Monday, February 12, 2018

Puerto Rico’s Bold School Choice Plan Mirrors New Orleans’

In the months following the devastation of Hurricane Maria in September, Puerto Rico has struggled to find its footing and rebuild.

Unfortunately, dysfunction was already rampant in the debt-ridden territory before the storm.

Now things are worse, but perhaps there is an opportunity to finally make some badly-needed changes.

Bailouts and federal meddling are unlikely to turn things around. It’s clear that deeper local changes are needed to get the territory on a more sustainable long-term path.

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On Monday, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello, a member of the conservative New Progressive Party, announced a plan to introduce private school choice options to parents in his territory.

This is in line with his other recent move to privatize the state-backed energy company that has performed poorly for Puerto Rico’s citizens and is a huge reason the island has been so slow to bring power back on for many residents.

These are welcome changes.

“Every child, regardless of their economic condition or where they come from, must have access to that education; in a system where parents are involved and have the right to choose a high-performance school,” Rossello wrote in a statement. “Over the past decades, this has not happened in Puerto Rico.”

This proposal includes charter schools that will be managed by nonprofit organizations, and vouchers so that parents can decide where their children will be educated. Rossello also announced a decentralization of the public school system in place and a pay raise for teachers.

Of course, not everyone was pleased with the move.

Teachers unions, which have generally opposed school choice, were quick to denounce its introduction in Puerto Rico.

“Instead of the wholesale closing of public schools proposed by this fiscal plan—or privatizing these—schools need to be transformed into centers of their communities to provide stability and support to help students overcome trauma and continue to learn,” said Aida Díaz, president of the island’s teachers union, in a joint statement with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, according to The 74.

Naomi Klein, an author and left-wing activist, harshly condemned the sudden changes on Twitter.

However, after such long-term failure, it’s clear that something needs to be done to change the trajectory for Puerto Ricans, especially for their children. The already poorly performing school system is now literally falling apart.

“It became obvious that the system isn’t driven by what’s best for the student, and that there’s an enormous bureaucracy,” Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher said, according to the Associated Press. “The system has a lot of problems.”

Rossello’s decision to adopt school choice policies opens up some hope that a long-term turnaround may come. The problems they face are clearly not just the result of a single storm.

Puerto Rico’s move to adopt private school choice is reminiscent of what took place in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Though New Orleans was prepared to adopt school choice programs before the storm battered the city in 2005, the widespread destruction of school districts in the city opened the door for more sweeping reforms.

While there have certainly been challenges for school choice in New Orleans, largely due to the fact that it remains so heavily regulated, there have been positive developments for what was one of the poorest-performing school systems in the country.

Puerto Rico has a much bigger hill to climb than even New Orleans. The numbers, even pre-storm, are depressing.

A 2015 assessment of math scores, for instance, shows that Puerto Rico is far behind the worst-performing U.S. states. In fact, Puerto Rican fourth-graders performed three grade levels below even the Bureau of Indian Education schools that fall far below every state, and zero percent of students in the territory received a proficient rating in math.

That can’t continue if Puerto Rico wants to recover from the storm and long-term economic failure.

These numbers have been bad for far too long to think that there isn’t a fundamental problem. The education system was already underperforming for decades. The recent disaster just pushed it over the edge.

So, Puerto Rico has a long way to go to create an acceptable education system for its students, but it’s clear that sweeping changes are needed.

Taking the first steps to introduce school choice opens the door for the beleaguered island to finally get on the road to success.


Why Happiness Is Eluding College Students

Bill Donohue

College students attend Psychology professor Laurie Santos' course "Psychology and the Good Life." (Screenshot)
The most popular course at Yale these days—enrolling 1,200 students (they had to move the class to a huge building)—is called Psychology and the Good Life. It's not just Yale where courses in positive psychology are all the rage: they're packing students in all over the nation, and have been doing so for some time. The goal is to make students happier.

What is happiness? For Aristotle, it meant the ability of each person to reach his potential. That required hard work and was dependent on virtue. Aquinas cited the necessity of virtue as well, though "perfect happiness," he insisted, was not possible without God. For today's students, such conceptions of happiness are foreign at best, and anathema at worst.

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, happiness is not analogous to pleasure; its analogue is joy. Pleasure may arise from self-indulgence, but true happiness stems from its opposite: self-giving. It is the joy we receive by giving of ourselves to others. People of faith understand this, especially practicing Christians, but to secularists, which include a lot of college students these days, it is unintelligible.

Can happiness be learned? That is what positive psychology is predicated upon. Indeed, it assumes it can be taught.

Happiness can be acquired, but to say it can be learned, and taught in a classroom, is not only a stretch, it is deceiving. No one doubts there are aids, exercises, and tips that can be tapped when we are down, but there are no shortcuts, or cheat sheets, that can be accessed to make us happy.

To put it differently, there is no happiness pill or injection. True happiness, dependent on virtue as it is, has a long apprenticeship; it must be carefully nurtured. It's more like cooking a great chili or tomato sauce: it's a slow boil, taking time to mature. It is not microwave ready.

Virtue is an expression of morality, and morality is typically grounded in religion. These are three attributes—virtue, morality, and religion—that are treated by those who teach positive psychology as if they were a communicable disease. Most of these professors are thorough-going secularists, bent on a quest for happiness without God.

A decade ago, Todd Kashdan was one of the early big names in positive psychology. He taught at George Mason University, and was smart enough to know the difference between pleasure and happiness; he aptly tied the latter to selflessness. But he was just like his colleagues in one important respect: he had an aversion to religion. Indeed, he boasted that he never used the word morality, or God.

Daniel Gilbert, who has long taught positive psychology at Harvard, goes beyond Kashdan. He is concerned that his work on happiness seems to have all the trappings of a religion. "I guess I just wish it didn't look so much like religion." That makes him unhappy.

Despite this professorial aversion to religion, the empirical evidence on happiness overwhelmingly shows that the most happy people in America are also the most serious about their religion; the most unhappy are the secularists. This is one of the conclusions I came to writing “The Catholic Advantage: Why Health, Happiness, and Heaven Await the Faithful.”

Well-being is a term that describes our physical and mental health, our degree of happiness, and overall life satisfaction. Those who have the highest well-being are the most religious; those who score the lowest are the least religious.

I tested this conclusion by comparing practicing Catholics, priests, nuns (especially cloistered sisters), and saints to Hollywood celebrities and intellectuals. The latter, almost all of whom are secularists, suffer from poor physical and mental health, and are decidedly unhappy.

How can this be? Beliefs, bonds, and boundaries—the Three B's—explain it all. Catholics believe in God, are bonded to each other, as well as to God, and respect behavioral boundaries. Celebrities, by and large, have no time for God, are narcissistic, and behaviorally reckless. Intellectuals are too smart to believe in God, are self-absorbed, and find boundaries to be suffocating.

A young college graduate, Rachelle Hampton, writing in Slate about the popular Yale course on happiness, recently spoke openly about her depression and the depression of other college students. She found herself "meditating" in her classes at Northwestern, electing to find solace in a course on Buddhism (this is a religion without rules, suited to the needs of secularists).

Rachelle is not alone. She shared this statistic: "Almost 50 percent of students surveyed by the American College Health Association in 2016 reported feeling that things were hopeless—and almost 37 percent reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function” during the previous 12 months."

It is sad that so many bright young people are in a moral fog, falling back upon themselves to set anchor. Catholicism is anything but foggy—it is a clear-eyed prescription for well-being, anchored in the Ten Commandments and the Catechism. But don't look for the positive psychologists to acknowledge this, even though it is supported by scientific evidence, the very god they worship.


A tale of two sixth forms: inside the East End Eton at the heart of Britain’s education divide

What does the new breed of “super-selective” free schools mean for social mobility in deprived boroughs like Newham?

Looming over a tangle of railway lines and traffic islands in London’s Stratford is a former council office building now known as the “East End Eton”. A block of green and yellow-framed glass and concrete, the London Academy of Excellence is a world away from the manicured grounds and Tudor brick of its nickname-sake – but its pupils’ results are not far off.

The first sixth-form college established under the Conservatives’ free school policy, set up by seven private schools in 2012, the LAE is celebrating its record number of Oxbridge places – 22 students received offers this year (that’s one-in-ten year 13s). More than half will be the first generation in their family to go to university – with one whose first language is Albanian.

The flagship of former education secretary Michael Gove’s reforms, LAE prides itself on telling a social mobility success story about the local borough, Newham, which has London’s second highest poverty rate. In 2015, Newham ranked as England’s 25th most deprived borough – a huge and rapid improvement from second place in 2010, but inequality persists. It has one of the highest GCSE attainment gaps in London between its disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers.

“The whole social mobility agenda is very real to me,” says Scott Baker, headmaster of LAE since last September. We meet in an almost surgically clean, white classroom off a corridor (which are all illustrated with famous “independent thinkers”; I spot Srinivasa Ramanujan and Coco Chanel on my way round).

Baker most recently taught at an academy and a selective girls’ grammar, but spent nearly 20 years working in east London state comprehensives, where he himself was educated. He was one of the first from Robert Clack School in Dagenham to go to Cambridge, and the first in his family to go to university.

“The whole LAE mission really resonates with me,” he tells me across a long classroom table. “I recognise a lot of that in the students we have here.”

Six partner private schools, including Eton, provide the school mock Oxbridge interviews and other workshops, exchange visits, resources and even teachers – two English teachers from Eton work at LAE one day a week.

LAE benefits from £500,000 of yearly funding from HSBC, which goes towards sport and extracurricular activities, ranging from mindfulness to still-life drawing. A recent lecture series at the school saw particular interest in outspoken drug expert Professor David Nutt.

All this extra cash and private school help means students have more time at school; the average student here does 760 hours of guided learning a year (compared to the sixth form minimum of 540 hours). But they also put in extra time. To prepare for her Cambridge interview, Popan used her free periods every Friday afternoon to go through practice questions with a friend.

While making impressive headlines, the school’s methods are controversial. It has highly selective entrance criteria. Applicants need minimum five 7s at GCSE (the equivalent of A grades under the old system, which changed in 2017), including in their chosen A-Level subjects, with minimums of 6s in maths and English. It’s a big ask in a borough like Newham, where 56.1 per cent of state school pupils get five or more A*-G grade GCSEs including English and Maths (below London’s average of 59.7 per cent).

Prospective pupils must also attend an interview, which is scored as part of the application process.

LAE is part of “a new breed of sixth form provider” – 16-19 free schools unusually selective in their intake – which has emerged in recent years, according to the Sixth Form Colleges Association. A spokesperson says there are now around 30 or 40 of these “either up-and-running or in the pipeline” across the country.

More HERE 

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