Saturday, November 05, 2011

Denver’s School Board battles

The article below is written from a Leftist viewpoint but the facts of it are interesting

School boards typically control massive amounts of money and assets that can be dished out through contracts for services, purchases of land, and diverted into charter schools and voucher programs. Despite school boards’ power, however, until now board elections around the country have typically been fueled by door-to-door canvassing rather than high dollar fundraising. But increasingly, large donations from wealthy individuals and corporations are pouring into schools board races around the country to enact an agenda that attacks collective bargaining rights of teachers unions and increases the privatization of public education through charter schools and vouchers.

The Denver Public School Board race, which took place yesterday, is a prime example of outside money from wealthy individuals and corporate funded groups flooding elections. That money proved to have a significant effect on last night’s election for the union-back candidates opposed to the so-called “reform slate.”

After being out-fundraised more than two to one, union-backed candidate Emily Sirota lost to investment banker Anne Rowe by 30 percentage points. Another union-backed candidate, incumbent school board member Arturo Jimenez narrowly won re-election to the school board by a margin of only 73 votes over reform candidate Draper Carson. Finally, “reform” challenger candidate Allegra Haynes easily won election to the board’s at-large seat, taking 59 percent of the vote. (Full disclosure: Emily’s husband David Sirota is an In These Times senior editor and participated in interviews for this story.)

The Denver board election was seen as a pivotal battle for those seeking to privatize education as well as crack down on teachers’ unions. In addition to increasing the number of charter schools in Denver, the school board has already implemented the controversial “innovation schools” program, in which public schools can receive outside funding from groups like the Walton Foundation (funded by the heirs of Walmart) if teachers approve votes for certain changes to be made to the school.

“They first dangle the bottle of innovation and reform by promising money for schools, but the innovation they are talking has nothing to do with instruction. It has to do with waivers from unions contracts,” says Denver Classroom Teachers Association President Henry Roman. “The teachers basically have no rights now. They are union members in name only.”

Now, so-called “reformers” in the Denver Public School are talking about expanding charter schools and the privatization of public education through vouchers. The president of the Denver School Board was recently spotted at a fundraiser for vouchers in a nearby county and the Democratic Mayor of Denver has signaled an openness to vouchers.

Those kind of educational changes can happen easily because last night’s election results mean the “reform slate” continues to enjoy a 4-3 margin on the Board. This has led to a massive influx of money from an unusual alliance of wealthy individuals and corporate executives.

More here

Sir Michael Wilshaw takes over at Ofsted: How the hero of Hackney aims to save Britain's schools

A granite veneer of impersonal grey surrounds Sir Michael Wilshaw: the suit, the notice-board in his office and the rims of his spectacles that shield currant-like eyes are grey, framed by neat, whitish-grey hair. If I did not know he was a head teacher, who has just been appointed the new head of Ofsted, I might suspect him of being a plain clothes detective appropriately impervious to back-chat or challenge.

For Sir Michael, the “miracle maker” who made Mossbourne Academy in Hackney a model of success, the Ofsted job is a chance to bring the same “no excuses” grit to a national stage. Already he has ruffled feathers with his claim this week that schools like his own must act as “surrogate parents” for children of “dysfunctional families”, often offering them an alternative to gang culture.

“We are filling in those gaps all the time,” he says. “We get these children in at 7.30am every morning to do an hour’s reading, before school starts. They stay until 6pm, to make sure they do their homework. And we have them coming in at weekends. They may be loved, but they don’t have the support they need at home to succeed and so teachers are like surrogate parents.”

So far the report for the rest of England’s 30,000 schools is a damning “could do better”. The gulf between independent and grammar schools, with glittering Oxbridge entry and A* exam results, is widening; the number of teenagers going to top universities from state schools is pitifully low and many middle-class parents would rather re-mortgage their homes than “risk” the local comprehensive.

“We have to ask why are parents sending their children to independent and grammar schools,” says Sir Michael. “Is there disillusionment? There certainly is. Standards are too low and they have to be raised. Undoubtedly in some places it’s going to be harder than others. But if we want a world-class education system that’s what we’ve got to do.’

The £180,000 Ofsted position was advertised twice, without any takers. Sir Michael, 65, admits he received a “whisper” in his ear, but for the man dubbed the hero of our education times by Education Secretary Michael Gove, it must surely have been more like a desperate howl of entreaty.

Despite its position in the middle of one of Britain’s poorest housing estates, with 40 per cent of students on free school meals, Mossbourne Academy achieved record exam results of 82 per cent A* to C GCSE passes, including maths and English; it sent eight students to Cambridge, a single mother among them; and a further 60 per cent won places at top Russell Group universities. As head of Ofsted, it is a message that Sir Michael is determined to spread.

“There are a growing number of schools producing fantastic results in areas of deprivation, because of the effort they are putting in and the high aspirations of the children,” says Sir Michael. “It can be done. We’ve got to stop making excuses for background, culture and ethnicity and get on with it.”

Sir Michael acknowledges that Mossbourne epitomises an education system polarised between “outstanding” and so awful that even Ofsted’s inspection grading terms have lost all meaning. “Good” is often considered little more than acceptable, while “satisfactory”, ironically, is damning.

“It makes no sense that 19 per cent of schools are judged outstanding overall, but teaching is judged as outstanding in only 4 per cent of schools,” says Sir Michael. “You should not be able to have one without the other. Not least because it does a disservice to schools that are truly outstanding. As for 'satisfactory’, well, that’s an awful word, isn’t it? I want to replace it with 'improving’ for schools heading in the right direction. And another word for those that are not.”

Already Ofsted is facing drastic reforms to cut red tape under changes that will come into effect when Sir Michael takes up his position in January. Parents will have the power to trigger fresh inspections and Ofsted will focus only on four key areas: behaviour, leadership, outcomes and teaching.

“You can identify a failing teacher very quickly,” says Sir Michael. “My difficulty is the teacher who can turn it on when observed, but fades back into mediocrity when there’s no one watching. We need robust performance management. That takes courage.”

Sir Michael’s own background is modest. He was the son of a postman, who grew up in a Catholic household in London. He “only just scraped” his own exams and went on to gain a history degree at Birkbeck College. As a teacher, he has worked consistently in some of the toughest areas in London, including West Ham and Hackney. Indeed, some question whether he is more inspiring as a head than an inspector.

“It was a hellishly difficult decision,” he says. “But this is a chance to shape the national education scene and make a difference, although I’m expecting more brickbats than bouquets.”

For now he remains most committed to the poorest children. But Sir Michael is pragmatic in achieving his goal, and will borrow from and copy the best of what the independent schools have to offer.

“I visited Wellington College and the students there think they are masters of the universe,” he says. “They think they’ve a right to the best universities and the best jobs. They have that sense of entitlement. And that’s what I want to give children in the state sector.”

He has also forged a partnership with Bishop’s Stortford College, a private school in Hertfordshire, to support Mossbourne in its Oxbridge applications. “They send around 30 kids to Oxbridge. They knew how to do it. They gave us good advice, as well as opening up our eyes to the standards that were required to get in.

“That was crucial. I don’t agree with tokenism. That only reinforces mediocrity among poor children. You can’t go to the hothouse of Cambridge and cope if you haven’t got there by the same means.”

As well as teachers, Sir Michael has heads in his line of fire. A head teacher can make or break a school and, according to Sir Michael, those children requiring “surrogate parenting” from their schools need heads who can fight their corner to compete with the most privileged children.

“I was rapped over the knuckles for saying good leadership is about power and ego,” he says. “But that’s what the independent sector has, very powerful figures who resist government interference and won’t do anything that won’t benefit their school. We need those slightly maverick figures who know what they believe in and fight for it. Do we need empire builders? Yes, we do.”

Of course, for most children education is about what happens in the grey middle of the debate, not at the outer extremes of Oxbridge glory or severe special needs. But I resist looking for the cracks in Sir Michael’s granite veneer.

Our hope is that he will do for all poor children of England what he’s done for those of Hackney – and in doing so will take the rest of us along for the ride.


The bus stop bullies: How many British schoolchildren are too scared to even go to school

Tens of thousands of children are terrified of going to school because ‘bus stop bullies’ make their journeys a misery.

Gang culture and a breakdown of discipline have turned English school children into the most bullied youngsters in Europe, research has revealed.

A third of those aged 12 to 16 live in fear of bullies, and one in six is so scared of their tormentors that they are frightened of travelling to and from school.

The bus stop bullies often target vulnerable youngsters from their school who do not have the ‘protection’ of gang membership.

The situation is far worse than in other European nations, including Poland, Holland and Spain, and many children said they did not know where to turn for help.

Stephen Moore, co-author, said: ‘The primary threat to personal safety comes from other pupils, generally from the same school.

‘Whilst incidents may be regarded as ‘low impact’ in terms of objective levels of harm - name-calling was much more common than violence - these low impact incidents can potentially have a significant effect on the emotional wellbeing of young people.

‘Interestingly, the patterns of bullying outside school and the responses varied quite noticeably across the different European countries, and the same notions of bullying were not held across the various countries.’

The study looked at 855 children in the east of England, from a mixture of rural and urban schools.

Mr Moore added that children do not know where to turn. He said: ‘The issue of who to turn to when a problem occurs during the time before and after school was a dilemma for the young people, as it was recognised by the pupils that threats and violations to personal safety at these times were not necessarily a matter in which they wanted to turn to the school for support.

‘It was most often other young people who provided the support and advice when young people were bullied. ‘The research found that this level of support was not fully acknowledged in current bullying strategies, nor was the sophistication of young people in dealing with bullying incidents.’

As well as speaking to pupils in England, researchers sampled children from Spain, Poland, Hungary, Cyprus, Portugal, Holland and Italy.


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