Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Use of police prosecution in US schools draw scrutiny

In a small courtroom north of Houston, a fourth-grader walked up to the bench with his mother. Too short to see the judge, he stood on a stool. He was dressed in a polo shirt and dark slacks on a sweltering summer morning.

“Guilty," the boy’s mother heard him say. He had been part of a scuffle on a school bus.

In another generation, he might have received only a scolding from the principal or a period of detention. But get-tough policies in US schools in the past two decades have brought many students into contact with police and courts - part of a trend that some specialists call the criminalization of student discipline.

Now, such practices are under scrutiny nationally. Federal officials want to limit punishments that push students from the classroom to courtroom, and a growing number of state and local leaders are raising similar concerns.

In Texas, the specter of harsh discipline has been especially clear. Here, police issue tickets: Class C misdemeanor citations for offensive language, class disruption, schoolyard fights. Thousands of students land in court, with fines of up to $500. Students with outstanding tickets may be arrested after age 17.

Texas also stands out for opening up millions of student records to a landmark study of discipline, released in July. The study shows that 6 in 10 students were suspended or expelled at least once from seventh grade on. After their first suspension, they were nearly three times as likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system the next year as students with no such disciplinary referrals.

Citing the Texas research, federal officials announced last month an initiative to break what many call the “school-to-prison pipeline." Suspensions, expulsions, and arrests are used too often to enforce school order, officials said.

“That is something that clearly has to stop," US Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in Washington alongside Education Secretary Arne Duncan. This month, Duncan recounted that in his old job as Chicago schools chief, he was stunned to learn that so many arrests occurred in schools. The first response to student misbehavior, he said, “can’t be to pick up the phone and call 911."

The federal focus comes amid other change. In Colorado, a legislative task force is examining discipline practices, including law enforcement referrals and school ticketing. Los Angeles, police recently agreed to cut back on ticketing tardy students en route to school.

Connecticut officials have begun screening cases after students wound up in court on violations such as having soda, running in the hall, and dressing improperly.


AZ: A strange way to teach English

State education officials will no longer force schools to retrain or reassign English-immersion teachers because they speak with an accent. In an agreement with two federal agencies, the Arizona Department of Education will stop trying to single out teachers who they believe do not have a good command of the English language - a practice that resulted in complaints the state was illegally discriminating against teachers because they are Hispanic or are not native-English speakers.

But Andrew LeFevre, spokesman for the state agency, said that does not mean schools are free to hire whomever they want. Instead, LeFevre said, the settlement with the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education simply takes the state education agency out of the mix. LeFevre said it will now be up to local school districts to certify their instructors for these classes are, in fact, fluent.

State School Superintendent John Huppenthal agreed to the settlement even though, LeFevre said, Huppenthal doesn't believe anything done was improper. Nor does state Attorney General Tom Horne, who was state schools chief when the investigation began more than a year ago.

The problem, according to the federal attorneys, is that evaluations of teachers were often "subjective." For example, the federal agencies said, state officials noted one teacher pronounced "the" as "da." Different teachers pronounced "another" as "anudder" and "lives here" came out as "leeves here."

Based on that, schools were required to create plans to correct the problems. Otherwise qualified teachers were removed from classes. The federal attorneys said the state policy forced schools to take action even where school officials did not have concerns about the teachers' English fluency.

LeFevre said that federal law still requires teachers be fluent - it just removes the state from having to make the determination.
Ignacio Ruiz, director of language acquisition for Tucson Unified School District, said his schools have not had any problems with the state, but he applauded the change.

Ruiz said the district recognizes the importance of teachers using proper grammar and that students understand what is being taught. But he said having an accent does not impair learning.

"There are many teachers with accents in many classrooms across the state," Ruiz said. "I know from my personal experience as a principal that students can do well in that setting."


British pupils return to tough subjects

The number of children studying tough subjects at school is to double following a Government crackdown on “soft” GCSEs, The Daily Telegraph has learned. Just days before the new academic year, it emerged that pupils are flocking back to traditional academic disciplines that are seen as vital to the workplace and further study.

Research shows that almost 50 per cent of children starting GCSEs for the first time this autumn will take separate courses in maths, English, the sciences, a foreign language and either history or geography. This compares with less than a quarter of pupils who took GCSE exams last summer.

The rise move follows the introduction of the controversial English Baccalaureate – a new school leaving certificate that rewards pupils who achieve good grades in five traditional subject areas.

It represents the first evidence that the reforms are having a major effect on the subjects studied by children in the last two years of secondary education. This follows repeated claims by the Coalition that education standards were “dumbed down” under Labour.

In the last 13 years, growing numbers of pupils have ditched tough subjects in favour of less rigorous alternatives such as media studies, photography and dance to boost school league table rankings.

It has had a significant effect on the study of key disciplines at college and university and led to a critical shortage of graduates with skills in science, technology, engineering, maths and foreign languages, which are seen as vital to the economy.

But research commissioned by the Department for Education suggests that changes made by the Government are having a dramatic effect on schools in England.

The study – based on a survey of almost 700 state secondary schools – shows rises in the number of pupils preparing to take a combination of GCSEs that leads to the so-called “EBacc”. Some 47 per cent of teenagers entering Year 10 this term – the traditional start of GCSEs – will study EBacc subjects, it was revealed. These pupils are expected to sit exams in 2013. It represents a dramatic rise compared with the 22 per of pupils who took exams in these subjects in 2010 – the last available data.

The number of pupils choosing to study languages is set to rise by more than a fifth compared with 2010, while entries for history and geography are up by at least a quarter this year.

The proportion of pupils opting to take all three sciences – biology, chemistry and physics – will almost double, according to the study by the National Centre for Social Research.

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, said: “Subjects such as physics, chemistry, history, geography, French and German give students the opportunity to succeed in every field. “The numbers studying a proper range of rigorous subjects has been in decline. Now, thanks to our English Bacc, that has changed.

“More young people are now following the courses which the best colleges and top employers value.”

The Coalition announced that the EBacc would be introduced in late 2010. To achieve it, pupils must gain C grades in maths, English, at least two sciences, a foreign language and one humanities subject – either history or geography. The new measure will be added to school league tables.

According to the National Centre for Social Research study, 52 per cent of schools surveyed said the EBacc had an effect on the type of subjects offered in the curriculum, while almost nine-in-10 said they provided information to pupils and parents about the EBacc.

But the reform has been strongly criticised by teaching unions and Labour, who claim it represents an elitist view of education and punishes children who want to pursue more practical courses.

It is also claimed it will narrow the curriculum and led to huge drops in those taking subjects such as music, art and religious studies, which are not featured in the EBacc.

But a Coalition source said: “Labour and union leaders live in a fantasy world where media studies is valued as much as further maths.

“Between them, over a decade they pushed millions of children into courses that held them back. By bringing honesty to the league tables we are already seeing a return to the subjects that universities and employers value most and this will strengthen education and our economy.”


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