Friday, June 15, 2012

Teachers Union Rides First Class on Philadelphia Schools’ Gravy Train

 Every pay period, the Philadelphia school district puts $155 per union member into a special fund that helps educators pay their personal legal bills, which includes everything from routine legal advice to estate planning.

That single perk, nestled deep within the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ union contract, cost taxpayers $2.6 million during the 2010-11 school year. It also contributed to the district’s financial woes, which led to 2,200 teachers being laid off last year.

The “PFT Legal Services Fund” is just one example of Philadelphia public schools’ extravagant spending practices, which are the focus of’s latest investigative report, “Sucking the Life Out of America’s Public Schools: The Expense of Teachers Union Contracts.”

Using figures from the 2010-11 school year, EAG’s report details how the local teachers union –the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers – has larded up the district’s budget with expenditures that benefit the adult employees, but have no demonstrative impact on student learning.

For example, Philadelphia taxpayers spent $165 million on health insurance for PFT members; union employees contributed less than 1 percent toward their insurance costs, according to documents obtained via open records laws.

But low-cost health insurance is just the beginning of the goodies given to PFT members. The Philadelphia school district also contributed $66 million to the union-controlled “Health and Welfare Fund,” which provides PFT members with dental, vision and prescription benefits.

Despite such generous health benefits, PFT members were absent a lot during the 2010-11 school year. Approximately 11,850 teachers took a combined 137,104 sick or personal days, which averages to 11.5 days per teacher in a 188-day work year.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has roughly 16,000 members (not all of them classify as teachers), and during the 2010-11 school year they took a combined 236,863 days off – including 36,830 days for “wage continuation,” 3,122 days for “jury duty,” 1,419 days for “unauthorized leave without pay,” and 9 days for “religious mourning.”

The “wage continuation” benefit protects employees against “wage loss in the case of an illness, non-work related injury or other short-term disability which extends beyond an individual’s available sick leave,” according to PFT’s teacher contract. This extra layer of cushion cost taxpayers $7.1 million during the previous school year.

Retiring PFT members were allowed to cash out their unused sick days and leave time, costing the district $15.3 million in “severance pay.”

All told, found a total $135 million in questionable expenditures, money that could have prevented many of the 2,200 teacher layoffs.

The remaining PFT members are still enjoying a smooth ride on the public education gravy train, but it’s about to run out of track. If they refuse to make contract concessions, their train is going to derail, and the first class cabin may bear the brunt of the impact.


British Children go back to basics in maths

Children will be introduced to times tables, mental arithmetic and fractions in the first two years of school as part of a back-to-basics overhaul of the National Curriculum.

Ministers will this week announce key tasks pupils are expected to master at each age under wide-ranging plans to counter more than a decade of dumbing down in schools.

A draft mathematics curriculum suggests that five and six year-olds will be expected to count up to 100, recognise basic fractions and memorise the results of simple sums by the end of the first year of compulsory education.

In the second year, they will be required to know the two, five and 10 times tables, add and subtract two-digit numbers in their head and begin to use graphs.

The proposals are intended to ensure that children are given a proper grounding in the basics at a young age to prepare them for the demands of secondary education and beyond.

It represents a dramatic toughening up of standards demanded in English state schools in a move designed to benchmark lessons against those found in the world’s most advanced education systems, such as Singapore, Hong Kong and parts of the United States.

At the age of nine, pupils should know all their times tables up to 12x12 and confidently work with numbers up to 10 million by the end of primary school, the Government said.

Currently, children only need to know up to 10x10 and familiarise themselves with numbers below 1,000 by the age of 11.

The disclosure is made as part of a sweeping overhaul of core subjects in primary schools, with the new curriculum expected to be introduced by 2014.

Under the proposals:

– Science lessons will place a greater emphasis on early physics and ensure children learn about the solar system and galaxies. They will also be expected to cover the biographies of scientists such as Charles Darwin and promote more practical experimentation, with pupils weighing and comparing objects at seven and wiring basic circuits by the age of nine.

– In English, pupils will be expected to spell a list of almost 240 advanced words by the end of primary school, master grammar and punctuation and read more novels and poems, with children reciting simple poetry in front of classmates at the age of five.

– Foreign languages will be made compulsory from the age of seven – instead of 11 at the moment – with schools given the freedom to teach French, German, Spanish and Mandarin, or ancient languages such as Latin.

The planned overhaul of primary subjects will be put out to a public consultation to be launched this week. Proposals to reform other primary subjects – as well as lessons in secondary schools – will be outlined later this year.

The move is expected to be criticised by teachers who fear that the proposals give them less freedom to dictate the content of their own lessons.

Repeated revisions of the National Curriculum introduced by Labour stripped out swathes of lesson content, including a controversial move to remove Winston Churchill from secondary history lessons.

Last night, a government source said: “Labour and the unions devalued the curriculum and exam system and pointed to rising results to make themselves look good.

“In reality it was a lie that damaged children’s lives and saw us fall behind other countries. The new curriculum will raise standards for all and equip children better to do advanced work at secondary school.”

The changes come amid fears that rising numbers of pupils are leaving school unfit for the demands of the workplace.

A study published today by the Confederation of British Industry discloses that four in 10 companies were forced to offer young employees remedial lessons in English, maths or computing because of poor levels of basic skills.

Simon Walker, the director-general of the Institute of Directors, backed the new curriculum, saying: “International comparisons with high-performing countries have made it manifestly clear that we need to raise the bar.

“We must be more ambitious about the level of achievement we expect from young people, particularly in the core subjects of English, mathematics and science.”

The National Curriculum is compulsory in most English state schools. Academy schools — independent state institutions run free of council control — can ditch the curriculum, although research shows the vast majority follow it.

In the draft document, some of the toughest demands are placed on pupils in maths lessons.

In the first year, pupils are expected to count to 100 using multiples of one, two, five and 10, recognise even and odd numbers and write simple fractions such as a half and a quarter.

In the final two years, pupils will also be introduced to prime numbers, percentages, ratios, long division and probability.

They will also be expected to add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions — a task currently left to secondary school.


Greater autonomy for schools leads to better academic results

Bt Kevin Donnelly, writing from  Australia

The NSW Teachers Federation and public school advocates such as Trevor Cobbold argue that there is little, if any, evidence to support the benefits of increased school autonomy.

If true, their claims undermine the argument that choice and diversity in education, represented by autonomous government and non-government schools, is a good thing and suggest that moves around Australia to empower schools at the local level are misdirected.

But there is increasing international evidence that freeing schools from centralised and bureaucratic control is beneficial.

A 2007 paper commissioned by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development analysing the characteristics of stronger performing education systems argues that school autonomy is an important factor.

The paper's authors say: "Various forms of school accountability, autonomy and choice policies combine to lift student achievement to substantially higher levels."

They clearly argue autonomy is beneficial when they say: "Students perform significantly better in schools that have autonomy in process and personnel decisions."

The 2007 OECD paper also puts the lie to claims that autonomy exacerbates disadvantage, concluding that "there is not a single case where a policy designed to introduce accountability, autonomy, or choice in schooling benefits high-SES students to the detriment of low-SES students, ie, where the former gain but the latter suffer". (SES refers to a student's socioeconomic status.)

A second paper, written by Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann and commissioned by the US National Bureau of Economic Research, also argues that autonomy helps to strengthen education. "Students perform significantly better in schools that have autonomy," the authors write.

A third paper, involving researchers at Britain's University of Buckingham and published in 2008, also argues that one of the reasons non-government schools achieve such strong results is because decisions are made at a local level. The authors argue non-government schools generally outperform government schools because such schools enjoy "more autonomy than do those in state schools".

Such is the growing consensus that school autonomy leads to stronger results that a 2008 Australian budget paper, Statement 4, Boosting Australia's Productive Capacity: the Role of Infrastructure and Skills, argues school autonomy is "likely to have significant positive impacts on student performance".

The benefits of freeing schools from centralised control are also endorsed in Britain's The Importance of Teaching: The Schools White Paper 2010. "Across the world," it argues, "the case for the benefits of school autonomy has been established beyond doubt."

While not directly addressing the impact of autonomy, Gary Marks from the Australian Council for Educational Research has also argued that non-government schools consistently outperform government schools in literacy and numeracy tests and year 12 results - even after adjusting for a student's socioeconomic status.

Implied in this is that school autonomy is beneficial since Catholic and independent schools, unlike government schools, have greater freedom over areas such as staffing, curriculum focus and academic environment.

It is true that some studies are equivocal about the benefits of school autonomy, as Cobbold noted in the Herald this week. A 2010 paper titled Markets in Education notes that while there are some positive effects related to a more market driven approach to education, they "are very modest in size".

But what Cobbold fails to acknowledge is that the same paper suggests one of the reasons the evidence is less than clear is because schools, as a result of government micromanagement, are not truly autonomous.

"Complicating the ability to give a clear answer is the fact that many policies attempting to introduce market mechanisms in education do so simultaneously with increased accountability," it says.

Australian schools are being micromanaged in this way and all roads lead to Canberra - best illustrated by the Rudd/Gillard education revolution, where schools are forced to follow government dictates in national curriculum, national testing and teacher standards, even though the rhetoric is about autonomy.

Positive student outcomes are not just related to test results. Pioneering work in the US by James Coleman argues that empowering schools at a local level leads to increased social cohesion and stability too.

In the Catholic school system, it is known as subsidiarity - where decisions are made at the level of those most affected by them. Subsidiarity strengthens community ties and values such as reciprocity and a commitment to the common good.


No comments: