Thursday, June 14, 2012

Schools: What kind of reform?

Now that Governor Scott Walker has won the recall election, Wisconsin is pushing through the education reforms that were part of his 2010 legislative agenda. Like most education reform initiatives, Wisconsin’s contains some form of merit-based teacher pay and a voucher system. Indiana has proposed similar reforms, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have made national headlines with education reform plans that in some ways resemble Wisconsin’s.

The proposals are pushed by Republicans who tout them as free-market solutions to the education problem in their respective states. But what they don’t say, or perhaps don’t see, about their proposals may make the system worse than the one we have.

Teachers object to having their pay tied to student performance. But this is what happens all across the private sector. If a manager’s employees are not doing what the company demands, the manager will be replaced. Likewise, if a high school coach’s team doesn’t win enough games, the coach will be replaced. Teachers must be held accountable if their students are not learning, and be rewarded if they are. It is time they were held to the same standard as everyone else.

The practical problem isn’t whether teachers should be assessed, but how they should be assessed. Yet that means there’s still a problem.

Standardized tests are the primary measure by which we judge a student’s level of achievement, and changing our measure of achievement must be among the first reforms enacted. Standardized testing prohibits experiential learning and diminishes the value of differentiated instruction. As an educator, I have found that certain topics are more attractive to students than other subjects, and those topics change from year to year and class to class. For instance, in 2001 my ninth-grade world history class we dedicated significantly more time to world religions, particularly Islam, than had originally been planned — because of what happened on 9/11. Had there been a standardized history exam I would never have been able to capitalize on the students’ interest, and we all would have missed out on a teachable moment.

So whatever measure states use to evaluate teachers must not limit their flexibility or autonomy. This goal is doubly difficult to achieve, however, when government enters the picture, even in the form of a school voucher system.

Supporters of school choice ground their argument in free-market principles. Opponents object that tax dollars will be siphoned away from already cash-strapped schools. The reply is: “If you want the money, you must earn it.” Where there is a monopoly, providers become inefficient and weak. Where there is competition, we see innovation and greater progress. A school voucher program works to break the monopoly to allow free market mechanisms to enter the education system. Ironically, however, it is the government that is seeking to instill this aspect of the free market.

We should be wary of that. If the government begins, indirectly, to fund private schools through vouchers, the schools will not have to be as competitive when trying to secure funding either from student tuition or from donors.

Any time government takes action there are unintended consequences, and there are at least two educational consequences that we can see looming on the horizon already. The first is an undermining of free market principles. The second is the opportunity for government to regulate private schools, with vouchers being construed as funded mandates. If private schools begin to depend on indirect government funding, then the government can gain leverage over what these schools teach and how they teach it.

There is no easy solution to our education problems. Problems with education have been documented for more than two millennia. No reform or policy will be the final solution, for education is a process, and improving it should be seen in the same way. Which is why, in the end, we should advocate reforms that promote the greatest amount of flexibility and accountability.


British government declares war on inept Leftist teacher-training colleges

Graduate teachers will be offered an extra £5,000 to train in schools under reforms aimed at reducing the ‘damaging’ influence of teacher training colleges.

Education Secretary Michael Gove will today unveil a training ‘revolution’ designed to decrease the influence of Left-wing courses and give schools a bigger say in how teachers learn their craft.

More than half of student teachers will be trained by schools within three years, as under-performing colleges are denied funding and shut down.

Graduates who go directly to the toughest schools will be eligible for tax-free awards of up to £25,000. By comparison, bursaries for graduates who train on traditional courses will be capped at £20,000.

The move will sideline training colleges, which have expounded fashionable teaching theories – particularly in reading – instead of giving students a rigorous grounding in classroom practices.

In a speech today, Mr Gove will say: ‘The idea is a simple one: take the very best schools, and put them in charge of teacher training and professional development for the whole system.’

From September, more than 900 teacher training places will be available on a new ‘school direct’ scheme, in which schools themselves choose the trainees they want to train. This route will be dramatically expanded over the next few years, Mr Gove will tell the annual conference of the National College for School Leadership in Birmingham.

There are currently about 30,000 training places for teachers, mostly at colleges. Mr Gove will say his ‘revolutionary’ proposals will lead to ‘well over half’ of these places being moved to schools by the end of this Parliament.

A Government source said: ‘For too long, Left-wing training colleges have imbued teachers with useless teaching theories that don’t work and actively damage children’s education. The unions should back more training in schools – by teachers, for teachers.’

Those with a first-class degree in key subjects who train in schools where more than 25 per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals will receive a bursary of £25,000. Smaller sums will be available for those with lesser degrees or who wish to teach in primary schools or non-priority subjects.

In addition, training colleges that are deemed to ‘require improvement’ by Ofsted in two consecutive inspections will be shut, while a new paid scheme for those switching careers to be a teacher will offer 5,000 places from next year.

Professor Alan Smithers, an expert in teacher training at Buckingham University, said: ‘School-led training has a lot to recommend it because schools will be recruiting the people they want and who they have to live with. They are likely to apply more stringent criteria than universities, who have to fill their places.’

He added that ‘we train about twice as many teachers as we need’ – but thousands survive only a short time in the [chaotic] classrooms before dropping out.   ‘If we can drive up the quality of training, the process will become less wasteful and our children will benefit but also the taxpayer will benefit.’


Thousands of British teachers go back to school to learn basic maths and grammar so they can deliver tough new lessons

Tough?  I learned all that stuff in primary school  -- as did others in my class

Tens of thousands of teachers will be forced back to the classroom to study grammar and maths because they lack the knowledge to deliver tough new primary school lessons.

Ministers yesterday unveiled an overhaul of England’s ‘substandard’ primary curriculum in an attempt to reverse more than a decade of dumbing down.  English lessons will contain tougher grammar and spelling, while maths classes will put greater emphasis on times tables, fractions, mental arithmetic and long division.

But experts warn many teachers will need intensive retraining to deliver the new lessons.

A requirement on schools to teach a foreign language to all seven to 11-year-olds will entail even more extra lessons.

Under a proposed new curriculum for English, pupils as young as seven will be introduced to conjunctions, prepositions, adverbs and subordinate clauses.  Eight-year-olds will study ‘fronted adverbials’ – clauses at the start of a sentence that modify a verb, for example: ‘Later that day, I heard the bad news.’

Nine-year-olds will learn about relative clauses and modal verbs such as can, could, shall and should, and ten-year-olds will cover the use of the subjunctive, the active and passive voice, as well as subject and object.

Ian McNeilly, director of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: ‘The focus and emphasis on grammar in primary schools will mean that potentially a whole generation of teachers will need some quite intensive training.  ‘It’s a big move from what some teachers have been used to.’

Many teachers may not have been taught grammar at school, having been educated in the 1970s and 1980s.  They will need tuition in grammar as well as how to teach it by 2014, when the new curriculum is intended to be introduced.

Mr McNeilly said: ‘Unless there’s a change in Government policy, they are not going to be paying for it. It’s going to be individual schools and maybe teachers that are going to have to pay.’

Similar problems are expected to arise in maths as several concepts taught at secondary school are being moved to primary level, such as adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing fractions.

And some schools are ill-equipped to meet the demand to make study of a foreign language compulsory for seven-year-olds.

Kate Board, head of languages strategy at the education charity CfBT, said: ‘There’s quite a job to be done both increasing the confidence of teachers to teach languages but also to improve their linguistic competence.’

Details of changes to other primary subjects – and proposals for reform at secondary level – will follow later in the year.

As part of the reforms, the system of national curriculum levels – the eight-point scale that has been used to measure children’s progress since 1988 – will be scrapped, Education Secretary Michael Gove confirmed.

A new grading system will be drawn up for national curriculum tests at age 11, which is expected to mark out more clearly which pupils are falling behind.

In a letter outlining the reforms, Mr Gove said: ‘We will work closely with the teaching profession....  to determine exactly how the new National Curriculum will be enhanced and assessed.’


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