Friday, October 11, 2013

Why is Violence Against Teachers Being Covered Up?

Baltimore teacher Jeff Slattery struggles with fear every day. He literally has to force himself out the door as he heads to his classroom. In December 2010 at Baltimore Community High School Slattery stopped a student without a hall pass. The student got physical. Slattery let him go.

"He walked down the hallway, I turned around and went back to my classroom and he came up from behind me and once I was on the ground, he's basically standing on top of me. He struck me multiple times. When my jaw broke, I went unconscious and I don't remember anything after that." The Social Studies teacher later learned it took four teachers to pull the student off him. Slattery’s broken jaw was wired shut for weeks.[i]

Slattery's assault by a student was just one of seven hundred that school year in Baltimore City Public Schools where its own data shows an average of four school personnel were assaulted each day in 2010. That average has held true through the past five school years with a total of nearly four thousand assaults by students on personnel -- with increases in the last two years.[ii] Baltimore is one of the relatively few systems that have regular reports on such incidents.

Teachers across the country are experiencing alarmingly high rates of student violence and harassment while at school. Yet, there are surprisingly few studies of the numbers and frequency of these incidents. The reporting requirements at the school, local, state and national level are either non-existent or routinely ignored. The anemic official response to the increasing pattern of violence puts teachers in position of being victimized by the system rather than protected by it. In fact, the teachers’ union response to the Slattery attack in Baltimore was simply to encourage teachers to voluntarily fill out a form if they get attacked.

One of the few research articles conducted on this important topic was published earlier this year in the American Psychological Association's journal, American Psychologist.[iii] The APA research found only 14 published studies that have bothered to examine violence directed at teachers in schools. The APA study found that 80 percent of the teachers they surveyed reported being victimized at school at least once in the then-current or prior year. Of those, 94 percent said they had been victimized by students – including being physically attacked, harassed, or victims of theft or property damage at school.

Governors should lead the charge to demand more comprehensive and accurate reporting of this threat to teachers as well as prompt punishment for offenders in order to provide teachers and their students with a safe working environment. The teachers’ unions should be demanding action, yet there is mostly silence from those who loudly claim to represent the interests of teachers who are being assaulted daily in American classrooms.

Some reporting requirements are already in place but are obviously ineffective. School violence directed at teachers is grossly underreported, with “official” national records claiming only 7% of teachers have been subjected to threats or violence.[iv] Other reports indicate a number much higher -- in the 15-25% range. Even at 7% there would be about a quarter million teachers subjected to threats and violence each year!

Additionally, there is clearly an effort to hide the problem, whether it is the direct or indirect efforts of principals to discourage teachers from leaving a paper trail, the threat of reprisal that intimidates teachers into silence, or bureaucrats who reduce the number of reported incidents and then claim the threats and violence are receding simply because there is a lack of punishment. For example, in 2012 the Bibb County, GA school system dramatically reduced its use of evidentiary hearings that lead to expulsions, suspensions and other tough punishments for students with repeated discipline problems. One result is that more of these students remained in the classroom, often creating difficulties for teachers and other students.[v]

Bibb County claimed that the number of “evidentiary hearings” for student misconduct had dropped from 772 during the 2010-11 school year to just 116 during the 2011-12 school year and showed “progress” in protecting teachers. Expulsions dropped from 223 to 28, and permanent expulsion and corporal punishment were eliminated!

So things are better in Bibb County, right? Not according to teachers and administrators who say they have been discouraged from -- or even punished -- for sending students to the office or requesting disciplinary hearings. They are not just fearful of their students; they also fear retaliation from principals and school officials for speaking up! Safe Havens International, a consulting firm hired by Bibb County to evaluate school safety, determined there was a “pervasive” problem of underreporting the violence and threats targeted at teachers.[vi]

The numbers of reported incidents in Bibb County HAVE gone down.[vii] But is it because the schools are safer for teachers or because the actual level of violence is being covered up and underreported? The same pattern is seen all across the country…violence is up but the “official” reports tell another story.

Children cannot learn in an environment of fear. When the authority figures in our schools are abused and threatened with impunity, kids do not feel protected and lose their focus and their respect for the system that cannot even protect the adults. It is past time for our nation’s Governors to ensure that our schools are safe environments for learning, which means addressing this largely hidden crisis in our schools. Covering up the problem won’t fix it.


'Free' fees does not help poor attend Scottish universities

The abolition of tuition fees has not encouraged more Scottish children from poor families to go to university, according to an expert report that raised major doubts whether the flagship SNP policy is good value for taxpayers.

Researchers from Edinburgh University also discovered that there has been a slight increase in deprived youngsters attending English universities despite charges of up to £9,000 per year south of the Border.

They said the findings raised concerns that the SNP’s pledge to provide taxpayer-funded degrees merely serves to “concentrate resources on those who are already relatively advantaged.”

Alex Salmond has claimed the Scottish Government’s system means access to higher education is based on the “ability to learn, not the ability to pay”.

But the report found that English universities spent more than three times as much as their Scottish peers on financial packages for poor students, thanks to their income from fees.

Education academics from Edinburgh made the damning assessment in a report on widening access to higher education submitted to the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

It came after Ferdinand von Prondzynski, the university principal hand-picked by SNP ministers to review higher education, said abolishing tuition fees has mainly benefited the middle classes.

John Lamont, the Scottish Conservative chief whip, said the findings confirmed that the main factor in whether a child attends university is aspiration, not finance.

“All the SNP’s approach achieves is a hefty bill for the taxpayer, which in itself hinders Scottish students in the long-run,” he said.

The report examined the admission records of English and Scottish universities in helping poor students win places while the fees policies pursued at Westminster and Holyrood have diverged markedly.

In 2008 SNP ministers abolished an endowment graduates had to pay after finding a job but the researchers said this “has not led to increased representation of students from more socially deprived backgrounds in universities.”

In contrast, they said “there has been a slight increase in the proportion of applications from students from poorer backgrounds” in England.

Although English students are charged up to £9,000 per year, they can take out a loan to cover the cost that they do not start repaying until they get a job with a salary of more than £21,000.

The lack of fees in Scotland has meant initiatives to widen access have had “lower priority” and less funding in England, the report found.

English universities devoted £371.5 million to helping the poor in 2010/11 compared to only £10.4 million in Scotland, with the report stating the former figure was “considerably more generous”.

The amount of grants available to poorer Scots has fallen and the funding packages offered north of the Border are virtually the same regardless of the student’s wealth.

The report said tuition fees were a “particularly important issue” when public spending is being squeezed. A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The gap is closing between the most and least disadvantaged, however we accept that we need to do more.

“That is why we have taken action to ensure access to university is based on ability to learn, not the ability to pay and why we do not charge our students tuition fees.”


Australia:  Time for a quiet word about rowdy classes

EVEN the students admit it: Australian schools tend to be on the rowdy side.

About one-third of 15-year-old high school students say their class often ignores what their teacher is saying and about two in five characterise their classrooms as noisy and disorderly.

For almost one in five students, their classroom is so disruptive they find it difficult to work.

Among the 65 countries surveyed by the OECD group of industrialised nations, Australia ranks No 34, just above the average level of disciplined classrooms but behind the US and Britain as well as many Asian and eastern European countries.

Australian classrooms are slightly worse than the average in terms of listening to the teacher, as is Finland, which is one of the top nations in international literacy and numeracy tests including those run by the OECD.

In fact, Finnish classrooms are some of the noisiest in the world, with half the students reporting noise and disorder occurs frequently, bucking the trend that an orderly and quiet classroom is most conducive to high student performance.

The OECD's monthly newsletter focusing on findings from its three-yearly test of 15-year-olds in reading, maths and science -- known as the Program for International Student Assessment -- says the test results show students in orderly classrooms tend to perform better. The impact is more marked for students from socially disadvantaged families, where a well-managed classroom can help students close the gap on their more affluent peers.

Teachers such as Reema Ali say the key to an orderly classroom is ensuring students are engaged in what they are learning.

A social sciences teacher at Randwick Girls High in Sydney's east, Ms Ali says a noisy and out-of-control classroom is more a reflection on the teacher than the students. "I thoroughly believe that classroom management goes hand-in-hand with a range of teaching strategies," she said yesterday. "I care for all types of students, and I adapt what I do for individual students. I try to meet every student's needs."

Some schools that have radically changed the way they teach in recent years, introducing open-plan classrooms enabling students to work in small groups on projects, have counter-intuitively resulted in quieter schools and better behaved students.

For Australian teachers, noise is not necessarily a bad thing; the distinction is between noise that is disruptive from students mucking up, and noise that is constructive from students talking about their work. After more than 40 years teaching, Parramatta Marist High School principal Brother Pat Howlett has had to adjust his expectations of acceptable decibel levels in the classroom.

"I used to think that a quiet classroom was a good classroom, but it gives you no earthly idea to gauge what they're learning," he said.

The deputy principal at Randwick Girls High School, Lance Raskall, agrees. "It's a fine line. You don't want a hush-hush classroom, and constructive noise is good. Engaged students are going to ask questions of the teacher and each other," he said.

Mr Raskall said the technological invasion of schools, particularly the introduction of laptops and interactive whiteboards, had improved students' interest in their lessons, but also raised noise levels.

"It's not chalk and talk anymore; students are exploring as they're talking, they're using the internet and finding out what you're talking about while you're talking," he said. "They're very engaged because it's very relevant and it's in front of them. It's immediate."

Mr Raskall said disadvantaged students were often the highest performers and best behaved, because they knew education was a way to improve their lives, while some students that came from private schools "have not been the best students in the class by any stretch".

The OECD survey is conducted among students who are mostly in Year 9, widely acknowledged as the most challenging year for managing student behaviour and keeping them interested in school.

To address this, Parramatta Marist introduced "project-based learning" in Year 9 about five years ago, in which students work in small groups on projects in their subjects or across more than one subject over a period of weeks. It has been so successful, the school has since expanded the approach to years 7, 8 and 10.


Thursday, October 10, 2013


The sissification of America continues: a middle school in Long Island, New York in Nassau County has banned footballs, baseballs, soccer balls, playing tag or doing cartwheels without a coach during recess because the school is concerned middle-schoolers will get hurt.

CBS 2 reported  that at Weber Middle School in Port Washington, all of the above traditional games are out- and Nerf balls are in. Port Washington schools Supt. Kathleen Maloney said there have been students injured, and claimed, “Some of these injuries can unintentionally become very serious, so we want to make sure our children have fun, but are also protected.”

One student, voicing a time-honored opinion, said, “I think we need the soccer balls, the footballs and everything, so we can have some fun.” Another echoed, “Cartwheels and tag — I think it’s ridiculous they are banning that.” A third chimed in, “You go for recess — that’s your free time to go let loose and recharge,” while a fourth concluded, “That’s all we want to do. We’re in school all day sitting behind the desk learning.”

Long Island Jewish Medical Center emergency room director Dr. Salvatore Pardo said he has been getting middle-schoolers with “head injuries, bumps, scrapes; worried about concussions.”

But Port Washington parent Ellen Cohen disagreed, saying, “Children’s safety is paramount, but at the same time, you have to let them live life.”

Other districts have been in contact with Nassau County educators to gather information about the new safety-first measures.


DoJ Alleges Segregation in Louisiana Schools

In August, Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department initiated a lawsuit against Louisiana, taking issue with the state's school voucher program. Proponents of the system insist that vouchers have helped desegregate schools while bolstering the broader goal of expanding school choice. The DoJ argues the opposite: They claim Louisiana has “impeded the desegregation process,” referring specifically to 34 of the state's school systems. However, a new study from the University of Arkansas' School Choice Demonstration Project isn't likely to help Holder's case.

While the study is not an apples-to-apples comparison, “[T]heir finding actually does a much better job than the DOJ did at assessing whether the program is a good thing for desegregation efforts overall,” explains National Review's Patrick Brennan. “It tries to measure the net impact of the program on integration and segregation, while the DOJ merely identified 34 schools where they say the problem got worse and sued on those grounds, without measuring whether vouchers improved the situation in other places with desegregation orders.”

In short, researchers “find that the vast majority (83 percent) of students transferred reduced the level of segregation at the schools they leave, and the impact on the schools they arrive at is, overall, negligible.” Indeed, this study is similar to other findings that reveal overall positive attributes from districts that take advantage of school vouchers. Children, not agendas, come first when parents' school choice options expand. But don't expect this evidence to give Eric Holder second thoughts.


English schools go backwards: Pupils are worse at maths and literacy than their grandparents

England is the only developed country producing school leavers who are worse at maths and reading than their grandparents, according to a damning report.

The study found 16 to 24-year-olds are among the least literate and numerate in the world, lagging behind those in countries including Estonia, Poland and the Slovak Republic.

England came 22nd out of 24 countries for the reading skills of its young people and 21st for maths, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The figures showed many Japanese school leavers are more advanced than English university graduates.

The OECD said England was the only country where the oldest age group  studied (55-65) had a higher proficiency in  literacy and numeracy than the youngest (16-24) after other factors such as sex, socio-economic background and type of occupation were taken into account.

The organisation warned England would struggle with competitors in global markets unless urgent action was taken.

The Tories said the report exposed the failings of Labour during its 13 years in power. ‘These are Labour’s children, educated under a Labour government and force-fed a diet of dumbing down and low expectations,’ said skills and enterprise minister Matthew Hancock.

Labour came to power in 1997 after Tony Blair pledged his priority would be ‘education, education, education’.

Spending in the sector soared by 78 per cent from £50billion to £89billion by the time the party lost the election in 2010.

During this period, GCSE and A-level grades rose every year, which critics claimed was evidence of dumbing down.

Andreas Schleicher, of the OECD, said young adults had more qualifications than those nearing retirement, but not greater abilities.

This indicated that there had been grade inflation and that qualifications did not necessarily mean better skills.

The finding ‘doesn’t look good for the UK’, Mr Schleicher said.

The 466-page study was the first carried out by the OECD into the work skills of 16  to 65-year-olds, establishing their abilities in literacy, numeracy and problem solving.

A total of 166,000 were interviewed in 24 countries, including 9,000 in England and Northern Ireland. Scotland and Wales were not covered.

The study found a quarter of adults in England (8.5million) have the maths skills of a ten-year-old, with a large minority only able to perform sums with whole numbers.

Literacy levels are also below average, with 16.4 per cent of adults (5.8million) reading at the level of a child in the penultimate year of primary school.

Just 42.4 per cent of young adults were proficient in problem solving. This was around 8 percentage points less than the average of 50.7 per cent, and 21 behind the best-performing country, South Korea.

England produced 8 per cent of the world’s most highly skilled workers in the late 1960s and 70s. This has dropped to 4 per cent and the trend is expected to continue.

The report said the ‘talent pool of highly skilled adults in England... is likely to shrink relative to that of other countries’ in the next few decades.

The slide could be reversed only if ‘significant action is taken to improve skills proficiency among young people’.

England also lags behind other nations in the proportion of people continuing with education into adulthood. One positive note was that the country has been successful in making good use of its pool of skilled talent, resulting in high productivity and wages.

The Coalition has taken steps to improve education, demanding an end to grade inflation and making courses and exams tougher. The number of top GCSE and A-level grades has now decreased for the past two years.

John Allan, of the Federation of Small Businesses, said: ‘The OECD report highlights what our members tell us – that young people don’t have the literacy and numeracy skills to do the job properly. We need action to improve these crucial basic skills from an early age.’

The shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, defended Labour’s record, saying it ‘drove up standards in maths and English across our schools, evident in the huge improvements we saw in GCSE results between 1997 and 2010’.

Mike Harris, of the Institute of Directors, said the report ‘underlines the credibility gap between the picture painted by decades of rises in exam pass rates and employers’ real-world experience of interviewing and employing people’.

Former Labour education and employment secretary David Blunkett questioned the OECD’s methodology and said the report ‘warranted united action, not party political point scoring’.

Education has undergone massive change since Labour began replacing grammar schools with the comprehensive system in 1965.

In 1988 GCSEs replaced O-levels and the National Curriculum was introduced, and in 1997 Labour abolished the Assisted Places Scheme awarding free places at fee-paying schools to gifted children from low or middle-income families.

The academy schools programme began in 2000, with schools funded by the state and made independent of local government control.

In 2010 the Coalition launched free schools, which are similar to academies  but can be set up by groups including parents, teachers, charities.


Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Study: Taxpayer-Funded Charter Schools Cost Less than Public Schools

A new study done by policy group Save Our States has discovered that publicly funded charter schools cost taxpayer less money in New York than traditional public schools - by a margin of more than $3,000 per student.

Why the 24-27 percent discrepancy between charter schools and public schools? The report points to teacher benefits:

 Pensions and health costs for teachers and other staff are substantially higher for the traditional, unionized public schools compared to charters, which offer their employees 401ks rather than more generous defined benefit plans.

The group's study directly challenges a New York City Independent Budget Office study from 2010 that suggested the cost gap between charter schools and more traditional public schools was much more narrow.

According to Harry Wilson, a co-author of the new study and experienced pension expert, the IBO study was "fraudulent" for not measuring employee benefits by the same standards used by corporations.

Both IBO and Save our States are defending their reports. Either way, charter schools will play a critical role in the New York City mayoral election. Democrat Bill de Blasio has been aggressive about charging charter schools rent and has made education reform a core component of his campaign platform. In contrast, Republican Joe Lhota is a passionate charter school advocate and critic of de Blasio's proposals. Although de Blasio is the current favorite in the polls, this new study and the recent pro-charter school/anti-de Blasio endorsement from state education chancellor Merryl Tisch could change the game.

Ultimately, voters will need all of the information on this top priority that they can get.


3 Reasons Obamacare Hurts Low-Income College Students (From One)

Nicole Bailey

Alejandra makes Obamacare sound great. Yet most of the liberal pundits and legislators speaking for socioeconomically disadvantaged kids in school have no idea what it’s like to be one. As a recent grad from that demographic, I have three reasons Obamacare hurts low-income college students:

1. The Individual Mandate is Not Compatible with Financial Aid

Financial aid is based on the difference between an individual’s estimated family contribution (EFC) and cost of attendance (COA). However, the cost of health insurance is rarely considered part of COA. This means kids who have a very low EFC and can barely afford school have to pay insurance premiums thanks to the individual mandate.

Those who say the fee will not apply to struggling students are the most out-of-touch. Not only are scholarship grants over the COA considered taxable income, but the poorest often work while in school and make enough money to be slammed by the fee. The individual mandate was already implemented years ago at most public and private universities – it has already done damage to the most financially needy students.

2. Keeping Parents’ Plans Until Age 26 Hurts the Poor

Most Supporters claim Obamacare will increase competition among insurance companies to provide low-cost plans to the poor who were suffering before—a true bleeding-heart story. Yet the provision that children are covered by their parents’ plan until age 26 hurts the poor the most.

The worst off parents don’t have health insurance and will likely opt to pay the $95 fee. As a result, the rich kids will relax and have several years out of college to find a job with benefits while the poor kids (whom Obamacare claims to help the most) will be forced to sign up for whatever plans are left over before the higher $695 fee hits.

3. The Economic Fallout Makes College Less Valuable

For most wealthy families, college is a given. Poor families, however, often send their children to college with great sacrifice – even if the student earns a full ride there are difficulties: perhaps the student was expected to work in the family business, look after many siblings, or add to the household income. This is especially true for first-generation students. It is difficult, but it is also a time-honored part of the American Dream.

The American Dream is at stake. If Obamacare continues to cause employers to avoid hiring the 50th worker and cut back on employment hours, then the prospects for college graduates will only go from bleak to worse. A low-income student may weigh the odds and simply decide it’s not worth it anymore.


Unqualified staff used to teach British pupils on the cheap: Union claims assistants and support workers are called in as cover

Schools are teaching on the cheap by using unqualified staff, a teachers’ union claims.  Teaching assistants and support staff are being drafted in to take classes, according to the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL).

It says many are asked to provide cover for teachers, with some taking lessons for three days or more.

It questioned 1,435 of its school support members in state-funded schools in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man.  They are often hired to oversee classes while teachers are doing work such as lesson planning.

Some 25.4 per cent of the teaching assistants and learning support workers questioned, 49.1 per cent of higher level teaching assistants and 96.1 per cent of cover supervisors said they were asked to cover lessons. 

Of all of those surveyed, two-fifths said they had been asked to provide more or the same amount of cover for absent teachers in 2012/13 than the year before.  The rest said they had been asked to provide less, or the question was not relevant.

Of more than 400 who said that they stand in for teachers when they are off more than two-thirds said they are asked to cover short-term absences of less than three days.

But 2.9% of teaching assistants, 1% of cover supervisors and 8.1% of higher level teaching assistants claimed they are asked to cover for longer absences.

One higher level teaching assistant said: ‘I prepare, teach and mark at least four lessons for two Year 7 bottom-set classes, and a Year 8 set for at least three hours a week. It is teaching on the cheap.’

And a teaching assistant at an English primary school said: 'It is unfair that many TAs are teaching classes in the absence of a teacher, and doing the same job as a teacher for much less money.'

ATL general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: 'Schools are selling children short by using teaching assistants to teach classes when the regular teacher is unavailable.  'We are totally opposed to this exploitation of support staff who are being used as a cheap option to teachers.

'It is grossly unfair on them and on the children and their parents who rightly expect their children to be taught by qualified teachers.'

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: 'The Government's recent review of school efficiency showed that, when properly trained and deployed, teaching assistants play an important role in helping to improve learning.

'But the rules are clear - they should not be teaching. It is for school leaders to use the expertise of all staff to ensure any disruption to pupils is minimal and that taxpayers get value for money.'


Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Baltimore Superintendent Acknowledges Common Core is a Catastrophe

Robert Small is a prophet. The Baltimore parent, who was arrested when he questioned his district and state school leaders in violation of meeting rules two weeks ago, tried to warn us that Common Core would be a disaster in Baltimore County.

Baltimore Superintendent Dallas Dance wouldn’t admit it at the time, but he obviously understood the same fact.  So maybe that’s why Small was arrested?

The Baltimore Sun reports that Dance sent a letter this week to teachers, acknowledging the “glitches” in the rollout of Common Core academic standards this fall, saying they would be worked out and that everyone will adjust.

In the letter, he also acknowledged that the development and implementation of the program has been rushed and out of sync.  “We are building the plane as we fly it,” he said, adding, “but let's be clear our passengers are safe.”

That’s the same analogy Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis used for Common Core, and she’s not a big fan of the program.

No one would fly in a plane that isn’t fully constructed or tested before taking off, but that’s exactly what the Gates Foundation, the federal government, Jeb Bush and schools across the country are expecting our students and teachers to do.

Meanwhile, the Sun reports Baltimore County teachers received their Common Core-aligned curriculum just days before the new school year, they’ve had problems accessing necessary materials online and school officials “are still writing” some lessons.

Parent Carmita Vogel said the school district’s “approach to this is shoddy at best.”

“I can feel the high levels of anxiety throughout our organization,” Dance says in the letter, according to Fox 45. “Please know that I understand what is occurring throughout education is indeed challenging...I wanted to make sure that I work with teachers in bringing down that anxiety level around all the initiatives that are in fact taking place.”

Buckle up. If the plane even makes it off the ground, it promises to be a bumpy ride. And rest assured the school employees will put their oxygen masks on first before assisting others.


No place for Jesus in England's Religious Education, but there’s always Gandhi

By Cristina Odone

Aged eight, my daughter knew that she must take her shoes off when entering a mosque. But ask her to recite the Ten Commandments, and she couldn’t. This, despite being at a Catholic state primary. I wasn’t too surprised, therefore, to learn that religious education in state schools is inadequate – so much so that Ofsted claims most pupils don’t know who Jesus was.

This is not a metropolitan, or even a British, phenomenon. One irate mother tweeted last night that in her child’s primary school in Ireland, RE consisted of watching videos of Gandhi. (In his Ben Kingsley reincarnation, I am willing to bet.)

I have nothing against the Mahatma, who probably does come as close to holiness as human beings can get. But if Gandhi deserves a role in RE, Jesus should star. This is a Christian country, not a Hindu one.

Yet Jesus is being sidelined, and His teachings with Him. If we treat the nation’s religion so casually, as if we valued it no more and no  less than an inspiring human rights campaigner, it stands to reason that we should erase it from serious places such as the courtroom.

It becomes perfectly legitimate for judges to propose to remove the Bible from the court – which is what they plan to do next month. Henceforth, they suggest, when witnesses have to swear to tell the truth, they’ll just hold up their hand and… and what? Cross their hearts and hope to die? Mouth the Scouts’ pledge, now that God’s been banned from that, too?

Christianity was once the lingua franca in the West. Today, it is as exotic as Shiva, Ganesha and Kali, of Gandhi’s Hindu faith.

Sadly, ignorance often feeds hostility. Grown-ups unschooled in the basics of their religion – the catechism, say, or the parables of the New Testament – are suspicious of its influence. Their discomfort grows with talk, now unfamiliar, of sin and Judgment Day. Jesus may be hailed as meek and mild, but his message sounds scary to an audience used to the comforting tut-tuts of their shrink, or the happy pill sold by their GP.

Far easier to quash such disturbing talk and banish the trouble-makers. Or, at least, warn them not to pipe up in public with their puritanical notions.

I wrote about this recently in my ebook No God Zone. In the course of my research, I interviewed men and women who had learnt that religion had become a secret pastime to practise behind closed doors. Each one had to choose between their work and their faith – or between the boss and God. They included a nurse, a couples’ counsellor and a pharmacist.

They had hoped that the state, which pays lip service to freedom of conscience, would exempt them from doing what they held to be wrong. The pharmacist who didn’t believe in abortion, for instance, wanted to be exempt from selling the morning-after pill; the couples’ counsellor who didn’t believe in gay marriage wanted to be exempt from advising a homosexual couple. They were disabused of this blind hope when they were sacked, suspended from their job, or humiliated in public. In effect, a number of professions now are closed to believers.

But, as the judges’ proposal proves, ignorance of religion affects lives beyond the workplace. People’s identity, not just their job, is at stake. Who are we, and what do we believe in?

When Christianity was at the centre of British life, that answer was clear – from classroom to courtroom. Not everyone practised, or believed, in the nation’s Church. But they knew what it stood for. Today, few can distinguish between Jesus and Gandhi, or Shiva and Yahweh. That’s not multiculturalism, but the hollowing out of culture. We are the poorer for it.


Paxman: teaching history through Blackadder is 'stupid'

The "astonishing" trend of teaching history through episodes of Blackadder has shrouded modern understanding of the First World War, Jeremy Paxman has said, as he condemns prevailing theories about "bone-headed generals" as "plain stupid".

Speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, he said the war was now understood through a "prism" created by poetry and television, with generally-accepted theories about hopeless military generals just wrong.

He has now written a book entitled Great Britain's Great War: A Sympathetic History of Our Gravest Folly.

"I wanted in this book to go back and to try understand some of the thoughts and motivations of the people who were there at the time," said Paxman.  "I'm trying to get beyond that great prism that has shrouded our view of the world. I think that there were noble things that happened during that war as the there were ignoble things, of course.

"But to see it simply as a case of bone-headed generals condemning millions of men to their death because they wanted somehow to lose the battle strikes me as just plain stupid.

"So what I wanted to do it to set out to reexamine what people thought they were doing in the First World War."

He added: "“The assumption seems to be that somehow the war was lost, that it was all pointless sacrifice; that somehow that all of these lives were lost for no purpose.

“It was a terrible thing and there was a terrible loss of life.  “I think we owe these people a duty of respect. We should acknowledge that they did something that they thought was right at the time and that for which they did not think there was an alternative.

“We should pull back the filter through which we see these events and try to see it as these people saw it at the time.”

When asked why the "Blackadder" approach had been so widely accepted by a younger generation, Paxman suggested the arts had helped people understand the war more easily than bare historical facts.

"I think it's much easier to imagine the a First World War with the help of other people's imagination," he said. "I think we have become accustomed to seeing the First World War as poetry rather than history.

"It's actually quite difficult to comprehend from our perspective why so many people could have kept faith with this enterprise."


Monday, October 07, 2013

Common Core Roundup from Tennessee

The Tennessee legislature is holding hearings on Common Core, national education standards and tests in math and English that 46 states, including Tennessee, have adopted.

In 2012, approximately 16 states reconsidered Common Core. Some lawmakers, professors, consultants, and teachers argue this would take states a step backward, because, they say, Common Core is rigorous and internationally benchmarked. Pairing these standards with national tests funded exclusively by the federal government as enforcement, they say, will improve student achievement and accelerate innovation by creating a national market for education materials.

Those concerned about the Common Core point out no state, school district, or even school has ever used it. The standards are entirely experimental. Because those on Common Core’s own validation committee were never given research demonstrating student achievement will indeed be improved by what Common Core demands of students, several refused to sign off on the project. The international benchmarking claim essentially consists of two sentences saying a handful of countries also require students to use evidence in their writing, rather than a thoughtful comparison of Common Core and its major points to international bests. Education standards experts say Common Core is at best mediocre, making it a massive waste of time and money for teachers and schools.

One of the central objections to Common Core is loss of state and local control and flexibility over what children will learn, even in private and home schools, since all major tests including college entrance exams are aligning to Common Core and these will feed into national student databases states are constructing. One set of national learning models cannot possibly accommodate 50 million children’s diverse learning needs.

The following documents offer more information about Common Core in Tennessee.

Common Core: Higher Standard or Government Overreach?
The Shelbyville Times-Gazette covers the Tennessee debate over Common Core, which has some praising better academics for kids and others criticizing increases in federal intervention. As parents, teachers, and lawmakers have learned more about the strings attached to the standards, they have begun to raise questions, prompting a September 19 and 20 hearing in Nashville.

Common Core Critics Call for Timeout on Tougher Standards
Democrats and Republicans in Tennessee seem to agree they’d like to at least pause Common Core, reports The Tennessean. Democrats are concerned about the strings tied to testing, and Republicans express concerns about federal overreach tied to the standards. A number of states have dropped the national Common Core tests, largely over cost concerns. Common Core tests are currently slated to add $2 million to Tennessee’s testing costs, not including the technology required. The state already has significantly upgraded its own tests in the past two years, says Harvard fellow Paul Peterson. 

Tip Sheet: Common Core Standards
This one-page tip sheet summarizes the background of and arguments regarding Common Core. It concludes, “States should replace Common Core with higher-quality, state-controlled academic standards and tests not funded by the federal government. They should secure student data privacy and ensure national testing mandates do not affect instruction in private and home schools.”

Common Core in Tennessee: A Race to the Middle?
Large special-interest groups and the federal government created and pushed states into Common Core education standards, explains Tennessee Rep. Scott Desjarlais. Tennessee’s previous academic standards were of similar quality to Common Core, making this massive change for little improvement a waste of tax funds. And no one in the states has authority to amend or improve Common Core, making it a mire of good intentions.

The Hidden Cost of Common Core Testing in Tennessee: Computers
State officials are just now beginning to survey schools on whether they have the technology in place to issue online Common Core tests in 2014–2015, reports Nashville Public Radio. School leaders are concerned about where they’ll find the money for those computers and how they’ll make kids familiar with testing online so they’re not at a disadvantage when they take the tests.

Were Tennessee Poll Participants Asked About Common Core Data Mining?
A poll showing general support in Tennessee for Common Core did not release what information poll respondents were given, but other polls show heavily leading language, writes Kyle Olson on The poll also did not ask about the student data-mining associated with Common Core, which many people find highly objectionable.

Education Dept. Helps Leak Students’ Personal Data
States and schools are signing over private data from millions of students to companies and researchers who hope to glean secrets of the human mind, writes Joy Pullmann in the Washington Examiner. Standardized tests are beginning to incorporate psychological and behavioral assessment. Every state is also building databases to collect and share such information among agencies and companies, and the U.S. Department of Education has recently reinterpreted federal privacy laws so that schools and governments don’t have to tell parents their kids’ information has been shared. This leads to great danger for student privacy. Pullmann recommends states take three actions: Ensure all student records are anonymous when sent outside their schools, give parents and students full access to their information and ability to correct it, and evaluate and reinforce security against hacking and data loss.

National Cost of Aligning States and Localities to the Common Core Standards
Implementation of the Common Core standards is likely to represent substantial additional expense for most states, concludes this analysis by AccountabilityWorks. Although a handful of states have begun to analyze these costs, most have signed on to the initiative without a thorough, public vetting of the costs and benefits. In particular, there has been very little attention to the potential technology infrastructure costs that currently cash-strapped districts may face in order to implement the Common Core assessments within a reasonable testing window. The analysts estimate Common Core will cost taxpayers $16 billion to implement nationwide.

Following the Money: A Tennessee Education Spending Primer
The amount that Tennessee taxpayers already spend on public education is significantly underreported, finds this report from the Beacon Center of Tennessee. Although the average stated amount spent per pupil is $9,123 per year, the true figure is about 11 percent more, or $10,088 per student. Of that funding, less than 54 percent is directed at classroom instruction, such as teacher salaries, textbooks, and other instructional spending. And that figure is in constant decline, whereas administrative spending is on the upswing. Since 2000, the number of administrators in Tennessee’s education system has grown by 34.5 percent, while the number of teachers has increased by less than 17 percent, and the number of students has grown by just 7 percent. Administrators’ salaries also have outpaced those of teachers during that time period.

Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness, and the Common Core
There is strong evidence that instructional materials play a pivotal role in student learning and, compared to more popular reforms like merit pay and school turnarounds, changing them for the better is easy, inexpensive, and quick, conclude Matthew Chingos and Grover Whitehurst in a report for the Brookings Institution. Very little research has been done on available curriculum to determine its effectiveness, and it’s practically impossible to determine what curriculum is the most widely used, because no one keeps such statistics. Without more information on what curriculum schools use and how well it instructs students, initiatives like the Common Core will not improve learning and the core of student learning will continue to be ignored, to students’ detriment.

The Common Core Math Standards
Common Core math standards are longer, less demanding, more confusing, and repetitive, says former U.S. Department of Education official Ze’ev Wurman in an interview for the journal EducationNext. In short, they are mediocre nationally and internationally. The standards also drop essential math content such as converting fractions to decimals, and they delay algebra until high school, although high-achieving countries and states expect students to do algebra in grade 8. The authors of Common Core math standards had little experience constructing standards, he notes, and it shows. The standards consistently put students behind international bests by a grade or two in the elementary years, and a full two years behind in high school.

How Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness at Risk
Common Core’s standards for English language arts, their organization, and their division make it unlikely American students will study a meaningful range of significant literary works in high school and learn something about their own literary tradition before graduation, conclude Sandra Stotsky and Mark Bauerlein in this Pioneer Institute paper. The Core’s diminishing emphasis on literary study will also prevent students from acquiring a rich understanding and use of the English language. Its stress on more informational reading also will likely lead to a decrease in students’ capacity for analytical thinking. The paper recommends ways for states and schools to make the best of and improve these deficiencies in Common Core’s English language arts requirements.

The Road to a National Curriculum
In three short years, the Obama administration has placed the nation on the road to a national curriculum. Through Race to the Top grants, the U.S. Department of Education has accelerated the implementation of common standards in English language arts and mathematics and the development of common tests based on those standards. By the admission of these two federally funded Common Core testing consortia, Common Core standards and assessments will create content for state K-12 curriculum and instructional materials. Three federal laws expressly prohibit this, note two former top U.S. Department of Education lawyers in this policy brief for the Pioneer Institute.

How Well Are American Students Learning?
A series of data analyses from the Brookings Institution find no link between high state standards and high student achievement. “Every state already has standards placing all districts and schools within its borders under a common regime. And despite that, every state has tremendous within-state variation in achievement,” says the latest such report. Based on every state’s experience with standards and corresponding tests over the past 30 years, the study authors see no evidence to believe Common Core will improve student achievement.

The Common Core: A Poor Choice For States
In this Heartland Institute Policy Brief, Heartland Research Fellow Joy Pullmann reveals some major weaknesses of the Common Core, using a host of footnoted evidence. The program represents a major centralization of control over curriculum, contrary to the American tradition of decentralized control and funding. Instead of being “world class,” the standards represent a significant step back from what experts say are the standards America really needs. And they are tied to large expansions of data collection on students and erosion of privacy rights.


Sunday, October 06, 2013

GA: City schools requesting AR-15s to defend their students

Some of the anti-gun activists have recommended we protect students in schools with bullet proof dry erase boards and laws which criminals are supposed to respect.  But these tactics really just make the students sitting ducks in an active shooter scenario. has reported that a northeast Georgia school district is asking for Colt 6920 M4 carbine rifles, which are law enforcement versions of the civilian AR-15.    These rifles can carry 30-60 round magazines and have shorter barrels making them perfect for tactical deployment.

    "The Colt 6920 M4 carbine rifles — one for each school — would be locked in the vehicles of school resource officers when the schools aren’t in session."

The safes where the guns are stored will be accessible by fingerprint recognition, and access to the rifles would only be granted to the school’s resource officer.

Gainesville police approached the schools about the idea in April after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut.


Some schools drop out of lunch program

The Agriculture Department says 524 schools — out of about 100,000 — have dropped out of the federally subsidized national school lunch program since the government introduced new standards for healthier foods last year.

The new standards have met with grumbling from school nutrition officials who say they are difficult and expensive to follow, conservatives who say the government shouldn't be dictating what kids eat and — unsurprisingly — from some children who say the less-greasy food doesn't taste as good. But USDA says the vast majority of schools are serving healthier food, with some success.

According to USDA data released Monday, around a half-percent of schools have dropped out since last year. Ninety of those 524 schools that have dropped out said specifically that they did so because of the new meal-plan requirements. Most of the rest did not give a reason.

Eighty percent of schools say they have already met the requirements, which went into place at the beginning of the 2012 school year.

"It's important to remember that some schools weren't as close to meeting the new standards, and they may need a little more time for their students to fully embrace the new meals," said Dr. Janey Thornton, the USDA deputy undersecretary in charge of the school meals. She said it is clear that the majority of schools think the new standards are working.

In an effort to stem high childhood obesity levels, the new guidelines set limits on calories and salt, and they phase in more whole grains in federally subsidized meals served in schools' main lunch line. Schools must offer at least one vegetable or fruit per meal and comply with a variety of other specific nutrition requirements. The rules aim to introduce more nutrients to growing kids and also to make old favorites healthier — pizza with low-fat cheese and whole-wheat crust, for example, or baked instead of fried potatoes.

If schools do not follow the rules, or if they drop out, they are not eligible for the federal dollars that reimburse them for free and low-cost meals served to low-income students. That means wealthier schools with fewer needy students are more likely to be able to operate outside of the program.

Some school nutrition officials have said buying the healthier foods put a strain on their budgets. A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts' Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project, also released Monday, said that 91 percent of school food officials the group surveyed said they face challenges in putting the standards in place, including problems with food costs and availability, training employees to follow the new guidelines, and a lack of the proper equipment to cook healthier meals.

The group said almost all schools they surveyed had expected to meet the requirements by the end of last year. Even though some schools are still working out the kinks, "It shows that this is certainly doable," said Jessica Donze Black, director of the Pew project, which has lobbied for healthier foods.

Leah Schmidt, president of the School Nutrition Association and director of nutrition programs at a Kansas City, Mo. school district, said any schools that would consider forgoing the federal funds would have to have very few students eating the free and reduced-cost meals.

She said it is to be expected that some schools have met challenges.

"Any time you have something new, you're going to have some growing pains," she said.

Dr. Howell Wechsler, the CEO of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a group that is aiming to reduce childhood obesity, said that though some schools are still working to catch up, many have exceeded the standards. The alliance has worked with more than 18,000 schools in all 50 states, and Wechsler says many are thinking of creative ways to encourage healthy eating, like holding walk-a-thons or farmers' markets to raise money instead of bake sales.

He said that many of the schools have reported better academic performance and less student sick days as a result.

"Just about all of the schools that participate with us they say there is a difference," Wechsler said.

As some schools struggled to follow the new guidelines at the beginning of the last school year, USDA relaxed some of the original requirements. In December, the department did away with daily and weekly limits on meats and grains that school nutrition officials said were too hard to follow.

Congress has also had its say on the standards. In 2011, after USDA first proposed them, Congress prohibited the department from limiting potatoes and French fries and allowed school lunchrooms to continue counting tomato paste on pizza as a vegetable.

The school lunch rules apply to federally subsidized lunches served at reduced or no cost to low-income children. Those meals have always been subject to nutritional guidelines because they are partially paid for by the federal government, but the new rules put broader restrictions on what could be served as childhood obesity rates have skyrocketed.

Schoolchildren can still buy additional foods in other parts of the lunchroom and the school. Separate USDA rules to make those foods healthier could go into effect as soon as next year.


'I cannot afford to give my children the education I had – the fees are simply too steep’

A British lament

Is there anything more fraught with anxiety for the middle-class parent than the question of what school to send your child to? The divide between state and independent schools makes this worse. There is a fear, held particularly by those who were privately educated themselves, that state schools are not good enough, and that your child will get bored or – worse – go off the rails.

I’m a fairly representative example of this worry. I benefited from a highly academic education at private schools. But now that I have children of my own, I cannot afford to give them what I had. The fees are simply too steep.

Even if we could educate one child privately, by making superhuman economies or borrowing money, to put all three through public school could require up to £100,000 a year of spare cash – which we don’t have.

And what if we were to select only one child for the de-luxe education? How would the others feel about it as they got older, especially if they had had a bad time at their state school? Might they not grow to resent their parents, and their favoured sibling?

The idea is bandied about that by “making sacrifices” – shopping at Lidl and cutting out fancy holidays – you can afford private schools. I’m not sure how realistic that is. You might run out of cash halfway through – then face the awful prospect of having to drag little Jamie out of his cushy public school and plonk him in the rough comprehensive up the road.

Something has definitely shifted. The kind of privileged education that I and lots of other middle-class parents enjoyed seems more out of reach than ever, the preserve of a super-class. Back in the Eighties, I remember my father, a surgeon in Shropshire, paying about £900 a term for me to go to Rugby. (Admittedly, I received a 50 per cent discount for getting a scholarship.) Today, if you want to send a child to Rugby, it will set you back £10,415 a term.

That is a lot of money to find out of taxed income. And it’s a problem for the schools, too, I’d argue, because if “solid English families” (to use one headmaster’s phrase) can no longer afford these great institutions, they risk losing their distinctive character.

All I’m looking for is a bargain-basement school offering first-rate teaching but none of the frills that push up fees in the facilities “arms race”. Forget the Olympic-sized swimming pool, as long as there are inspiring teachers who think there’s nothing their pupils can’t achieve.

Meanwhile, we entrust our children to the state and try to remember that the important thing is to make sure they’re happy. And when lots of pushy middle-class parents colonise a school, supporting it and bringing an appetite for rigour and competition, standards are driven up. That is a good outcome for state schools – and all their pupils.