Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Celebrating mediocrity

The 2011 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress for vocabulary were recently released. Missouri once again ranked near the middle of the pack: 24th for fourth grade and 27th for eighth grade. In a press release from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), Commissioner of Education Chris Nicastro said, “”We are pleased to see that students in Missouri are maintaining their overall level of achievement on the vocabulary test.”

I have two problems with this statement.

First, I am not sure Missouri students are “maintaining their overall level of achievement.” In both fourth and eighth grades, the average scale score for Missouri students declined from 2009 to 2012. The decline in fourth grade was a noticeable 3-point drop.

Secondly, we should not be pleased with maintaining our level of achievement; our goal is to improve. Moreover, we should not simply look at national rankings because our students will have to compete for jobs in a global economy.

The George W. Bush Institute has made it easy for us to compare the performance of our local school district with the performance of students around the world with its Global Report Card, which was recently updated. Here you can visit the website and see how the average student in your local school district compares to students across the globe. You may be surprised at what you find.

The average student in the Kansas City School District outperforms only 15 percent of students in other countries in math. In the Saint Louis Public School District, it is a paltry 12 percent. But do not make the mistake of thinking only students in the “big cities” are falling behind. Here is how the average student in a few other school districts compares:

Hume: 40 percent in reading, 26 percent in math

Cape Girardeau: 48 percent in reading, 29 percent in math

Springfield: 57 percent in reading, 48 percent in math

If students in Springfield were transported to Singapore, the district would only outperform 34 percent of Singapore students while students in the high-ranking Clayton School District would be at the 46th percentile.

It is time to stop celebrating mediocrity and expect more for our children.


Wisconsin Wants $19,969 for Public Documents Detailing ‘Cultural Sensitivity’ Training

Government transparency is a critical tool in the public’s accountability arsenal, so long as the public can afford it.

But when dealing with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI), transparency comes with a five-figure price tag. has been conducting an investigation into a “cultural sensitivity” teacher training program the department has been doing for the last few years.

There is a clear link between the department’s “CREATE Wisconsin” initiative and the nutty, left-wing San Francisco-based Pacific Educational Group. PEG recently made headlines when its training urged school employees to downplay American cultural staples like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, because they don’t reflect multiculturalism and some students may not be able to relate to them.

PEG’s founder, Glenn Singleton, who can only be described as a cultural Marxist, has led some of the CREATE Wisconsin training sessions himself.

The Portland, Oregon school district shelled out $526,901 in one school year to PEG, so the link to DPI piqued our interest. If a single district shelled out more than a half a million dollars to this bizarre outfit, what would a statewide contract cost Wisconsin taxpayers?

We tried to find out.

Several weeks ago we submitted a freedom of information request to DPI, seeking records and training materials from the program since its inception in 2009. We have legitimate questions, such as: How much has the department been spending on the program and its trainers? How many teachers have received this so-called “cultural sensitivity” training? Will it ever end? Has the program made any difference on student performance?

Then we received the cost estimate. To obtain those answers from DPI, it would take 104,275 pieces of paper and 175 staff hours, costing us an astounding $19,969.46 fee.

Read the response from the department’s chief legal counsel, Janet Jenkins, here.

Seeking answers from government is not for the faint of heart – or apparently the shallow of pocket.

We are doing our best to learn as much about the teacher training as we possibly can, but the exorbitant fees being leveled by State Superintendent Tony Evers’ department is making it very difficult.

Is this a case of bureaucracy gone wild? Or is DPI using outrageous fees to keep the public from learning about the public’s business?

To help our investigation – which we pledge will not wind up in the pocket of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction – click here to make a tax-deductible contribution.

Apparently it’s going to cost a lot of money to unmask this turkey of a program.


'Back-to-basics' grammar tests for British 11-year-olds revealed

New spelling, punctuation and grammar tests for 11-year-old pupils as well as proposed plans for a new higher maths qualification have been revealed today as part of Michael Gove's plans to improve literacy and numeracy in schools.

A new ‘back-to-basics’ test of spelling, punctuation and grammar to be sat by up to 600,000 primary school students from next summer was unveiled today by the Department for Education.

The new test will consist of one 45-minute grammar exam and one 15-minute spelling assessment. It will replace the discredited written component of national curriculum tests – known as Sats – sat by 11-year-old pupils, which was scrapped in 2011.

The move is a key part of Michael Gove’s ongoing education reforms to improve literacy among school pupils. Primary school results released last week showed nearly 500 schools had missed targets for the ‘three Rs’.

The writing composition Sats test was scrapped in 2011 because of concerns over inconsistent marking and fears young children struggled to come up with creative prose under formal test conditions.

The new exam, which is more focused, will assess pupils on correct use of punctuation, appropriate grammar usage including knowledge of nouns, verbs, adverbs, prepositions and the correct use of tenses and pronouns such as “I” and “me”. The tests will form part of the ‘writing’ component of Sats alongside existing teacher assessments of pupils’ written composition skills.

The grammar component will test pupils on their understanding of principles such as where to insert commas in a sentence, how to use colons and semicolons correctly, and when to use personal, relative and possessive pronouns.

The spelling assessment will ask pupils to correctly spell commonly misspelt words such as permanent, preferred and desperately.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The new, rigorous spelling, punctuation and grammar tests will drive up standards in primary schools.

“Too little attention has been given to these core skills. It is vital that pupils are confident in key writing techniques.

It was also revealed that key GCSE subjects will be revamped to include specific marks allocated for correct spelling, punctuation and grammar.

The reforms are part of the Department for Education's efforts to address concerns from universities and employers that too many pupils arrive without basic literacy and numeracy skills despite having passed national curriculum tests.

Earlier today mathematics experts from the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (Acme), which advises the Government on maths education, revealed plans for a new higher maths qualification for sixth-form students who do not wish to study the subject as one of their main A-levels.

The qualification, which includes questions requiring problem-solving in real-life settings through applied use of statistics and probabilities, is expected to be embraced by ministers. Details will be set out in a report due to be published later this week.

This weekend Michael Gove told the Telegraph that he was close to announcing something "not quite as demanding as an A-level" aimed at students between 16 and 18 who are not studying maths or science A-levels.

He said: "The final piece of the jigsaw will come out shortly, for more academic students, to make sure there are courses and qualifications for them to carry on doing mathematics until the age of 18, even if they are doing humanities.

"We want to be able to support people to integrate into education post-16 a way of maintaining mathematical fluency even if, for example, they are planning to do modern languages at university.

"The economic crisis through which we are now living is a crisis of maths because people relied on dodgy equations to do the work for them."

He added that the Government is spending more money on mathematics than any other subject and has recruited 300 graduates on £11,000 bursaries to be maths specialists in primary schools, or maths teachers in secondary schools.


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