Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Common Core Is Corporate Welfare for Textbook Giants

Opponents of Common Core have plenty of ammunition by now: The standards erode local autonomy, are costly to implement, and some experts dispute their rigor.

But an underexplored aspect of this problematic national education reform is the massive financial incentive that certain textbook and standardized test companies have to keep the U.S. on board with it. The Washington Post's Valerie Strauss provided a good example of Common Core's crony corporatist side in a recent article.

There are two large, multi-state partnerships tasked with implementing Core-aligned standardized tests, and one of them—the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC)—recently invited curriculum companies to compete for the contract to design the tests. Textbook giant Pearson won the contract, surprising no one. Pearson, a British company, is the largest publisher of education materials in the world.

A PARCC press release described the selection of Pearson as the result of a "competitive bidding process." But it's hard to tell whether the process was truly competitive, given that Pearson was the only company to even submit a bid.

Now, another corporation is alleging that the process was unfairly biased toward Pearson from the start, according to Education Week:

A protest of the contract was made by the nonprofit corporation American Institutes for Research, which alleged that that the bidding process conducted by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) was biased in favor of Pearson and that is why AIR did not submit a bid which it otherwise would have done, Education Week reported. The protest was made to officials in New Mexico who were serving as a representative of PARCC in making the call for proposals from companies to win the contract.

Judge Sarah M. Singleton of the Santa Fe First Judicial District issued a ruling last week putting the Pearson contract on hold while officials reviewed the contract bidding process.

Keep in mind that the contract is worth so much money that officials haven't even attached a formal price tag. Instead, they have used the phrase "unprecedented in scale."

Common Core's most fervent defenders might not see the problem with any of this. They might even say it's a good thing that the biggest testing company on the planet is the one designing the exams for Common Core.

But it certainly undermines the notion that this is a "bottom up" education reform when state and federal lawmakers are colluding with mega corporations to dictate the tests to local school districts. Students in some states are already serving as guinea pigs for the new testing regime.

Keep in mind that many teachers will need to be retrained so that they can prepare their students to pass the Core–aligned tests. Schools across the country will have to purchase new computers before they are even logistically capable of administering the tests. Taxpayers are going to feel the pain, and Pearson is going to reap the profits.


Groundbreaking Louisiana School Choice Bill Would Rescue Kids From 'F' Schools

After a pivotal vote in the legislature, Louisiana is now set to become the first state to extend school choice to all students trapped in failing public schools. Education reformers just have to wait for Gov. Bobby Jindal's signature.

Today, the state legislature passed Senate Bill 61, known as the Louisiana Public School Choice Act. If signed into law by Governor Bobby Jindal, the bill would allow parents of students in schools graded "D" or "F"to enroll their child in any public school that is graded "C" or above, beginning in the 2014–2015 school year. Parents throughout the state would no longer be limited by arbitrary school district lines that force their children to attend failing schools.

Louisiana has already made a name for itself as the Silicon Valley of education reform with the state's Recovery School District (RSD)—the first all-charter school district in the nation, where kids enroll in the public charter school of their choice. Signing Senate Bill 61 into law would further move the needle for school choice, making Louisiana the first state to enact a statewide open enrollment policy.

In 2003 then-Governor Kathleen Blanco signed Act 9 into law, giving the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) the legal authority to take over failing schools and place them in the newly created state-run Recovery School District. After Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the state in 2005, the threshold for what constituted a "failing school" was lowered, giving BESE even greater jurisdiction to move more failing schools into the RSD.

New Orleans Parish was the district most impacted by the new law, and 114 chronically low-performing schools were shifted into the RSD to be taken over by non-profit and charter school providers. Only 17 schools remained under the control of the Orleans Parish School Board—an education authority overseeing abysmally underperforming schools and suffering from a long record of fraud and corruption that yielded several FBI criminal indictments.

Since then, the Orleans Parish School Board has reduced the number of employees in its central office from 1,300 before hurricane Katrina to only 60, allowing more money to flow directly to schools.

New Orleans now has the largest concentration of charter school students in the nation: Over 90 percent of students attend a public charter school of their choice. And as of 2013, New Orleans implemented citywide open enrollment for both traditional public and charter schools operating under the RSD and Orleans Parish School Board using a single computerized system called OneApp.

The district has shown tremendous gains in academic performance and the percentage of students enrolled in "F" schools has improved from nearly 75 percent in the 2004-2005 school year to only 2 percent this past school year.

Just last week, the RSD closed the last traditional public school under its jurisdiction, making it the first all-charter district in the nation. That means Louisiana is the first state to have a school district with open enrollment where money follows the children to the schools of their choice, and schools have complete autonomy over how they operate. In exchange, schools are accountable to the needs of students and parents.

Signing the Louisiana Public School Choice Act into law would allow traditional public schools to have the same open enrollment policies as public charter schools. Also, state and federal dollars would follow eligible students to the school system that they choose, creating an incentive for schools to attract these students and the money following them.

Louisiana has been a national leader for school choice, and the academic results in places like New Orleans have proven that these policies work. If Senate Bill 61 is signed into law—which seems very likely, given Jindal's support for the issue—it will further expand options for children and families and empower parents to choose the educational experience that best suits their children's needs.


Trojan Horse: plan for 'no-notice' school inspections in Britain

Schools are to face no-notice inspections after it emerged that those at the centre of the alleged Trojan Horse plot put on "hastily arranged shows of cultural inclusivity" to fool regulators.

David Cameron will order Ofsted to consider lightning inspections of all schools in the future as part of a “robust response” to allegations that Islamic extremists infiltrated schools in Birmingham.

The Government believes changes are needed after it was revealed that some schools at the centre of the affair suddenly staged lessons and assemblies on Christianity to give a false impression of religious harmony.

In further measures, Ofsted will announce that all schools will be forced to promote a “broad and balanced” education to prepare pupils for life as British citizens.

The requirement will see schools branded as inadequate for failing to provide access to a rounded timetable covering sex education, music, sport, citizenship and a full religious education syllabus.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, will also confirm that inspectors will maintain a regular presence in Birmingham schools and file reports directly to the Prime Minister and Education Secretary to prevent any repeat of the allegations.

The plans will be unveiled as the education watchdog publishes reports into emergency inspections of 21 schools at the heart of the so-called Trojan Horse plot to promote a strict Islamist agenda in classrooms across the city.

Concerns unearthed by Ofsted are believed to include axing parts of the curriculum, poor governance, evidence of homophobia, the segregation of boys and girls, a bar on sex education and the use of unsuitable religious speakers in assemblies.

It is understood that six schools will be placed in special measures in a move that could result in their governing bodies being sacked and replaced with new leadership teams. A further nine schools will be deemed to “require improvement”.

Michael Gove is believed to considering banning teachers and governors linked to extremist activities from all schools.

Mr Cameron is due to call a special meeting of the Government’s Extremism Taskforce to discuss the implications arising from the review.

Speaking before Ofsted’s report, the Prime Minister said: "Protecting our children is one of the first duties of Government and that is why the issue of alleged Islamist extremism in Birmingham schools demands a robust response.

“The Education Secretary will now ask Sir Michael Wilshaw to look into allowing any school to be inspected at no notice, stopping schools having the opportunity to cover up activities which have no place in our society.”

Ofsted’s emergency inspections were carried out with just 30 minutes’ notice as opposed to one or two days the last time schools were visited – when many were rated outstanding or good.

Alongside the Ofsted reports, the Government will also publish separate findings from an Education Funding Agency probe into two schools – Park View and Oldknow Academy.

In the Oldknow report, officials will reveal a catalogue of “hastily arranged shows of cultural inclusivity”.

The report will say that staff had been “instructed to add Christianity to learning because of our visit”, with two teachers revealing that an “assembly [on Easter and Christianity] had also been put on especially for our benefit”. A timetabled literacy lessons was also switched for an RE lesson on Christianity.

Ofsted typically warn schools of an inspection the day before an official visit.

But Mr Gove will now write to the watchdog, asking it to examine the practicalities of allowing any school to be subjected to “lightning” inspections.

He said evidence uncovered in Birmingham “clearly indicates that schools have used the notice they have been given of inspections to evade proper scrutiny”, adding: “Our children need to be protected in schools, kept safe from the dangers of extremism and guaranteed a broad and balanced curriculum. This change will help provide parents with the reassurance they need.”

In a further key move, Ofsted will outline plans to place a “broad and balanced” education at the centre of all inspections.

The requirement already exists but will be dramatically elevated in future inspections, placing it on an equal footing with four other key judgments covering teaching, behaviour, leadership and pupils’ achievement.

The move reflects concerns that many Birmingham schools were failing to provide pupils with a fully rounded education.

Park View – currently rated “outstanding” – will be put into special measures alongside two other schools that form part of the Park View Educational Trust: Golden Hillock secondary school and Nansen primary.

Oldknow Academy, Saltley secondary school and Alston primary – which was already in special measures – will also be branded inadequate.

A report into Park View will say that it is failing to raise pupils’ awareness of extremism, vet external speakers, promote sex education and protect staff from intimidation by governors.

It says children have limited understanding of the arts, different cultures and other religious beliefs.

"This, together with their superficial understanding of how to stay safe and awareness of life in different parts of the United Kingdom, mean that students are not well prepared for life in wider society," the report says.

Golden Hillock will be criticised because pupils’ “understanding of other religions is scant” and RE classes focus primarily on Islam.

It also says the school is "not doing enough to mitigate against cultural isolation" and this "could leave students vulnerable to the risk of marginalisation from wider British society and the associated risks which could include radicalisation."

Saltley, which is currently rated “good” by Ofsted, will be criticised for weaknesses in safeguarding and questionable budget decisions, including hiring private investigators to go through staff emails.

The new report says: "Governors have not adopted policy and procedure to allow them to check carefully that students are safe. They … do not see any need to engage with external agencies to make sure students are safe from and aware of the risks of radicalisation and extremism."

The EFA report into Oldknow will claim that Christmas events were cancelled and taxpayer's cash was used to subsidise a school trip to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, from which non-Muslims were excluded.

Some nine other schools will be told they “require improvement”.

But many schools will be largely exonerated from the affair, including three that published their reports last week.

Ninestiles School was praised for its "culture of inclusion, equal opportunity and individual responsibility is at the core of this academy, which helps promote community cohesion".

Small Heath School was said to be outstanding for leadership and management, with Ofsted adding: "A major strength of the school is that students value the differences between people of different beliefs, race and backgrounds.”

A report into Washwood Heath Academy said pupils "know about risks related to religious extremism" and are taught to respect "the things that make people different such as sexual orientation".

Many schools criticised by Ofsted are now believed to be considering legal action.

In a statement last week, Park View Educational Trust criticised the Golden Hillock report, saying it “mischaracterises the school”, adding that it was “now challenging it through the appropriate legal channels”.

Oldknow is also considering a legal challenge to the inspection process.


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