Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Republicans Missing Chance on Education Reform

 Star Parker
One area that awareness of the need for freedom from government control has penetrated black attitudes is in education.

The chronic failure of public schools to notably improve dismal test scores and high dropout rates of black children has made it clear to many black citizens of good will that there has got to be a better way.

Polls show black support for school choice. For example, in a poll done last year in New Jersey by the Rutgers-Eagleton Center at Rutgers University, 54 percent of blacks expressed support for school vouchers compared to 36 percent of whites.

Growing grass roots support among blacks for education alternatives surely influenced the Obama administration’s agreement, this past week, to ongoing support for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. The administration opposes the program and would have been perfectly happy to see its funding spigot turned off.

This is a modest program, with federal funds available now for 1,615 scholarships for kids in DC’s public schools to attend private schools. Its existence and potential for growth was at stake, with House Speaker John Boehner and Senator Joseph Lieberman carried the ball for it. The new agreement will allow it to continue, with a small provision for 85 new scholarships.

But this makes even more perplexing recent incidents where Republican state legislators have turned their backs on the education hopes of blacks.

Republicans in Pennsylvania can change the political landscape of their state by helping black aspirations for education freedom. But in a state that some analysts see as conceivably swinging into the Republican column, Republicans are blowing it.

The Pennsylvania state Senate passed a bill last year that would make vouchers available to kids in the worst 5% of public schools.

The public schools serving blacks kids in cities like Philadelphia are disasters. I know from my own survey of pastors in local churches there that hopes for this voucher initiative have been high.

Yet, by all indication it’s not going to happen.

The state House, controlled by Republicans, has been sitting on the bill. With no action before the end of the session on June 30 it will be dead.

There is talk of an alternative scholarship bill financed through tax credits. But the most optimistic estimate I have heard is that the scholarship would be worth less than half what the voucher would pay and therefore insufficient on its own to pay full tuition in a private church school.

Courageous leadership by Republicans could have captured black hearts and minds in Pennsylvania’s cities that might have paved a path to a new black relationship with Republicans.

But sadly, fear of union power rather than leadership and courage seems to be motivating these legislators.

In 2010, a similar disappointment occurred in Illinois.

In a genuine breakthrough, a black Democrat in the Illinois state Senate, Rev. James Meeks, who happens to also be the pastor of Chicago’s largest Baptist congregation, introduced a school voucher bill.

The bill passed the Illinois senate and then died in the state House, with only 25 of 48 Republicans supporting it. It fell 12 votes short of the 60 it needed to pass.

This is not an across the board indictment of Republicans. Two Republican governors – Mitch Daniels in Indiana and Bobby Jindal in Louisiana – have spearheaded passage of school voucher programs in their states.

In a new Gallup poll, only 29 percent, an all time low, express “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in our public schools.

The Republican Party is supposed to be the party of freedom and limited government. No where are these principles more needed than in education, and no community needs it more than blacks.

At a time when our country and our poor communities are hurting so badly, any failure of leadership by those in the party of Lincoln is inexcusable.


Michelle Rhee gives Britain some advice

Britain’s system of holding schools to account for student learning has been of interest to many of us in the US education reform movement for years. So before my visit to the UK this week, I spent some time studying England’s national curriculum and examining the rich data that’s now available to parents. Without a doubt, we have much to learn from the UK when it comes to transparency, accountability and setting common standards.

But I also see opportunities to share lessons from America, particularly with regards to expanding educational options and creating a grassroots movement to transform schools so they work well for all children – not just for some.

Both our countries have enormous gaps between the academic achievement levels of disadvantaged students and their wealthier peers. And far too many students leave school without the skills or knowledge they need to succeed at university or in the workforce.

Sadly, there is no single policy or decision that will bring about the change our schools need on its own. I can, however, point to an approach to policy-making that is holding our children back. It is the tendency in schools to pursue policies that put adult interests ahead of student needs. Textbook manufacturers, testing companies and teaching unions all have tremendous resources to ensure their views are heard and priorities are met. It’s an advantage kids simply don’t have.

Among the policies that directly affect student outcomes are how we evaluate and compensate teachers. Studies prove that teacher quality is the most important factor in school that impacts student learning. Yet many of our policies simply don’t reflect the significance of the profession.

When I became the chancellor of Washington DC’s schools in 2007, a mere 8 per cent of eighth-grade students were doing maths at their proper grade level, yet 95 per cent of teachers got satisfactory evaluations. As our kids were failing, we were saying, “Well done, good job” to the adults educating them.

We managed to reform the system, though not without a fight, so teachers would be evaluated in a fair but rigorous way, based on classroom observations, student progress and other measures. We have to know who is succeeding, who needs help and who, unfortunately, is not up to the job of teaching. Removing ineffective teachers from the classroom is far too difficult in both of our systems, and we have to tackle this urgently.

Another issue we addressed involves how we pay teachers. In the US and the UK, teachers are paid in lockstep, earning increases for factors not necessarily linked to student learning, such as time served. In Washington, we were able to implement a system where excellence was rewarded.

Expanding the educational options should also be part of any reform. In the US, we have experienced an increase in public charter schools which, like free schools or academies here, operate with more flexibility and tend to serve as models of innovation. I urge policy-makers to let such models flourish.

Finally, we can’t even think about delivering a great education to children if we don’t consider how we manage our schools financially. Crucially, school leaders must be given more flexibility to manage their resources in ways they believe will work in exchange for demonstrating results.

I know change is hard, but wholesale change is what we need. Fifty years ago, America’s civil rights leaders challenged our country to create a more fair and just society. Today, their hard-fought victories are evident, even in the White House. But that story is not yet finished. Good and bad schools still exist and a child’s skin colour, post code and family income are often still predictive of their academic success.

I’m not saying progress isn’t being made. It definitely is. Witness the desire on the part of so many Americans to challenge the status quo. President Obama has pushed for policies that most other leaders in the Democratic Party have shied away from for fear of the teachers’ unions. And perhaps even more importantly, at the grassroots level, parents, students, community leaders and teachers are tackling the most difficult problems. In California, campaigners have sparked a national effort to empower parents with real tools and authority to turn around chronically failing schools. And in Cleveland, Ohio, parents, faith leaders and local officials recently banded together to insist that city schools be freed from rigid state laws that were impeding improvement.

These signs demonstrate that families and communities are tired of a system that has failed them and want to see real reforms enacted that put students first.


Why unruly British pupils no longer feel the wrath of the head: Half are never sent to their office when they misbehave

Half of secondary school teachers never send unruly pupils to the head’s office despite concerns over discipline problems in the country’s classrooms, a Government commissioned survey shows.

They do not force youngsters to get a reprimand from a senior member of staff and apologise for their misbehaviour - a sanction that used to strike fear into most pupils.

Seventeen per cent of primary school teachers admit they do not bother using this form of discipline.

Across both sectors, one in three teachers (32 per cent) never send students to the head’s office while sixty-four per cent only ‘sometimes’ do this.

Critics say the National Foundation for Education Research study, commissioned by the Department for Education, suggests a ‘lax’ approach to discipline is being taken by too many teachers.

They warn that some politically correct staff will not discipline youngsters because they do not want to prevent them from expressing themselves. Others are afraid of standing up to troublemakers due to repercussions.

The failure to take a hard line on discipline comes despite pressure from the Government to crackdown on badly behaved pupils.

Ofsted figures show that 21.6 per cent of maintained schools inspected between January and March this year were rated just ‘satisfactory’ or ‘inadequate’ over behaviour and safety of pupils.

The NFER surveyed over 1,600 teachers and discovered that 36 per cent never shout at pupils who misbehave - 42 per cent in primary schools and 28 per cent in secondary schools.

Sixty per cent never use detention - 94 per cent in primary schools and 13 per cent in secondary schools.

Some teachers also appear to be ignoring a new ‘checklist’ that was issued by the Government’s behaviour tsar, Charlie Taylor, last October to help crackdown on indiscipline.

In a key move, it told staff to display all school rules - and a list of sanctions - clearly in each classroom to help establish proper boundaries.

However, the survey which was undertaken in February shows that 25 per cent of teachers in primary and secondary schools only use this strategy ‘sometimes’ and nine per cent ‘never’ do this.

Other recommendations are being flouted across both sectors. Fourteen per cent ‘sometimes’ have a system in place to ‘follow through with all sanctions’ while one per cent ‘never’ does this.

Thirty six per cent ‘sometimes’ have a plan for children who are likely to misbehave and three per cent ‘never’ come up with one.

Eighteen per cent in total ‘sometimes’ or ‘never’ use a reward system and around nine per cent are equally non-committed to praising the behaviour they want to see more of.

Thirty-four per cent ‘sometimes’ give feedback to parents about their child’s behaviour - whether good or bad - while one per cent ‘never’ do this.

Overall, 19 per cent said behaviour was ‘acceptable’ in their schools, five per cent said it was ‘poor’ and one per cent admitted it was ‘very poor’. Seventy six per cent said behaviour was ‘good’ or ‘very good’.

But three out of five (60 per cent) of staff surveyed believed that ‘negative pupil behaviour is driving teachers out of the profession’.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said that some teachers remain afraid of ‘pupil power’.  He said: ‘Clearly, teachers are being lax in demanding good behaviour.

‘Many of them were taught in training colleges that they need to look at children on their own terms and see poor behaviour as just children expressing themselves.

‘Teachers have also been nervous of demanding good behaviour and imposing sanctions because they run the risk of complaints from the pupil and his or her parents.

‘They could find themselves up before the head teacher or the local authority. Even if the complaints are later dismissed, it could blight their careers.

‘As much as they have been assured by the Government that they’re right to employ sanctions, nevertheless they fear that’s not the case when it comes to day to day life in their schools.’

Mr Taylor, the Government’s expert adviser on behaviour, said: ‘Without good behaviour teachers can’t teach and pupils can’t learn.

‘We need to ensure trainee teachers are equipped with the right training in behaviour management.’

Schools Minister Nick Gibb added: ‘The Government is committed to maintaining our relentless focus on raising standard of behaviour in schools until every school is a safe and happy place in which pupils can excel academically.’


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