly accustomed to...

You may think back to your own schooldays and recall pupils being cheeky and showing no enthusiasm for learning.

But, believe me, long gone are the days when disobedience amounted to a crafty fag behind the bike sheds or reading a magazine under the desk instead of copying out notes on Macbeth. Now, shouting and swearing at staff is commonplace, and you can utter a perfectly reasonable request to be met with a fury that beggars belief.

Ask a pupil to sit down or be quiet and chairs might be kicked over, desks sent flying — followed by the obligatory foul-mouthed tirade.

Over the past ten years, I have been an English teacher in three state secondary schools in the South-East. Last year, for the first time in my career, I walked out of a classroom.

Halfway through the lesson, in a school classed by Ofsted as ‘good’, I packed my bags and left because the behaviour in that room was so dreadful that had I stayed I would have either burst into tears or thumped one of my 15-year-old pupils.

That day, my carefully prepared handouts had been screwed up and thrown around the room as children ran about jumping on chairs and chucking one another’s bags around.

One of the boys, Mark, a persistent troublemaker, refused to sit his place. He plonked himself down in someone else’s chair, feet on the desk and whipped out his phone.

When I tried to confiscate it, he simply laughed at me. ‘**** off! You ain’t having that,’ he jeered.

When another boy, Andrew, started chucking paper aeroplanes across the room and the rest of the class started whistling and chanting raucously, I walked out. I’d had enough. I was at breaking point.

It might not sound as if anything particularly outrageous occurred that day. But what had broken me wasn’t the bad behaviour, but the personal nature of it.

Children have always been mischievous, and teachers can cope with that, but what’s new is the proliferation of swearing and deliberate attempts to humiliate us.

The first time a pupil swore at me was five years ago. It was a girl — don’t be fooled, they can be just as bad as boys — and I had asked her to leave my classroom as she wasn’t supposed to be in my lesson. The response was: ‘F*** off, you sad b****!’

I was frozen to the spot with shock. But now I can honestly say that perhaps three days in every five I’m sworn at or personally insulted in some way or another.

You might wonder why we teachers stand for it, but largely our hands are tied. Take this example — one pupil swore at me, hit a fellow pupil over the head, tipped pencil cases to the floor, called another a ‘w*****’.

I complained to the head teacher, only to be told the pupil in question is attending anger management classes. When I pointed out that their behaviour was preventing all of her classmates from learning, I was told that there was nothing anyone could do. We just had to curb the behaviour as best we could.

So how have we descended to this level? In my opinion, the Government’s policy of inclusion — whereby even extremely disturbed and aggressive children are taught in mainstream schools — is largely to blame.

Special schools — where children with severe emotional and behavioural difficulties were educated in tiny classes by teachers trained to deal with their complex needs — have been closed. Now, those children are educated in mainstream comprehensives by people like me, who just aren’t equipped to deal with them.

I’ve grown accustomed — as have my colleagues — to watching groups of teenagers in hoodies marauding around the school, banging on classroom windows, opening the doors and shouting insults into lessons.

Sometimes they even beckon other children out of classes to have a fight or disrupt someone else’s lessons....

In the past few years, schools have started to spend tens of thousands of pounds employing counsellors to teach youngsters ‘anger management’. Inclusion in this nebulous group gives pupils carte blanche to behave in any way they please, without having to take the slightest responsibility for their actions. And what of the parents?

Complain to them about their children’s behaviour and it’s quite likely that you’ll be met with a shrugging indifference. On one occasion, I rang a mother to complain about her daughter’s abusive language and was told to ‘lighten up’.

Other parents become angry and foulmouthed themselves. My friend Joanna, a tiny woman of five foot, was screamed at and threatened in her classroom by an enraged father. She’d kept his daughter in for a detention and was accused of ‘picking on’ the girl. With role models like that, it’s little wonder that so many of our children are violent thugs.

As for expulsion, schools are loath to do this to unruly pupils because there are financial penalties.

And the policy of inclusion has meant that children expelled from one comprehensive on Friday afternoon will just turn up on Monday morning at another one five miles down the road. It is no wonder that a survey of more than 1,000 teachers carried out by the teachers’ union ATL in March found more than 50 per cent had experienced verbal abuse this academic year and almost 40 per cent had been intimidated.

These figures, shocking though they are, I believe, underestimate the problem. Many teachers don’t like to admit that they’ve been abused and intimidated, feeling that somehow it reflects badly on them rather than on the pupils who push, shove and swear their way through the school day.

My friend, Carol, confides that violence in the classroom has got much worse. ‘I was knocked over by some boys shoving their way out of the room after I’d tried to keep them in for a lunchtime detention. One of them punched me hard on the arm first,’ she tells me.

She is now considering quitting the profession after 15 years. Even more shockingly, another colleague, Mary, was punched in the face after a 13-year-old lost his temper when she confiscated his mobile phone.

I’ve worked in schools that Ofsted has deemed to be failing, and the behaviour was atrocious. I’ve also worked in schools that like Peter Harvey’s were rated ‘good’ by Ofsted, and the behaviour was equally dreadful. Many of my teaching colleagues admit almost shamefacedly to educating their children in the private sector.

For those of us who’ve spent our lives teaching in comprehensives, there is a sense that we are letting the side down by turning to private schools for our own children. But we see what’s happening in our classrooms and we are left with little choice.

Hence my plans for my own daughter. The difference is that no private school would tolerate behaviour even half as bad as that now taken for granted in state schools...


British Private pupils are ten times as likely to gain top high school passes

The gulf in standards between state and private schools has been laid bare by figures showing fee-paying pupils are nearly ten times more likely to gain top GCSE grades demanded by elite universities.

Just one in 45 pupils educated at a comprehensive gains five A* grades at GCSE - the benchmark increasingly demanded by universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Durham and Edinburgh.

In contrast, one in five pupils who went to a private school achieved the five A*s standard which is required before the universities even consider A-level results.

The figures triggered renewed concern that bright pupils are being failed by the comprehensive system. An independent school head who uncovered the figures warned that clever state school pupils were being 'disenfranchised'. Richard Cairns, head of Brighton College, called for greater use of setting and streaming in schools.

The figures were originally released by the Department for Children, Schools and Families following a Commons written question from the Tories.

They show that in 2007, the last year for which figures are available, just 2.2 per cent of comprehensive pupils - or 12,094 - gained five A*s at GCSE. This compares with 20.5 per cent of independent school pupils - or 9,575. The figures suggest the gulf has widened slightly since 2003.

Elite universities including many in the prestigious Russell Group increasingly demand a string of As and A*s at GCSE.

Mr Cairns warned that state schools are too focused on making sure pupils get the C grades needed for the school to do well in league tables, rather than pushing them on to get A*s. He said the Government should not put the trends down to academic selection at private schools, since many were not as selective as is widely thought.

'What's striking is that the percentage achieving five A*s in comprehensive schools was low when Labour took over, and remains low,' he said. 'Young people are being disenfranchised. State schools are not focusing enough on the brightest. The whole education system is too focused on the C/D borderline. 'A lot of bright children are not being pushed to get those A*s they actually need.'

Michael Gove, Tory education spokesman, said: 'The current education system is unfair. 'Richer parents can buy a good education via private schools or by paying for an expensive house in the right catchment area. Too often the poorest pupils are left with the worst schools.'


Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Florida’s unheralded school revolution

Two weeks ago Florida Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed a bill that would have ended teacher tenure and established merit pay. His action was widely criticized and effectively ended his primary race for the U.S. Senate as a Republican.

And yet last week, Mr. Crist signed an education bill that will dramatically expand the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. It has attracted little attention, but this legislation could revolutionize K-12 education in the Sunshine State.

The tax credits support private school choice for low-income children by encouraging businesses to donate money for their education. A business's tax liability is cut by a dollar for every dollar it donates to a nonprofit scholarship organization. The nonprofits use the funds to help poor families pay private school tuition.

Currently, there is a $118 million cap on the program. This year nearly $100 million was donated in the program, which as of February translated into scholarships for 27,700 students. But the new law raises the caps on the value a scholarship (eventually to $5,500) and on the total amount of money that can be donated in the program to $140 million in fiscal year 2011.

It also allows the program to rise 25% annually and expands the tax base against which credits can be taken. That used to be limited to corporate income and insurance premium taxes. Now credits can be taken against taxes on oil and gas production, self-accrued sales tax liabilities of direct pay permit holders, and alcoholic beverage taxes on beer, wine and spirits.

This change could prove dramatic: In 10 years the program could raise $1.3 billion and support over 8% of Florida's students. In 15 years it could approach $4 billion and support more than a quarter of the state's students. A girl born in Florida today might find that a third or more of her peers are being educated in private schools by the time she sets foot in high school.

But will the state's politicians and special interests allow that transformation to take place? Looking at how the reform legislation fared in the state's Republican controlled legislature, it seems the answer is already in. The bill passed both houses overwhelmingly, including support from 42% of Democrats and 52% of the legislative black caucus. (Nearly every Republican voted yes.) That is a remarkable turnabout for a program that received one Democratic vote when it was created in 2001. Why the shift?

Money is part of the answer. On average, public schools in the state spend over $11,000 per student, far more than the scholarships. Therefore the state gains $1.49 in savings for every $1 it loses in tax revenue in the program, according to a 2008 fiscal analysis by the state Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability. The state Senate Ways and Means Committee estimated the program's expansion will save $20 million over the next four years.

But money is far from the only reason Democrats support this program. State Rep. Bill Heller, the top Democrat on the House Education Policy Council, wrote recently in the St. Petersburg Times, "To me, a scholarship option for poor, struggling schoolchildren is in the greatest tradition of our collective commitment to equal educational opportunity."

There is also clear evidence that many private schools outperform public schools academically. The first children to enter the Washington, D.C., voucher program, for example, now read more than two grade levels above students who applied for the program but didn't win the voucher lottery.

Researchers from Northwestern University will soon release a study on how competition from Florida's education tax-credit program is impacting the performance of children who remain in public schools. The preliminary evidence is that school choice lifts the performance of public-school students significantly.

Florida's scholarship program appears to be the first statewide private school choice program to reach a critical mass of funding, functionality and political support. As an ever increasing number of students in Florida take advantage of the scholarship program, other states will find it hard to resist enacting broad-based school choice.


Charter schools threaten to sue D.C. for funding

Parity pursued across nation

D.C. supporters of charter schools are among a number of national proponents who are turning toward litigation to get charter students their fair share of public education dollars.

In North Carolina, a charter coalition has filed a federal complaint alleging discrimination after winning a funding lawsuit in February. In Missouri, St. Louis charter schools and parents claim that the school district owes them millions of dollars that the public school system failed to distribute after receiving the money from the state.

D.C. advocates say they will sue if Mayor Adrian M. Fenty fails to increase the per-pupil allocations for charter students. The Washington Times broke the news about the threat on its website Friday after a daylong D.C. Council hearing on school budget discrepancies, teachers salaries and a new union agreement.

At the hearing, Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray cited a draft proposal by charter advocates that spells out several demands, including aligning charter schools per-pupil allocations with those of traditional schools. The funding concerns stem from a tentative union agreement that includes five years worth of raises and a much-heralded merit-pay package.

"If Mayor Fenty does not agree to modify the per-student funding formula to include the impact of this new proposed compensation structure, it is the charter communitys intent to take the city to court in order to ensure parity and equity in accordance with D.C. Charter School laws and regulations," according to the four-page document titled "Draft Charter School Position Paper on Salary Increases," a copy of which was obtained by The Times.

Funding for charter schools varies from state to state and, like public schools, they receive a combination of local, state and federal money. Many school districts and states base their funding for charters and traditional public schools on a per-pupil formula, which is then "weighted" to factor in such additional costs as special education and transportation.

But the mayor and schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee strayed from that formula, which is mandated in the School Reform Act, by brokering a union deal that excludes charters from receiving additional funding, said a spokesman for Friends of Choice in Urban Schools.

Like their public school counterparts, charters view funding as key to their operations, and as competition for those dollars grows, so do legal actions.

The St. Louis Charter School filed a lawsuit last year claiming that St. Louis Public Schools had shortchanged its funding by $3.86 million over four years. The state put a preliminary estimate at $1.5 million. If the states calculations are applied to across the board, the dollar amount could reach as high as $20 million for the city's dozen charters.

In North Carolina, the Association of African American Charter School Administrators filed a discrimination complaint last week with the U.S. Department of Educations office of civil rights.

The complaint claims a state Board of Education policy approved in December is biased against charter schools because it mandates that a charter be revoked if less than 60 percent of a charters students pass standardized tests in two out of three consecutive years and if students fail to meet or exceed expected growth based on those tests.

Traditional public schools are granted more leeway, the complainants said.

"Our concern is we just want the support and the same treatment," Eugene Slocum, principal of Alpha Academy, told the Fayetteville Observer.

Friends of Choice in Urban Schools spokesman Barnaby Towns made similar remarks to The Times, pointing to the D.C. mayor's budget plan for fiscal 2010 and 2011.

"Any additional public funding needed for DCPS teacher pay increases should be put through the funding formula. … [The] inequity in public funding could be legitimately pursued in a lawsuit."


Nothing is so harmful to our children’s futures as education

Michael Deacon reports on a series of initiatives to banish risk from British classrooms

Many schools are no longer teaching dissection in biology, according to a report. This is apparently for various reasons concerning health and safety, one of which is that badly behaved pupils might steal the scalpels and use them in fights.

This seems unlikely, given that most pupils today are already equipped with their own knives, but I'm sure we all agree that there is nothing so harmful to our children's futures as education, and that the less they receive of it, the better. These days, rather than doing dissection themselves, pupils watch it carried out on video, or a computer simulation.

You will no doubt be as pleased as I am that school authorities have passed the following equally positive measures to safeguard pupils.

• Owing to the threats posed by compasses, protractors and pencils, children will no longer study mathematics. Instead, they are to be shown videos of children studying mathematics, or a computer simulation of someone counting.

• Because of their sharp edges, scissors are to be removed from all school first-aid kits. For similar reasons, the popular game Scissors, Paper, Stone is to be renamed Paper, Paper, Paper.

• The obvious risks associated with gym equipment, flying footballs and physical movement mean that all pupils will now be automatically excused PE. Any child wishing to do PE will require a note from his or her parents.

• The tug of war will remain a part of school sports day. However, to avoid muscle strain, all competitors must pull from the same side.

• Running is prohibited in school corridors, the playground and during the 100m sprint.

• To avoid grazes resulting from falls, school playgrounds must be made of rubber. To reduce the risk of tripping on them, all marbles should be cuboid. Playing tag is acceptable, provided that it is non-contact.

• All potentially dangerous elements are to be removed from the periodic table. It will henceforth consist of oxygen and tin.

• Schools are permitted to keep pets, on condition that they are not alive.

* Excellent political news: all three main parties have agreed to a Meaningless Phrase Amnesty, effective from Friday. On that day, specified buzzwords and clichés are to be handed in, no questions asked, to a specially created Drivel Depot in central London, where they will be decommissioned.

Among the phrases to be taken permanently out of use are these: "a new politics"; "changed the political landscape"; "hard-working families"; "relish the opportunity to get out and meet real people"; "these two old parties"; "our national dialogue"; "take money out of the economy"; "my vision of Britain moving forward"; "Gordon Brown".

* Mills & Boon plans to publish a series of throbbing romances about inhabitants of National Trust houses. I'm worried about this, because my father both works at and lives on a National Trust property. I hope they're not drawing a character in his image. I also hope nobody will accuse me of unkind stereotyping if I say that few of the National Trust members I have met struck me as thrusting Casanovas.

"Nicole," said Hugo, "I want to ask you something. Something important." Nicole's pulse quickened uncontrollably. Her knees turned to water. How she yearned for his masterful touch. "Anything, Hugo, anything," she breathed. He fixed on her his smouldering dark gaze, and spoke. "What do you think we should do about the greenfly on the lupins in Border M?"

Louisiana Teacher Sues Over "No Fs" Policy

(Baton Rouge, Louisiana) A fourth-grade teacher at Riveroaks Elementary School, Sheila Goudeau, has filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that her school administrators ordered her not to assign any grade lower than 60 percent during grade averaging which has resulted in medical problems.

Ms. Goudeu contends that stress from "fear of being written up for insubordination or other baseless reasons gave her heart palpitations that caused blackouts."
Goudeau says that Louisiana law "prevents any school board member, principal, or other administrative staff members of the school or central staff of a parish or city school board from attempting, directly or indirectly, to influence, alter, or otherwise affect the grade received by a student from his teacher except as specifically permitted by law." […]

Goudeau says she developed a serious heart condition while teaching fourth grade at Riveroaks Elementary School after Principal Sholanda Shamlin forced teachers to violate the law by giving fourth-graders D grades even if they earned Fs.
Prior to the lawsuit, Goudeau filed grievances and allegedly suffered retaliation by Principal Shamlin. Goudeau seeks punitive damages.

Frankly, I suspect that the establishment of a minimum-grade policy is standard in some jurisdictions. How else could one explain a student graduating from high school without the ability to read? I've heard that it happens.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Time for Colorado House to act on tenure

Lawmakers need to reject union scare tactics and give nod to bill that ties teacher evaluation to student academic growth

The ferocious fight over a teacher tenure bill moves to the state House today, where opponents will try to portray it as a costly and hasty measure drafted with little input from teachers.

Such objections are merely a smokescreen designed to obscure the fact that the state's largest teachers' union has been in the loop for months and their input has led to significant changes to the bill.

Apparently, that isn't enough. It isn't enough, we suspect, because Colorado Education Association leaders never were truly willing to be a partner in reform. They were just acting the part.

But now that Senate Bill 191 has attracted the support of three former governors and Gov. Bill Ritter, as well as Dwight Jones, Colorado's commissioner of education, and a significant number of state legislators, it's becoming a real threat. It was easier for the CEA to marginalize it when it was merely the brain child of a freshman state senator, Michael Johnston, D-Denver.

SB 191 would restructure the way in which K-12 teachers get and keep tenure. It would tie half of a teacher's evaluation to the academic progress of that teacher's students.

A teacher would need three consecutive years of evaluations in which they were rated effective to get tenure. And a teacher with two consecutive years of "ineffective" evaluations would lose tenure.

It would recognize teachers who succeed, and provide help for those who need improvement. And, if a teacher cannot or will not improve, it gives school districts a way to move them along. Principals also would be evaluated under the bill.

It is the kind of game-changing reform that is necessary to begin addressing some of the vexing problems in education. One of the most influential factors in improving achievement is a terrific teacher.

We hope state representatives take the time to look carefully at the substance of SB 191. It is not an anti-teacher bill. It is not a hasty measure. It was not drafted without CEA input. And despite what the CEA might say about it being a huge unfunded mandate, the fiscal note on the bill pegs the cost at $480,000 over two years. If the state wins Race to the Top money, it will cover those costs.

The teachers' union has contributed to approximately 20 changes in the bill, Johnston tells us, including a lengthening in the implementation timeline and inserting an appeals right for teachers.

The bill represents a dramatic change from the status quo, in which teachers either receive or do not receive tenure after three years of employment. Now, tenure is a virtual lifetime guarantee of employment.

The bill is expected to be heard today in the House education committee, where we suspect it will get a rigorous hearing as it did in the state Senate.

We hope those legislators who are on the fence take the time to learn the details of the bill, the months-long process of consultation and the amendments made in order to address concerns.

This bill isn't the answer to all of our education ills, but there is a reason a consensus of policy makers and education leaders have come together to support the bill: It's good policy and it's good for Colorado's schoolchildren.


Punish parents who falsely accuse teachers, say British heads

Parents who make false allegations against teachers to win compensation should be fined, according to a leading head teacher. A new system of punishments is needed to stop mothers and fathers siding with “delinquent children to aggressively challenge and accuse” school staff, it was claimed.

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, warned that a minority of parents were motivated by a “lottery mentality”, as they attempt to sue schools and local councils to win cash.

The comments come amid growing concerns over a wave of malicious allegations of assault made against teachers. Figures published last year suggested as many as 4,000 complaints had been made against school staff in a 12 month period. As few as one-in-20 allegations ever results in a criminal conviction.

Addressing the NAHT annual conference in Liverpool, Mr Brookes said “precious little has been done to protect innocent staff from false accusation”.

The union has submitted a request to the Local Government Ombudsman, which has been given new powers to handle parental complaints, for a system of fines for parents who make unfounded claims of physical attacks or sexual assaults.

The suggestion was backed by the Conservatives who said children should "face the consequences" of their behaviour. “This is an offence against the law that insists that citizens are innocent unless proven guilty,” said Mr Brookes. “Accusers can make unjust claims with impunity – currently there is no redress."

In his speech, Mr Brookes criticised “a small minority of the parent population intent on siding with delinquent children to aggressively challenge and accuse”.

He acknowledged that children themselves could not be fined for malicious allegations, but suggested parents could be punished if they supported the false claim, often “with a view to screwing a bit of money out of the local authority”.

"At the moment, parents have carte blanche and there's no redress for making allegations which are malicious frivolous or actually have a pecuniary outcome," he said. "It is a lottery mentality."

Parents can already be fined up to £100 – and face imprisonment - for condoning truancy.

In a report last year, MPs said that ministers should consider giving accused teachers similar rights to anonymity as children or rape victims amid fears thousands of careers are wrecked every year.

The cross-party Commons Schools Select Committee warned that the "vast majority" of complaints made against school staff lacked foundation. In one year - 2006/7 - some 4,000 allegations were made against teachers in England, the report said. The Tories have already said they will give accused teachers the right to anonymity until they have been found guilty of an offence.

Last month, a trainee teacher was cleared of having sex with one of her pupils following a four-day crown court trial. Hannah McIntyre, 25, from fee-paying Merchant Taylors boys’ school in Crosby, Merseyside, was accused of seducing the 16-year-old after plying him with cider, but a jury took just 75 minutes to dismiss the youth's claims.

Speaking after the hearing, she said her career had been ruined but her accuser faced no consequences. “He has, with no accountability, made an accusation and I would like to see him have to realise the effect he has had on me," she said. She added: “Their anonymity protects them from any legal action. I can’t even put forward a private prosecution.”


More "stimulus" failures in Australia -- new school buildings unsafe

Buildings being constructed under the federal government's schools stimulus program are riddled with safety hazards, from slippery tiles and toxic carpets to poisonous fumes from unflued heaters.

Environmental scientists, building industry experts, health groups and the NSW Teachers Federation have raised concerns about the potential risks associated with buildings in the $16.2 billion program.

The NSW Integrated Program Office for the Building the Education Revolution program has maintained the buildings are of high quality, sometimes exceeding building code standards.

But schools have complained of dodgy workmanship, including incorrectly fitted light switches and fans, temporary foundations, leaking water tanks and lifting carpets.

With winter approaching, schools and health groups have raised the alarm about the installation of 3000 unflued gas heaters. Studies have shown that the heaters release a potentially poisonous stew of nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and formaldehyde. They are being phased out of schools in every state except NSW and Queensland.

"These are new buildings going up at significant cost to the taxpayer," NSW Teachers Federation president Bob Lipscombe said. "Heating is a very small component of the overall cost of building work. It would not cost a huge amount to put alternative heating in these new buildings. The Department of Education is not acting in a reasonable way at all."

The NSW Department of Education and Training says the heaters are safe, provided doors and windows are kept open to provide ventilation. Schools in cold-climate zones say this is impractical.

Berridale Public School, in the Snowy Mountains, has an unflued heater in its new $900,000 library. "We have been constantly told the library is of a very high standard," Berridale School Council's Fiona Suthern said. "It's a building that cost close to $1 million. An unflued gas heater is not a high-standard heating device. We're not asking for something flash - just something safe."

Richard Kalina, from the Campaign Opposing Unflued Gas Heating, said: "I feel it's bordering on criminal. When parents take their children to school, they should expect their children will be in a safe environment. They are not safe."

A 2007 Commonwealth health report on unflued heaters found exposure to the fumes they emitted causes increased respiratory symptoms in children with asthma, and were also associated with new asthma cases in children. About 11 per cent of children in NSW have asthma. The Asthma Foundation NSW has called on the Department of Education to remove the 51,000 existing unflued heaters in NSW schools and stop ordering new ones.

A NSW Department of Education spokesman said there was "no substantiated instances" of heaters causing illness when properly operated.

The combination of exposure to unflued gas heaters, as well as fumes emitted from paint, new carpet and building materials, could cause toxic overload in children, according to environmental scientist Jo Immig of the National Toxics Network.

"We are concerned about the overall toxic load," she said. "This is particularly important as far as children are concerned because they are much more sensitive to toxins than adults. "We recommended that schools undertake building work or renovations when children are on school holidays to minimise the risk of chemical exposure."

New buildings also posed a risk of volatile organic compounds being released from carpet, paint and new furniture, Ms Immig said. "Carpets are potentially one of the most toxic things in the indoor environment."

Professor Margaret Burchett from the University of Technology, Sydney, said it could take months for indoor air quality to improve. "If you smell that newness smell in a building it's a nice smell but it's also toxic."

Murdoch University environmental toxicologist Peter Dingle said the rooms should be allowed to air before being used. "If the teachers and kids walk into a new classroom or hall and there is a smell in the room they should not go into it," Dr Dingle said.

Tile supplier Richard Earp and slip resistance expert Carl Strautins have raised concerns about the type of tiles used in toilet blocks, canteens and entrances, which they say can lose their grip over a short time and become a slip hazard. A department spokesman said all floor tiles used were certified anti-slip in line with the relevant standard.


Sunday, May 02, 2010

Can Louisiana education reform survive teachers unions' assault?

HAVING THWARTED efforts to revamp teacher evaluations in Florida, teachers unions are now aiming to block reform in Louisiana. An intense lobbying campaign is underway to defeat Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal's ambitious education reform agenda. State lawmakers should follow his lead in standing up for student interests.

Why should anyone outside Louisiana care? The debate taking place in Baton Rouge is echoing across the country. Many states are competing for a slice of federal funds from President Obama's Race to the Top competition. The reformers stress accountability -- saying teachers, schools and principals should be judged according to results. Unions retort that test scores are an unreliable and one-dimensional measure of student success and that it is unfair to judge teachers by how well their students do because other factors, such as a student's home life, affect performance.

We don't discount those arguments, but then neither do Mr. Jindal and other reformers. They are simply asking that test scores be one component of teacher evaluation. Louisiana has one of the country's highest dropout rates, and one-third of its students don't perform at grade level.

Yet nearly 99 percent of tenured teachers are, according to information from the state education department, rated satisfactory. Reform legislation would allow student achievement, including test scores, to be considered in teacher and principal evaluations, making it easier to dismiss those who fail repeated reviews, and it would give traditional public schools the autonomy and flexibility enjoyed by charter schools in seeking waivers from state policies.

The Obama administration has sent mixed signals in this debate. It said it would reward bold reforms in the Race to the Top competition, but in its first round it seemed to favor states with union buy-in. That seems to have emboldened state union efforts to block reform. Florida lawmakers were willing to shake up the status quo, but Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, launching an independent run for the U.S. Senate, rewarded unions with a veto. As recently detailed by Education Week, states from Massachusetts to Colorado are seeing unions yank their support for Race to the Top applications in a bid to temper education reform efforts. So pronounced was the trend that Education Secretary Arne Duncan in recent days has pointedly warned against states weakening their overhaul plans.

Collaboration is the ideal outcome, but not if it is built on watered-down reform. Mr. Jindal is right to push for meaningful change.


British Pupils lose a slice of real science as schools drop dissection

FOR decades it was an unforgettable part of school biology lessons, but dissection has now fallen victim to health and safety fears.

Schools, sensitive to squeamish pupils and the risks of their misusing scalpels, have abandoned cutting up frogs or animal organs and replaced them with computer simulation or plastic replicas.

Lord Drayson, the science minister, is known to be concerned about the decline in dissection and has commissioned the Society of Biology to devise an accreditation scheme to ensure universities teach it.

Lord Winston, the fertility specialist and broadcaster, is about to begin offering dissection classes for comprehensive pupils in a new laboratory at Imperial College London.

“At so many schools what pupils do is watch teachers dissecting, which means they are divorced from practical work,” Winston said. “Online doesn’t begin to compare. It is a bit of a cop-out — it is very convenient and you can do it en masse [but] practical work is what engages children.”

Schools contacted last week said they were increasingly using on-screen animations or demonstrations by teachers, while reducing dissection by pupils. At most, pupils are likely to dissect individual organs such as a kidney or an eye rather than, say, a whole rat. In addition to health and safety fears, schools cited changes to the curriculum which place more emphasis on issues such as the environment than on practical skills.

Mark Downs, chief executive of the Society of Biology, said: “The reason practical dissection is so important is that it doesn’t sanitise the process. If you have kids thinking of becoming pathologists, they are actually handling a heart — the feeling, texture and smell is a very different experience from a video.”

Downs said the decline of dissection in schools and even universities was so severe that pharmaceutical companies were recruiting hardly any new British graduates for their research units.

Robert Wicks, head of biology at the King’s school in Grantham, Lincolnshire, a boys’ grammar, said dissection had fallen because of changes to the syllabus and added that, elsewhere, “teachers have concerns over the use of dissecting equipment with problem pupils”.

Dominic Cheng, head of science at Cedar Mount school, a Manchester comprehensive, said teaching the skill had fallen dramatically. “There’s no call for it,” he said.

Helen Wright, headmistress of the private St Mary’s Calne, a girls’ school in Wiltshire, said her pupils were taught dissection once they reached the age of 15. Occasionally they worked with pickled rats or fish heads, but more often with pigs’ hearts and kidneys “usually sourced from a very nice butcher in Devizes”.


British school refuses to see severe bullying

It took the light of publicity to get any action at all

Emma and Ian Nagington took special care when trying to find a secondary school for their daughter. They were particularly concerned because Nicole, aged 12, is ‘moderately to severely deaf’ and needs to wear a hearing aid to keep up with lessons.

Knowing children can be cruel, they feared their daughter might be singled out, particularly because she was so hard of hearing her teachers had to wear special microphones.

But they were reassured when staff at the Phoenix School in Telford, Shropshire, told them about the safe, caring environment at the comprehensive.

So when Nicole stopped eating and became bad tempered within a fortnight of starting at Phoenix, Mr and Mrs Nagington at first thought she was just being a typical adolescent. It was only when she ran home from school in tears two months ago that they realised something was terribly wrong.

Nicole shook with fear as she told them she was being badly bullied – not because of her deafness, but because of her red hair. The final straw was a series of poison pen notes, one containing death threats.

The bullying began within days of the start of the school year, when 15 girls in her class began calling her names, including ‘ginger nut’ and ‘ginger bitch’. The nastiness escalated and in March she received a note reading: ‘I shall see you after school and I am going to kill you.’

Yet months went by and Nicole said nothing. ‘I didn’t want to be called a grass as well as everything else,’ she says. Instead she faked illness to try to stay at home and nagged her parents until they let her dye her red hair blonde in a desperate attempt to halt the daily verbal abuse. ‘When we finally discovered what was happening, and how petrified she was, I felt terribly guilty because I had been forcing her to go to school,’ said Emma.

Mr and Mrs Nagington immediately complained to the school, but say they were ignored for more than a week. Even when they managed to raise their concerns, they say senior staff tried to downplay the bullying. ‘We were fobbed off,’ said Ian. ‘The best response we got was that they had no evidence of bullying.

‘I can’t believe that not only did they take no action over the note, but that in all those months they didn’t see that something was going on.’

Nicole, who is pretty, polite and rather shy, started wearing a hearing aid when she was five. It did not cause any problems at primary school, she had lots of friends and her attendance record was 99 per cent.

When it came picking a secondary school, Phoenix School was only the family’s third choice. Nicole did not like it from the start. She said: ‘In my first week one of the girls in the class started calling me names. ‘Over the following weeks, other girls joined her until all the girls in the class were calling me names and telling me I was ugly. ‘Break times were terrible and one or other of them kept pushing me up against one of the walls or on to the ground, but none of the teachers seemed to notice.’

At home, she did not dare mention what was happening. Instead her behaviour deteriorated and she lost her appetite.

After the Christmas break the bullying continued and Nicole then persuaded her parents to let her dye her hair blonde. ‘It didn’t take all the red away and it didn’t stop the bullying. I had a note that said, “You are still a ginger ... All gingers should die”,’ says Nicole.

Meanwhile she kept faking illness to try to stay at home. In early March, a girl threw a plastic bottle of water at her during class, which hit her on the side of her eye, leaving a bruise. The class teacher saw what happened but, according to Nicole, was not surprised or cross. Girls also began leaving nasty messages on Facebook.

Then, during a class on March 17, Nicole was passed notes insulting her hair and lack of hearing. Then they said they would kill her after school. She took the threat literally and, when school was over, dashed home.

‘Nicole was crying and shaking from head to foot,’ Emma recalls. ‘I put my arms around her and asked her what was wrong. She was too upset to speak and instead passed me the notes. I couldn’t believe how shocking they were.’

The school maintains that it was unaware anything was wrong. But so far as Nicole and her parents are concerned, this is because no one at Phoenix took the trouble to listen.

Emma says she rang the school numerous times trying to speak to the deputy head, but kept being told she was in meetings. Nicole begged her parents not to send her back and a place was soon found at Wrockwardine Wood Comprehensive. But this meant the head or deputy head of Phoenix would have to sign a transfer form.

Ian said: ‘When the deputy head finally rang us she refused to sign, saying there was no evidence of bullying and therefore no need for Nicole to leave. 'I disagreed and told her Emma had read out the poison pen letters to the form head, but she said words to the effect that children will be children. ‘She asked me to come in and see her, but there was no point as we were determined not to send Nicole back.

'After six weeks, when I felt Phoenix had dragged its feet long enough, I told our story to our local newspaper and they got in touch with the deputy head for a comment. It might have been a coincidence but the papers were then signed.’

Nicole’s story looks as if it will have a happy ending. She has started her new school and things are going well. She said: ‘The girls in my form have been really friendly. I feel very happy and I can’t wait for the dye to grow out and to get my bright red hair back again.’

A Phoenix School spokesman said: ‘The school is committed to resolving bullying issues and supporting young people, has signed up to the anti-bullying charter and has robust systems in place.

'We are confident that when informed of alleged bullying we take suitable measures to deal with it. Unfortunately in this case, parents withdrew the pupil without reporting the concerns they have raised in the Press.’

Eco-Warrior Kids Bombard Shoppers

(County Durham, UK) The Grove Primary School is one of more than 18 schools which receive funding from the British government to train eco-warrior children in climate change projects. Recently, the young greenies were told to bombard customers with climate change questions at the town of Consett's cooperative food store.
Store manager Joan Nicholson said: "As a community retailer and one of the world’s leading businesses in the global fight against climate change, we’re delighted the people of Consett have shown such commitment to saving the planet.

"The ‘eco warriors’ from the Grove Primary School have done a fantastic job in challenging shoppers and inspiring them to keep up the good work."
Just ducky. Britain trains children to be eco-warriors.