Wednesday, February 18, 2015

School Choice In Virginia Coming Closer To Reality

For the last several months, FreedomWorks has been part of a broad coalition dedicated to improving educational choice in Virginia. Over the last month, FreedomWorks activists in Virginia have made over 125 calls to targeted state legislators to strongly encourage support for HB 2238.

The legislation passed the house today 57-42. The bill applies to special needs students only, but it’s clear the dam is breaking for educational choice in Virginia. We will continue working with families across Virginia to achieve educational choice for all students.

Even with this victory, this bill has a long way to go before it becomes law. Next week, HB 2238 will be heard in the Senate Education Committee. And even if it passes the Senate, there's a chance Governor McAuliffe could veto the bill.


Spare me the shame of glass classrooms
Bad teaching can, apparently, be a problem even at the best schools. Retiring head of Eton College, Tony Little, is keen to stamp out substandard teaching at Eton.

In a new initiative, Eton will introduce a Singapore-style "glass classroom" in May. Here, teachers can be observed, filmed and have all their mistakes pointed out to them, by others smug enough to feel they have the right to criticise their colleagues’ bad practice.

Normally I’m an admirer of most Eton initiatives: like, for example, their excellent scheme of sponsoring a new state boarding school, nearby Holyport College, which opened its doors in 2014. But on this, I beg to differ.

Glass classrooms, wherein teachers may be observed under stresses and strains, carry an Orwellian ring of unfair, undue surveillance. They sound rather too much like school “Room 101s”.

I believe, far from helping to eliminate bad practice, they will end up shaming and humiliating too many teachers: not just bad ones, but more average teachers too.

One of the biggest trends in teaching over the past decade has indeed been this overzealous urge to observe teachers at every possible opportunity – and I’m not sure this trend is entirely healthy. It leads, for example, to a certain smugness in teachers who feel they emerge from such ordeals with flying colours (“Hey, I had the head observe me the other day and she said my lesson on ‘1984’ was fantastic!”).

Not only does all this observation lead to mechanical, over-prepared lessons and unrealistic, artificial behaviour from pupils, it begs the fundamental question, posed by Juvenal all those years ago: “Who will guard the guards themselves?” In other words, if I’m being watched ("guarded") by someone keen to point out all the mistakes in my lessons (and no doubt there will be many), I want to be absolutely sure whoever is doing the finger-pointing knows what he/she is talking about.

Do they truly understand teenagers, or are they mere experts in iPads, pie charts and progress graphs?

I’ll never forget the first time I was observed, almost exactly 10 years ago. It was, naturally, a nerve-racking experience. And whilst, yes, it undoubtedly made me watch my every word and move, I feel the whole process, repeated many times since, has robbed me of some of the idiosyncrasies that helped bring even the most comatose pupils to life, late on a Friday afternoon.

Can teaching be so easily reduced to such simple, observable time-segments? I would argue not. What if you catch poor Mr or Ms X on a bad day? We’ve all had our “off days”, after all: even, I’m sure, as a younger teacher, Mr Little himself.

That’s why I believe the long-term results of this initiative will be to accelerate the process whereby teachers lose the individual quirks, charm, warmth and humanity that helps make them so memorable to their charges. Instead, under the ever-watchful gaze of classroom “Big Brothers”, they could become overcautious automata, blinking haplessly at cameras the whole time.

If we really want to subject teachers to such conformity, why don’t we go the whole hog and design machines to teach schoolchildren? This scheme seems another step along that hellish road.


Australia: Aspiring teachers abandoning senior maths

One in six aspiring teachers did not do any maths for the HSC, with new research showing the proportion of students starting teaching degrees in NSW without maths beyond year 10 has tripled in the past decade.

The serious decline in maths participation means an increasing number of primary and high school teachers in NSW are in the classroom with only the most basic level of maths.

Researcher Rachel Wilson, a senior education academic at the University of Sydney, warned that the findings had serious ramifications for school students as well as industry and the national economy.

"Not only are we seeing declines in math and science participation among high school students in general, we are seeing a steeper decline among those students going on to study to be teachers," Dr Wilson said.

The research found between 2001 and 2013, the proportion of students who received university offers to study teaching but did not do HSC maths tripled, and those studying 2 unit maths dropped from 30.6 per cent  to 14.2 per cent. The only rise was in elementary-level general maths.

The study also found that the proportion of all students going on to do the HSC without any maths tripled between 2001 and 2013, while there was a small increase in general maths but a decline in 2 unit maths.

Dr Wilson said the big concern was the increasing number of students applying to study teaching who had dropped maths before the HSC.

"Together, these analyses raise serious concerns for maths and numeracy standards and for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and industry," Dr Wilson said.

"In particular, the declining participation rates among prospective teachers are deeply concerning, with the potential to create a vicious cycle of declining engagement with maths in NSW schools."

Dr Wilson said the last external assessment for maths in NSW was year 9 NAPLAN.

"There is a message going to students that maths is not important."

The research comes as federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne released on Friday the long-awaited review into teacher training, which found that too many teaching degrees were not equipping new teachers with the skills to teach students maths and science.

Dr Wilson, who co-authored the report with Honorary Associate Professor John Mack for the International Journal of Innovation in Science and Mathematics Education, said Australia lagged behind much of the developed world.

She said the redesigned HSC introduced in 2001 removed the long-standing requirement for students in NSW to study at least one maths or science subject.

Dr Wilson said this was at odds with the rest of world, where 45 of the US's 50 states required maths to be studied to the end of secondary school, and   Japan, Korea and China had similar requirements.

"The removal of this requirement and the increase in alternative subject choices over the 10-year period must be seen as contributing factors in the declining rates of math and science study," Dr Wilson's paper said.

A spokesman for NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli said the state had the highest standards in Australia, with school leavers entering teaching degrees with the HSC required to have three band five results.

"From 2016, before they graduate, education students wanting to work in NSW schools will have to pass a literacy and numeracy test to demonstrate that their numeracy skills are strong enough to teach mathematics," he said.


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