Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Teacher seniority rules, job security threatened amid budget cuts

Public school teachers are facing the biggest challenge to their job security in more than half a century as politicians target seniority rules that make the last hired the first fired when jobs are cut.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican; Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat; and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, are among officials pushing for changes in laws in coming months to let them fire underperforming teachers.

As budget cuts threaten the jobs of thousands of school employees, officials are demanding the right to keep the most talented, even if they are the least experienced. The proposed changes may undercut the power of teachers’ unions. They intensify the debate on how to judge instructor effectiveness as US students lag behind international peers. As officials cut education budgets, they should focus on what is best for children, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.

“Layoffs based only on seniority don’t help kids,’’ Duncan said. “We have to minimize the negative impact on students.’’

In 14 states, including New York, California, and New Jersey, districts can consider only seniority when dismissing teachers, and they are home to 40 percent of public school instructors, according to a report by the New Teacher Project, a New York organization founded in 1997 by Michelle Rhee, Washington’s former schools chancellor.

Even as states cut billions from their budgets, federal officials and executives from Microsoft chairman Bill Gates to Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke are lamenting the damage caused by education reductions.

In New York, Bloomberg is pushing the Legislature to pass a law eliminating the “last-in, first-out’’ policy, saying that as many as 4,666, or 6 percent, of the city’s teachers may be fired. In New Jersey, Christie proposed eliminating seniority rules for teachers at a town hall meeting Sept. 28. And in California, a Senate bill was introduced Feb. 15 that would replace seniority with a system based on several factors including student performance.

Superintendents contend that seniority rules force them to retain incompetent teachers instead of young talent.

Eliminating last-in, first-out rules won’t mean dramatic improvements, said David Abbott, executive director of the Cleveland-based George Gund Foundation, which supports education initiatives. Education needs innovation, he said.

“There’s too much emphasis placed on that issue as a silver bullet,’’ Abbott said. “We say, ‘If we can just get rid of this work rule, of this industrial workforce mentality, that will solve our problem.’ No, it won’t.’’


Class conflict: Gainful Employment Proposal Penalizes At-Risk Student Populations and Hurts the Economy

Career colleges—also known as for-profit, proprietary or private sector colleges—provide an important avenue to post-secondary education and upward mobility for at-risk nontraditional student populations. The career college sector is also the country’s best hope, through its efficiency and innovation, to substantially expanding Americans’ access to the higher education that enables individuals to pursue the fastest growing and emerging occupations.

The career colleges sector is now under harsh scrutiny by Washington. The U.S. Department Education has decided that rapid growth in enrollment, rising student debt levels, and a relatively high level of default rates has created a need for new rules around “gainful employment” for graduates from career colleges. The Department’s proposed rules are not only unnecessary, they are certain to cause harm.

For decades, the Higher Education Act has required that career colleges and training programs prepare students for gainful employment in recognized occupations in order for students to qualify for federal financial aid (Title IV programs). This condition has not applied to the other channels of post-secondary education—nonprofit and public institutions. The Department is authorized by Congress to set rules on federal financial aid for education. Historically, it has never attempted to define gainful employment, but now proposes doing so in order to evaluate and sanction private sector colleges using a three-part test based on student debt-to-income levels and loan repayment rates.

The proposed gainful employment regulations were published in July 2010, but final regulations were pushed out to March or April 2011 by a flood of public comment and lobbying. The delayed rules have led to a heated debate, which has been characterized by a surfeit of confusing, frequently contradictory “report cards” on career colleges. Critics of for-profits schools have used inflammatory rhetoric, going so far as to compare career colleges with the much-maligned subprime loan industry.

The Department justifies its proposal on the grounds that, while career colleges now account for 10 percent of the nation’s post-secondary enrollment, they account for a disproportionate 23 percent of federal loan dollars and 44 percent of federal student loan defaults. However, as this paper makes clear, the Department’s case for the rule is fundamentally fl awed. Commonly drawn comparisons between career colleges and traditional schools are less meaningful than many suggest, because of the significant demographic differences in the student populations, programmatic variances, and major disparities in taxpayer subsidies between the distinct institutional sectors.


Countryside walks should be mandatory for British schoolchildren?

There could be something in this. Most kids would love it and things would be learned that you cannot get from a book

Kate Humble, the BBC wildlife presenter, wants visits to the countryside to be mandatory for schoolchildren and is to take the matter up with the Education Secretary. The Springwatch presenter, who will return to BBC Two next week with Lambing Live, said getting children excited about the countryside was vital for ensuring that it would be protected in the future.

She also dismissed the idea that urban children would be slow to embrace rural pursuits. “It should be obligatory for every schoolchild to experience the countryside,” said Humble. “There’s a fantastic RSPB reserve on the edge of Newport. I took a bunch of kids pond-dipping there recently. At first, they were all saying, ‘Whatever…’ But then one of them caught a stickleback, and such was the excitement, you’d have thought she had landed a 50lb salmon!

“Children are the future. If you give them access to the countryside, they’ll protect it. I’m going to be at [education secretary] Michael Gove about this – and I’m counting on you for help!”

Speaking to Radio Times, Humble said that the countryside is “great for your brain and great for your soul and great for your bum”.

Humble’s comments about the national curriculum echo the Rural Manifesto of the campaign group the Countryside Alliance, which calls for outdoor education to be a compulsory subject, as well as suggesting that fishing can successfully rehabilitate young offenders and calling for rural activities to be made accessible for disadvantaged children.

Jill Grieve, from the Countryside Alliance, said: “Kate is absolutely right. Getting outdoor education onto the National Curriculum is one of The Countryside Alliance Foundation’s main aims. We are in a farcical situation where many youngsters are so disconnected from the countryside and their food that they think that milk comes from Tesco and meat comes from a plastic wrapper. They also have no incentive to care about what happens to the countryside in the coming years. Given the opportunity to get out there and find out about nature children thrive – they love it and it also gives them confidence. We are certainly standing shoulder to shoulder with Kate on this issue – for education, conservation and good muddy fun, outdoor education is a must.”

The Countryside Alliance quotes statistics showing that fewer than 10 per cent of 7 to 11 year-olds spend time playing in places such as woodlands and heaths, and that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) show a 40 per cent improvement in their symptoms when taking part in activities in green spaces.


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