Monday, February 07, 2011

America's education wars

Recently retired New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein made headlines this week when he told the Times of London that "it's easier to prosecute a capital-punishment case in the U.S. than terminate an incompetent teacher." The New York Post blared, "Joel: Easier to ax a killer than a teacher." The prize for most sensational probably goes to Liz Dwyer's headline, "Joel Klein Compares Teachers to Murderers."

There's plenty of scorched earth between Klein's words and these headlines, reflecting how unnecessarily polarized the education reform wars remain, even over the smallest changes in policy.

Here's the basic fault line dividing the education reform trenches: One side believes that the best way to improve the education system is to focus on improving instruction. The other believes that the best way to improve the education system is to focus on addressing the ways that poverty affects schools with high percentages of low-income students.

Intuitively, both positions make sense. A classroom with an incompetent teacher won't make as much progress as a classroom with a competent one. At the same time, though, it's probably true that low-income students sometimes enter classrooms with unfortunate social and economic -- not intellectual -- handicaps that students in the nation's wealthiest communities don't face.

Both sides also come armed with data. Diane Ravitch and others claim that there is a correlation between a school district's economic well-being and student success. While he found a similar correlation, Ulrich Boser showed that some of the nation's most efficient school districts have high percentages of low-income students. The Widget Effect, a comprehensive study of American teachers, found that our teacher-evaluation systems are laughably broken. Less than 1 percent of teachers in the study received "unsatisfactory" ratings from their districts, but 41 percent of teachers said they had a tenured colleague who should be dismissed.

Both sides can be egregiously unfair. Want to hear that you hate teachers? Claim that those that do their jobs poorly should be dismissed. You'll hear that the data are flawed (or that data are irrelevant), that teachers aren't the problem, that former District schools chancellor Michelle Rhee is not a nice person and that Teach for America is ruining education and this country.

Want to hear that you don't care about students? Claim that poverty might be a factor worth considering for educators working with low-income students. You'll hear that education isn't about serving adults, that all kids can learn, that you are a racist, that it's become impossible to fire a teacher and that teachers unions are ruining education and this country.

Here's some good news: Both sides are right. Teacher quality and poverty can both affect educational outcomes. Here's the bad news: Both sides seem bent on disproving their opponents instead of improving education. To borrow Woody Hayes's famous line, for every three yards of progress in education reform there's a voluminous cloud of dust. This isn't good enough. As Kevin Huffman put it in Monday's Post, parents don't "have the luxury of waiting a generation while intellectuals argue."

If both sides are being honest, it's unclear why they should be opponents. As someone who frequently writes on education reform, I'm always shocked by how rarely critics acknowledge that the American education system is in crisis. Instead, they question each other's sincerity, data or methods.

For example, when we read that it cost New York City $2 million to dismiss three of its 55,000 tenured teachers for incompetence, we shouldn't think, "Scores of teachers are being unfairly victimized." These numbers are too absurd to be simply a matter of bad data or unfair administrators. Instead, we should wonder if Klein was onto something (even if he was over-dramatic).

We could spend our time debating which is easier (or more urgent) to fix -- poverty or school quality -- or we could accept that both are worthy goals. Our ends are the same, and our means aren't as different as they appear. No one wants to dismiss our nation's most effective teachers, and no one is rooting for an education system that consigns low-income students to be part of a permanent underclass. Let's all take a step in from the edges. Let's stop assuming each other's worst intentions. America's students are depending on us.


Ohio Mother highlights poor schools

One might not have much sympathy for a single mother who tries to steal a better education for her kids but her actions could just lead to badly needed change

Perhaps you’ve heard about Kelley Williams-Bolar, the Ohio mother who was recently tried and convicted for falsifying residency records so her daughters could attend a better school where they would receive a quality education.

The “better school” hired a private investigator to prove that Williams-Bolar’s children lived outside the district. As a result, she received a 10-day jail sentence, three years of probation, and a criminal record (two third-degree felonies) that will haunt her for the rest of her working life.

All this happened simply because Williams-Bolar wanted her children to receive a decent education. Yes, she broke the law and was punished. On strict legal grounds, that was the correct course of action.

But in the broader sense of right and wrong, what happened to Williams-Bolar is an outrage – possibly of game-changing proportions—and should serve as a wakeup call for Americans about the need for bold, substantial school choice laws throughout the country.

When National Public Radio called for my reaction, I compared her to Rosa Parks, the African-American woman who refused to move to the back of the bus when a white passenger needed a seat.

Since Williams-Bolar is also African-American, some seized on this comparison and began making this a story about race. But let me be very clear: this is not about race, this is about injustice.

If this Ohio story becomes just about Williams-Bolar’s race, it would obscure the fact that children of all colors are trapped in crappy schools, simply because of their zip code. And condemning children to a lousy school solely because they have the wrong zip code is a great injustice.

There’s a deeper reason I compare this Ohio mother to the civil rights matriarch. After Rosa Parks was arrested and fined for refusing to move to the back of the bus, Martin Luther King organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott. For one year, African-Americans refused to use the busses, choosing to walk or share rides instead.

We tend to think that Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat and –bam!—people recognized the injustice and it was immediately corrected. In reality, Park’s stand was the first step in a lengthy and difficult process that eventually brought justice and a greater measure of equality. It took a lot of hard work and many uncomfortable moments.

Kelley Williams-Bolar, a single mother whose concern for her daughters’ future was so great that it led her to break the law, has put a human face on school choice cause. Now it is up to education reformers to share her story and bring the case for school choice to the country.

What makes the Williams-Bolar case even more powerful is that it occurred during the first annual National School Choice Week, a time in which parents, children, advocates and concerned citizens came together to highlight the need for school choice.

Many American families are trapped in desperate education situations, and they are hungry for school choice. The drastic action Williams-Bolar took to save her kids might be the tipping point in the cause, but only if reformers seize this moment.


Climate education in British schools: a mess of pottage, a porridge of propaganda?

The politicization of Geography teaching seems to be killing off the subject

Indoctrination in schools is illegal in the UK (e.g. section 406 of the Education Act of 1996). Education ought to teach children about their world. But there are those who see the young as so many potential footsoldiers for their cause, little Trojan horses to fill with propaganda to carry back into their homes and into their futures. All to save the planet of course, so who can object to that?

Of course, they are not 'saving the planet'. First of all, 'the planet' is not in danger, and secondly, crippling our economies physically, and our children mentally, are not pathways to robust societies ready to tackle whatever challenges the future may bring them, environmental and otherwise. They are pathways to poverty and dependency.

Geography is an obvious target for proselytising on 'climate change'. It does not seem to be thriving as a subject in schools in the UK.

'In a speech at Charterhouse School, Surrey, Prof Woodhead cited the example of geography, where the curriculum has been focused on turning children into "global citizens" at the expense of an objective study of the earth.

"I think there is a difference between education on the one hand and propaganda on the other - and I think this is one of the main reasons why schools are starting to abandon GCSEs in such numbers," he said.

"Politicians seem to have this belief that schools and teachers can solve the evils of the world. Simply dump all the deeply intractable social problems on to the curriculum and let the schools sort it out. Schools should be teaching children what they don't know, not attempting to create citizens of the future who are active and responsible." '


'Geography lessons 'not good enough in half of schools'

Children’s knowledge of capital cities, continents, world affairs and the environment is in sharp decline because of poor geography lessons, inspectors warned today.

In a damning report, Ofsted said teaching in the subject was not good enough in more than half of English state schools. Geography – traditionally a cornerstone of the curriculum – is often undermined by a lack of space in school timetables after being edged out by exam practice and other subjects such as citizenship.

Many primary teachers lacked specialist geographical knowledge, the watchdog said, meaning classes often descended into a focus on superficial stereotypes. The subject had practically “disappeared” in one-in-10 primaries.

In secondary schools, classes were often merged with history to form generic “humanities” lessons that focused on vague skills instead of geographical understanding.

Ofsted said the decline severely reduced children’s ability at all ages to grasp key geographical issues, identify countries or capital cities and even read maps properly.'

['Ofsted' is a government agency in the UK: 'Ofsted is the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills. We regulate and inspect to achieve excellence in the care of children and young people, and in education and skills for learners of all ages.']

How come so many teachers have apparently stopped teaching in order to become facilitators for producing ill-informed agitators? The same malaise has also affected the BBC, an organisation turning into an international laughing stock because of its blinkered, biased approach on climate and its wish to campaign for 'the cause' rather than 'merely' broadcast news, information, and honest investigative journalism.

The scientific case for alarm over CO2 is fragile and has been widely dismantled, not least by Nature herself refusing to follow the purposeful computer models equipped with magical powers for CO2. The political case is also faltering, not least due to the absurdities of the IPCC leadership and publications, and to simple-minded bandwagoning by politicians in many countries running out of steam (see for example, the absence of 'climate change' in the recent State of the Union address in the USA, and several opinion polls showing the declining credibility of eco-alarmism). So will the educational system be the final redoubt for this whole sorry business?

SOURCE (See the original for links)

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