Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Rotten to the Core

Instead of ill-conceived standards, improve schools with vouchers and competition

Americans expect more individualization, from flexible workplace schedules and telecommuting, to TV programs that can be watched at viewers’ convenience.

Yet American education is moving in the opposite direction toward one-size-fits-all schooling thanks in no small part to the Common Core national standards. Savvy education consumers should reject this growing centralization and start demanding from education what they demand from every other industry sector: more innovation and personalization.

Common Core was publicized as a state-led, voluntary initiative, but it was actually an offer states couldn’t refuse if they wanted their share of billions of federal education dollars. Now that most states have signed on, they’re getting more—and less—than they bargained for.

Common Core is supposed to provide a consistent understanding of what students should know to be college-and career-ready. But it turns out Common Core’s standards are no more rigorous than the average state standards were. Worse, new Common Core-aligned tests cost state taxpayers about twice as much their previous standard tests.

Experts who served on the Common Core Validation Committee also warn that academic rigor was compromised to get political buy-in from the various interest groups involved—including teachers unions. For example, the only math-content expert, Stanford University mathematics Professor Emeritus James Milgram, explained that questionable content decisions were approved to make Common Core standards “acceptable to the special interest groups involved.” Milgram concluded that the Common Core is “in large measure a political document” that is watered down—not strengthened by practices used in high-achieving countries.

Another Validation Committee member, University of Arkansas Professor Sandra Stotsky who was in charge of revising K-12 standards in Massachusetts (considered the strongest nationwide) together with former U.S. Department of Education senior policy adviser Ze’ev Wurman, also warn that Common Core’s notion of college- and career-readiness “may decrease, not increase, student achievement,” in large part because it’s geared toward minimal competencies such as graduating high school or avoiding remedial classes at two-year community colleges.

Unsurprisingly, the approved curriculum is advancing a partisan political agenda, showcasing pro-labor union and pro-universal health care materials, along with more graphic, adult-themed books under the auspices of promoting diversity and toleration. The problems don’t stop there.

Non-academic, personal information is also being collected through federally-subsidized Common Core testing consortia about students and their parents, including family income, political affiliation, religion, and students’ disciplinary records—all without parental consent. That information, including Social Security numbers of students in at least one state, is being shared with third-party data collection firms, prompting a growing number of parents to opt their children out of Common Core.

Ultimately, Common Core rests on the faulty premise that one centralized entity knows what’s best for all 55 million students nationwide. Of course, children need to learn the basics, but there are better ways of accomplishing that goal than embracing a national curriculum developed by Washington.

Parental choice programs, for example, educate students to high standards, without limiting the diverse schooling options needed to meet their unique needs. Importantly, unlike rigid federal mandates, these programs provide real, immediate accountability: parents can enroll or transfer their children to different schools if they believe their current schools aren’t performing.

This year, nearly 245,000 students are attending schools of their parents’ choice through 32 voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs operating in 16 states and D.C., as well as one educational savings account program in Arizona. Scientific research consistently shows that participating students have higher graduation and college attendance rates, as well as higher reading and math scores, than their peers.

These are compelling findings, especially since students participating in parental choice programs are overwhelmingly from low-income families and had previously attended underperforming or failing public schools.

Importantly, private schools get results without the inflexibility of a cookie-cutter system. They offer an array of curricular choices, from Montessori to back-to-basics. Not only do most private schools administer standardized tests and report results directly to parents, they also report information that’s most important to parents, including student-teacher ratios, course descriptions and college acceptance rates.

Regardless of the particular academic program offered, private schools must continue offering rigorous academics children need and parents think are best—or risk losing students to other schools.

Washington doesn’t make schools accountable. Parents do. Washington doesn’t improve school performance. Competition for students does. Parental choice ensures high standards and encourages the customization students need to succeed in school and beyond—without all the cost, compromised rigor or political agendas.


Ten children a day are kicked out of British schools for having weapons: Pupils and teachers attacked with pepper spray, chisels and knuckledusters in string of incidents

Ten children a day are suspended or expelled from school because of incidents involving weapons including knives, air guns, chisels and knuckledusters.

Pupils and teachers were threatened or attacked in a string of incidents over the past year, some involving pepper spray and razor blades, a disturbing survey has found.

In Essex, a pupil took a knife to school and held it to another child’s throat. Another pupil was expelled for throwing a fire extinguisher at a headmaster.

A child in Leicester stole the emergency hammer from a school minibus and threatened fellow pupils with it.

And in Birmingham, pupils were disciplined for bringing machetes, knives and pepper spray to school. One student was expelled for whipping his teacher with a rope, while another attacked a fellow student with a knuckleduster.

In West Sussex, a student was suspended after attacking two pupils with a chisel. In Croydon, South London, a pupil shot another with a BB air gun.

A survey of councils in England after a Freedom of Information request found 57 out of 150 had received reports from local schools of pupils excluded temporarily or permanently for incidents involving weapons, many of them potentially lethal. Altogether last year there were 594 incidents.

But only a third of councils hold this information as they are not required to by the Department for Education, so across the country the total would be around 1,800 – or ten children per school day.

Academies and free schools do not supply information about incidents at school to their council.

Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education and a former state school history teacher and headmaster of a successful prep school, said: ‘Schools should be safe and secure places for staff and pupils.

'Where violence reigns, self-preservation, not education, is the order of the day. The fact is there are few deterrents for delinquent kids.

‘A child who is a danger to others in school should be educated in an isolation unit until we can be fairly sure that he or she no longer poses a threat.’

The greatest number of violent incidents at schools during the 2012/13 academic year – by both adults and children – was in London which had 112, followed by 14 in the West Midlands.

Tower Hamlets council in East London had a report of a pupil coming to school armed with four replica guns and ammunition.

The Daily Mail revealed earlier this year that 40 primary school pupils are expelled for attacking staff every day. There were 8,000 expulsions in just one year – a 15 per cent rise in 12 months.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: ‘It is totally unacceptable for pupils to threaten other pupils and teachers with weapons.

‘That is why we have put  teachers back in charge of  discipline. Teachers can now issue no-notice detentions, search pupils without consent for weapons, and use force to remove disruptive pupils from the classroom.’


Keeping Teachers in the Classroom

Given our still-sputtering economy, Americans have grown used to their public schools facing tight budgets. This fiscal squeeze has drawn out a hidden crisis in public education: How do we keep our best teachers in the classroom?

The short answer is, we don't.

Between 2009 and 2012, public schools laid off about 140,000 teachers across America. In most places, teachers are let go in order of seniority, based solely on how long they've been in the system.

According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, only 15 states require teacher performance to inform decisions about layoffs. But, as parents and school administrators realized they were losing their most effective young teachers, fights erupted from California to Connecticut.

Most recently, the battle has come to Philadelphia, America's eighth-largest school district. There, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is in a tense standoff over the rehiring of 3,800 laid-off teachers and other school employees.

In the midst of a longstanding budget crisis, Philadelphia school district officials can't rehire every teacher. Their solution? Suspend seniority rules and put the best teachers back in the classroom. Naturally, the teachers' union is fighting them tooth and nail.

As in other cities, seniority is harming Philadelphia's parents, teachers, and some of its most disadvantaged students. For Philadelphia Rep. Vanessa Brown, chairwoman of the Pennsylvania's black caucus, seniority rules were nearly a matter of life and death.

Learning was always a struggle for Brown's special needs son-until the second grade. Then one day he told his surprised mother that he loved school. The reason was a dynamic new teacher, who connected so well with her son, the boy moved up three grades in just one year.

By the time Brown's son reached ninth grade, however, a massive teacher layoff in Philadelphia cost the teacher his job. He got "bumped" by a more senior teacher, according to teacher union rules and state law. His excellent results with students like Brown's son didn't matter.

The more senior teacher, according to Brown, interpreted her son's every learning obstacle as a disciplinary problem. The boy grew frustrated, and started acting out. He missed an opportunity to go to college, and that was the beginning of a "long, dark" depression, Brown says.

Were it not for Brown's vigilance, thoughts of suicide might have overwhelmed him. Now Brown remains the only Democratic co-sponsor of a bill that would retain teachers based on performance, not on how much time they've served.

Seniority rules hurt some of the worst-off schools even within failing school districts like Philadelphia. Urban schools tend to attract young zealous teachers. But when layoffs hit, those teachers are the first let go.

In Los Angeles, Markham Middle School-one of the lowest-performing schools in the state-was on track for reform under a new operator and new teachers.

When the Los Angeles Unified School District laid off 9,000 employees in 2009-a tenth of the workforce-Markham lost half of its mostly young staff. Even when re-hiring began, the school was required to hire from a pool of displaced senior teachers first, most of whom didn't even want to teach at Markham. The school ended up having to rely on substitute teachers, derailing its reform efforts.

The National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers have staunchly opposed seniority reform, even when it's meant jettisoning their younger, due-paying members.

That's why detailed teacher evaluation systems, such as those enacted in Florida or Indiana, are important. Used well, and with the goal of providing detailed feedback so teachers know how to improve, such systems tie teacher retention to student performance.

The battle playing out in Philadelphia-and which has been repeated across the country-has real victims. Both teachers and some of our most vulnerable students suffer when we rely on seniority alone to decide who gets to stay in the classroom. But if our public school system is to thrive, we must fight to keep our best teachers teaching.


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