Friday, January 18, 2013

NY: Teacher sues over forced removal of religious items

A high school science teacher in Cheektowaga is accusing school officials of censoring her speech by ordering the removal of religious items from her classroom.

Joelle Silver, 29, complained in federal court papers that Cheektowaga Central School District officials threatened to fire her if she didn’t take down posters with religious messages, notes with Bible quotes and a “prayer request” box for the school’s Bible Study Club.

Silver, who teaches biology and anatomy and has been with the district for seven years, got rid of the material.

She then charged district officials with violating her First Amendment rights and acting hostile because she is Christian, in a complaint filed Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York,

But a national organization that complained to the district twice about Silver last June said the classroom postings were unconstitutional and needed to be removed.

“Public employees, including teachers, have to act neutrally with regard to religion. They cannot push any religion,” said Rebecca Markert, staff attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit membership organization based in Madison, Wis., that promotes separation of faith and government.

Silver, who lives in Amherst, is being represented by the American Freedom Law Center, a nonprofit law firm that focuses on religious liberty cases.

Attorney Robert J. Muise maintained that constitutional violations occurred when district officials forced Silver to remove the religious materials. “They essentially want her to cease being a Christian once she enters school district property,” said Muise.

Superintendent Dennis Kane said the district was caught in the middle of a dispute between “two big special-interest groups” and was likely to be sued regardless of what it did or didn’t do.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation in September sued a Pittsburgh-area school district for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument at a junior high school.

“There’s rulings that favor both perspectives on this,” said Kane. “More than anything else on this, each side wants an example.”

After consulting with a district lawyer and an attorney for the district’s insurance carrier, district officials issued an eight-page “counseling letter” to Silver, said Kane, who is named personally in the suit along with School Board President Brian J. Gould.

The lawsuit mentions the letter several times, but because of the litigation and privacy restrictions in personnel matters, Kane said he was not able to comment on its contents.

The case dates back to last June, when a student alerted the Freedom From Religion Foundation to a poster with a biblical verse in Silver’s class and a drawing of three crosses on a wall near her desk.

The student also reported to the organization that a guest speaker discussing genetic defects in Silver’s anatomy class had used Bible passages in his presentation and that Silver herself had referred to Adam and Eve in a discussion about the human rib cage.

The student felt uncomfortable and alienated by the religious references and materials, said Markert, who wrote a letter to Kane on June 7 asking the district to investigate and direct Silver to take down the postings.

A week later, on June 14, Markert wrote another letter informing Kane of additional religious postings in Silver’s classroom, including four posters with Bible quotes from the Book of Psalms.

The student also said that Silver told students in the anatomy class that whoever had reported her to the Freedom From Religion Foundation lacked integrity and character and was akin to someone who had cheated on the final exam, Markert wrote in her follow-up letter.

“This student should be lauded for standing up for constitutional rights, not made to feel like an outsider and defamed by being compared to someone who cheats on exams,” Markert wrote, encouraging Kane to further investigate and discipline Silver.

Silver denied that she questioned the integrity or character whoever reported her. In a talk to her class on the final day of the school year, she said she apologized if she had offended anyone and explained that she wanted people to work together to solve their conflicts.

Muise said that Silver wasn’t pushing her faith on students.

The original poster she was told to take down contained a quote from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “Be on guard. Stand true to what you believe. Be courageous. Be strong. And everything you do must be done in love.”

The quote was superimposed over a picture of an American flag and school books.

“Is that proselytizing?” asked Muise.

The district demanded that Silver take down a posted quote from Ronald Reagan, in which the former president declares “without God democracy will not and cannot endure” and “If ever we forget that we are One nation Under God, then we will be a Nation gone under.”

The district ordered Silver to remove even the small personal sticky notes with Bible quotes she kept on her desk and to keep any Bible verses in a private folder.

Muise called it “one of the most egregious examples of religious hostility I have witnessed in a public school.” Any religious reference in schools is “treated almost as if it’s some disease that has to be eradicated,” he added.

The lawsuit states that Silver’s Christian faith defines her as a person, and passages from the Bible guide her actions, including those as a public school teacher.

District policy allows teachers to display personal messages and other items that reflect their individual personalities, opinions and values, as well as messages that are not part of the curriculum but relate to political and social concerns, the lawsuit also states.

“As a result of the defendants’ draconian restrictions, plaintiff must keep her faith hidden at all times,” the lawsuit said.

But Markert said the district did the right thing.

“There’s a lot of case law that supports the district’s decision,” she said. “I don’t think the school district is forcing her not to be a Christian.”


Children of parents who stay at school longer get better results, new British study shows

Just a common IQ factor

Increasing parents' education by just one year can improve their children's marks by two grades, research claimed yesterday (Wed).

New data reveals that, on average, children whose parents stayed in education longer scored significantly higher than those whose parents left school at an earlier age.

The findings are published as the government plans changes to the education system that from 2015 will see all children required to stay in education until they are 18.

Professor Paul Gregg, lead author of the study, said the findings suggest that there will be significant gains by raising the minimum leaving age to 18.

'The proposed further raising of the school leaving age to 18 by 2015 should lead to benefits not just for the generation affected but, also in the future, for their children,' he said.

Experts believe keeping parents in education longer could impact on their child-raising skills and, in the long-run, allow their children to also achieve more.

The conclusion was reached after researchers looked at the difference in achievement between the children of parents affected by the 1972 reform when the minimum school leaving age was raised from 15 to 16.

Children of the first tranche of parents to be forced by law to stay an extra year achieved exam results up by two grades in one GCSE, or by one grade in two GCSEs, in comparuison to those whose parents were allowed to leave the year before, according to the University of Bristol study.

Professor Gregg said: “The children of more educated parents go on themselves to higher educational achievement.

'The results here suggest that as a result of attaining more education, parents with higher levels of schooling provide a better childhood experience and home environment and consequently their children do better in school.'

Achievement through school at each of the Key Stages at Years 7, 11 and 14 was also up, the team found, and was reflected equally in numeracy and literacy.

Data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, which tracked 19,966 children born between 1991 and 1993, was used by the team to compare results from tests taken at different ages.

'The findings are important for the Government’s social mobility strategy as they show the full impact of extra parental education and the knock-on effect in their children’s attainment, which is maintained as the children age,' the researchers added in a statement.

Reporting their findings they said: 'Our results suggest that increasing parental education has a positive causal effect on children’s outcomes that is evident at age 4 and continues to be visible up to and including the high stakes exams taken at age 16.

'The policy implications of these results are important with the UK currently planning for a Raising of the Participation Age (that is in full-time education or a job with an apprenticeship) to age 18 by 2015, as they suggest a positive impact on the educational attainment of the next generation results from increasing the schooling of individuals who wish to leave school at the first opportunity.

'The mechanisms through which parental education causally affects children’s outcomes – the “why” question – remains a very important question for future research to answer, with implications for the design of education and family-related policy.'

The paper ‘Early, late or never? When does parental education impact child outcomes?’ is published tomorrow by the University of Bristol's Centre for Market and Public Organisation.


Tried and tested maths techniques to replace unwieldy 'chunking and gridding' systems that baffle British pupils

Pupils will be marked up for using traditional multiplication and division in an overhaul of primary school maths being unveiled today.

The changes will spell the end for fashionable teaching methods that baffle parents and leave pupils struggling to progress to more advanced problems.

Teachers will instead be expected to teach long division and multiplication using tried-and-tested techniques.

In tests, youngsters who can demonstrate they used traditional methods but slipped up on the final answer will be awarded some marks, while those getting it wrong with the newer techniques will be given none.

Education minister Liz Truss will announce the reforms today at the North of England Education Conference in Sheffield.

She will criticise ‘chunking’ – a form of long division that requires pupils to repeatedly subtract ‘chunks’ from a number and involves an element of guesswork – and ‘gridding’, which requires them to fill in grids to multiply numbers.

Mrs Truss said: ‘Experts from other countries .... cannot fathom why our education system has adopted an untried method for teaching maths which holds back the most able and confuses everyone else.’

A blueprint for a new primary school curriculum, due to be unveiled in the next few weeks, will specify that children should learn efficient calculation methods for multiplication and division, with no reference to chunking or gridding.

The change will be reflected in national tests for 11-year-olds from 2016, which will be revamped to reward pupils whose working shows they have used ‘best practice’.

Mrs Truss said: ‘Chunking and gridding are tortured techniques but they have become the norm in recent years.

'Children just end up repeatedly adding or subtracting numbers, and batches of numbers.

‘They may give the right answer, but they are not quick, efficient methods, nor are they methods children can build on, and apply to more complicated problems.

‘Column methods of addition and subtraction, short and long multiplication and division are far simpler, far quicker, far more effective and allow children to understand properly the calculation and therefore move on to more advanced problems.’

Under the changes, any 11-year-old who answers a question correctly in national curriculum maths tests will be continue to get marks regardless of the method they used.

But those who arrive at the wrong answer but use recommended methods – such as column addition and subtraction, and short and long multiplication and division – would be recognised with some marks.


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