Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Letting the cream rise

For Princetonians, the senior thesis is a high hurdle before graduation. For Wendy Kopp, class of 1989, it became a career devoted to transforming primary and secondary education. What began as an idea for a teacher corps for hard-to-staff schools, urban and rural, became Teach for America. At first it was merely a leavening ingredient in education; it has become a template for transformation.

Back then, Kopp's generation was stigmatized by journalistic sociology as "the 'me' generation" composed of materialists eager to be recruited into careers of quick self-enrichment. She thought the problem was not her peers but the recruiters. So she became one.

This academic year, 16 percent of Princeton's seniors and 18 percent of Harvard's applied to join Teach for America, of which Kopp is CEO. TFA is the largest employer of recent graduates from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Eight percent of seniors at the University of Michigan (undergraduate enrollment: 26,830) applied last year for TFA's two-year commitments. More than 5 percent of graduating seniors at 130 colleges are applicants.

Kopp began by "meeting anyone who would meet with me," soliciting corporate executives for seed money. She believed something that bemused skeptics -- that students from elite schools would volunteer to have their first experience out of college teaching in difficult-to-staff schools in areas of urban and rural poverty.

"I knew college students would do it -- I had just been a college student." What was needed, she thought, was a high-status service organization with an aura of selectivity.

Raised in comfortable circumstances in Dallas, Kopp precociously understood not just the importance of education but the educational importance of where one is born. TFA's first recruiting was done by fliers shoved under dorm room doors. Her Yale recruiter had 170 messages on his answering machine in just three days. TFA's first cohort totaled 500 teachers. This year TFA will select 5,300 from 48,000 applicants, making it more selective than most colleges.

This school year, there are 8,000 TFA teachers. Of the 20,000 TFA alumni, two-thirds are still working full-time in education. Of those, only one in six says that even without TFA he or she might have gone into K-12 teaching.

TFA has become a flourishing reproach to departments and schools of education. It pours talent into the educational system -- 80 percent of its teachers are in traditional public schools -- talent that flows around the barriers of the credentialing process. Hence TFA works against the homogenization that discourages innovation and prevents the cream from rising.

Kopp, whose new book ("A Chance to Make History") recounts her post-Princeton education, has learned, among much else, this: Of the 15 million children growing up in poverty, 50 percent will not graduate from high school, and the half that do will have eighth-grade skill levels compared to those from higher-income families and neighborhoods.

Until recently -- until, among other things, TFA -- it seemed that we simply did not know how to teach children handicapped by poverty and its accompaniments -- family disintegration and destructive community cultures. Now we know exactly what to do.

In government, the axiom is: Personnel is policy. In education, Kopp believes, "people are everything" -- good ones are (in military parlance) "force multipliers." Creating "islands of excellence" depends entirely on finding "transformational leaders deeply committed to changing the trajectories" of children's lives.

We do not, she insists, have to fix society or even families in order to fix education. It works the other way around. The movie "Waiting for Superman" dramatizes what TFA has demonstrated -- that low-income parents leap at educational opportunities that can break the cycle of poverty. Teaching successfully in challenging schools is, Kopp says, "totally an act of leadership" by people passionately invested in the project.

Speaking of leadership, someone in Congress should invest some on TFA's behalf. Government funding -- federal, state, local -- is just 30 percent of TFA's budget. Last year's federal allocation, $21 million, would be a rounding error in the General Motors bailout. And Kopp says every federal dollar leverages six non-federal dollars. All that money might, however, be lost because even when Washington does something right, it does it wrong.

It has obtusely defined "earmark" to include "any named program," so TFA has been declared an earmark and sentenced to death. If Congress cannot understand how nonsensical this is, it should be sent back to school for remedial instruction from some of TFA's exemplary young people.


10 Commandments Removal From VA Schools Causes Student Unrest

Some students in Giles County, VA are upset after the local school board voted twice in as many months to remove framed copies of the 10 Commandments from its schools. A group of teens from one local high school says the move is causing dissension, with some students even coming close to physical blows over the issue. WVVA reports:
The Giles County School Board voted Tuesday to removed framed copies of the Ten Commandments from its schools — for the second time in as many months. Now some students are speaking out against the decision.

Some students have posted the Ten Commandments on their lockers. One group from Narrows and Giles have ordered t-shirts to express their opinions on the issue.

The commandments were first removed in December, 2010 after a complaint.

At one point, the board reversed its initial removal decision. But that changed after the Freedom From Religion Foundation threatened to sue the Giles County School Board on behalf of residents who wanted the Commandments removed after they were re-posted.

That group issued the following statement to WVVA:
Along with the ACLU of Virginia, we are monitoring the situation to ensure that the school board does not attempt to skirt the law and put the Ten Commandments back into Giles County Schools. Any such attempts to violate the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent would constitute a losing legal battle for the school board.

The Blaze contacted the American Center for Law and Justice, which many times represents defendants in religious cases such as this, but did not immediately receive a response. The local superintendent refused media requests from WVVA.


Australia: Degree target aims too high

Who sets these arbitrary and absurd targets anyway? And based on what reasoning, if any?

THE government's target for 40 per cent of young Australians to be graduates by 2025 is not realistic, according to a leading demographer, Bob Birrell.

One scenario would require the number of domestic students completing degrees to rise 82 per cent between 2009 and 2025, Dr Birrell and colleagues say in a new paper in the journal People and Place. "Neither Australia's higher education sector nor the government departments that administer it appear to understand that their target will require such an enormous increase," they say.

But a spokesman for Tertiary Education Minister Chris Evans said the government was confident its demand-driven system would deliver the university places needed to meet the target.

Dr Birrell said more realistic targets, funding and campus building should be aimed at poorly serviced regional and outer suburban areas.

The target for 25 to 34-year-olds was seen as ambitious when floated by the Bradley review in 2008 and adopted in modified form the following year by the government.

But as statistics revealed dramatic growth in young degree holders between 2006 and 2009, some commentators said the 2025 target looked easy. "The government's 40 per cent target could be reached naturally, well before 2025, allowing for enrolment pipelines, and without accounting for the contribution of degree qualified immigrants," the Group of Eight universities said in 2010.

The Birrell paper says the Go8 and others have misread the 2006-09 growth spurt. Domestic graduates and migrants with professional qualifications together account for just half this growth, according to modelling done by Dr Birrell and his colleagues. Their modelling takes into account the number of graduates who enter and leave the 25 to 34 age group as time passes.

Migrant professionals tend to be older and leave the age group more quickly than domestic graduates, meaning that on present trends their net contribution to the target would be nil before 2025.

The Birrell analysis suggests "that the recent rapid rise in the proportion of 25 to 34-year-olds with degrees is not a precursor to an easy pathway to achievement of the 40 per cent target, as asserted by the Go8". The paper concludes that overseas students who have graduated or arrived with undergraduate degrees are the most likely reason for the remaining half of the growth seen in 2006-09.

The survey that revealed the 2006-09 growth covers people who were residents in Australia for at least 12 months, meaning it would also pick up overseas students on temporary visas such as the graduate skills visa.

The authors say the growth represented by overseas students "is about to come to an end given that the government has largely removed the carrot of permanent residence as an inducement to study in Australia".

Between 2006 and 2009 the share of 25 to 34-year-olds with at least an undergraduate degree rose from 29.2 per cent to 34.6 per cent but another 410,000 graduates were needed to meet the 2025 target.

Even a 35 per cent increase in immigration would deliver only an extra 124,000 graduates over the period, the authors say. Relying on local students would require an 82 per cent increase from 98,732 domestic graduations in 2009 to 179,600 in 2025.

Senator Evans's spokesman said updated 2010 estimates suggested the demand-driven system would deliver an extra 195,000 domestic undergraduate places between 2010 and 2013.


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