Thursday, February 09, 2012

The Fight to Reform Education

Would any concerned parent willingly send their children to an average public school in this country if there was an option available?

The word “concerned” in the question should be a tipoff that the answer is no. Still, states, localities and the federal government continue to dump billions of our hard-earned tax dollars into a system that is rotten to its core.

Don’t think things are that bad? A student in Washington state named Austin took a video camera into his school’s cafeteria and asked students basic questions about U.S. history. The answers, although funny, are pathetic.

Progressives say it’s because teachers are forced to “teach to the test” – meaning standardized tests designed to measure knowledge of important topics such as English, science and math. Lee White, executive director of the National History Coalition, told the Huffington Post, "They've narrowed the curriculum to teach to the test. History has been de-emphasized. You can't expect kids to have great scores in history when they're not being taught history." That would hold some water, of course, if those students who failed at history were excelling at other topics. But they’re not.

President Obama has attempted to address the problem of our failing education system in each of his three State of the Union addresses, but his solution, as always, is only to spend more money. But if money was the problem, we’d be leading the world in education. We are not.

Progressives will tell you we’re spending a lower percentage of our GDP on education than other countries, which is true. But when it comes to per-pupil spending – the measure that matters most – we’re near the top.

Our education spending has skyrocketed. Our test scores have not.

A new study by Harvard researchers (yes, Harvard) found class size, the oft-cited straw man used by progressives to urge the hiring of more union teachers, essentially doesn’t matter. But real facts, real evidence rarely plays a role when it comes to progressives pushing their agenda, so this won’t matter either.

If meaningful reform is to come, and that’s a big “if,” it’s going to come from the state level.

One person actually trying to bring change to public education is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

The Wall Street Journal says Gov. Jindal “wants to create America’s largest school voucher program, broadest parental choice system and toughest teacher accountability regime – all in one legislative session.”

School choice and a voucher program that allows students and parents to choose any school that best suits their needs have been proven winners in the fight to improve education quality. They’ve also been the top target of teachers’ unions because families often choose private schools where the teaching staff is not unionized.

Gov. Jindal believes that every child deserves an equal opportunity in education, but that the current system doesn't allow for it. Emboldened by what has happened in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, Gov. Jindal is now pushing for statewide education reform.

Educational choice is one of the few good things to come out of the storm, which laid waste to dozens of the nation’s worst public schools. Instead of rebuilding the old, failing system, the state transformed most of the schools in Orleans Parish into autonomous charter schools.

Student achievement has improved dramatically, and in a poll last summer by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, two-thirds of parents in the city said they prefer the new system over the old one, and 98 percent said choice should be part of any future reforms in the state. The biggest challenge has been how to squeeze more students into the most successful of the charters.

Gov. Jindal’s plan would allow students in failing schools statewide to take the roughly $8,500 the state spends on their education to any accredited school they wish. The threatened loss of money would apply market forces to bad schools that routinely fail without consequence. Needless to say, unions representing teachers don’t like the idea.

Teachers’ unions also aren’t crazy about the governor’s idea to reform tenure, the mechanism that makes it nearly impossible to fire bad teachers. His plan would grant it to teachers rated “highly effective,” but deny it to those who don’t make the grade – no matter how long they’ve taught.

Also along those lines, Jindal’s plan also would end the practice of “last in, first out” – the laying off of young teachers simply because they haven’t been on the job as long as others. This would allow schools to keep effective teachers and rid itself of bad ones – which research indicates does make a significant difference in students’ educational achievement. These reforms make sense to anyone without a vested interest in the status quo, meaning union bosses and progressives.

Michael Walker Jones, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said of the school choice plan, “If I'm a parent in poverty I have no clue because I'm trying to struggle and live day to day.” Jindal and choice advocates could not have written a more tone-deaf line for their opponents if they’d tried.

Progressives think everyone but them is simply too dumb and/or distracted to negotiate school choice. You “have no clue,” but they, helpfully, know what is best for you and your children – as evidenced by the state of public education in America today. It’s the philosophy behind every progressive policy idea – from education to “financial reform” to ObamaCare. It is rare and refreshing to hear one of them actually say it.

Jones, in working to stop needed reforms, gave reformers their greatest arrow in a quiver full of arrows tipped with facts, studies and statistics. As Jindal continues his push to improve education in his state, there will be more “gaffes” of this sort. Progressives aren’t used to being openly challenged on such a large scale. Gov. Jindal is. For the sake of Louisiana’s students, let’s hope he wins.


Student Loan Debt Woes Fuel Bankruptcy

A new survey found that 81% of bankruptcy attorneys say that potential clients with student-loan debt have increased either "significantly" or "somewhat" in the last three to four years.

"This could be the next debt bomb," said William Brewer., president of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, the group that conducted the survey.

Among the other findings: Nearly two out of five bankruptcy attorneys have seen student-loan client cases increase 25% to 50%. Twenty-three percent of bankruptcy attorneys have seen these cases jump 50% to 100%.

The sharp recession and historically sluggish economic and jobs recovery have taken their toll.

But the numbers are another sign that major troubles may lie ahead for higher education. Critics contend that we are in the middle of a "higher education bubble," meaning that increasingly the value of a college degree does not match the rising cost.

As more and more parents and students come to realize that, eventually the bubble will pop and many institutions of higher learning will suffer serious financial strain.

The cost of a college degree has grown at three times the rate of inflation since the late 1970s, according to numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Much of this has been fueled by government subsidies of tuition, which shield parents and students from the true price of tuition. The subsidies create greater demand for college degrees, which in turn cause tuition prices to rise.

Student-loan debt, now totalling $1 trillion, has surpassed credit-card debt. About 80% of that is federal student-loan debt, while only 20% is private debt.

According to the Education Department, student-loan defaults climbed to 8.8% in 2011, up from 7% in 2010. Enough default would eventually mean that student loan money could be sharply curtailed, harming the bottom line of colleges and universities.

Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center and the Chronicle of Higher Education yielded some unsettling results. In a survey of the general public, 48% of those who were not in college cited cost as the reason. Seventy-five percent disagreed with the statement that in general college costs were affordable for most people. In terms of providing value for students and their parents, 42% felt that colleges and universities were doing a fair job and 15% felt they were doing a poor job.

Another survey of college presidents found that 38% felt that higher education was heading in the wrong direction.

It also appears that parents are no longer saving for their kids' college tuition. 529 college-savings plans, in which the interest and distributions are tax free, showed a $354 million outflow in the third quarter of 2011. That means that while money is being withdrawn to cover college costs, little new money is going in to the accounts.

Finally, law schools may be the canaries in the coal mine. As of January, law school applications had fallen 15% to ABA-approved schools vs. a year earlier.


Literacy in English schools at 'Dickensian-era levels' warns minister as classics are ignored

Dickensian levels of illiteracy still plague parts of England despite decades of increases in state spending on education, a minister declared yesterday.

Schools Minister Nick Gibb said ‘shadows of Charles Dickens’s world’ persisted in the country’s poorest areas despite major social advances. Expectations of children moving through the school system were too ‘modest’, with teachers settling too often for a ‘good enough’ standard, he claimed.

The result was under-achievement by thousands of youngsters, with one in six still struggling to read fluently by the age of 11.

In a speech on the 200th anniversary of the author’s birth, Mr Gibb warned that, just as in Victorian times, literacy problems were ‘heavily orientated towards the poorest in our communities’. ‘We need – if you’ll forgive the Dickens pun – much greater expectations of children in reading,’ he added.

He also said pupils at primary school should be encouraged to read ‘complex’ books by authors such as Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson and Roald Dahl, while secondary pupils should read at least one Dickens novel during their teens.

Classic works of literature were being ignored, he warned, with tens of thousands of pupils gaining GCSEs in English literature without studying any books written before the 20th century.

More than 90 per cent of answers on novels in English literature papers were on the same three works – Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird. Out of more than 300,000 who took the country’s most popular paper last year, just 1,236 read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, 285 read Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd and 187 read Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

‘Unfortunately, even when young people do wish to read, the exam system does not encourage them,’ Mr Gibb said. Despite a wide curriculum, ‘the English Literature GCSE only actually requires students to study four or five texts, including one novel’. He also claimed children in England were ‘falling out of love’ with reading.

A study of 65 developed nations ranked the UK at 47th for the number of children who read for pure enjoyment, he said. Some 40 per cent of pupils did not read for pleasure, against just 10 per cent in Kazakhstan and Albania.

Mr Gibb said the current target set for 11-year-olds at the end of primary school – that they reach level four in reading – was too ‘modest’. Youngsters should aspire to the elite level five, he said.

A survey of 500 employers by the Confederation of British Industry last year found that 42 per cent were dissatisfied with school-leavers’ basic skills, while army recruiting officers have warned that hundreds of would-be soldiers have been turned away for failing basic literacy and numeracy tests.

Mr Gibb’s speech came as he launched a national reading competition designed to encourage seven to 12-year-olds – especially boys – to read more fiction.


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