Thursday, August 09, 2012

Silver lining in teacher shortage

Most states use teachers and school staff inefficiently. Since 1970, nationwide student enrollments have risen 8.5 percent, but teaching staff has increased more than 90 percent. Today, North Dakota averages one teacher for about every 12 students--a very low ratio.

The state doesn’t just need more teachers, but more excellent teachers. On average, children who have a teacher in the top 20 percent learn approximately three times as fast as children with one in the bottom 20 percent, according to a recent Public Impact report. Children two years behind their peers academically almost never catch up--unless they have an excellent teacher four years in a row, according to research by Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek. Better teachers mean better future earnings and likelihood for more fulfilling jobs.

Top teachers favor opportunities to advance and control their careers. Current school structures do not allow this. They should. State leaders should remember technology makes it possible for teachers to reach more students, saving taxpayer money and teacher housing scrambles. It’s an opportunity for the state to explore how to extend excellent teachers’ reach, so more children can get the best instruction possible. Starting now will put North Dakota in the national lead.

The report suggests several ways to do this. One is reducing teachers’ administrative work. Don’t have them grade or administer tests or fill out paperwork. Let a computer or aide do that. Another is letting one excellent teacher manage several classrooms staffed by junior teachers she can mentor along with their students. A third is letting star teachers reach more children in more locations by teaching online.

These options also will free money to attract these valuable employees with higher pay. One of the biggest reasons teacher pay cannot rise quickly is today’s teacher can teach only a similar number of students as a teacher 100 years ago. Other professionals have seen their pay rise because improving technology reduces the need for labor, making salaries in the smaller workforce go up because fewer people can do the same amount of work. This has not been true for education--until now.

Letting teachers work remotely part- or full-time also means they can live in areas with no housing shortage and lower living costs. This is an excellent potential benefit to localities beyond the oil boom. It multiplies value further by also allowing students to work remotely full- or part-time, meaning better taxpayer savings from less busing and cafeteria costs.

State leaders already have taken some unprecedented steps toward relieving the shortage. They have agreed teachers certified in other states count as certified in North Dakota and made it easier for qualified professionals to enter education. The state offers teacher loan forgiveness, and districts are working to secure housing.

Officials can do even more--innovative options abound. North Dakota could, like Alaska and New Hampshire, give parents funds and support to homeschool their children. As in Arizona, some or all of the state’s $9,000 per-pupil spending could be tied directly to children, depositing this into an account parents control and can split among various education options, allowing teachers, schools, and other providers to specialize and compete and families to mix and match options.

North Dakota occupies an enviable position among states, with little unemployment and increasing tax revenue. Now is the time to secure that position and lead the nation long-term.


Is Algebra Necessary?

An article from the NYT below.  The destruction of American education marches on

A TYPICAL American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I've found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn't.

My question extends beyond algebra and applies more broadly to the usual mathematics sequence, from geometry through calculus. State regents and legislators - and much of the public - take it as self-evident that every young person should be made to master polynomial functions and parametric equations.

There are many defenses of algebra and the virtue of learning it. Most of them sound reasonable on first hearing; many of them I once accepted. But the more I examine them, the clearer it seems that they are largely or wholly wrong - unsupported by research or evidence, or based on wishful logic. (I'm not talking about quantitative skills, critical for informed citizenship and personal finance, but a very different ballgame.)

This debate matters. Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we're actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.

The toll mathematics takes begins early. To our nation's shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I've talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.

Shirley Bagwell, a longtime Tennessee teacher, warns that "to expect all students to master algebra will cause more students to drop out." For those who stay in school, there are often "exit exams," almost all of which contain an algebra component. In Oklahoma, 33 percent failed to pass last year, as did 35 percent in West Virginia.

Algebra is an onerous stumbling block for all kinds of students: disadvantaged and affluent, black and white. In New Mexico, 43 percent of white students fell below "proficient," along with 39 percent in Tennessee. Even well-endowed schools have otherwise talented students who are impeded by algebra, to say nothing of calculus and trigonometry.

California's two university systems, for instance, consider applications only from students who have taken three years of mathematics and in that way exclude many applicants who might excel in fields like art or history. Community college students face an equally prohibitive mathematics wall. A study of two-year schools found that fewer than a quarter of their entrants passed the algebra classes they were required to take.

"There are students taking these courses three, four, five times," says Barbara Bonham of Appalachian State University. While some ultimately pass, she adds, "many drop out."

Another dropout statistic should cause equal chagrin. Of all who embark on higher education, only 58 percent end up with bachelor's degrees. The main impediment to graduation: freshman math. The City University of New York, where I have taught since 1971, found that 57 percent of its students didn't pass its mandated algebra course. The depressing conclusion of a faculty report: "failing math at all levels affects retention more than any other academic factor." A national sample of transcripts found mathematics had twice as many F's and D's compared as other subjects.

Nor will just passing grades suffice. Many colleges seek to raise their status by setting a high mathematics bar. Hence, they look for 700 on the math section of the SAT, a height attained in 2009 by only 9 percent of men and 4 percent of women. And it's not just Ivy League colleges that do this: at schools like Vanderbilt, Rice and Washington University in St. Louis, applicants had best be legacies or athletes if they have scored less than 700 on their math SATs.


British High Schools students  could miss out on top marks as exam boards 'fix' grades to stop year-on-year rise of pass rate

Pupils expecting GCSE or A-level results this summer could miss out on top grades after exam boards were told to fix pass rates and grades  to match last year.

The move, outlined in a policy document from the exams regulator Ofqual, is intended to halt year-on-year rises in exam success after the pass rate soared for the 29th year in a row last summer.

This comes after exam boards were heavily criticised for making errors in papers and handing out unfair grades, as 220,000 pupils battled for just 40,000 university places.

However, critics claim it could stop exam-takers from reaching the highest grade that they could have done in other years.

This is the first year in which 'comparable outcomes' will be used in both GCSEs and A-levels.

Results will be predicted based on previous cohorts and the past performance of the exam takers - so at A-level, GCSE grades will be taken into account, and at GCSE level, markers will look at pupils' results from SATs tests aged 11.

An Ofqual document said of the method: 'If we aim for comparable outcomes, roughly the same proportion of students will achieve each grade as in the previous year..... If necessary we will require exam boards to change their grade boundaries.'

Teachers have claimed the move is a return to 'norm referenced' A-levels,  in which a fixed 10 per cent of pupils would be awarded an A grade each year.

Since this was scrapped in 1987, the percentage of A grades has risen from 10 per cent to 27 per cent and the pass rate has gone up from 70 per cent to 97.8 per cent.

Exam boards received a record number of complaints last year, with 200,000 resubmitting their papers for remarking.

A-levels results will be released on 16 August this year, with GCSE results coming out on 23 August.

Nansi Ellis, head of education policy at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: 'If Ofqual is just ensuring consistency in exam standards with last year then that is good news.

'However, we would be concerned if any changes mean that students don’t get awarded the grades their hard work merits if the grades have been set so that a fixed percentage of students are awarded A*s and As.'

But Ofqual's chief executive Glenys Stacey insists genuine improvements in teaching and learning standards will still be recognised.

The policy of 'comparable outcomes' was in fact introduced at A-level last year and was one of the reasons A* grades only rose from 8.6 per cent to 8.7 per cent.

Headteachers have warned it will make it impossible to deliver on Education Secretary Michael Gove's demand schools increase the percentage of A* to C grade passes at GCSE in maths and English.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: 'We are determined to raise standards across the board. It is vital that all pupils get the grades their work deserves.

'Ministers have been clear that it is only fair to every hard-working young person that there is no grade inflation or dumbing down in the exams system.'


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