Sunday, March 20, 2011

Wisconsin: Parents deserve real choices

Voucher school accountability, as the Editorial Board defines it, would result from these private schools being compelled to administer the same standardized tests that the government requires of its schools ("Fix the flaw first," March 8).

Given that testing drives curriculum, that means that the voucher schools should closely resemble the public schools in what they teach daily.

If parents wanted their children to be in state-homogenized schools, wouldn't they just settle for the nearest public school and its $13,229 per-child subsidy instead of clamoring for a $6,442 voucher enabling them to transfer to a private school even while realizing they might have to fork over extra money from their own pockets to fully cover tuition and fees?

The point of school choice is for parents to have actual choices other than the conventional government-issue model.

Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to remove the cap on voucher schools would strengthen accountability by making both public and private schools more attentive to the needs and wishes of parents, as opposed to bureaucrats.

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A small Latin revival in England

The Dragon is a private co-educational boarding and day school in Oxford with a long and prestigious history. As with many British private schools, Latin is taught there. Some of the pupils from the Dragon now help pupils from a taxpayer-funded church school to learn Latin too

Visit the after-school Latin club at SS Philip and James’s C of E primary school in Oxford, Phil and Jim for short, and the first thing that strikes you is how quiet it is. Not that there’s any shortage of teachers; in fact, there are four. It’s just that Mary, Alex, Nicholas and Will aren’t adults but Year 6 children from the Dragon School, an independent preparatory a short minibus ride away.

And, rare as it is even to find Latin on offer in a state primary (primus, first) school, it’s the fact that this club is run by children for children that makes it so unusual, especially given their ages. At just 10 and 11, the teachers are scarcely older than their pupils.

Latin, as any fool knows, isn’t a subject for the faint-hearted, what with its declensions and all that. But the free schools debate has put the language squarely back on the educational agenda (agenda, things which must be done).

The Oxford experiment, by putting the children in charge, has overturned every classics clich√© in the book; but it’s worked. About 200 children from the two schools have been club students or teachers so far, and several Phil and Jim graduates (gradus, step) have gone on to excel in the subject at secondary school.

It isn’t a completely adult-free zone. Dragon teacher Peter Norton tops and tails the 50-minute sessions with games of Latin charades and bingo, both hugely popular, together with short films about life in Roman times.

But the in-depth coaching is all down to the Dragons and they take their duties very seriously. One girl even came up with her own teaching aid, a working balsa wood model of a Roman taxi meter, operated with marbles.

This afternoon, 11-year old Nicholas is helping Harry, 10, to find the Latin origin of some English words. Harry has already cracked “dominant” (dominus) and “nautical” (nauta) but is finding “exclamation” more of a puzzle. “Is it clamo?” he asks. “Maybe,” replies Nicholas cautiously, clearly primed not to give away too much.

The other three Dragons, small groups of children clustered around them, are poring over a crossword – English clues with Latin answers – before moving on to the subtleties of translating “Poeta dicit quis epistolam mittit?” and other similarly challenging sentences.

Alex, 11, leans right across the table in his eagerness to help nine-year-old Grace puzzle out the Latin for “they run”. “You know curro,” he says. “Take the 'o’ off, then put on the ending.”

Nearby, two more 10-year olds, Issy and Pema, are working with Mary, who is just a few months older. Issy solves her final clue. Beaming with pride, Mary draws a “well done” smiley face on the work. “I keep forgetting the double letters,” says Pema, sounding a tad doleful. “It’s a tricky one,” Mary consoles her, turning to help.

Originally the brainwave of a Phil and Jim teacher with a child at the Dragon, where Latin lessons begin in Year 5, the club has been going for over four years.

Both schools gain from working together. “The children from the Dragon are so enthusiastic,” says Irene Conway, Phil and Jim’s head teacher. “Our children welcome them into their school and let them take charge. There’s no jealousy or bad feeling.”

Perhaps that’s partly why the club is so popular with Dragon pupils. It is by invitation only and despite the huge range of after-school activities on offer, it’s widely seen as something rather special. “It’s fun because it’s different,” Will says.

Before they’re let loose on their students, the would-be teachers work on their classroom technique. Being good at Latin is a given. Perhaps more elusively, they also need a winning way with words.

Some are born to it. Others, say Peter Norton, take a little longer to find out what works. “They learn to communicate (munus, gift, so 'to share’) ideas – and to rephrase them if they don’t get through the first time.”

The hardest part, agree the Dragons, is knowing the answer but not blurting it out, instead mastering the teacher’s art of holding back and helping their pupils work it out for themselves.

But the effort is worth it. When children teach other children they can reach out to them in a way that no adult, however kindly and inspiring, can match. It can be far easier to believe that you can master a tricky point of grammar when somebody your own age is helping you. “You explain something as you would to a friend and if they don’t understand, they say,” Will says.

Not surprisingly, the young Dragon teachers are in growing demand. A second branch of the club has just started up at another local primary school. It’s enough to gladden the heart of anyone concerned about declining levels of classics teaching.

And when it comes to conclusive (cludere, to close) proof that being the same age, or size, as your students is no barrier to being a good Latin teacher, the clincher is the children’s relish for the subject. All want to carry on with it after they leave Phil and Jim. And if you ask what they’ve most enjoyed about the club, few are in any doubt. “Everything,” they answer.

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Parents asked to rate British schools

Parents will be able to direct inspectors to failing schools via a new website to be set up by the education watchdog. Positive or negative feedback from parents in response to a set of 10 multiple choice questions will help Ofsted decide which schools to inspect.

The new website, to be launched in September, will be linked to schools' homepages and could publish some of the feedback by showing parents' overall rates of satisfaction for individual schools.

Exact details on how the website will work have not been decided, but it is likely parents will be able to give feedback using only an email address as identification.

It comes as part of a new inspection framework that puts failing schools under greater scrutiny and aims to speed up the rate of improvement where it is needed. In contrast there will be no more routine inspections of outstanding schools, with inspectors only to be called in if serious concerns are raised.

The changes, aimed at gearing inspections towards the government's education policy, will be put forward in a consultation document to be launched on Monday.

Currently only four per cent of all secondary schools rated "outstanding" overall have been given the top grade in the teaching and learning category by inspectors. Under the new system inspectors will spend more time in classrooms and take closer note of young children's reading ability, while cutting back on the number of grades and judgements they make.

In particular the new inspections will focus on four key areas; pupils' achievement, the quality of teaching, the standard of leadership and management and pupils' behaviour and safety.

They will be tested in pilot inspections of 10 schools before the Easter break, with a wider trial to follow in May and June. The new framework will then be officially sent out to schools in September.

Christine Gilbert, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, said it was "quite rare" to follow up on complaints from parents by launching an inspection, but said: "If they're telling us things that really worry us, even if our assessments are fine, we will go in and inspect."

She accepted there was "nothing to stop" schools asking parents to go online and give them a high rating, but added: "This is not a scientific model, it is an impressionistic picture ... it only helps us ask questions, it does not give us answers."

Chris Keates, general secretary of the Nasuwt teachers' union, said: "To hold schools to account on the basis of chat room and internet gossip trivialises public accountability and the work of schools. "Such a system would be open to abuse and manipulation and would therefore be an inappropriate and unreliable mechanism for triggering something as serious as inspection."

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