Sunday, April 10, 2011

Idaho governor signs education overhaul into law

Idaho's governor on Friday signed into law the final piece of a controversial Republican overhaul of education in the state, as teachers and their allies mobilized to fight the measures.

The bill signed by Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter, a Republican, forces districts to equip high schools with mobile computing devices and potentially shifts funds from teacher pay to technology.

It also could lead to the layoffs of some teachers and certain positions going unfilled, officials said.

"By spending what we currently have differently, we will reform our public education system to invest in Idaho's great teachers, create the 21st century classroom and put our students first," Tom Luna, the state's schools chief, who crafted the sweeping education overhaul, said in a statement.

The measure was the last of three Republican-backed education bills that Otter has signed into law in recent weeks.

The other two bills ended tenure for new teachers, instituted merit pay and removed discussions of workload and class size from contract negotiations for the 12,000 teachers represented by the Idaho Education Association.

Idaho is one of several U.S. states in which public sector workers are currently battling with Republican leaders over their drive to curb public employee unions.

Attention has focused on a high-profile battle in Wisconsin over a law limiting public sector unions. Proposals to limit collective bargaining are also advancing in New Hampshire and Oklahoma, and bills targeting teachers unions are under consideration in Indiana and Tennessee.

"These are troubling times; all across the nation, political leaders have decided teachers are the enemies," said Sherri Wood, president of the Idaho Education Association.

Opponents of the state's education measures are seeking to get the laws overturned. They filed their latest petition on Friday in a bid to get opposition to the latest bill as a referendum before voters.

The group has less than two months to gather more than 47,000 registered Idaho voters' signatures, in order to get the measure on the ballots for the 2012 general election.

Teachers and others opposed to the bills have led protest rallies and student walkouts across the state, and have also launched a drive to recall Luna, who in November won 60 percent of the vote to claim a second term as superintendent of public instruction.


British schools and social mobility

Yesterday felt like a parody of politics in this country. A much-vaunted government “strategy” for social mobility was launched which, in policy terms, amounted to essentially nothing.

Unfortunately, asking businesses and government departments to be more socially conscious when hiring interns will do little to improve the chances of people born to poor families. But Labour's reaction – attacking Nick Clegg for “hypocrisy” in talking about the need for more social mobility, since he was born into a rich family – was absurd. As Nick Thornsby asked, if Clegg had announced that he was going to ignore social mobility would Harriet Harman say, “Quite right too, given his background”?

The focus on internships is beside the point. People who have managed to graduate from a decent university with the skills that would make them potential hires for good jobs are not the ones we should be concerned about. Many, and maybe most, children born into poor families will receive a terrible education in a bad comprehensive school. The state schools system destroys poor childrens’ opportunities, thanks to plummeting quality and standards. The fact that many university graduates in this country cannot write to a basic standard of English should say enough about the quality of English lessons in many schools in Britain.

The Sutton Trust, an educational charity, has looked into the rates of entry to Oxbridge by children with good A-Levels across the socioeconomic spectrum. The results show that, irrespective of family income levels, students who receive excellent A-Levels have roughly the same rate of entry to Oxbridge.

The problem is that students from relatively poor families are far less likely to get those A-Levels than those from relatively well-off families. Students on Free School Meals perform disproportionately badly across the board in A-Level results. Focusing on the school-leaving point (as opponents of tuition fees do) is too late to do anything to help mobility. Likewise with a focus on making internship access more equitable – the people for whom an internship might lead to a good job are not the people most in need of help.

Fifty years of school comprehensivization (an ugly word for an ugly policy) has done enormous damage to the prospects of children from poor families. As Tom wrote this morning, rigid state bureaucracies in healthcare create bad outcomes for patients.

Education is no different. What can we do to reverse this? Some propose a return to grammar schools, which may improve mobility but would do little to help those who fail their 11-plus. Competition and choice in schooling drives up standards – allowing profit-making companies to set up free schools would be a start, but a school voucher system like the one Milton Friedman proposed is the probably best option.

Any discussion of social mobility that doesn’t focus on the failure of the state school system is fundamentally unserious. We need to get real, and get radical.


Australia: Anger at schools' Christian 'bias'

BUDDHIST community leader Dr Sue Best has complained of the "Christian bias" in religious education in Victoria, saying if her group had access to government funding, they too could expand to hundreds of schools. And social commentator and Muslim Waleed Aly said it was a "logical necessity" to "get proselytisation out of the classroom".

Public debate on the issue was sparked by a Sunday Age revelation that the Education Department was forcing schools to host Christian religious education whether they wanted to or not. It took a new turn last week when state Education Minister Martin Dixon granted $200,000 in extra funding to Christian religious education provider Access Ministries to improve its training. Mr Dixon, a Catholic, said that despite the controversy he had no intention of reviewing the system.

The move sparked anger yesterday from groups representing other religions, who said Mr Dixon had not consulted them. "We were requesting a meeting with the minister and have not even received a reply," said Anna Halaffof of the Religion, Ethics and Education Network Australia, which promotes religious tolerance and respect. "Instead he made a decision to support Access without doing any community consultation."

Access is the only religious instruction provider that receives government funding, and only Christian religious education is given to children as a default if their parents forget to opt out.

The leaders of Access Ministries say their syllabus gives children an introduction to spirituality and values, and they insist that they do not proselytise.

Mr Aly asked whether "the providers of Christian education feel equally comfortable if the religious education spot were handed over instead to Jewish teachers, or Buddhist teachers or, shock horror, Muslim teachers? "If they're not comfortable in that, then it's clear that there's a bias in the teaching that they would wish to preserve." He said children in state schools should be taught about all religions.

Dr Best said Buddhist education was offered in 14 Victorian schools, but did not have the advantages enjoyed by the Christians, who teach 96 per cent of all religious education. "There is definitely a funding bias . Ours is funded by volunteers and donations," she said. She said half the children attending Buddhist classes came from other religious traditions, but their parents were keen for them to experience their world view. If they had the resources, "I am confident that we could be in hundreds of schools".

Scott Hedges, a parent involved with the "Fairness in Religions in School" grassroots campaign, said that the Christianity taught in his daughter's Hawthorn school was missionary in nature. "The only difference between my daughter's class and an African village to these people is that we have cleaner water and shoes."


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