Monday, May 16, 2011

Should an American school be like a penal institution?

It’s that time, again: Young people in tuxedos and fancy dresses (and stretch limos), celebrating their near-completion of a dozen years of compulsory schooling with one big dance as they prepare to enter the larger world.

Thirty-three years ago, my wife went with me to our high school senior prom on our first official date. That day marks the jumping off point for a long and fruitful journey that has included seeing our own off to the prom.

Though today I’m oh-so-much more sophisticated, I still remember the amazing courage required to actually do the “asking out” part. A most essential step. Everyone who has ever asked anyone out knows.

Just not quite as well as James Tate now knows.

Tate is the Shelton High School senior first suspended from his Connecticut school on May 6 and then banned from attending his senior prom, only to be miraculously freed yesterday from the school’s zero-tolerance prom-death-penalty, because of massive worldwide media attention (all negative on the school’s gulag-like stance) and a couple hundred thousand active supporters on the “Let James Tate Go to the Prom” Facebook page.

What led to young Tate’s banishment and then to an Arab-style Facebook revolution in the Constitution State?

It began with the unmistakable fact that Mr. Tate is a normal teenage male Homo sapiens in the alternative universe known as an American public high school. James wanted to ask a girl to the prom in a way that would “make her feel special,” so he, with the help of two friends, taped 12-inch tall letters on the brick front wall of the school that read, “Sonali Rodrigues, Will you go to prom with me? HMU [hit me up] Tate.”

The school’s response might have been calm by today’s standards — no psychologist, no SWAT team. But, of course, the school principal claimed putting the message up had been a “safety risk,” even though James actually wore a helmet while standing on the ladder pressing the letters to the school’s brick exterior . . . with two friends spotting him. It was further alleged that James and his two also indicted co-conspirators trespassed on school property by being outside the building putting up the message between one and three in the morning. All three students were suspended and, because their suspensions were issued after April 1, they were also banned from attending the prom.

By the way, Sonali’s response to James’ prom invitation was, “Yes.” As for the school’s heavy handedness, she adroitly commented, “This is really upsetting. It’s our senior year and we are supposed to have happy memories, not something like this.”

To his credit, James expressed regret for putting his friends in a bad situation. He told one reporter, “I feel like a jerk for getting them in trouble, and leaving my date dateless.” He also offered to make up for his transgressions by doing “community service — like cleaning up the litter outside the school.”

The school would have none of it. While various students displayed a keen sense of justice and proportion — with statements like “[The sign] could be taken off so it’s not like it was permanent damage and he didn't deface any property” and “She should have just let him off with a warning”—the administration put the school on “complete lockdown” to block any budding student revolution against the educational/correctional institution holding them. On Friday, Headmaster Beth Smith, flocked by police, informed the throngs of assembled media camped outside the school that a planned sit-in had been averted with “no disruption.”

But there was, indeed, a disruption. Thank goodness, Shelton High School’s ridiculous clampdown on James Tate and his friends sent an unmistakably troubling message: that enthusiasm and creativity are punishable; that education isn’t supposed to be fun; that bureaucratic rules come far ahead of common sense and decency; that school is a cold institution, rather than a place that nurtures living, growing persons; and that rather than “sucking the marrow out of life,” kids need to learn to just keep their heads down and move along in line . . . when told to move.

People all over America, all over the world, were appalled and tried their best to help. A Facebook page dedicated to Tate’s cause grew quickly to hundreds of thousands, emails were sent and phone calls made to school officials in Shelton, Connecticut. And a Shelton High School in Washington State reported their phone and email inboxes filled with comments berating them for the stupid behavior of their namesake in Connecticut.

Yesterday, Shelton officials finally — and unconditionally — surrendered. Announcing the abandonment of the school’s hard-line position, and that Tate and his two friends could indeed go to the prom, Superintendent Freeman Burr declared, sheepishly, “James Tate has set for us a new standard for romanticism.” Headmaster Beth Smith, who days earlier had strongly defended her draconian commitment to the no-prom punishment, admitted, “I never thought this would lead to international notoriety.”

But as one poster on the Facebook page correctly assessed, “She didn’t reverse her decision because it was the right thing to do, she caved to the pressure of us, all of us.”

James and Sonali get to go to prom, thanks to people power. But what does this say about placing more money and authority in the public schools? Common sense shouldn’t require a worldwide media storm in order to prevail.


Number of failing British teachers doubles in just a year

The number of teachers classed as incompetent has doubled in just one year, while the number labelled outstanding has halved. Millions of children are being failed by teachers who do not plan lessons, are unable to control a class and have a poor grasp of their subject.

The Ofsted figures, which may reflect a change in assessment methods, disclose that 17,600 teachers were described as ‘inadequate’ last year. This compares with 8,800, or two per cent, in the previous year. Meanwhile 35,200 teachers, out of a total of 440,000, were ranked ‘outstanding’ in 2010, compared with 70,400 in 2009. The proportion of unimpressive teachers labelled merely ‘satisfactory’ has also ballooned from 123,200 in 2009 to 162,800 in 2010.

A spokesman for Ofsted suggested that the rise in the number of poor teachers could be explained by a change in methods of inspection which has highlighted cases which would previously have been undisclosed. He said: ‘Since 2009 we have placed a greater emphasis on classroom teaching, increasing the amount of time inspectors spend observing lessons.’

The apparent slump in standards in the state sector comes as experts warn of a coming crisis in teacher numbers, with 40 per cent expected to retire within the next five years.

Meanwhile, an immigration-fuelled population boom is likely to increase the school roll by 500,000 pupils by 2018.

Education Secretary Michael Gove has promised to make it easier to sack bad teachers. Aware that too many use ‘notorious dodges’ to keep their jobs such as being signed off sick, he is to outline radical plans to get rid of teachers who should not be in the classroom.

Russell Hobby, of the National Union of Head Teachers, said: ‘More has to be done to ease out incompetent teachers. There are some cases where anybody would be better for the children than a bad teacher. ‘And it drags the rest of the teachers down. It really lowers morale and makes matters worse.’

A spokesman for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said: ‘Naturally we want the best people to be teaching our children. But we would be upset by any attempt by heads to target teachers that they do not like.

‘People need to be treated fairly. Drop-out rates for new teachers are high. Therefore those who do not feel up to the job, or do not like it, leave of their own accord.’


Australia: School class size right, says Premier of Victoria

Good to see the class size myths disregarded. Classes could in fact be bigger with no loss of quality but a big saving for the taxpayer

PREMIER Ted Baillieu has ruled out an increase in school class sizes under his watch.

He made the commitment after his Education Minister Martin Dixon refused to give such a guarantee in a parliamentary budget estimates hearing earlier this week. "There will be no increases in class sizes," Mr Baillieu told the hearing yesterday.

Mr Dixon had refused to comment on class sizes because he said the issue related to wage negotiations with the state's teachers, which are due to begin soon.

Opposition education spokesman Rob Hulls had warned Mr Dixon's refusal to rule it out was code for saying class sizes would rise.

Mr Hulls said under the Labor government from 1999 to 2010, average class sizes in government schools dropped from 25.4 to 22 students.


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