Monday, October 24, 2011

Senate Panel Approves Bill That Rewrites Education Law

Legislation rewriting the No Child Left Behind education law finally gained traction this week, and the Senate Democrat whose committee passed the bill said on Friday that progress became possible because lawmakers were irritated by the Obama administration’s offering states waivers to the law’s key provisions.

“Some of us on both sides of the aisle were upset with them coming out with the waiver package that they did, so that spurred us on,” Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, who heads the Senate education committee, said in an interview. “It gave us a sense of urgency.”

Mr. Harkin’s committee voted 15 to 7 on Thursday to approve a bill that would greatly reduce Washington’s role in overseeing public schools. It was co-sponsored by Senator Michael B. Enzi, the Wyoming Republican who is the committee’s ranking minority member. Mr. Harkin called it “a good compromise bill” that would have bipartisan support in the full Senate.

But Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who had long criticized Congress for failing to rewrite the law, on Friday criticized the Harkin-Enzi bill, saying it compromises too much, particularly on teacher evaluations and student-achievement goals. “There are huge — significant problems with the current draft,” he said. “Though there are some things in this that I consider positive, others are quite concerning.”

The movement in the Senate came less than a month after Mr. Duncan and President Obama announced they would waive the school-accountability provisions for states that promise to follow their school improvement agenda, citing Congressional inaction as the prime motivation. Forty-one states have told the Department of Education that they intend to seek the waivers.

The Harkin-Enzi bill is the first No Child rewrite to gain committee approval since Congress began trying to overhaul the 2002 law four years ago. It would continue to require states to test students in grades 3 through 8 annually in reading and math, but would eliminate most provisions in the law that put the federal Department of Education in the position of supervising the performance of the nation’s 100,000 public schools. The department would continue to closely oversee how states manage their worst-performing schools.

Though the waivers were aimed at releasing states from the mandate that schools be deemed failures if all their students were not proficient in reading and math by 2014, administration officials said Friday that Harkin-Enzi’s most serious weaknesses were that it would not require states to set any student achievement targets, and that a requirement that schools evaluate teachers based on student test scores and other methods had been dropped.

Civil rights and business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the legislation would so thoroughly eviscerate the federal role in school accountability that they could not support it. But powerful groups representing superintendents, principals, teachers and school boards said they were delighted.

“We couldn’t be happier,” said Bruce Hunter, a lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators. “The current law is so toxic, and they’ve had a hard time in Congress for a long while coalescing on how to fix it.”

Earlier this fall, Mr. Hunter said he had given up hope for Congressional action any time soon. On Friday, he said there were good possibilities that the Harkin-Enzi bill would gain Senate approval, and that Republicans in the House might gain approval for their own package of bills overhauling various portions of the law — all before the presidential primaries make further progress a remote possibility.

Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president at the Fordham Institute, a Washington research group, who has also been skeptical on chances for a No Child rewrite, said he now saw a 50-50 chance that Congress could pass a bill before the presidential election.

“It still could be derailed, but you can see the contours of a bill now that would pass both chambers,” Mr. Petrilli said.

Charles Barone, a director of Democrats for Education Reform, said that senators of both parties seemed so eager to trim back Washington’s role in public schools that many were turning their backs on half a century of federal commitment to improving educational opportunities for poor children.

“Right now, they seem pretty determined to get a bill passed before Duncan can issue any waivers,” Mr. Barone said.


Half of girls at famous British private school now come from abroad

Half of pupils at one of Britain's most prestigious girl schools are now foreign, its head-teacher has disclosed, as she admitted pupils now learn Mandarin Chinese in order to speak to international boarders.

Some “lovely” parents who wish to send their daughters to Roedean School, in Brighton, East Sussex, get the “shock of their life” when told how many students were born overseas, said Frances King.

The school, which charges more than £30,000 a year for senior boarders, has faced dwindling admissions in recent years as the recession hit domestic demand and attitudes towards single-sex schools changed.

Mrs King, 51, became the world-renowned independent school’s headmistress three years ago to deal with the "challenge" of repositioning the school, which educates girls aged from 11 to 18.

Since then the school has recruited heavily for more overseas students, especially from the Far East, with half of the school's pupils now foreign, with the rest British.

Recently the school, established in the late 1800s, has just made lessons in Mandarin Chinese compulsory "for all year nines who don't yet speak it” because officials want to “make sure our local girls understand our international students”.

But the Oxford-educated head-teacher, admitted some middle-class parents from “Kensington and Wiltshire” only enrol their children in order to “do the social-climbing bit”.

Occasionally some of these “misfit” parents “can’t really cope with the reality of the school”, she admitted on Sunday. “They want to do the social-climbing bit. They want to enter into a world that never was,” she told the Sunday Times Magazine. “It's a misty-eyed look to the past when everything was just 'great'. But it wasn't at all.

"Fifty years ago boarding schools were horrific places. The fagging, the beating, cold water, leaking windows. That's why I'm very transparent with my parents who sit on my sofa, because once in a while I will have the 'misfits'.”

She continued: “You can tell when they walk in the room. They come straight out of Kensington and Wiltshire or wherever, and they have not caught up with how we are different from what they thought we were. “The danger is, Roedean has this name people think they know – an all-white, jollyhockey-sticks school. And these lovely parents from Wiltshire walk down the corridor and have the shock of their life.

“My students come from Brighton, from Hong Kong, from Nigeria, France, Wisconsin (in America) and (some parents) can't really cope with the reality of the school. Our intake is around 50 per cent international, 50 per cent British."

According to its latest figures, the number of enrolled students has fallen by more than half in recent years, from a peak of about 800 to its current levels of 375.

About 15 per cent of its sixth form go on to study at either Oxford or Cambridge universities. “Roedean has been forced to be more original. I knew its reputation and I was up for a challenge,” Mrs King said.

“One shouldn't be alarmed that the world is changing. I see our USP as holding onto the past, but ensuring we educate girls for a career in any country in the world. This is the future. “Your job is going to be in Melbourne, New York, Cambodia or Geneva, and you need to feel comfortable with people from all over."

She said the school was in solid financial shape after it sold the St Mary's Hall senior school site to the local hospital for £10m and its junior school to Brighton College for an undisclosed sum.

After it bought the school in 2009, a row over its new fees forced many parents to move their children to the state sector.


Australian State School bans tiggy (tag) in playground

A QUEENSLAND primary school has banned popular chasing games Tiggy and Red Rover from the playground. New Farm State School, in Brisbane's inner north, outlawed the popular lunchtime activities because of injury fears. Students have instead been told to play safer games like chess and snakes and ladders.

NFSS principal Virginia O'Neill has outlined the "temporary" ban to parents and students, saying it is necessary to protect students from "Prep to Year 7".

The move has been roundly criticised as "safety madness" and another case of cotton wool kids.

Ms O'Neill says the chasing games have left first aid staff working overtime with frequent accidents and disputes. Instead, pupils could play boardgames or could take part in organised sports such as soccer and netball.

Townsville's Belgian Gardens State School sparked outrage in 2008 after pupils were banned from doing unsupervised cartwheels. It later emerged that some parents had lodged lawsuits seeking compensation for injuries they claimed their children had suffered at school.

Psychologist Karen Brooks said games were crucial to a child's development and physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. "Games like Tiggy and Red Rover teach kids about co-operation, teamwork and risk taking," Dr Brooks said. "It's a way of accomplishing and achieving in their own peer group in a generally safe way where adults aren't involved. To ban it is just so ridiculous."

She added: "We're talking about an obesity crisis and here we are preventing them doing what kids naturally do."

Schools were likely being forced into extreme measures because of pressure from parents to prevent accidents, Dr Brooks said. "Schools are just protecting themselves. This reaction is indicative of society as a whole and it's gone crazy."

Weight loss expert and former teacher Sally Symonds said the dangers of stopping children from playing outweighed the dangers of allowing them to play. "Given the rates of obesity, it's certainly not a great way to go," said Ms Symonds, author of 50 Steps to Lose 50kg ... and Keep It Off.

"For kids, play is a really vital way of encouraging people to see activity as part of normal life."


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