Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Teachers unions defend institutional incompetence

No good deed goes unpunished.

Take Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s brave decision to lay off 3,600 employees — including teachers and principals — of 24 of New York City’s worst-performing schools, all with an eye toward rebooting them with new staff, management plans, and curricula. The outgoing staff were told they could reapply, but would have to compete with thousands of new applicants. The goal: Turn around the schools by turning them inside out.

Naturally, the teachers’ unions pitched a fit, and have done everything they can to thwart the Mayor’s plan.

The irony is that, as is so often the case, unions brought this pain on themselves. Bloomberg’s original plan was to institute a comprehensive instructor evaluation plan in order to, as The Wall Street Journal editorial board put it, “smoke out the lowest performing educators.” But New York’s powerful United Federation of Teachers (UFT) strongly objected to this effort to locate incompetent instructors, forcing Bloomberg into his plan B — mass layoffs at the two dozen worst-performing schools.

To no one’s surprise, this, too, was unacceptable to the UFT, which claimed the city’s actions violated the teacher’s collective bargaining agreement. And so off the case went to arbitration, where the Mayor got his hat handed to him: sole arbitrator Scott Burchheit scrapped the planned reboot of the failing schools because, he found, “a wish to avoid undesirable teachers was the primary, if not exclusive reason” for the closings.

In other news, mice like cheese.

The Mayor’s office appealed the decision, but suffered another defeat on July 24 when State Supreme Court Judge Joan Lobis sided with the arbitrator, who had sided with the unions, all of whom sided against the kids languishing in NYC’s educational hell.

Explained Lobis of her decision: “Since I find that the staffing questions are covered by provisions in both the collective bargaining agreements, I believe the arbitrator was within his authority to determine this grievance.” The judge seemed especially swayed by the union’s argument that the firings violated so-called “first-in, last-out” seniority rules that make it almost impossible to fire long-ensconced teachers. “The issue of staffing is intertwined with the questions of seniority, excessing and discipline of teachers and supervisors, all of which are specifically covered by the collective bargaining agreements,” noted the Judge.

What will happen in the wake of these union victories? UFT attorney Adam Ross made union demands clear, boasting that the Mayor and his allies have, “now lost at arbitration level, they’ve lost at Supreme Court,” and that the union “would like to get to the business of staffing these schools and getting ready for the opening of schools in September.”

Bloomberg’s crew is putting up a brave front. “The mayor and chancellor will not allow failing schools to deprive our students of the high-quality education they deserve,” said the city’s chief council Michael A. Cardozo after Lobis’ decision. “Although we will of course comply with the judge’s ruling, we strongly disagree with it — and we will be appealing.”

But with the state appellate courts out of session, and the new school year rapidly approaching, the fired employees of the 24 schools — all of which have a graduation rate under 60 percent, and some as low 39 percent — will now likely be unfired, and thousands of children will be subjected once again to the indifference and incompetence of teachers shielded from accountability by the UFT protection racket.

According to the New York State Education Department, only 60.9 percent of New York high school students graduate within four years, even as unions consistently block any attempt to impose teacher accountability.

Maybe it’s time Gotham students formed a union of their own.


Rid schools of anti-risk culture, says British PM

Bringing back competitive sports for primary pupils will help rid schools of their “bureaucratic and anti-risk” culture, David Cameron has said.

Speaking on the last day of the Olympic Games, Mr Cameron said the entire ethos of British schools must change to show pupils that “winning and losing is an important part of growing up”.

Earlier this week, Mr Cameron promised to put competitive sports such as netball and football into the national curriculum for primary school children.

His pledge came after he backed the Daily Telegraph’s Keep the Flame Alive campaign to revive competitive games in schools and get more people volunteering.

Yesterday, Mr Cameron revealed that two of his own children attend a state school without any green space to play on and called on schools to recognise the value of competing.

“We are saying out with the bureaucratic, anti-risk culture which has led to a death of competitive sport in too many schools and in with the belief that competition is healthy, that winning and losing is an important part of growing up,” he said.

The Prime Minister is now under pressure to make competitive sport compulsory in every school, as free schools and academies do not have to stick to the national curriculum He yesterday insisted that greater competition to attract pupils and their parents will mean these exempt schools will voluntarily want to offer as much sport as possible.

“Competition, choice and diversity will help to drive up provision, but at the heart of the national curriculum should be a few simple ideas about what we mean when we talk about sport in our schools,” he said.

Mr Cameron is now supporting a new push to get more volunteers for local sports clubs, which starts this weekend with the national Join In campaign Sports enthusiasts, including Olympic volunteers will be encourage to sign up to help out at local sports facilities for good. Mr Cameron said local clubs are the most important place for children to develop their sporting prowess, as he unveiled plans to make sure Britain builds on its best haul of Olympic medals for more than a century.

He promised to keep funding for sports at its current level for at least four years and said there is “no expectation” this will change for the rest of the decade.

British athletes will get at least £125 million per year to help repeat the rush of Olympic medals won by Team GB.

Politicians are also trying to harness the positive national mood created by the games to help dispel criticism that Britain is “down and out” during the recession.

Speaking from Downing Street, Mr Cameron said the games showed the “best of Britain” and proved that its “time has come”.

“Over the last couple of weeks we have looked in the mirror and we like what we have seen as a country,” he added, saying the public had proved itself “the greatest member of Team GB”.

Businesses can take heart from the fact that “Britain delivered”, he said. The Prime Minister even claimed the hard work of athletes could show people how to get the economy out of recession.

“We do face a very tough economic situation and I do not belittle that at all,” he said.

“But in a way, what these Games show is that if you work hard enough at something, if you plan something, if you are passionate enough about something, you can turn things around.”

His words echoed those of Sir Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, who said bankers should learn from Olympic athletes that “motivation is more than mere money”.


Australia: Top schools ban homework on weekends and holidays

Probably a reasonable balance

AT least two of WA's top private schools have banned homework for younger children at weekends and during school holidays "to allow kids to just be kids".

The policies are in line with international expert Phil Beadle, author, trainer, speaker and a former UK Teacher of the Year, who says the traditional form of homework is akin to abuse for primary school children.

Presbyterian Ladies' College has ruled out homework at those times for Years 7 and 8, and Methodist Ladies' College does not advocate "traditional" homework for primary pupils.

Mr Beadle, who is in Australia as a teacher-in-residence at Sydney's Knox Grammar School, told The Sunday Times this week: "We blithely accept homework as an intrinsic part of schooling, despite the fact that everyone (teachers and students) hates it.

"No educator is in receipt of hard, incontrovertible evidence that homework is entirely necessary. However, any parent will tell you that at certain ages it has an enormously destructive effect on family life."

PLC principal Beth Blackwood said homework remains "an area for debate".

"For every piece of research that says homework is beneficial, there's another piece that says it's not," she said. "I think there are other benefits of homework not just achievement orientated.

"It's about developing good study habits and skills, developing self-direction, organisational skills, independent problem-solving, and it's also about parents getting involved in the schooling process.

"With that research in mind, we did look at our homework policy for the middle school. We were trying to strike a balance between the benefits of homework and having some homework but also allowing the girls to just be girls, and to have down time, and family time and time for recreation."

Ms Blackwood said she expected Year 12 students to complete at least 18 hours of homework and study each week, but expectations on younger students were not so high.

"It is not that effective in primary school and yet parents will judge schools by the amount of homework that is given," she said. "I think the most important thing is getting that balance." At MLC, based on research indicating that traditional homework does not work in younger years, primary school students are encouraged to read every day and engage in 30 minutes of nature play or outdoor activities.

"Our main objective is to move away from the negative connotations of home learning and celebrate true learning," the school said. "The second objective is to challenge today's technocentric society and move children away from spending too much time watching TV, playing computer games or surfing the internet.

"We want students to learn because it's enjoyable, stimulating and worthwhile. We have designed a new approach towards home learning that encompasses our philosophy of nurturing academically able and emotionally confident young women."

For students in Years 7 to 9, MLC recommends one, 1 1/2 and two hours of study each weeknight respectively, but homework is not set over long weekends or holidays, and a 24-hour deadline is usually avoided.

Mr Beadle said homework for primary school children should be illegal. He believes children would benefit more from "developing a love of reading and writing for fun", than homework.

"I think all children have a right to leisure and joy," he said. "Making their after-school life one in which they are compelled to obey the dictate to slave for something that is almost entirely intangible could be argued to be abusive.

"Yes, after a certain age, you will be unable to complete the essay in class time. Yes, after a certain age you will need to broaden your knowledge at home but really the most important thing you can receive at home is love and care and perhaps a love of reading.

"Spending your home life, constantly engaged, at the age of seven, in compulsory acts of negligible benefit should be illegal."

Education Department statewide services acting executive director Martin Clery said every public school set its own homework policy and there was no "blanket rule".

Many schools encouraged younger students to read every night with their parents to boost literacy and develop a joy for reading, but it was not technically considered homework. However, the department expected homework, when set, to relate directly to school work and "increase accordingly" throughout the year groups.

Education Minister Peter Collier said "primary school aged children don't need to be doing hours of homework each night" but it should be balanced with family time and revision of school work.


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