Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Poor schools are a scourge as grave as gun violence

It is — and should always be — very moving when the President and first lady show public grief at a mournful recognition of young lives lost, especially when those lives are taken in or around public schools, at moments of particular innocence.

The Newtown massacre claimed 20 children; they were recently joined in endless silence by just one. At 15, Hadiya Pendleton of Chicago had been a good student, a dreamer and a member of a marching band from a school called King College Prep. But then, on Jan. 29, a gang-banger shot into a group of kids and killed her. He was not held back by her having performed in Washington at events surrounding President Obama’s second inaugural.

Being just a mile from the Windy City home of the President did not save Pendleton; nor did being an innocent teenager (one who had appeared in an anti-gang public service ad, no less) do much for her in the face of a lead slug that came flying her way. Boom, splat, fall. Rushed to the hospital, pronounced dead. Over.

Of course, something must be done about all of this violence. But there is a problem just as serious as the murder of children, whether in cities or suburbs. It is the problem of intellectual genocide that largely defines our public schools.

As with guns, the numbers are staggering. It is so thorough a problem that even the energy giant Exxon Mobil — in a naked bid for positive publicity — runs ads about improving our education as part of its “Let’s Solve This” campaign. The problem that needs to be solved? America having fallen into the middle of the pack in education compared to its peers around the world. China and India are leaving us in the dust.

Though many snicker about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s weight being a huge obstacle to his presidential nomination, the Obama administration could learn some things from his battle with the Garden State’s powerful teachers unions.

Back in 2011, Christie told ABC News’ Diane Sawyer exactly how he felt about a labor group that put its own interests before those of children: “I believe the teachers in New Jersey in the main are wonderful public servants that care deeply. But their union, their union [leaders] are a group of political thugs.”

Now, Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, have had some successes, like the Race to the Top program, which gives funding to states that use data to increase accountability and give more power to parents by opening more charter schools. And across the nation, states are using more rigorous means to evaluate teachers, no longer content to hand out raises for seniority alone.

Christie just happens to be the most vociferous opponent of the intellectual genocide that Condoleezza Rice once called “the civil rights struggle of our day.” She knows what she is talking about, having ascended from segregated Birmingham, Ala., to Stanford University — and from there to become one of George W. Bush’s closest foreign policy advisers.

Ignorance remains the deadliest force of all. But there are, sure enough, bright lights of hope in the very same communities that are often plagued by gun violence. I have long written about — and will continue to write about — the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, which helps so-called kids of color get to college and stay there until they graduate.

Praise is also due to Eva Moskowitz, whose Success Academy network has expanded out from Harlem to offer opportunities to ever more children around New York — even as she meets with opposition from misguided supporters of the teachers union.

Guns, schools — these are not easy battles to fight. But we must fight them. For the children of Newtown. For Hadiya Pendleton. We need to step up.


Inept teachers must go

Despite the fact that real spending on public education has doubled during the past 25 years, there remains an alarming number of bureaucrats and union bosses who propagandize that Kentucky is about to return to the days of the one-room schoolhouse both in terms of funding and academic reform.

Billy Harper, who recently completed a term on the state Board of Education, doesn’t drink that Kool-Aid.

Harper, who owns Harper Industries – a prosperous Paducah-based construction company, was the board’s only representative from the business community for the past four years. Gov. Steve Beshear recently refused to reappoint him to another term.

Beshear by rote answers every question about improving education with babble about needing more money and offering politically safe – but unproven – ideas, like forcing uninterested students to remain in school until they are 18 years old.

In contrast, Harper’s views are frank and thoughtful.

It’s refreshing to hear a business owner talk about Kentucky’s education policy in terms that go beyond the usual prattle of “if we just had more money, why, we could have our education system walking on water in no time.”

When Harper recently sat down with me to discuss his ideas about improving Kentucky public schools, it didn’t take long to figure out – he believes principals and teachers play critical roles in education reform.

“It used to be a principal could let the teacher go in the room and lock the door and do whatever they do,” Harper explained. “Now he’s got to be there to make sure they’re teaching the right things in the right way.”

He believes one way of retaining great teachers while weeding out those who need to find other professions is by basing their compensation on performance rather than seniority alone.

While he hopes Kentucky moves toward merit-based pay “in the next few years,” he says getting the education establishment’s support will be a “slow and hard process.”

The idea of evaluating teachers based on the academic progress made by their students, including using test scores, remains controversial in the education community. Still, Harper says there’s no way around the fact that productivity – and results – matter.

“You can be busy, but not producing things,” he said. “That’s going to be a critical part of (education reform) as well. When teachers truly are not performing and the students aren’t benefitting, there needs to be an efficient way to move on.”

While Kentucky’s education labor bosses – who spent $100,000 just on lobbying last year – despise any attempt to rid our education system of the scourge of failing teachers, Harper said it must be done.

Not only does having a failing teacher set children back academically, it’s costly. The average price for terminating a teacher for underperformance is a whopping $55,000, he said.

Given such high costs of ensuring classrooms aren’t occupied by inept faculty, Harper notes that “what usually ends up happening – they are pushed off to covering a department staff job somewhere, so it makes us more inefficient.”

While “some teachers are fearful of” enhanced evaluation policies, Harper said he has “no doubt that once we get there,” the hardworking, conscientious instructors in Kentucky schools – of which he notes there are many – will ultimately embrace and support the idea.

Harper’s optimism about our state’s education future is tempered with concern that we won’t keep working on the tough issues until they get resolved.

“The worst thing we did with KERA (the Kentucky Education Reform Act) is that we passed that and said ‘we fixed schools,’ and everybody went off to do other things. The key now is for us to stay at the table and keep getting better,” he said.


Ofsted: 'significant minority' of British schools wasting pupil premium

Millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money set aside to boost standards among poor pupils is being wasted chasing targets and employing ineffective teaching assistants, according to Ofsted.

The watchdog warned that a “significant minority” of schools were still failing to spend the Coalition’s flagship pupil premium funding properly.

In a report, inspectors said that the cash – worth £2.5 billion per year by 2014/15 – was being used by many schools to narrow the gap between pupils from rich and poor families.

Some heads used it to employ more good teachers, stage booster classes in the three-Rs, target parents who are failing to keep children in line and even pay for lap-tops to enable deprived pupils to work at home.

But the study warned that too many schools were failing to prove that money was properly spent on programmes to improve results among poor children.

The worst schools often:

 *  Spent the money “indiscriminately” on employing more classroom assistants with little impact on standards;

 *  Focused on pupils on the cusp of hitting Government targets – gaining five C grades at GCSE – without going “beyond these expectations”, meaning bright pupils from working-class homes underachieved;

 *  Compared the performance of poor pupils to other disadvantaged children – rather than national standards for all pupils – resulting in schools “lowering expectations” for the target group;

 *  Failed to monitor the impact of schemes and did not have a clear audit trail to prove cash was well spent.

The report – based on inspections of 70 primaries and secondaries in England – also said some Government funded invested in summer classes for disadvantaged children would be better spent on helping them catch up in English and maths if they are behind when they start secondary school.

The conclusions follow a more comprehensive report into the pupil premium published by Ofsted in the autumn.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector, said it was clear that “more schools are now taking their responsibilities seriously when it comes to using the pupil premium money and our inspectors have found evidence of some very good practice in their recent visits".

But he added: "Some schools still lack good enough systems for tracking the spending of the additional funding or for evaluating the effectiveness of measures they have put in place in terms of improving outcomes.

"We will continue to take an active interest in this issue in the coming months. Where we find funding isn't being spent effectively on improving outcomes for disadvantaged pupils, we will be clear in our criticism.

"It is vital that schools get this right. Every child who leaves school without the right qualifications faces a far more difficult path to fulfilling their potential and finding employment."

The pupil premium – repeatedly championed by the Liberal Democrats – has been seen as one of the Coalition’s most high-profile education reforms.

Schools currently receive £600 for each pupil eligible for free school meals. Ofsted found it was worth up to £134,323 in primary schools visited by inspectors and £296,501 in state secondaries.

David Laws, the Lib Dem Schools Minister, said: "If we are to build a fairer society, we have to make sure children can succeed at school whatever their background.

“The pupil premium is a significant amount of money going into schools up and down the country. It is vital that schools use it effectively.

"I am delighted with the good practice shown by many schools, as recognised by Ofsted in their report. But there is still a lot more that can be achieved."


No comments: