Monday, January 02, 2012

5 ways to save American education

A research team led by Marc S. Tucker, a relentless advocate for adopting successful international practices in U.S. schools, recently concluded that we, in essence, are doing almost nothing right.

His investigators could find no evidence, Tucker said, “that any country that leads the world’s education performance league tables has gotten there by implementing any of the major agenda items that dominate the education reform agenda in the United States, with the exception of the Common Core State Standards.”

Congratulations, I guess, go to the 45 states implementing that new common curriculum. Other American approaches, such as charter schools, vouchers, computer-oriented entrepreneurs and rating teachers by the test scores of their students, are rarely found in the overseas systems showing the greatest gains, according to Tucker’s new book “Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems.”

On Monday, I listed several false assumptions Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, says have caused us to go astray. They include our view that our mediocre scores on international tests are the result of too many diverse students, that more money would help schools improve and that it is better to focus on lowering class sizes than raising teacher salaries.

Today, I offer the solutions Tucker and his team propose. They are heavily influenced by what is working overseas, particularly in Japan, Korea, Finland, Shanghai, Singapore and Canada. Can these reforms blossom in our very different culture, with stronger local control of schools and less respect for teachers? I guess at the chances of success here for each suggestion.

1. Make admission to teacher training more competitive, pegged to international standards of academic achievement, mastery of subject matter and ability to relate to children. Most U.S. education schools can’t survive financially without enrolling many average or below-average students, so this has only a 20 percent chance.

2. Raise teacher compensation significantly. Initially, this has the same bad odds, a 20 percent chance. But over time, standards and salaries could rise if education schools developed special academies — similar to undergraduate honors colleges — that were as selective as the Columbia, Harvard and Stanford education schools and the Teach for America program. Tucker says that with better pay, fewer teachers would quit, saving money now spent to train replacements.

3. Allow larger class sizes. More students per classroom means more money to pay teachers. The American trend toward smaller classes (down to an average of about 25 per classroom) has run its course. Some of the most successful public charter schools have 30 students in a class. Japan does well with large classes. Given those developments, chances are 70 percent this could be done.

4. End annual standardized testing in favor of three federally required tests to gauge mastery at the end of elementary school, 10th grade and 12th grade. The change has an 80 percent chance because it would save money and please many teachers and parents who think we test too much. Such tests overseas are of higher quality, not so much computer-scored multiple choice and would help raise American learning standards, Tucker says.

5. Spend more money on students who need more help getting to high standards. Based on data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Tucker favors a weighted pupil finance formula, only a few U.S. districts have tried. There would be the usual per-pupil funds but extra money for students who need to be brought up to the standard. Americans favor more support for struggling students, but I give this only a 60 percent chance because of state and federal budget difficulties.

Making these changes seems daunting, but Tucker notes that the best school systems overseas took 30 to 100 years to get there. With some patience and luck, we could do that, too.


Third of British parents give schools thumbs down

A third of parents are so unhappy with their child’s school they would advise other families not to send their children there, new figures from Ofsted have revealed.

Thousands of parents who have rated their schools on a new website run by the schools watchdog have raised concerns about teaching, behaviour, bullying and levels of homework.

An initial analysis of results shows that just under a third of families with children at the 650 primary and secondary schools with sufficient responses to give results said they would not recommend their school to others. This rose to half for schools with a poor Ofsted rating.

More than 9,300 parents have filled in the online anonymous questionnaire since the school inspectorate launched the “Parent View” rating website in October. Results are published if the school has received more than three responses.

It is designed to give families more power to raise concerns about schools and can, with other indicators, trigger a snap inspection. Parents’ views will also be passed to inspectors carrying out routine visits.

Jean Humphrys, Ofsted education director, said: “It is very useful to parents when they are choosing schools. Parents very often go by word of mouth. They like to go by other peoples’ experiences so it will help them in that respect.

“It also helps people who are unsure about whether what they are experiencing at the school is a one-off event that is happening to their child or whether it is more common.

“As the results build it will be possible for parents to get a good view about what other families are thinking and feeling about the school. “Schools will also be able to look instantly at the areas that parents are very happy with and where they may have concerns.”

Minster School in Nottingham, which is rated “outstanding” by Ofsted has received 107 responses from parents so far.

While many were positive, nearly one in five parents disagreed with the statement that their child made good progress at the school and 23 per cent did not think pupils received appropriate homework.

A similar proportion said the school did not respond well to concerns raised by parents. More than 80 per cent of parents said they would recommend the school to others.

More than a quarter of parents disagreed with the statement that their child was taught well at Hanson School, a secondary in Bradford, which has received 69 responses. More than half of parents said they would recommend the school.

An Ofsted spokesman said: “Slightly over two thirds of parents have answered that they would recommend their school. If you look only at the responses for schools which are inadequate you still see close to half of parents saying they would recommend their child’s school.”


Textbooks 'being replaced by smartphones and e-readers'

Traditional textbooks are dying out in schools as children increasingly rely on smartphones and e-readers to access information, according to a leading headmistress. Handheld technology is changing the way education is delivered because it allows children to learn "anywhere, anytime, any place", it was claimed.

Louise Robinson, incoming president of the Girls' Schools Association, said pupils were more inspired by the “magic” of using hand Ipads and other tablet computers than reading a book.

The comments come after figures showed a six-fold rise in the number of e-books – editions downloaded from the internet onto electronic devices – sold over the last 12 months. Amazon now sells almost 2.5 books via its Kindle reading device for every one hard copy.

Mrs Robinson, the headmistress of Merchant Taylors' Girls' School in Crosby, Liverpool, said the shift was having a knock-on effect in the classroom.

In an interview, she said: "Taking on board the fact that textbooks will be on your mobile, whatever shape, name or type of fruit your mobile relates to, and therefore anywhere, anytime, any place... it's going to be a huge possibility.

"But also, not only that, the fact that they'll be able to access anything they want to, in advance of your lesson, so if you say 'the next lesson's going to be on the skeleton' what you can see online now in terms of the skeleton and where you can go with it, makes children have far more control over their learning than they ever could do before. "One click and you're into another world."

Mrs Robinson said it was no longer relevant if textbooks were in hard copies. Children still have to be taught how to access information from a book, library or on a computer, she said.

"You and I wouldn't send a child into a library and say 'go and have a look', you'd actually help them, show them where the information is to access, and which bits they should be looking at for their age and stage,” she said.

"But that doesn't stop them going 'I'd like to have a look at that one' and when you see a young child on their tablet, or internet, the magic that they are seeing in that information, the way that they absorb it and reflect it back at you is just wonderful."

Mrs Robinson added: "I can understand the concept that there's the smell of a very old book, I'm not going to throw them all on the bonfire at all. "I do believe that there will be a time and a place for going in to look at an old book. "But when you're doing class reading, why buy the hard copy?"

The GSA represents 179 fee-paying schools educating more than 100,000 pupils. Mrs Robinson, who becomes GSA president in the New Year, said she would use her 12 months in office to champion female entrepreneurship.


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