Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Obama Skips Congress on No Child Law

Rule by decree?

President Barack Obama’s administration will bypass Congress to override the nation’s main public-education law, granting waivers to states if they agree to his schools agenda.

States can avoid the No Child Left Behind law’s 2014 deadline for achieving 100 percent proficiency on standardized state reading and math exams if they sign off on yet-unspecified administration “reforms,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and White House domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes said Aug. 5 in a press briefing.

Saying Congress has failed to take action to fix the nine- year-old law, the U.S. Education Department will offer states waivers as soon as this school year. Duncan opposes the legislation’s focus on holding schools accountable only through testing proficiency, which he has said encourages dumbed-down standards. About 80 percent of U.S. schools risk being labeled failing if the law isn’t changed.

“I can’t overemphasize how loud the outcry is for us to do something now,” Duncan said.

Duncan in June said the administration would grant the waivers if Congress failed to approve legislation changing it by the start of this school year -- a deadline the legislature isn’t likely to meet.

Washington Gridlock

The administration’s waivers “could undermine” congressional efforts to change No Child Left Behind, John Kline, the Minnesota Republican who chairs the House education committee, said in a statement. Kline said he will be monitoring Duncan’s actions “to ensure they are consistent with the law and congressional intent.”

Kline’s committee is working on a series of bills to change the law. They include promoting the growth of charter schools -- privately run public schools -- and cutting spending by eliminating half of the federal education programs under the current law.

Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat and Senate education committee chairman, said he still hopes the Senate can produce a “comprehensive bill” reauthorizing No Child Left Behind.

“That said, it is undeniable that this Congress faces real challenges reaching bipartisan, bicameral agreement on anything,” Harkin said in a statement.

Duncan’s approach differs from past education department waivers -- supported by many Republicans as a way to ease regulatory burdens -- because the agency is attaching conditions to promote administration policies, said Jack Jennings, president of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan research organization.

Executive Authority

“This is a bold use of executive authority by Duncan,” Jennings, a former general counsel for the House education committee, said in a telephone interview. “Duncan is certainly determined to bring about school reform while he’s in office.”

No Child Left Behind, signed into law in 2002, is former President George W. Bush’s signature education initiative. Officially called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the law requires schools to show that all students are proficient on state standardized reading and math tests by 2014. Schools also must demonstrate yearly progress toward that goal or risk losing federal money.

Though specifics haven’t been set for the waivers, schools would be released from that deadline and annual progress requirements if they agree to such changes as raising academic standards and evaluating teacher effectiveness based on student achievement and other measures, Duncan said. The department will make details public in September.

“We can’t afford to do nothing,” Duncan said.


Public-school losses: private schools’ gain

As public school teachers face what may be the longest string of layoffs ever, the private sector gets a boost. Transport and janitorial contractors, online tutoring companies, and private schools are among those seeing a more talented workforce or an uptick in business

If there's a silver lining to the unprecedented teacher layoffs now taking place in America's public schools, it lies in places like Baylor School, a private school for sixth- through 12th-graders in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The applicant pool to teach at Baylor has become larger and stronger, says Scott Dering, the school's dean of academics. Even though four of his new hires haven't started teaching yet, he is already bragging about them. "We're getting an all-star team of public school teachers," Mr. Dering says.

For the first time since the government began keeping track in 1955, the number of workers in America's public schools has fallen two school years in a row. And it's likely that the 2011-12 school year will mark a third year of decline, perhaps the biggest so far. For instance, the state of New York, which lost about 10,000 public education employees in the past two years, will lose another 12,000 or so in the coming school year, according to New York State United Teachers, a federation of education employee unions.

Cuts in faculty mean bigger class sizes, fewer course offerings, and less individual attention for students. Public schools will struggle to maintain their education standards. But the loss of public school teachers may prove to be a boon for the private sector. While the number of public school workers dropped 2.6 percent between June 2009 and June 2011, the number of private education service workers has grown proportionately – 2.8 percent.

"Look at how the public sector is cutting back," says Peter Upham, executive director of The Association of Boarding Schools, based in Asheville, N.C. "Comparatively, our packages are more competitive."

Boarding schools have become more attractive, especially with the lure of free housing for teachers. Test-prep companies are on the rise, as are charter schools and online tutoring.

For instance, Tutor.com, a company that provides on-demand, online tutoring for K-12 and some college students, is increasing the number of school districts it contracts with. The number of people who want to work for the New York-based company has skyrocketed. In 2009, its waiting list of tutors ready to teach had about 4,400 people; now, it has more than 14,000.

"There's more general awareness that this [option] exists for teachers," says Jennifer Kohn, spokeswoman for Tutor.com. Most of its tutors are teachers who have left the classroom or those who want extra part-time work.

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Children's grasp of WW2 'sanitised' by books and films

Pupils’ understanding of the Second World War is being undermined by sensationalist films, television programmes and books, according to a leading headmaster. Children are increasingly distracted by the “prurient and commercial elements” of the conflict employed by the entertainment industry to make profits, it was claimed.

Graham Lacey, headmaster of the Berlin British School, a private international school in the German capital, said schools had a moral duty to “rescue” the subject by focusing on more challenging topics such as the Nazi’s exploitation of democracy and the state’s treatment of minorities. The comments come amid ongoing controversy over the way the conflict – from 1939 to 1945 – is taught in British schools.

Successive German ambassadors to London have criticised Britain’s “unbalanced” obsession with Nazi stereotypes at the expense of any aspect of the nation’s history beyond 1945.

Four years ago Labour also sparked outrage by suggesting that Winston Churchill – Britain’s wartime leader – should be erased from the secondary school curriculum in an attempt to give teachers more freedom to teach history.

Mr Lacey, former deputy head of Sevenoaks School in Kent, said schools “must be careful not to downplay the significance of a period when the world almost fell off its moral axis”.

But writing in an article today on Telegraph.co.uk, he suggested that the biggest threat to the subject was the entertainment industry, which prioritises a “populist narrative over objective analysis”.

It follows the success of films such as Saving Private Ryan and video games including Call of Duty: World at War. The Second World War is also one of the mainstays of satellite channels such as UKTV History and the History Channel, where recent programmes have included Hitler's Bodyguard, Hitler's Women, Nazi America and Nazi Guerrillas.

But Mr Lacey said: “The argument that this period should retain its elevated position in UK school history syllabuses has, ironically, been hindered rather than helped by the popularisation of the subject. “Students have been too easily distracted by its more prurient and commercial elements, whether it be the sex lives of its leaders or the pop memorabilia of the SS, for example.

“Even the horrors of the Second World War have been sanitised through books and films that have inevitably given higher priority to commercial success over factual accuracy, and populist narrative over objective analysis. “All this has undermined the pedagogical and moral justification for teaching the subject.”

The study of the two world wars is compulsory in English secondary schools. Pupils are also expected to study the Holocaust as a distinct topic.

But Mr Lacey said schools had a responsibility to focus on the “less familiar but more intellectually fulfilling topics of the period, to rescue the academic respectability of the subject as well as to ensure their students appreciate the relevance it holds for all who wish to protect the civilised values which the Third Reich displaced.”

The Nazi’s rise to power should be used as an example of how a small minority can exploit democracy or exert “undue political influence at a time of instability”, he said.

Mr Lacey added that a study of the Nazi’s murder campaign can also shed light on the “sanctity of human life and the state’s approach to the treatment of minorities”.

“Unless you fall for the myth that ‘it could never happen to us’, a study of the Third Reich still provides lessons for us all, and should retain its prominent place in the history syllabuses of the UK’s schools and universities,” he said.


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