Sunday, July 24, 2011

TX: Education panel OKs science materials

Questions about one publisher's materials punted to education chief

A newfound sense of compromise between the two factions of the State Board of Education allowed both sides to walk away on Friday satisfied with the adoption of new science materials for Texas public schools.

The handling of the theory of evolution in high school biology was, once again, the point of contention between the conservative bloc and a more moderate group on the Republican-dominated board.

Two years ago, the board made national headlines with its heated debate about how evolution should be covered in Texas textbooks and classrooms. The result was a call for new textbooks to explore all sides of the evidence underlying evolutionary theory, which critics said opened the door for concepts such as intelligent design and creationism.

None of the high school biology submissions up for board consideration this week included those ideas.

The one offering that did touch on intelligent design failed to make the list recommended by Education Commissioner Robert Scott, and board members showed no willingness to add it.

Last year's election might have had something to do with that. With four new members, the balance of power on the 15-member board shifted just enough toward the center so that the conservative bloc could no longer push through its policies unimpeded.

Friday's compromise came after the board appeared ready to split over claims of errors in how evolution was addressed in a submission from publisher Holt McDougal .

A board-appointed reviewer had identified the concerns, but the publisher maintained that the points at issue were not wrong.

All eight points in dispute involve evolutionary theory, such as comparisons of hominoid skulls and fossil evidence.

The error claims "seem entirely dedicated to undermining the presentation of evolution. Many of the claims derive from overtly creationist literature and arguments," wrote five other reviewers of the biology materials — four teachers and a professor — in a letter to the board.

It was up to the board to referee the dispute, and the mood turned testy. "I smell a rat," board member Terri Leo, R-Spring, said during the back-and-forth over the issue. In the end, the board members chose to turn the issue over to the education commissioner. "My goal would be to try to find some common ground," Scott said.

Then the board unanimously approved the online science materials that will supplement existing textbooks, contingent on Scott's decision on the disputed submission.

Board member Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, said there were enough votes to back the publisher's position. But the compromise will produce the same result in a less contentious manner. "We acknowledged that with our limited time and our limited experience with this issue, we needed help," Ratliff said.

Board member Gail Lowe, a widely respected member of the conservative bloc and, until recently, the board's chairwoman, endorsed the compromise. She said it was the best way to be consistent and fair to all the publishers.

Jonathan Saenz, a lawyer with the conservative Liberty Institute , applauded the board for addressing the issues that had concerned him.

The Texas Freedom Network , a frequent board critic, also heralded the vote. "Today we saw Texas kids and sound science finally win a vote on the State Board of Education. Now our public schools can focus on teaching their students fact-based science that will prepare them for college and a 21st-century economy," said Kathy Miller, president of the group, which monitors the religious right.

The online materials will be used with existing textbooks and reflect the curriculum standards approved in 2009.

The board pursued this unprecedented option because a budget crunch precluded the state from buying new textbooks at a cost of $347 million. The supplemental material has a $60 million price tag.

Furthermore, the materials are essential to prepare students for end-of-course exams, which will count toward graduation for incoming ninth-graders this year.


More states defying federal gov't on education law

At least three states are vowing to ignore the latest requirements under the No Child Left Behind law in an act of defiance against the federal government that demonstrates their growing frustration over an education program they say sets unrealistic benchmarks for schools.

The law sets a goal of having 100 percent of students proficient in math and reading by 2014, but states were allowed to establish how much schools must improve each year. Many states saved the biggest leaps for the final years, anticipating the law would be changed.

But it hasn't, and states like Idaho, Montana and South Dakota are fed up. They are preparing to reject the latest requirements for determining school progress under the 9-year-old law — even if the move toward noncompliance may put them at risk of losing some federal funding.

Idaho will no longer raise the benchmarks that public schools have to meet under No Child Left Behind, nor will it punish the schools that do not meet these higher testing goals, said Tom Luna, the state's superintendent of public schools.

The federal requirements are unrealistic for schools to meet while they wait for the government to enact new education standards, he said. "We've waited as long as we can," Luna said.

Montana and South Dakota are also rejecting the latest No Child Left Behind targets, while Kentucky is seeking a waiver that would allow the state to use a different method to measure whether students are making adequate progress under the program.

And more states could follow in seeking relief from the federal requirements.

Federal officials recently warned Montana to get in line with the No Child Left Behind requirements by Aug. 15 or the federal government could withhold funds under an education program. The state receives more than $44 million in federal funding for that program, though it is unclear just how much of that money is at risk. In Idaho, that program is worth more than $54 million, and in South Dakota, about $43.7 million.

As high-profile cheating investigations in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., call attention to statewide standardized testing, experts say many districts are feeling pressured to meet the standards to avoid penalties under the law.

The No Child Left Behind law was passed in 2001 and signed by then-President George W. Bush. It has been widely panned by critics who say it brands schools as failures even as they make progress, discourages high academic standards and encourages educators to teach to the test as opposed to providing practical classroom learning to students.

There's bipartisan support for an overhaul, but Republicans and Democrats have different ideas about what sort of reforms should go into the law and how long writing a new bill should take. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has urged the U.S. House to finish before the next school year starts this fall, but the Republican chairman of the House education committee has said his panel plans to work through the fall.

Montana Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau said the state decided to freeze the federal requirements so schools will not be inaccurately labeled as failing — and suffer the scorn that comes along with the classification.

"Everyone knows it's broken. And the biggest broken piece of No Child Left Behind are these arbitrary bars," Juneau said. "It's one thing we could do to assist schools and not getting labeled as failing or be denigrated in the press when they are absolutely doing a better (job)."

Schools are required to meet 41 benchmarks for student achievement under the law and a school's annual yearly progress is calculated based on test participation, academic achievement, graduation rates and other statistics.

But every few years, the percentage of students who must pass state tests increases.

Of the 821 public school schools in Montana, 255 are not making adequate yearly progress under the current benchmarks. If the state makes the next jump under No Child Left Behind, a whopping 383 schools — nearly half — wouldn't be up to snuff under the federal law.

Juneau said she is optimistic her state will reach a compromise with the federal government on conforming to the law while also helping schools.

In Florida, where just 10 percent of all elementary, middle and high schools met adequate yearly progress goals under No Child Left Behind law in 2011, Interim Education Commissioner John L. Winn said he couldn't say whether his state might seek a reprieve.

Winn is going to let the new education commissioner, who starts in August, decide what action to take, he said. "He's got to live with that decision," Winn said. "I think I'm going to defer it to him."

Duncan is frustrated with he has called a "slow motion train wreck" for U.S. schools, warning that many could be labeled as failing under the law if it isn't reformed. His solution? Grant waivers to the law in exchange for states embracing the department's ideas on education reform.

Those reforms would be similar to those encouraged in the $4 billion Race to the Top grant competition, which include performance pay for teachers and growth in charter schools, Duncan has said.

But that plan sparked questions from the chairman of the House education committee, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who wrote Duncan in late June and asked the secretary to explain how the department has the authority to grant waivers "in exchange for reforms not authorized by Congress."

In his response earlier this month, Duncan said he had the legal authority to grant waivers to the statutory requirements of the law if that's best for students.

At the same time, many states are looking to create new accountability systems that can replace the rules of No Child Left Behind. Last month, the Council of Chief State School Officers announced 41 states would work together to implement improved systems to hold schools accountable.

"There is a great dissatisfaction with current accountability system that exist in the U.S.," said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based council. "It's not a matter of relief from accountability. It's redesigning it so we have a much more positive environment."


Third of British adults have no qualifications in worst education blackspots

A study found that one in nine adults had no formal qualifications, and it reported wide differences in educational achievements throughout the country. In some areas, a third of 16 to 64 year-olds are without qualifications, while in others the proportion is as low as two per cent.

The University and College Union, which conducted the analysis, warned that Britain was divided into “the haves and the have-nots”.

The study is based on Office for National Statistics figures showing the proportions of adults of working age (16 to 64) with no qualifications in 2010. It was found that 11.3 per cent of adults did not have any qualifications. In England, this figure is 11.1 per cent, in Wales 13.3 per cent and in Scotland 12.3 per cent.

The union analysed the qualification rates for the 632 parliamentary constituencies in England, Scotland and Wales. It found that in constituencies such as Glasgow North East and Birmingham Hodge Hill more than a third of adults of working age had no qualifications (35.3 per cent and 33.3 per cent respectively).

At the other end of the scale, just 1.9 per cent of adults in Brent North lacked any qualifications, while in Romsey and Southampton North the figure is 2.3 per cent.

The union said that further analysis of 21 cities and their surrounding areas highlighted examples of “haves and have-nots” living side by side. People living in the constituency of Newcastle upon Tyne Central are nearly twice as likely to have no qualifications (17 per cent) as those in nearby Newcastle upon Tyne North (9.7 per cent).

The union said that people in areas with the lowest levels of qualifications were likely to suffer most from government policies it claimed would restrict access to education. These include plans to raise university tuition fees and scrap the education maintenance allowance.

Sally Hunt, the union’s general secretary, said: “We have two Britains divided between the educational haves and have-nots. “Education is central to our country’s future, yet in some places thousands of people still have no qualifications. “There is a real danger that children growing up in certain areas will have their ambition blunted and never realise their full potential.”


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