Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Education makes a political comeback in Washington

After years on the political back burner, education is making a comeback in Washington, driven in large part by Democrats.

President Barack Obama has made saving teachers' jobs a key part of his effort to sell his $447 billion jobs package as he travels the country. Senate Democrats have made dramatic pleas to help schools with budget woes, and in a last-ditch effort to get at least part of the president's plan passed, a vote is expected soon on a section of the plan designed to save the jobs of teachers and first responders.

Separately, a Senate committee was to meet Wednesday to debate and amend the education law known as No Child Left Behind, one of the most significant efforts in the Senate to update the law since it was passed in 2002. Signaling some rare bipartisanship on Capitol Hill, Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., the top senators from their respective parties on education, announced agreement on the bill Monday.

But that agreement didn't satisfy the Obama administration, which voiced concern that the bill doesn't include a requirement that states and local districts develop plans for evaluating teachers and principals.

Last month, Obama announced he was frustrated that Congress hadn't fixed No Child Left Behind, despite widespread agreement that the 2002 law had flaws. He said he would allow states that met certain conditions to get around some of the provisions of the law. At least 39 states, in addition to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have told the Education Department they intend to seek a waiver.

Republicans have scoffed at many of the Democrats' efforts. On Tuesday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell likened the president's jobs plan to "bailouts" that perpetuate economic problems, not solve them. He said the "American people didn't send us here to kick our problems down the road, and they certainly didn't send us here to repeat the same mistakes over and over again — and then stick them and their children with the tab."

As for changes to No Child Left Behind, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former education secretary, said Monday that while he wasn't completely happy with the Harkin-Enzi bill, he planned to support passing it out of committee because if Congress didn't act, Education Secretary Arne Duncan would become a "waiver-granting czar" under Obama's plan.

Alexander said there was no reason Congress couldn't fix the law and send it to Obama by the end of the year before the first waivers are expected to be issued to states.

On the House side, a GOP-led committee has forwarded three bills that would revamp aspects of the law but has yet to fully tackle some of the more contentious issues, such as teacher effectiveness and accountability.

The White House has said that nearly 300,000 jobs in the education sector have been lost since 2008 and that Obama's plan would support the hiring or re-hiring of 400,000 educators.

When the president's plan was brought up in the Senate last week, not a single Republican senator supported it and it died.

Democrats then said they would bring up parts of it separately, starting with the plan to save teachers' and first responders' jobs. Focusing on the plights of students unable to take physical education and art classes and school districts that have moved to a four-day school week because of budget cuts could help to put a sympathetic face on the administration's jobs plan and make it harder for Republicans to attack.

Obama, at a stop Tuesday at Guilford Technical Community College in Jamestown, N.C., sought to sell his plan by emphasizing that budget problems could get worse for schools. "I hope that members of Congress are going to be doing a little bit of listening to teachers and educators," Obama said. "We have a tendency to say great things about how important education is in the abstract, but we don't always put our money where our mouth is, and it's absolutely critical right now to make sure that we don't see the kinds of cutbacks that we've been seeing."

In support of the president's jobs plan, labor unions were expected to give the White House a boost Wednesday by sending hundreds of teachers, police and firefighters to a rally on Capitol Hill.

Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., said he thinks Obama recognizes the pinch states and local governments are feeling and genuinely believes that educators' and first responders' jobs need to be preserved.

Madonna added that there's no doubt Obama can help rally key constituent groups such as teachers unions to support his plan. Along the way, Madonna said, the president is helping to make an argument that will probably be key to his re-election campaign — that Republicans are obstructionists.

"I don't think there's any doubt that they have constituencies in unions, they have constituencies in school boards, they have constituencies in elected officials. You get a lot of potential political support from the folks who deliver these services," Madonna said. "So I think he gains a lot out of that."


British schools issued with discipline 'checklist' to boost behaviour

Teachers are being told to punish bad behaviour outside school and shop unruly children to their parents as part of a new crackdown on indiscipline.

Schools are being issued with a 43-point checklist designed to root out the worst offenders and ensure staff reward well-behaved children. The guide – sent to all state schools in England – says pupils should be expected to move around corridors and classrooms in an “orderly manner” at all times.

Heads are told to identify teachers failing to uphold good standards of behaviour and ensure staff set a decent example to children by remaining calm at all times, learning pupils’ names and greeting them as they enter and leave the classroom. In a key move, it also tells staff to display all school rules – and a list of sanctions – clearly in each classroom to establish proper boundaries.

Charlie Taylor, the Government’s new behaviour tsar, warned that a failure to consistently impose rules was one of the key causes of indiscipline in schools. It follows the publication of figures by Ofsted last year that revealed standards of behaviour were not good enough in almost a third of secondary schools and one-in-10 primaries. Indiscipline is also seen as one of the main causes of teachers abandoning the profession altogether.

Unveiling the guide, Mr Taylor, the head teacher of the Willows Special School in west London, said: “There are schools in some of the toughest areas of the country who are getting discipline right, however, some schools struggle with managing and improving behaviour.

“Often the problem is that they aren’t being consistent with their behaviour policy such as ensuring that punishments always happen every time a pupil behaves badly. “As a head teacher I know that where there is inconsistency in schools, children are more likely to push the boundaries.

“If a pupil thinks there is a chance that the school will forget about the detention he has been given, then he is unlikely to bother to turn up. If he gets away with it, the threat of detention will be no deterrent in the future.”

The guide – “Getting the Simple Things Right” – was drawn up following talks with heads of outstanding schools across England. Staff are urged to run through the checklist twice a day – in the morning and after lunch – to maintain consistent discipline standards.

The document – consisting of 22 tips for heads and 21 for teachers – places a strong emphasis on acknowledging decent behaviour. Heads are told to celebrate children’s successes and set up a system of rewards for the best pupils.

It also underlines the importance of keeping staff in check, including ensuring individual teachers remain calm and do not over-use rewards or punishments. The worst teachers should also be identified and monitored, it suggests.

Heads are told to personally patrol lunch halls and playgrounds and check buildings are clean and well maintained.

In a further move, it says staff should “check up on behaviour outside the school” and give “feedback to parents about their child’s behaviour”.


Australia: Employers want final High School exam geared to workforce

THE last two years of high school need to be rethought to better engage and prepare the three in four school leavers who are not headed to university, according to a review by the NSW Business Chamber.

Praising the NSW government's scrapping of the "out-dated" school certificate, the chamber said it presents the opportunity for a much wider-ranging review of years 11 and 12.

Specifically, the chamber is seeking more core subjects for the HSC, better quality vocational courses and minimum standards for literacy and numeracy.

"The business community has a vested interest in the education system providing the right training for young people. We want young adults, when they finish their education, to have developed the skills they need to succeed in the workforce," Paul Orton, the chamber's director of policy and advocacy, said.

"Frankly, this area is too important for the state government to accept the status quo. Now is the time to have a serious community debate about how we are performing as a state in helping senior secondary students prepare for life after school.

"The last time we reviewed the HSC was in the mid-1990s at a time when very few, if any, students had even seen or been on the internet."

A blueprint, Could Do Better, will be discussed at a roundtable of key stakeholders in Parramatta tomorrow.

The primary focus is to lift the rigour, breadth and quality of vocational courses offered within the school system. The blueprint says core subjects for the HSC should include subjects such as numeracy, personal development and career planning. The number and capacity of senior colleges, and the range of subject choices available to high school students, should also be expanded.

Tom Alegounarias, the president of the NSW Board of Studies, said he was keen to listen to employers but defended the HSC as a rigorous credential that serves students and business well.

"The challenge we are facing is to ensure that every student can operate at a very high level of literacy and numeracy. This reflects the changing nature of the Australian economy, and education needs to be responsive to it," he said.

"Literacy and numeracy are inherent in being able to do the HSC but employers are looking for more explicit recognition and we are looking to respond to that."

The chamber is looking for more seamless progression between entering the final years of schooling and emerging into the labour market with a trade or significant qualification. Nine out of 10 16- and 17-year-old students enrolled in a vocational program are taking courses the chamber says will not lead to a qualification "adequate for a 21st century labour market".

The blueprint argues that what is learnt needs to lead to a qualification that is valued in the labour market. "Young people in senior high school need to be treated as young adults rather than as young children, and have a learning environment that reflects this," it says.

Mr Orton said university graduates are vital, particularly those with higher level degrees. "But let's do a better job for those who don't go to university," he said.

"We don't want them doing time, so to speak. It would be much better for them to get as much out of it as they can so that they are better equipped for whatever they choose to do."


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