Monday, December 02, 2013

The Education Earthquake In The Rocky Mountain State

Hugh Hewitt

Voters in Colorado overwhelmingly rejected a proposed school finance reform measure on Tuesday, one which would have raised nearly a billion dollars for Colorado public schools. Described by local media as "a major overhaul of education financing that would have provided nearly $1 billion in additional revenue for Colorado schools," the measure was rejected by a nearly 2-1 margin, with almost 66% of voters saying no.

That isn't just a defeat. It is a repudiation, and an ominous one. Set aside the specifics of the measure for a moment and reflect on the message sent by a 2-1 defeat for a measure touted as pro-public education, no matter its merits.

That kind of a whooping --especially when the losing side had the full support of a popular governor, huge out-of-state hitters (and donors) like Mayor Bloomberg, Bill Gates and Education Secretary Arne Duncan and many business elites-- is a huge signal that perhaps a rupture has occurred, a rupture of the long American tradition of support for public schools across party lines and across all demographic categories. What happened Tuesday night in Colorado was obscured by other high profile elections in New Jersey, Virginia,and New York City, but the national news media should quickly get around to asking what is happening with schools that have made controversies surrounding them into such hot button issue in so many ways and in such a short period of time?

How, exactly, could a measure which such big name and deep-pocketed support lose so badly, so overwhelmingly?

My conclusion: There is no consensus position on "Common Core," but boy is there enormous energy and a lot of growing anger. "Common Core" could turn out to be a terrific thing, a floor on which to build lasting education reform under the guidance of local school boards and free of federal control, or it could become a politicized exercise in top-down ideologically-driven dictates that first drives parents crazy and then drives them and their children out of the public schools. Much depends on the local school boards and how they act over the next two years.

The "Common Core" debate is just one of many swirling around public education right now. Another is the question of financing and technology --do the schools have enough money and technology or do they need more and if so, where should it come from and who should pay for it? What sort of technology does the average classroom need? The Los Angeles Unified School District just experienced a very bumpy roll-out of iPads-for-all, and skeptics of technology-as-the-soliution are growing in number just as districts across the country get set to try technology driven innovation.

And of course in the background loom the always present issues of school violence, from bullying to the worst sort of horror that we see recur across the country with an almost clockwork regularity.

The point is the ground began moving on education issues years ago, accelerated in recent months and in Colorado on Tuesday reached a new level of polarization, and not in the traditional sense of a stand-off of teacher-union-versus-school-board over pay and benefits, and not in the way of a time honored local debate over this-or-that new 5.9 mill levy for this or that district, or whether this school needs torn down or this new school needs building. Debates over the specifics of school management have long been a feature of American local politics, but rarely --maybe never-- have schools taken center stage as issues driving entire state or even national campaigns.

The future of public education is becoming deeply politicized, and that is a very bad thing, as polarization over public education will do very little good and much harm to millions of students who just need good or great teachers in good or great classrooms getting them ready for a rapidly changing world.

Though I am the product of 12 years of Catholic schooling, both my parents, my wife and all of my children spent every day of their education lives K-12 in public schools, and to great and good effect. The public schools of America are its glory, and their governance a true expression of local control and local values. What happened in Colorado should send a shudder down the spines of everyone who cares about schools --not because the measure lost, but because public schools themselves --as a category-- became a lightning rod, a political cause, and the verdict on them ultimately a huge rebuke to the political elites of Colorado, a rebuke that could be misinterpreted as lack of support for public education on the center-right.

What in fact seems to be happening is a great awakening about the centrality of education in America, and the need to embrace effective, locally-controlled reform. I have been on the board of a public charter school system in Arizona for the past many years --Great Hearts Academies of Arizona-- which now operates 16 amazing schools with more on the way and a waiting list of thousands of students eager to enroll. These are public schools, and all across the country reform is flourishing within the public school system through amazing organizations like KIPP and many others. (Here is the long interview I did with Jay Mathews on his book about KIPP from early 2009, a quick overview to real reform and its promise in many urban settings.)

Great things could happen in the next few years in education --amazing things, rapidly spreading, effective reform and new, energized partnerships between parents, students, teachers, administrators and communities, but that cannot happen if every school district becomes another front in the national battle between left-and-right. The message from Colorado ought to be: Keep education politics local. As they have always been. As they ought to remain.


Curb on middle class students as top British universities join scheme to help pupils from poorer families

Middle class students face losing out on places at top universities as growing numbers of them adopt a scheme which prioritises disadvantaged pupils for places.

Top universities are signing up to a scheme that means disadvantaged teenagers don’t need to obtain the same grades as their better-off rivals to get a place.

Twelve universities including Birmingham, Warwick, King’s College and Bristol are already involved in the Realising Opportunities programme which involved them giving ‘alternative offers’ to disadvantaged students.

And it has now been revealed that three more universities have entered the scheme - Goldsmiths, University of London; Sheffield and Sussex.

The Universities say the scheme promotes ‘fairer access’ and will increase the number of pupils from working-class families and poorly performing state schools going to university.

But critics say it is unfair to discriminate against hard-working pupils from middle class backgrounds, and say the scheme does nothing to solve the root cause of educational disadvantage.

Dr Martin Stephen, former chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) and ex high master of prestigious St Paul’s School, London, said asking universities to address inequality in this way was letting schools ‘off the hook’ and was like ‘applying a bandage to lung cancer.’

Dr Stephen, who is now director of education for GEMS Education UK, said: ‘This isn’t an answer to a problem, it an evasion of a problem.

‘I think it’s because our school system has failed to do the right thing by our children and we want an easy fix.

‘Our schools are not helping disadvantaged children to achieve respectable grades and these things don’t do anything about that problem. In fact, if anything, they take the pressure off.

‘It’s like saying that if enough people can’t afford to buy a Rolls Royce, you lower the price.

‘That’s not the point really, is it? It’s acting on the point of supply, not the point of production. We have a supply line that’s not working.’

The move comes amid mounting pressure from the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) on England’s most selective universities to set ‘challenging’ targets to recruit pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

A-Level students who attend a school with below average exam results or high numbers of poor pupils are eligible to join Realising Opportunities.

They must meet at least two criteria including live in a ‘low participation’ neighbourhood; be eligible for discretionary payments, free school meals or come from a home where neither parent has attended university.

The pupils must have also achieved at least eight A* to C grades at GCSE including English and maths, with a minimum of five at A*/A or B.

Students who successfully complete the programme - which includes E-mentoring, online study skills courses and entering an Extended Project Qualification - ‘benefit from alternative offers or additional consideration’ from partner universities, according to the group’s website.

It says: ‘Many partner universities will give an alternative offer worth up to two A level grades or equivalent.’

For example, where a middle class student might be told they need three A grades to get into a university, a student deemed as ‘disadvantaged’ would only need three B grades.

At Birmingham University, ‘dual offers’ are made to Realising Opportunities students who have met subject-specific entry requirements.

This is equivalent to 40 Ucas tariff points and equates to an entry reduction of up to two A-levels grades, such as BBB instead of AAB.

Bristol also offers up to two A-level grades lower than the standard offer following completion of the programme.

King’s College London, which usually makes offers as high as A*AA in certain subjects, is prepared to go as low as BBB for some RO students.

More than 1,200 teenagers from ‘educationally and socially disadvantaged backgrounds’ have been supported through the national programme so far.

Universities Minister David Willetts said: ‘The expansion of Realising Opportunities is good news, and will help even more young people from less advantaged backgrounds benefit from the transformational experience of higher education.’

Professor Les Ebdon, head of OFFA, has previously backed the use of differential offers for students from struggling state comprehensives - allowing them to win places with lower grade A-levels than those from high-flying schools.

Universities wishing to charge up to £9,000 a year must draw up an ‘access agreement’ - signed off by Professor Ebdon- setting out how they will attract and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

OFFA has the ultimate power to fine universities £500,000 or ban them from charging tuition fees of more than £6,000 if they fail to widen access to under-represented groups.

Earlier this week, Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, claimed that UK universities should be more explicit in attempts to ‘socially engineer’ admissions in favour of poor students.


Australian education systems need hard lesson

Piers Akerman

THE feral critics of federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne made one simple but seriously-flawed assumption when they attempted to savage him over the former Labor government’s terminally damaged Gonski education reform.

In the collective view of the leftists at the ABC and Fairfax Media, the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Labor governments possessed some degree of competency.  That’s a bad place from which to make any assessment of the programs they left in place - like Gonski.

Respected businessman David Gonski must rue the day he agreed to look into the education funding shambles for former prime minister Julia Gillard.

In the end, it became nothing more than an ideologically-driven scheme to bribe state and territory leaders.

To think it would ever break with Labor tradition and achieve success was always too much to ask for.

But a few Pollyannas remain ever willing to sacrifice thoughtfulness for wishy-washy idealism, despite the evidence of such lethal failures as Labor’s pink batts scheme, its tragically fatal border protection scheme, its extravagantly wasteful and inefficient national broadband rollout, its laughable carbon tax and ineffective mining tax. Media figures tripped over themselves in their rush to embrace Gonski as the latest educational panacea.

But what was it ever going to achieve beyond increased funding - Labor’s ever-ready toss-more-money-at-the-problem universal but always ineffectual solution?

NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell should have been aware of the risks posed in getting into bed with Labor, as should his Education Minister Adrian Piccoli. They should have given more thought to the substance of Gonski rather than let themselves be dazzled by the cash Gillard was offering to entice them and other states to sign up. In education, principles as well as principals count.

The key defect in what is now known as Gonski is that Labor gutted the plan of genuine forward-thinking reform and ensured that it was about nothing more than cash handouts which Labor would place on the national credit card.

There is nothing wrong with that, if it’s affordable. The big error lies in believing money is the sole answer to educational problems.

In the past decade the education budget has increased by 40 per cent but results have declined in real terms across every subject. Australian taxpayers pay $42 billion a year for shocking results.

The Abbott government has been faced with the choice of continuing to fund bad policy and fail our children or trying to help them gain from their schooling. Given that the federal government doesn’t own any schools or employ any teachers, the choice seems simple.

Give the states and territories some guidance on curricula, replace the hideously ideological literacy program, for instance, with the universally accepted and proven phonics method of teaching reading, improve the quality of teachers by getting more involved in teacher training within universities, permitting school principals to assume greater responsibility and enjoy greater autonomy and, crucially, actively promote the engagement of parents or grandparents in the education of their children and grandchildren.

What happens in the classroom has far greater influence over a child’s education than the amount of money being handed out.

It is clear Pyne is relentlessly focused on teacher quality and training and understands that university students who don’t understand basic principles of English, let alone science or maths, are being trained as teachers.

They are the victims of failed educational fads and yet are expected to be able to teach future students.

The most hysterical criticism of the Abbott government’s plans for education has come from the teachers’ unions, because they can see their control being diminished as principals are given greater responsibility.

Hypocritically, the leftists who have always campaigned for more state schools are opposed to the creation of more state schools if they are to be given greater independence.

Independent state schools introduced in Western Australia are now so successful they are luring pupils from non-government schools, which upsets teachers’ unions and the left enormously.

The schools are owned by the state but run by principals, with involvement from parents. Parents say the education their children receive at such schools is transformational.

Pyne firmly believes he was elected to make a real contribution, not merely occupy a seat in parliament. He knew he was always going to be attacked by the educational establishment for identifying its core weakness.

Labor never tried to make the necessary changes because it didn’t want to create conflict with its trade union support base.

While the Abbott government has not cut the education funding agreed to during the forward estimates period, it is going to insist on value for money.

That’s a principle which principled principals will happily agree to.


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