Sunday, January 30, 2011

Education and the State of the Union

Barack Obama spent about 1,000 words of his 7,000-word State of the Union address on education, which might make you think this will be a big year for education reform.

But despite an abundance of words like “forward” and “progress,” Obama mostly patted himself on the back for what he had already done for America’s schoolkids, and then told parents to step it up (“Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done”) and everyone else to get a teaching certificate (“to every young person listening tonight who’s contemplating their career choice—become a teacher”).

The president’s primary boast about K-12 education was that “instead of just pouring money into a system that’s not working, we launched a competition called Race to the Top.” It would have been far more accurate to say: “In addition to pouring money into a system that’s not working, we launched a competition called Race to the Top.”

At $4.35 billion, Race to the Top spending barely touched the $500 billion spent on education at the federal, state, and local level. But by refusing to give states the money until after they actually made changes to the way they do business, Race to the Top did elicit a pretty big bang for the buck. The president said that “for less than 1 percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning.”

The grant application process pushed states to report out more information about teacher quality and lift caps on the number of charter schools, for instance, just in order to be eligible for the funds. And perhaps most important, the piles of cash were big enough and the rules specific enough that they finally gave state legislators, governors, and education bureaucracies sufficient incentive to risk ticking off teachers unions a little.

But those same unions remain a powerful force in how the other 99 percent of education money is spent. The amount used to incentivize states toward reform is dwarfed by the money pouring in to preserve the status quo. Last fall’s $10 billion in grants to the states to protect education jobs demonstrated that a little old-style lobbying for handouts can have a much bigger, easier payout than making the case for hard fought reforms that piss off teachers unions.

Meanwhile, Obama mentioned education reauthorization only in the vaguest terms, urging Congress to “replace No Child Left Behind with a law that’s more flexible and focused on what’s best for our kids.” No Child Left Behind, with its emphasis on data collection and testing, is now thoroughly out of favor with pretty much everyone. Vague murmurs about a more robust way to measure teacher quality without relying exclusively on testing data are on the rise. But education funding is a partisan issue, thanks in large part to the massive donations of the major teachers unions to mostly Democratic candidates, and it will play out in a partisan way on the floors of the House and Senate. Everyone already says they know “what’s best for our kids.”

Obama also urged more college attendance using the same language of international competition that ran through the rest of the speech—“America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree.” But he chose not to allude to the new, controversial Department of Education rules that would limit access to federal dollars by for-profit career colleges.

Obama got one thing right, though, at least on the federal level: “Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation.” And that’s the most depressing part. A program that doled out a measly $4 billion in chunks ranging from $75 million to $700 million probably is the biggest step we have taken toward school reform in a couple of decades. And it’s not much.


British student union leader pulls out of speaking at fees rally after protesters hurl anti Jewish abuse at him

Antisemitism has always had its chief home on the Left

The national president of the NUS pulled out of speaking at a student fees rally after being surrounded by demonstrators calling for his resignation and shouting anti-Semitic insults at him. Protesters shouted ‘Students, workers, hear our shout! We want Aaron Porter out!’ and ‘Aaron Porter we know you, you’re a f******* Tory too!’

One photographer reported chants of ‘Tory Jew scum’ directed at Mr Porter, who is facing calls to step down as NUS president by members of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, who claim he has ‘lost the confidence of the movement’.

The protest march attended by thousands began peacefully and was escorted by mounted police, but around 150 demonstrators broke off the agreed route and headed towards the city centre, where they targeted Mr Porter. He had been due to speak at the rally but his appearance was later cancelled.

It is understood NUS leaders made the decision, although police sources said he would have been asked if he thought it a good idea to appear in public.

Shortly afterwards a protester called on a loudhailer to break up and return to the march meeting point. He urged: 'Avoid being kettled, break up and spread your lines.' Another confronted the officers and told them: 'Your jobs are next GMP.' Some demonstrators wearing balaclavas were seen wrestling with police and at least 14 arrests were made.

Demonstrations to highlight the effects of public spending cuts on young people were also held in London today. Chanting 'No ifs, no buts, no education cuts', sixth form learners joined under-graduates and others outside the University of London Union ahead of a march on Parliament. The slogans could hardly be heard over the sound of drums as the rally got under way.

Parallels were drawn with the current unrest in Egypt with some demonstrators calling for 'revolution' A group of students let off flares outside Downing Street this afternoon

Anger at Government proposals to raise tuition fees and scrap EMAs (Education Maintenance Allowance) appeared to be contained to the slogans chanted by protesters and emblazoned on placards. One drew an analogy between events in North Africa and that in the UK. 'Ben Ali, Mubarak... Cameron, you are next,' it read.

As marchers weaved their way through the streets of London, a group at the front started chanting: 'Revolution, revolution.' Most, however, seemed content setting their sights on getting the Government to rethink plans to hike tuition fees and cut education budgets.

Under the coalition proposals, universities will be allowed to charge £6,000 a year, or £9,000 a year in 'exceptional circumstances'. Students also feel aggrieved over the planned scrapping of EMAs, which provide poorer sixth form students with financial assistance.

Moritz Kaiser, a 17-year-old sixth former from Oxford, was among those protesting. 'The tuition fee hike will affect my family quite badly and it is unnecessary when you look at how much is lost in tax avoidance.' A dual British-German national, he now intends to head to the European mainland to avoid the additional bill. 'I was going to study here, but in Germany it is only 500 euros a year, and you get a free bus pass,' he added.

His friend Lucio Pezzella, also 17 and at sixth form college in Oxford, said the 'wrong people were being punished' for the economic plight the UK finds itself in. 'Ordinary people shouldn't have to pay for a crisis brought on by the bankers,' he said.

At a potential flashpoint along the route - Topshop in the Strand - students stopped to yell abuse directed at owner Sir Philip Green, whose tax arrangements have attracted controversy. 'Pay your tax, pay your tax,' they chanted. The store was guarded by a line of police, keeping protesters apart from the bemused shoppers trapped inside.

Shortly before 2pm, students started running towards Tory HQ at Millbank Tower. Police attempted to stop their advance but a few broke through and made their way to the entrance. One protester was tackled to the ground and held there for several minutes. The 18-year-old from Essex, who declined to give his name, claimed he had been kneed in the chest and punched by officers as he remained on the ground being restrained.

Later, some of the students moved on the Egyptian Embassy to join those protesting against President Mubarak's regime. 'London, Cairo - unite and fight,' they chanted on arrival.

In other angry scenes, a group of demonstrators started throwing sticks at police. Two arrests were made this afternoon.

Universities and Science Minister David Willetts said: 'The Government respects the right of all citizens to engage in lawful and peaceful protest. 'Our student and university finance reforms are fairer than the present system and affordable for the nation. 'No student will be asked to pay upfront costs, there will be more financial support for poorer students and those who go on to earn the highest incomes will make the largest contributions after they have graduated. 'Our reforms also put students in the driving seat.'


Australia: Get tough on bad school teachers, say parents

VICTORIAN parents want bad teachers sacked and schools with poor results to be named and shamed. A national schools survey found most of the state's parents feared their children would fall victim to physical or cyber bullying and believed alcohol and drug abuse among students was getting worse.

Nearly 5000 Australians responded to the Sunday Herald Sun online survey, revealing parents wanted schools and teachers to be more accountable for their children's performance at school.

Responses from the 1646 Victorians surveyed showed parents and teachers were often at loggerheads about what was best for students. At the heart of the great divide was parents' demands for more information about their children's schools and for teachers who don't make the grade to be sacked.

Of 794 Victorian parents surveyed, 63 per cent believed the worst-performing teachers needed to be expelled from the education system. On the flip side, teachers achieving good academic results should be paid more than their colleagues, according to 79 per cent of parents.

Schools were also in the firing line, with 67 per cent of parents calling for a rating system for schools, and more than half saying under-performing schools should be publicly named and shamed.

Mordialloc mother Jenny Power, who has two school-age children, called on the Department of Education to provide more information on schools' academic performances. "Most parents are limited for choice when it comes to schools, but it would be nice to know how your own kid's school stacks up against the others," Ms Power said. "If teachers aren't achieving what they should in the classroom, they shouldn't be there, just like any other profession."

But Australian Education Union president Mary Bluett said ranking schools and sacking low-performing teachers was a simplistic approach to fixing a complex system. "Education does suffer from the fact that everyone has been to school and everyone thinks they are an expert," Ms Bluett said. "Certainly, nobody wants incompetent teachers, but having said that, I'm happy to say the overwhelming majority of teachers are very competent."

Ms Bluett said existing ways to measure schools' performances - including NAPLAN tests - didn't give an accurate picture of teaching standards.

Up to 76 per cent of teachers were against ranking schools and only 13 per cent supported naming and shaming schools that under-perform in numeracy and literacy.

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