Friday, January 31, 2014

Are Opportunity Scholarships the Way of the Future?

It’s National School Choice week so it’s fitting that Jason Stverak, who is president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, argued yesterday at The Hill that it’s high-time we finally have a national conversation about expanding educational opportunities in this country. He writes that while young Americans applying to colleges and universities have a wide range of options to pick and choose from, oftentimes poor children in grades K-12 have no other choice but to attend their local (and failing) public school. Hence a wide range of educational options modeled on the higher education model, he insists, is necessary to meet the diverse and changing demands of American families:

    While far from perfect, the American higher education system is the envy of the modern world. But with our K-12 system lagging well behind those of many other industrialized nations, we continue to cling to the policies of the past, letting government decide which schools parents are allowed to send their children to. It’s long past time to apply the college mentality to elementary, middle, and high schools, and allow parents to “shop” for these schools with their own tax money to find the best fit for their children.

    The American K-12 education system faces perhaps the most daunting task of any in the world. Over 70 million children live in the United States, and they come from every background imaginable, speaking dozens of languages at home, and growing up in settings as varied as urban New York, rural North Dakota, and the melting pot of California. With the most demographically diverse youth population in the world, it would be unreasonable to expect any singular educational program to be able to adequately meet the needs of each of these children.

In other words, the one-size-fits-all approach is not feasible or realistic. So what is the answer? Opportunity scholarships, he argues:

    Opportunity scholarships can solve this problem. These programs, which are working to great effect in states like Indiana and Louisiana, return parents’ educational tax contribution to them in the form of a scholarship that can be used at any accredited school--much as Pell Grants and other forms of federal financial aid can be used at any public or private college. With the money that they’ve already spent on education back in their hands, parents can truly assume control over their children’s futures, and compare the attributes of various schools against each other. Families might choose a large public high school for one child, a small school specializing in arts for another, and a partially-online charter school for a third, all without having to dip into their savings. Moreover, as the cost of educating a child outside a traditional public school is often lower than present per-pupil spending, opportunity scholarships save school districts money, allowing them to reinvest in teachers, facilities, and technology.

    School choice isn’t just an educational or economic issue however--it’s a moral one. The right school can permanently change a child’s life for the better and open up a world of opportunities, and for many low-income families, the present system keeps that school just out of their reach. Opportunity scholarships can shatter this unjust ceiling.

The president will focus tonight on income inequality in his State of the Union Address, which of course significantly impacts inequities in public schools. After all, how is it morally permissible that poor children are routinely forced to attend schools that aren’t up to par? Why can’t they attend a different school, or perhaps continue their studies in the home? Each child is different, and therefore tailoring their educational needs to the right school is paramount. This decision, too, must be placed in the hands of parents, who understand far better than any politician or government agency what is best for their children.

Republicans and Democrats both believe in strengthening U.S. public schools, and providing more opportunity to all. But how can that happen unless American families are given the freedom and opportunity to send their kids to the schools where they are most likely to succeed? Until that happens, a generation of young people will continue to be trapped in a system that perpetuates inequality and poverty.

School choice is one possible avenue to give all children, to borrow a line from Lincoln, "an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life."


British children face nine-hour school days and shorter holidays

Children face being at school for nine hours a day and see their holidays cut drastically under plans being examined by the Conservatives.

The proposals, drawn up by David Cameron's former policy chief Paul Kirby, would see school days extended to run from about 9am until 6pm, from the current hours of around 8.30am to 3.10pm.

Holidays would also be reduced from 13 weeks to seven.

Mr Kirby told The Sun that it would solve a wide range of issues, "transforming the lives of most households in the UK within two years".

The newspaper suggested the extended days could reduce youth crime, boost education standards and prepare children for the world of work by getting them used to full days.

It would also allow parents to return to full-time work.

Tory ministers are examining the plans, which would apply to all children between the ages of five and 18, in time for the party's 2015 general election manifesto.

Mr Kirby told the newspaper: "This is a once in a generation reset that wouldn't detract from the current school freedom agenda. It also involves dramatically expanding what schools actually do – into sport and other activities.

"It would also go a long way to solving the crisis around childcare affordability, a major issue for many parents."

Kirby, who now works for KPMG as a partner, said the move would be popular with teachers and give pupils time to catch up with their international competitors.



Start careers advice in primary schools, say business leaders

A leading business group today called on the Government to help address the gap in employability skills which exists among many young people leaving education.

In a major new report, the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) have set out ways to transform the education system, calling for a partnership between Ofsted and businesses to ensure that schools are being assessed not just on academic achievement, but also on how they prepare their pupils for work.

In these proposals, Ofsted would look at what schools are doing to coordinate work experience, and what business contacts schools provide young people with.

The manifesto also calls for an early start to careers education and a new universal qualification that assesses literacy, numeracy, ICT and foreign languages.

Nora Senior, president of the BCC said: “Businesses are concerned about the employability of young people leaving education and coming into the workplace, they are concerned both about attitude and aptitude. Employment may be rising – there are currently 30.15 million people in work – but there is still a worrying trend of youth unemployment.

“Successive governments and education establishments have failed young people by not ensuring that they are properly equipped for the world of work."

A detailed policy paper on in-work training will be published later this year. However, the big changes suggested by the BCC are in careers education and measurement.

The report, which highlights the “skills mismatch” described by many UK employers, advocates early careers advice and business engagement for primary school children, starting at Key Stage 2.

John Wastnage, head of employment and skills at the BCC, said: “I don’t think you can start careers advice too early. You can make education relevant by showing that working hard at school helps you to pay for a holiday, for example.”

A universal qualification, based on the music exam model, has also been suggested to replace traditional GCSEs in key subjects.

Speaking about the proposed qualification, Mr Wastnage said: “We are talking about a completely new assessment system for these four functional skills that employers are looking for: literacy, numeracy, ICT and foreign languages.

“Grade one would be taken at the end of primary school, aged 11, but children could progress at different speeds.

“There needs to be a shift in education to make it as much about employability as it is about academic achievement. If you measure schools on the employment outcomes of their pupils, then there is a much stronger incentive for schools to work with the local business community to develop the skills that employers are looking for.”

The BCC's new manifesto says that while employers do not expect the education system to produce "fully-formed skilled workers", they do require basic building blocks.

"Many employers are confused by the wide range of different qualifications and frequent changes to the system by successive governments and struggle to equate particular grades with skills relevant to their business," it says.

The new qualification being proposed by the BCC would aim to test, among other things, whether young people can write a formal email or a business report.

The Skills and Employment manifesto is published in the week that a major inquiry chaired by Sir Roy Anderson, former rector of Imperial College London, criticised “outdated” A-levels which fail to prepare teenagers for university and the workplace.

The report, Making Education Work, claimed that too many sixth-formers left school with poor levels of writing, basic numeracy, critical thinking, problem-solving, time management and an inability to work independently, and recommended a shift towards a baccalaureate-style qualification.

Following on from the manifesto, the BCC will write to Matthew Hancock, Minister for Skills and Enterprise and Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, inviting them to call a summit to bring together Government, education employers and trade unions in order to take this initiative to the next stage to “develop a long term sustainable solution for employability”.


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