Saturday, June 12, 2010

Public ed costlier than you think

We've been treated to hand-wringing all spring over the new school budgets for 2011, which are supposedly inadequate, underfunded and unacceptable. School district officials and politicians claim it's curtains for high-quality public education in Virginia.

However, what you think you know about K-12 education spending is wrong. We're not spending too little, we're spending too much.

I'd like you to guess how much we spend per child in the city of Charlottesville public schools and then in the Commonwealth of Virginia overall.

Have the number in your head? How does it match with the real numbers? In 2009, Charlottesville spent $16,200 per student, or $324,000 per classroom of 20 students, according to state data. And across Virginia we spent on average more than $13,000 to educate one child for the school year.

Don't feel silly if you guessed far lower than the real figure. According to a December 2009 poll of Virginians by the Friedman Foundation, nearly half of the respondents thought we spend $6,000 or less to educate a child each year. About one in five people thought we spend less than $3,000. Only 6 percent of the public guessed the correct spending range.

It's so simple as to seem trivial. To get control of a budget, you need to know how much you make, how much you spend, and what you're spending for.

We know that K-12 education is the biggest single cost to state and local governments. And yet, most citizens and politicians have little or no idea how much we are spend-ing on education at a per-pupil level.

American taxpayers spend around $600 billion per year on K-12 public education. A sobering 27 cents of every tax dollar collected at the state or local level is consumed by the government-run K-12 education system, compared to only 8 cents for Medicaid.

In Virginia, 29 cents out of every state or local tax dollar collected is spent on public K-12 education. In the seven years between 2002 and 2009, per-pupil spending in Virginia increased 44 percent according to state data. Even after correcting for inflation, it increased by 21 percent for that period.

Also, these figures leave out a large but completely unknown amount of capital expenses and debt payments that cities and counties spend on behalf of public schools but which never make it onto the school district's books or into the state's accounting.

Education spending is the single most serious burden on state and local budgets. And since runaway education spending is a major cause of our state and local budget problems, it's the best place to look for serious savings as the current fiscal crisis continues to unfold.

However, school district officials and many politicians aren't upfront about the kinds of resources we devote to education. And without a clear idea of spending levels in public and private schools, it's hard for the public and policymakers to know whether our current system is cost-effective or to assess the fiscal impact of expanding families' options with private school choice programs.

Based on federal data, we estimate the typical private school in Virginia charges just under $7,000 per student per year, and many far less than that. Government schools, at $13,000, spend a whop-ping 88 percent more.

Private school choice programs, in other words, aren't just a proven way to increase student achievement. They are a great way to save a huge amount of money.

In Florida, for instance, the state's education tax credit program that funds private school choice saves huge sums every year. The state gains $1.49 in savings for every $1 it loses in tax revenue according to a 2008 fiscal impact analysis by the government's Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability. That's one reason almost every Republican, 42 percent of Democrats and more than half of the black caucus voted for a dramatic expansion of the education tax credit program.

We spend more than enough on K-12 education in Virginia. It's just not being spent effectively. Virginia's children, families and taxpayers deserve a better, more efficient system of education.


Four excellent ideas on education, but how do we make them happen?

The requirement for innovation in order to drive U.S. economic growth -- and the tensions this creates -- is something I believe is central to our political debates in ways that are not always well articulated.

Grover J. Whitehurst has authored a Brookings piece on the requirement for innovation in the education sector, and the barriers to the needed reforms. In it, he makes four excellent recommendations:

1. Choose K-12 curricula based on evidence of effectiveness.

2. Evaluate teachers in ways that meaningfully differentiate levels of performance.

3. Accredit online education providers so they can compete with traditional schools across district and state lines.

4. Provide the public with information that will allow comparison of the labor-market outcomes and price of individual post-secondary degree and certificate programs.

Items 3 and 4 read like elements of a nearly libertarian manifesto. (Item 1 reads as motherhood and apple pie, unless you know the background, which is that Whitehurst, while director of the Institute for Education Sciences inside the U.S. Department of Education, pushed hard and somewhat successfully for a sustainable commitment to rigorous program evaluation anchored by randomized experiments.)

Here is his opening paragraph on the barriers to reform:
Our present education system is structured in a way that discourages the innovation necessary for the United States to regain education leadership. K-12 education is delivered largely through a highly regulated public monopoly. Outputs such as high school graduation rates and student performance on standardized assessments are carefully measured and publicly available, but mechanisms that would allow these outputs to drive innovation and reform are missing or blocked. For example, many large urban districts and some states are now able to measure the effectiveness of individual teachers by assessing the annual academic growth of students in their classes. Huge differences in teacher effectiveness are evident, but collective bargaining agreements or state laws prevent most school district administrators from using that information in tenure or salary decisions.

It is striking how far thoughtful, mainstream liberal wonk opinion has moved on the question of educational reform. What's unclear in the paper (though beyond its scope) is a political theory for how the interest groups who have a huge interest in preventing these reforms can be overcome. Whitehead proposes some specific federal laws and guidelines, but doesn't explain how to get a sufficient number of legislators to vote for these. It would be very difficult for Democrats to pass such laws, for obvious reasons.

When one side of the political divide loses its own ideological belief in a specific position and defends it based purely on interest-group power, this often creates an opportunityfor real change. It seems to me that education reform is ripening as political issue for Republicans, if they are willing to seize it, as they did welfare reform 20 years ago. Like welfare reform, this would probably imply being willing to engage on the policy detail, and to work with Democrats in order to create a bipartisan solution with staying power. It looks to me like there is lots of common ground to be found.


British version of Head Start under fire

Labour's flagship scheme to help poor toddlers and children must be scrapped, an influential think-tank said yesterday. Axeing the £10billion Sure Start network would do no harm to vulnerable youngsters and save taxpayers a huge amount of money, the Centre for Policy Studies said.

Analysts have said that Sure Start centres are often used by middle-class families for free childcare but fail to reach out to many of the poor they are meant to help. Some of the money saved could go to local councils to run programmes where there is real demand, the centre-Right think-tank said.

Its call goes far beyond Coalition government plans to scale down spending on the scheme, which is meant to help children in worse-off areas, particularly those from single-parent families, get a better education and stay out of trouble. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have pledged to take Sure Start back to its original purpose of early intervention in these children's lives.

The programme, launched by then-Chancellor Gordon Brown in 1999, quickly ballooned. There are now 3,500 Sure Start centres.

The CPS report said that Sure Start and other schemes under Labour's £5billion-a-year Children's Plan were bureaucratic, secretive and in thrall to fashionable theories of childcare. Its author, charity chief Tom Burkard, said they were 'flawed in concept and practice'. All showed 'a remarkable and unfounded confidence in the ability of the state to regulate the lives of families'.

CPS director Jill Kirby said that Sure Start spending was 'a classic example of the failings of big government: billions of pounds wasted in pursuit of central targets, based on untested ideas and packaged in jargon and bureaucracy.' She added: 'The sooner these grandiose plans are abandoned in favour of practical localised support to the most needy families the better.'

Last year the state spending watchdog, the Audit Commission, said Sure Start and similar schemes had failed to improve the health of toddlers in poorer areas.


Friday, June 11, 2010

Kids Deserve Balance in the Classroom

We as parents have a lot on our minds these days. Too many of us are out of work and struggling to pay the bills. While trying to pay our mortgage and prepare for retirement, we are also trying to save to help our kids go to college. Of course, we are also concerned about the quality of our children's schools, though few have the time to follow closely what goes on in those classrooms each day.

As a father of six—five of whom still attend Attica, Indiana public schools—I know first-hand the difficulty of keeping up with all the responsibilities that parents face. Yet I also know how important it is to remain engaged in our children's schools to make sure that they get the education they need and deserve.

It has been more than a month since Earth Day, and most of our children are finishing their studies for the year. One area that I would encourage all parents to pay extra attention to is what's happening at your school regarding climate change education. Ideally, it is supposed to encourage students to consider the importance of preserving our natural resources. Unfortunately, too often it's used as a platform to push a misleading, ideological brand of environmentalism.

I’m a Ph.D. scientist and work as a Field Research Scientist for a global crop protection company, so I have a special interest in how my kids are taught the subject. To me, teaching science properly means presenting all sides of scientific theories and helping kids develop their own critical thinking skills. Regrettably, it seems that too many in our public education system see their role differently.

I first became concerned about how my children's school was teaching global warming last year when a group of teachers orchestrated a school-wide showing of An Inconvenient Truth during class in celebration of Earth Day. I was alarmed that parents weren't even able to pull their kids from this assignment (fortunately, with some work, I eventually got that policy changed). This was also at least the third time An Inconvenient Truth was shown at our school. Surely teachers could find a better use of our children's valuable learning time.

The problem isn't just that the school shows An Inconvenient Truth, a movie found by a judge to be riddled with serious scientific errors and which grossly exaggerates the potential damage of man-made global warming. It also fails to provide any counterweight to this environmentalist propaganda.

Schools do have options. For more than a year now, I've been trying to get another film, Not Evil, Just Wrong, shown in our school to provide some balance. Not Evil, Just Wrong thoroughly reviews the flawed science of global warming, specifically addressing the many errors and gross exaggerations in An Inconvenient Truth. Our children deserve to hear this information so they don't believe that there's only one truth about this important issue.

Unfortunately, getting balance into my children's school has been an uphill battle. I’ve spoken to teachers, the principal, the superintendent and the school board. I’ve loaned copies of the film so teachers could see it and make an informed decision. Yet only two teachers in the whole school bothered to view the film, and none of them would show it. I made my case publicly during the open session of a school board meeting. The only result was that a group of teachers publicly complained to the board for giving me a hearing.

Most recently, the superintendent declared Not Evil, Just Wrong isn’t suitable because it lacks the endorsement of the National Earth Day Foundation. You can see what I’m up against. This isn’t just ignorance of the science behind climate change, this is an ideological position.

I will continue to fight for our students to be taught rather than indoctrinated. I haven't been able to change the curriculum so far, but I have succeeded in raising awareness of the problem. I would urge other parent to do the same. Ask questions about how global warming is being presented in your school. Find out if movies like An Inconvenient Truth are being used on Earth Day or as pillars of the science curriculum. Make sure that your kids are hearing the other side of the story. We should encourage our schools and teachers to address this imbalance during the summer break.

I realize many of us are busy, but our children's education starts at home. You shouldn't trust that your local school is providing the balanced education your children deserve.


Storming the School Barricades

A new documentary by a 27-year-old filmmaker could change the national debate about public education

'What's funny," says Madeleine Sackler, "is that I'm not really a political person." Yet the petite 27-year-old is the force behind "The Lottery"—an explosive new documentary about the battle over the future of public education opening nationwide this Tuesday.

In the spring of 2008, Ms. Sackler, then a freelance film editor, caught a segment on the local news about New York's biggest lottery. It wasn't the Powerball. It was a chance for 475 lucky kids to get into one of the city's best charter schools (publicly funded schools that aren't subject to union rules).

"I was blown away by the number of parents that were there," Ms. Sackler tells me over coffee on Manhattan's Upper West Side, recalling the thousands of people packed into the Harlem Armory that day for the drawing. "I wanted to know why so many parents were entering their kids into the lottery and what it would mean for them." And so Ms. Sackler did what any aspiring filmmaker would do: She grabbed her camera.

Her initial aim was simple. "Going into the film I was excited just to tell a story," she says. "A vérité film, a really beautiful, independent story about four families that you wouldn't know otherwise" in the months leading up to the lottery for the Harlem Success Academy.

But on the way to making the film she imagined, she "stumbled on this political mayhem—really like a turf war about the future of public education." Or more accurately, she happened upon a raucous protest outside of a failing public school in which Harlem Success, already filled to capacity, had requested space.

"We drove by that protest," Ms. Sackler recalls. "We were on our way to another interview and we jumped out of the van and started filming." There she discovered that the majority of those protesting the proliferation of charter schools were not even from the neighborhood. They'd come from the Bronx and Queens.

"They all said 'We're not allowed to talk to you. We're just here to support the parents.'" But there were only two parents there, says Ms. Sackler, and both were members of Acorn. And so, "after not a lot of digging," she discovered that the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) had paid Acorn, the controversial community organizing group, "half a million dollars for the year." (It cost less to make the film.)

Finding out that the teachers union had hired a rent-a-mob to protest on its behalf was "the turn for us in the process." That story—of self-interested adults trying to deny poor parents choice for their children—provided an answer to Ms. Sackler's fundamental question: "If there are these high-performing schools that are closing the achievement gap, why aren't there more of them?"

The reason is what Eva Moskowitz, founder of the Harlem Success Academy network and a key character in the film, calls the "union-political-educational complex." That's a fancy term for the web of unions and politicians who defend the status quo in order to protect their jobs.

In the course of making "The Lottery," Ms. Sackler got to know the nature of that coalition intimately. "On day one, of course, I was very interested in all sides. I was in no way affiliated." From the beginning, she requested meetings with then UFT President Randi Weingarten, or anyone representing the union position. They refused. Harlem's public schools weren't much more accessible. "It was easier to film in a maximum security prison"—something Ms. Sackler did to interview a parent—"than it was to film in a traditional public school."

Viewers still get a sense of the union's position, but it comes from the mouths of some unsavory New York pols. Take, for example, a scene from the film featuring a City Council hearing on charter school expansion. "The UFT was exposed at this particular City Council hearing," she says, "because they were caught giving out scripted cue cards with specific questions for City Council members to ask charter representatives in the city." Unlike many of the politicians, who came and went from the chamber during the seven-hour hearing, Ms. Sackler remained. And she watched as the scripted questions were repeated and repeated and repeated.

"It was just a colossal waste of time," she says. "And it was incredibly frustrating as a citizen to be sitting there. Out of all the things they could be talking about—like the fact . . . that at the majority of schools in Harlem kids aren't passing the state exams—instead of talking about this stuff, they were cycling through those questions."'

Evasion is one tactic. So is propagating myths about Harlem Success—that it only succeeds because it has smaller class sizes; or that its children's test scores are so high because it gets more money. The truth is that the school gets superior results with the same or slightly bigger class sizes and less state money per pupil. In 2009, 95% of third-graders at Harlem Success passed the state's English Language Arts exam. Only 51% of third graders in P.S. 149, the traditional public school that shares the same building, did. That same year, Harlem Success was No. 1 in math out of 3,500 public schools in New York State.

The unions and the politicians also play on Harlemites' fears by alleging that charters divide the community and are a "tool for gentrification." This canard only holds up if you think uniforms and longer school days are a sign of cultural imperialism.

In a particularly cringe-inducing exchange captured on film, Councilwoman Maria Del Carmen Arroyo of the Bronx accuses Ms. Moskowitz of lying when the charter school leader talks about being a parent in Harlem (the neighborhood where she grew up, where she attended public school, and where she is raising her children, who attend the charter). The subtext, of course, is that Ms. Moskowitz is white and well-off.

This is par for the course, Ms. Sackler tells me. Harlem Success Academy is "protested more than any other charter school in this city—and there are some bad charter schools. So you would wonder why that would be."

Those wondering why need look no further than 2002, the year that Ms. Moskowitz, then a Democratic City Council member, became chair of the city's education committee. "She held a lot of hearings on the union contract—and the custodian contract, and the principal contract," says Ms. Sackler. New Yorkers learned that the teachers' contract is hundreds of pages long and littered with rules mandating every detail of how teachers will spend their workday.

The union was not pleased. So when Evil Moskowitz, as she was dubbed, ran for Manhattan borough president in 2005, the UFT campaigned hard for her opponent, Scott Stringer, who won.

Ms. Moskowitz, who confirmed in an interview that she has mayoral aspirations, was surely disappointed by the defeat. But her loss was Harlemites' gain. As one mother says of Ms. Moskowitz at a town hall meeting in Harlem, "She's our Obama. She brought change to our kids, okay?"

Some parents in the film do not know what exactly a charter school is. And the truth, as the film implicitly points out, is that such technical designations don't much matter. What these parents know is that they desperately want their children to have the best possible education, and to have opportunities that they themselves could only imagine. Winning a spot in Harlem Success Academy—or another high-performing school—is critical to reaching that goal.

"Going into it one of the goals was to expose one myth . . . which is that some parents don't care," says Ms. Sackler. "The reason for telling the parents' stories is that I never thought that was true."

In "The Lottery," we are introduced to Eric Roachford, who, like his father, works as a bus driver. As an MTA employee, Mr. Roachford is a "union man, but at the same time, we want our child to learn." He believes that going to college "is the difference between a job and a career." That's why his wife, Shawna, has taken time off to home school their two young sons.

Nadiyah Horne, a single mother who is also deaf, is raising 5-year-old Ammenah. "If others don't like this school, I don't care," she says, using sign language. "I want my child to get the best education." So does Emil Yoanson, who is raising his son Christian alone, and who prays to God that his name will be drawn.

"Being a single mom is very, very hard" says Laurie Brown-Goodwine, who has applied to several charters for her son, Gregory Jr. Her husband is serving 25 years to life in prison for a third-strike felony.

These are parents who don't have the means to move to a richer neighborhood with better public schools, so instead they have to rely on luck. When demand for a charter school exceeds supply, the random drawing is required by law. Some schools inform parents by mail, but Harlem Success holds a public lottery. "Harlem Success is very explicit about why they do it," Ms. Sackler says. They want to show demand. "I've heard them say to parents 'We hope that you'll come and show that this is something that you want. Because if you don't, we're not going to get more schools.'"

In the film, Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker says he can't go to lotteries anymore because they break his heart. "A child's destiny should not be determined on the pull of a draw." Nothing drives home this point more than seeing the parents and kids, perched at the edge of their chairs, hoping their names flash on the big screen.

Critics of "The Lottery" will probably contend that the absence of anti-charter voices hurts its credibility. But the scene Thursday night at Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater, where the film was screened, underscored the film's fundamental point about parents' apolitical dedication to educating their kids. After the documentary played, the film's parents took to the stage to answer questions from the theater's packed audience. Their message: Research options early and ignore labels—all that matters is the school's results. It's the same message, the parents said, that they now regularly share in neighborhood grocery markets and libraries.

Harlem Success, meanwhile, is trying to keep pace with parents' demand. Right now the network has four schools, but in 10 years it hopes to operate 40, with some 20,000 kids enrolled. Even then, there would be more work ahead: This year, some 40,000 New York kids will end up on charter school waiting lists.

"The public education system is at a crossroads," Ms. Sackler says. "Do we want to go back to the time when children are forced to attend their district school no matter how underperforming it is? Or do we want to let parents choose what's best for their kids and provide a lot of options? Sometimes those options might fail. But . . . I don't see how you could choose to settle for what we've been doing for half a century when it's been systemically screwing over the same kids—over and over and over."


What many British "comprehensive" schools produce

The frightening day a woman stood up to thugs in school uniform... while their teacher sat and did nothing

For most of the day, the number 70 bus trundles peacefully through some of the nicest parts of London - from leafy, suburban Ealing, via the million-pound houses of Notting Hill to the elegant stucco terraces of Kensington.

Yesterday, on a sunny, peaceful afternoon, I sat quietly reading a newspaper on this bus, with a variety of ordinary, mostly middle-aged people like me.

Then the doors opened - and all Hell broke loose. A tidal wave of children, fresh out of their local comprehensive, poured onto the bus, jostling and fighting, deliberately pushing passengers aside, pressing the emergency alarms and screaming obscenities.

Girls lolled against doors, chewing gum and swearing loudly. Two of the 'children' - the ringleaders, who looked about 25 but were probably 16 - were as tall as adult men, with dreadlocks, incipient beards and trousers worn to show their underpants topped with an approximation of school uniform.

They swore loudly, especially at the driver when he had the temerity to ask them to stop pressing the alarm, and stared challengingly around the bus, daring any of us to stare back.

We all looked away. A gentle-faced Muslim woman in a headscarf shrank back against the side of the bus, flinching at the vile language.

In front of me sat two small, bespectacled boys wearing neat versions of the same school uniform. They had got on at the previous stop, presumably to avoid sharing a bus stop with this rabble. They stared fixedly at the floor.

I realised, with a sense of shock, that we were all - old and young, male and female - scared stiff of a bunch of kids.

And how they revelled in it. Dripping with a terrifying self-confidence (all those lessons spent raising self-esteem as opposed to teaching, say, history had clearly paid off) and steeped in the toxic culture of 'respect' and entitlement, these kids knew they were the untouchables.

'This is so stressful,' I whispered to the middle-aged Asian man next to me. 'Yes, it is,' one of the small boys said. 'And it is like this every single day.'

A boy, aged about 13, plonked himself down beside the two small boys. They didn't say a word. Then suddenly one of the ringleaders approached this lad - who was also wearing the uniform - and started slapping him around the head. The boy, confused, put out his hand to stay the blows.

The older boy glared at him. 'Are you touchin' me? Are you disrespecting me? Take your hands off me or I will do something to you,' he hissed.

I felt my heart rate soar. The boy removed his hand quickly, only for the blows to start again. 'Please stop, I don't like it,' he pleaded. 'What are you going to do about it? Are you threatening me?' was the retort.

I turned to the man next to me and said: 'This is awful.' He nodded.

Then things stepped up. The boy who had been hit got up to get off the bus. 'You ain't going nowhere until I say so,' said his tormentor, blocking his way, as the other kids cackled with pleasure at this psychological terrorism. The doors closed.

The same happened at the next stop. Then something in me snapped. I felt sick and angry at myself for being frightened of these yobs. I imagined my own son being bullied and nobody daring to intervene and my mothering instinct took over.

I stood up, rang the bell so the driver would open the doors, looked the boy-as-big-as-a-man in the eye and said, calmly: 'Let him get off the bus now.' He was astounded. Clearly, being spoken to by an adult like this was a new experience.

'Why is you interfering?' he demanded. 'What's it got to do with you? I'm teachin' him a lesson.'

'This is unacceptable,' I said, adrenaline coursing through me. 'It is bullying. I want you to let him off the bus now.'

In the stand-off, the younger boy slipped under his tormentor's arm and scuttled off the bus. The older boy said to me: 'F***ing mind your own business.'

My hands were dripping with sweat. And yet he looked deflated. I sat back down, my heart racing and asked a child what school they went to. He told me.

'What you tellin' her for?' the ringleader demanded. Then, rightly surmising that I planned to complain, he sneered: 'I don't care. I'll tell you the head's name if you like.' Clearly, he was familiar with her office, but, equally clearly, she held no terrors for him.

Eventually, the bus disgorged its yobbish cargo and it was quiet again. A well-dressed woman in her 30s sighed: 'I have to travel on this bus regularly and it happens every time.' 'I can't believe I was the only person to say anything,' I exclaimed.

'I tried once,' she replied. 'With a man who was probably in his 70s and we asked them to stop swearing. They punched him.

'I asked the driver to throw them off the bus, but apparently he's not allowed to do that because they are "just children" and he doesn't call the police because they won't do anything because they are "just children".'

I felt shocked. No wonder these kids felt entitled to do anything they liked. They could do anything they liked.

But there was to be a further shock. I heard one of the well-behaved children address a fellow passenger as 'miss'. A teacher? I stared at her in disbelief. 'Do you know these kids?' I asked. 'Yes, I work at the school,' she said. 'But you didn't do anything,' I stuttered.

I thought of my Seventies and Eighties schooldays and the vigorous response of my old teachers to bad behaviour and quailed at the thought.

But the teacher was unrepentant. 'I will deal with it professionally in the school,' she replied.

To which I said: 'But that doesn't help the kids who are being bullied and the passengers who are being pushed around. Why are you scared to speak to your own pupils?'

She looked huffy and defensive. 'I'm not scared, but it's not professional. I will deal with it professionally tomorrow,' she repeated.

Now, I'm honestly not a teacher basher. I adore my own children's kind and committed teachers at their London state primary school. I certainly don't envy anyone who has to try to teach Shakespeare to quasi-adult thugs like these. It must be the toughest job in the world.

But it cannot make that job any easier if your pupils know you are too craven to ask them to stop bullying each other or intimidating members of the public while they are in school uniform. How can you expect to command the kids' respect in the classroom if they see you sitting silent outside it?

Of course, the teachers aren't to blame. The blame must lie with lazy parents, a culture that venerates foul-mouthed oiks, a music business that promotes the concept of unearned 'respect' in violent lyrics and videos, and adults who are too scared to challenge children's behaviour.

I think we need to start reclaiming our public places, buses, trains and the values of a civilised community.

Later, I looked up the school's Ofsted report and was unsurprised to see it had a 'good' rating and was praised for its excellent 'pastoral care' of pupils. Yet it was clear that bullying was rife. I pitied any conscientious child trying to learn in the shadow of such thugs.

As for me, I hope I will continue to have the courage to stand up to yobs.

And when, in three years' time, I need to choose a secondary school for my son, I shall ignore Ofsted reports and instead travel on the bus that passes the school at 3.30pm. I suspect it gives a rather more accurate picture.


Thursday, June 10, 2010

NY: Educrats pass students who get wrong answers on tests

It's racism behind it, of course. Must not fail blacks. And blacks generally perform so poorly that even the tiniest shred of comprehension from a black is pounced on with gratitude

When does 2 + 2 = 5? When you're taking the state math test.

Despite promises that the exams -- which determine whether students advance to the next grade -- would not be dumbed down this year, students got "partial credit" for wrong answers after failing to correctly add, subtract, multiply and divide. Some got credit for no answer at all. "They were giving credit for blatantly wrong things," said an outraged Brooklyn teacher who was among those hired to score the fourth-grade test.

State education officials had vowed to "strengthen" and "increase the rigor" of both the questions and the scoring when about 1.2 million kids in grades 3 to 8 -- including 450,000 in New York City -- took English exams in April and math exams last month.

But scoring guides obtained by The Post reveal that kids get half-credit or more for showing fragments of work related to the problem -- even if they screw up the calculations or leave the answer blank. Examples in the fourth-grade scoring guide include:

* A kid who answers that a 2-foot-long skateboard is 48 inches long gets half-credit for adding 24 and 24 instead of the correct 12 plus 12.

* A miscalculation that 28 divided by 14 equals 4 instead of 2 is "partially correct" if the student uses the right method to verify the wrong answer.

* Setting up a division problem to find one-fifth of $400, but not solving the problem -- and leaving the answer blank -- gets half-credit.

* A kid who subtracts 57 cents from three quarters for the right change and comes up with 15 cents instead of 18 cents still gets half-credit.

* A student who figures the numbers of books in 35 boxes of 10 gets half-credit despite messed-up multiplication that yields the wrong answer, 150 instead of 350.

These questions ask students to show their work. The scoring guidelines, called "holistic rubrics," require that points be given if a kid's attempt at an answer reflects a "partial understanding" of the math concept, "addresses some element of the task correctly," or uses the "appropriate process" to arrive at a wrong solution. Despite flubbing the answer, students can get 1 point on a 2-point problem and 1 or 2 points on a 3-pointer.

The Brooklyn teacher said she and peers who had trained to score the tests were stunned at some instructions. "Everybody in the room was upset," she said. The teacher had scored tests with some "controversial questions" for several years, but "this time it was more outrageous," she said. "You feel like you're being forced to cheat."

Scorers joked about giving points to kids who wrote their names, brought a pencil or shared gum. However, score inflation is not funny, the whistleblower said. "The kids who really need the help are just being shuffled along to the next grade without the basic skills to have true success. They are given a hollow success -- that's the crime of it. The state DOE is doing a disservice to its children."

Some testing experts are also troubled. Ray Domanico, a former head of data analysis for city schools, said kids deserve a little credit for partial knowledge but agreed the scoring system "raises some questions about whether it's too generous."

State Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn defended the scoring. "All teachers who score exams receive clear training and rubrics that detail scoring criteria for every question on the tests," he said. "Students who show work and demonstrate a partial understanding of the mathematical concepts or procedures embodied in the question receive partial credit."

But a few extra points can let a failing kid squeak by. A year ago, Chancellor Joel Klein boasted that the city was making "dramatic progress" when 82 percent of city students passed the state math test and 69 percent passed in English, up sharply from 2002. And fewer kids have been left back in recent years. What officials didn't reveal was that the number of points needed to pass proficiency levels has, in most cases, steadily dropped.

The state Board of Regents, which oversees the tests, has postponed the release of results until late July, but let the city Department of Education set its own "promotional cut scores" to decide which kids may be held back. The DOE will release those scores in the next two weeks, a spokesman said.


British schools failing to teach the Christian foundations of British culture

The Christian religion is the foundation of most of Britain’s culture and traditions. The history of our nation is incomprehensible without some knowledge of it. And yet, as we report today, and as anyone who has school-age children attending a non-religious state school will already know, the rudiments of Christianity are frequently poorly taught — if, indeed, they are taught at all. A report by Ofsted has found that, although nominally required by the national curriculum, in many schools instruction is “superficial”, and is treated less seriously than the study of other religions.

In part, this is a result of a misplaced enthusiasm for “multiculturalism”, and a determination to include other faiths such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism, all of which the national curriculum requires pupils to study. But it is also a reflection of the ignorance of many of the teachers themselves. There is, as Ofsted euphemistically puts it, “uncertainty” about what the teaching of Christianity should involve.

That needs to be remedied as soon as possible, and Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, should ensure that it is. Our youngsters have no chance of understanding the history of Britain, or its fundamental values of equality, toleration, and freedom of conscience, unless they also understand where those values came from.

No one is required to adhere to Christianity’s precepts in order to teach them: atheists can do that job quite as well as committed Christians (or Muslims, come to that). But in failing to teach children about the religion of the country they live in, we are depriving them of a critical element in their education.


Degrees at Australian university 'dumbed down' for foreign students

Such complaints are familiar and undoubtedly true so one wonders if anything will ever be done about them. Graduating unqualified engineers etc. is of great concern

FOREIGN students are cheating and getting special treatment to ensure they get their degrees, according to evidence gathered in a secret investigation by the Ombudsman.

Victorian universities chasing a bigger slice of Australia's $17 billion a year foreign students industry have also been accused of pressuring staff to "dumb down" courses. Some international students who failed tests at Royal Melbourne Institite of Technology were allowed to keep sitting the same exams until they passed, the Ombudsman's investigators allegedly found.

RMIT's 26,000 international students bring in almost $204 million a year to the university.

An RMIT whistleblower sparked the Ombudsman's investigation early this year. Investigators have found evidence suggesting:

- A teacher allowed students to cheat in aerospace and aviation exams.

- At least one Middle Eastern student suspected of cheating spent months in a detention centre while intelligence agencies checked his background.

- An international student graduated from RMIT despite turning up drunk, missing lectures, failing exams, abusing staff and students, and sparking sex assault accusations.

The university, and the individuals accused of wrongdoing, will be able to respond to the allegations in the Ombudsman's draft report before the final report was tabled in State Parliament.

RMIT Vice-Chancellor Margaret Gardner said the Whistleblowers Protection Act prevented her from commenting on the allegations until after the report is tabled. She said she would be happy to answer questions when she was legally able to do so.

An RMIT teacher, who asked not to be named, said some staff were concerned foreign students were getting preferential treatment. "RMIT is falling over backwards to make sure these fee-paying international students don't fail," he said. "A big slice of RMIT's income is generated by international students and they don't want to jeopardise it."

Leading Monash University researcher Bob Birrell claimed some international students who got degrees didn't have enough English to to get a job in Australia in their chosen fields. Dr Birrell said he couldn't comment on the Ombudsman's report as he was not aware of its contents.

But he said competition between Victorian universities was so fierce that evidence suggested some were cutting corners as they desperately pursued the lucrative international student dollar. "In order to deal with the students who were being recruited, they had to dumb down the curriculum," he said.

Investigators from the Ombudsman's office are believed to have discovered the cheating during an investigation into other damaging claims against RMIT. They found evidence suggesting a long-serving teacher handed out an exam paper to a Middle Eastern aerospace student several days before the exam. The student allegedly allowed other Middle Eastern students to use the exam paper to cheat.

Telephone records of the teacher and several aerospace students allegedly reveal late-night contact in the days before a test on the stress on aeroplane components.


Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Higher education's bubble is about to burst

It's a story of an industry that may sound familiar. The buyers think what they're buying will appreciate in value, making them rich in the future. The product grows more and more elaborate, and more and more expensive, but the expense is offset by cheap credit provided by sellers eager to encourage buyers to buy.

Buyers see that everyone else is taking on mounds of debt, and so are more comfortable when they do so themselves; besides, for a generation, the value of what they're buying has gone up steadily. What could go wrong? Everything continues smoothly until, at some point, it doesn't.

Yes, this sounds like the housing bubble, but I'm afraid it's also sounding a lot like a still-inflating higher education bubble. And despite (or because of) the fact that my day job involves higher education, I think it's better for us to face up to what's going on before the bubble bursts messily.

College has gotten a lot more expensive. A recent Money magazine report notes: "After adjusting for financial aid, the amount families pay for college has skyrocketed 439 percent since 1982. ... Normal supply and demand can't begin to explain cost increases of this magnitude."

Consumers would balk, except for two things.

First -- as with the housing bubble -- cheap and readily available credit has let people borrow to finance education. They're willing to do so because of (1) consumer ignorance, as students (and, often, their parents) don't fully grasp just how harsh the impact of student loan payments will be after graduation; and (2) a belief that, whatever the cost, a college education is a necessary ticket to future prosperity.

Bubbles burst when there are no longer enough excessively optimistic and ignorant folks to fuel them. And there are signs that this is beginning to happen already.

A New York Times profile last week described Courtney Munna, a 26-year-old graduate of New York University with nearly $100,000 in student loan debt -- debt that her degree in Religious and Women's Studies did not equip her to repay. Payments on the debt are about $700 per month, equivalent to a respectable house payment, and a major bite on her monthly income of $2,300 as a photographer's assistant earning an hourly wage.

And, unlike a bad mortgage on an underwater house, Munna can't simply walk away from her student loans, which cannot be expunged in a bankruptcy. She's stuck in a financial trap.

Some might say that she deserves it -- who borrows $100,000 to finance a degree in women's and religious studies that won't make you any money? She should have wised up, and others should learn from her mistake, instead of learning too late, as she did: "I don't want to spend the rest of my life slaving away to pay for an education I got for four years and would happily give back."

But bubbles burst when people catch on, and there's some evidence that people are beginning to catch on. Student loan demand, according to a recent report in the Washington Post, is going soft, and students are expressing a willingness to go to a cheaper school rather than run up debt. Things haven't collapsed yet, but they're looking shakier -- kind of like the housing market looked in 2007.

So what happens if the bubble collapses? Will it be a tragedy, with millions of Americans losing their path to higher-paying jobs?

Maybe not. College is often described as a path to prosperity, but is it? A college education can help people make more money in three different ways.

First, it may actually make them more economically productive by teaching them skills valued in the workplace: Computer programming, nursing or engineering, say. (Religious and women's studies, not so much.)

Second, it may provide a credential that employers want, not because it represents actual skills, but because it's a weeding tool that doesn't produce civil-rights suits as, say, IQ tests might. A four-year college degree, even if its holder acquired no actual skills, at least indicates some ability to show up on time and perform as instructed.

And, third, a college degree -- at least an elite one -- may hook its holder up with a useful social network that can provide jobs and opportunities in the future. (This is more true if it's a degree from Yale than if it's one from Eastern Kentucky, but it's true everywhere to some degree).

While an individual might rationally pursue all three of these, only the first one -- actual added skills -- produces a net benefit for society. The other two are just distributional -- about who gets the goodies, not about making more of them.

Yet today's college education system seems to be in the business of selling parts two and three to a much greater degree than part one, along with selling the even-harder-to-quantify "college experience," which as often as not boils down to four (or more) years of partying.

Post-bubble, perhaps students -- and employers, not to mention parents and lenders -- will focus instead on education that fosters economic value. And that is likely to press colleges to focus more on providing useful majors. (That doesn't necessarily rule out traditional liberal-arts majors, so long as they are rigorous and require a real general education, rather than trendy and easy subjects, but the key word here is "rigorous.")

My question is whether traditional academic institutions will be able to keep up with the times, or whether -- as Anya Kamenetz suggests in her new book, "DIY U" -- the real pioneering will be in online education and the work of "edupunks" who are more interested in finding new ways of teaching and learning than in protecting existing interests.

I'm betting on the latter. Industries seldom reform themselves, and real competition usually comes from the outside. Keep your eyes open -- and, if you're planning on applying to college, watch out for those student loans.


The Lottery: Children’s Futures Left to Luck

Tomorrow, a new documentary, The Lottery, will premier in Washington, DC.

The film is based on the Harlem charter school lottery: a luck-of-the-draw process to determine who of thousands of vying New York City children will be offered 475 charter school slots. Specifically, it tells the stories of four New York families hoping to break free from New York City public schools to increase the likelihood of their children’s educational success. Madeleine Sackler, the film’s director tells the Wall Street Journal:
These are parents who don’t have the means to move to a richer neighborhood with better public schools, so instead they have to rely on luck. When demand for a charter school exceeds supply, the random drawing is required by law. Some schools inform parents by mail, but Harlem Success holds a public lottery.

The film not only takes the viewer through the emotional roller coaster of the lottery process, but illustrates the political opposition that curbs the growth of more charter schools to fill the demand of these families. Why such opposition to educational opportunity for NY children? Eva Moskowitz, founder of the Harlem Success Academy network and a key character in the film, identifies the “union-political-educational complex.”

In one scene, viewers see the likes of Acorn, hired to protest a charter school on behalf of the teachers union. While the film was not originally meant to be political, Sackler comments:
Finding out that the teachers union had hired a rent-a-mob to protest on its behalf was “the turn for us in the process.” That story—of self-interested adults trying to deny poor parents choice for their children—provided an answer to Ms. Sackler’s fundamental question: “If there are these high-performing schools that are closing the achievement gap, why aren’t there more of them?

The film also seeks to dispel the myth that children are failing because parents don’t care. As The Lottery reveals, there are many parents who are willing to fight for their children’s education. However, a broken system provides little chance at accomplishing that. The Lottery’s message will hopefully bring families one step closer to achieving that goal.

“The public education system is at a crossroads,” Ms. Sackler says. “Do we want to go back to the time when children are forced to attend their district school no matter how underperforming it is? Or do we want to let parents choose what’s best for their kids and provide a lot of options?”


Worst British universities 'could be closed', says CBI

The government should consider closing Britain's worst universities to stop them dragging down elite institutions, a business leader has suggested. Richard Lambert, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, said the move should be considered by the coalition government as it attempts to cut public spending.

He said the country’s top universities should not be forced to “pay the price for the incompetence of the worst”, particularly at a time of public sector cuts.

In a speech, he also suggested that so-called “premier league” institutions should be allowed to charge higher student tuition fees to protect academic standards.

The comments come weeks after the Government announced plans to cut £200 million from the higher education budget as part of sweeping public spending reductions. Three-quarters of universities were already facing real-terms funding cuts following allocations made by Labour earlier this year.

Mr Lambert said a small number of universities were currently in “serious financial difficulty” and many more were “heading into very big trouble”.

In a speech at Sheffield University on Tuesday evening, he warned that the Government would have to make difficult decisions to safeguard the world-class reputation of British higher education. “Would it take the politically explosive but probably economically sensible decision to close or merge the worst run institutions? Or would it instead attempt to bail them out?” he said. “That would mean the already reduced quantities of jam having to be spread even more thinly across the system, making our best universities pay the price for the incompetence of the worst.”

Lord Browne, the former head of BP, is heading a review into the existing system of university finance. He will make series of recommendations in the autumn that are expected to lead to a radical overhaul of student tuition fees, loans and grants.

Many vice-chancellors have already called for the existing £3,250-a-year cap on fees to be raised, with some calling for the complete abolition of the upper limit. This could pave the way for universities to set fees similar to those in the United States, where top Ivy League institutions can charge up to £20,000. Mr Lambert said ministers should consider allowing the best universities to charge more.

Britain currently has around 150 higher education institutions. Four universities - Cambridge, University College London, Oxford and Imperial - were ranked among the world's top 10 in a global league table last year. Eighteen were in the top 100.

Mr Lambert said: “If we want them to stay in this division in what is becoming an increasingly competitive marketplace – which we surely should – then we are going to have to find ways of channelling more money in their direction. “They already get a disproportionate share of public funding for research… But does the one size fits all approach to the tuition fee cap make sense in this environment?

“Provided they offered full bursaries to those who couldn’t afford to pay the full rate, why shouldn’t those in the premier league be allowed to raise their fees to something nearer what the market could bear? Or would have that have adverse consequences in terms of social mobility and equity?”

In further comments, Mr Lambert criticised the failure to properly open up higher education to the poorest students. According to figures, almost two thirds of universities recruited fewer students than expected from the poorest areas last year.

Mr Lambert said universities had “more to do”, but insisted that the real blame lay in the “earlier years of education”. Almost half of schoolchildren fail to get the GCSEs necessary to move onto A-level courses, he said, blocking their access to degree courses.

“Disproportionately large numbers of this group come from the most deprived backgrounds,” he said. “Some 16 per cent of children leave school in this country without any form of qualification, which is well above the [international] average. This represents a scandalous waste of human capital.”


Tuesday, June 08, 2010

DC and other cities give new teacher breed a proving ground

Keen teachers are a good start but even keen teachers get discouraged if there is no effective control over misbehaviour -- and that will probably ensue in many of the cases below

The new contract ratified by D.C. teachers has inspired speculation about who is going to get the most out of it. Will Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee be able to impose her test-driven evaluation system with no more teacher resistance? Will the American Federation of Teachers, and its president Randi Weingarten, garner new prestige and influence for endorsing reform?

Nope. That’s not it. This is not about District or union leaders. It is about teachers, particularly the innovative ones who have been taking jobs in city schools and joining Weingarten’s union in large numbers the last several years. The new contract in D.C. and related developments in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Houston and elsewhere give this new bunch an opportunity to prove their creative and aggressive teaching will help inner-city children realize their untapped potential.

D.C. is a hot spot for the movement because the city has large numbers of top college graduates recruited by Teach for America and similar organizations. They now serve as teachers, principals and in Rhee’s case, chancellor. Like Houston, New York and Boston, D.C. also has many of the most effective public charter schools and several regular public schools that are innovative.

In Los Angeles, teachers with similar intentions are pushing the change even further. In the summer issue of the journal Education Next, University of California at Berkeley education and public policy professor Bruce Fuller reveals how renegade teacher groups outbid even the best charter organizations to run underperforming L.A. schools their way.

If this doesn’t work, it will be leaders like Rhee who get the blame. Test scores will deliver the final verdict, as far as the public is concerned. Tests are flawed measures, but they are pretty much all we have. That is why the new breed of teachers takes them seriously, and why Weingarten agreed to test-driven teacher evaluations. The fastest-growing part of her membership demanded them. If scores don’t continue to improve, the headlines will say Rhee failed. But the teachers driving schools in these new directions will blame themselves and try something different, a useful habit if we want urban schools to work.

One crucial element in all this can’t be easily measured — attitude, both in teachers and students. Leaders like Rhee have insisted on hiring only teachers who believe that they can make big gains despite the drag on learning that comes from poverty. This is evident in what happens in their classrooms. Students who fail to pay attention, taunt others or do anything to distract the class get a quick teacher response — a warning, a whisper in the ear, a lost privilege, something to underline the importance of what they are doing.

The way some of the new principals instill this emphasis in teachers is interesting. Susan Schaeffler, who created the most effective charter school network in the city, KIPP DC, told me what she said privately to a teacher who was five minutes late for a meeting: “Is there a problem? Should we rewrite your contract to let you come late? We can’t demand that kids stick with the rules if we don’t follow them ourselves.”

No matter how much salaries rise under the new contract, the teachers who make a difference will not dwell on that. They know that how much their students grow in knowledge and character will decide everything.


International examinations will be offered to state school pupils, says new British Government

State school pupils will be able to take the tougher International GCSE after the Government announced it was introducing the qualification, which is favoured by the private sector.

The move to recognise the IGCSE — which is likened to the old-style O level — is the strongest indication yet that the standard GCSE is no longer seen as fit for purpose. Independent schools have been using the international qualification, which lacks a coursework component, for some time but until now the Government had refused to allow it in the state sector.

Teachers’ leaders said the move would cause confusion for parents and pupils, but exam boards said the move would increase flexibility and choice.

Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, said he wanted to give institutions greater freedom to offer qualifications that employers and universities demanded. The IGCSE would put state school pupils on a level playing field with their private school peers, he said. “For too long, children in state-maintained schools have been unfairly denied the right to study for qualifications like the IGCSE, which has only served to widen the already vast divide between state and independent schools.

“By removing the red tape, state school pupils will have the opportunity to leave school with the same set of qualifications as their peers from the top private schools — allowing them to better compete for university places and for the best jobs.”

From September state heads will be able to offer the IGCSE syllabus in dozens of subjects including English, maths and science.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, criticised the move. “GCSEs are well established as the major route at age 16, and have been hugely successful in giving many more young people the opportunity to achieve,” he said.

“Introducing the IGCSE more widely will increase uncertainty for parents, pupils, employers and the general public. Exams are not products on a store shelf. They determine young people’s futures and should not be subject to market pressures.”

The results of IGCSEs, which have no modules, will be placed in league tables and be regarded as equivalent to GCSE results. Until now private schools that take the qualification have been excluded from national league tables. The Government said that the move was not intended to discredit the GCSE examination, which has been part of the culmination of pre-16 education since 1986.

A spokeswoman for Edexcel, one of the largest exam boards in England, said: “It is vital that any education system offers flexibility and choice to ensure learners achieve their full potential. Teachers will now have more freedom to choose an exam format that best suits their learners’ needs.”

As part of the shake-up of qualifications for over 15s, the Government also said yesterday that it would scrap the next stage of the Diploma qualification — which was designed by Labour to bridge the gap between academic and vocational qualifications.

It will not fund the development of science, humanities and language diplomas that was expected to begin in September, saving £1.77 million. Diplomas in hair and beauty, and hospitality began last year.

Mr Gibb said: “It’s not for government to decide which qualifications pupils should take, or to force the development of new qualifications, which is why we are stopping development of the state-led Academic Diploma.


Not all British sink schools are "failing". Sometimes it's the pupils

The new Education Secretary’s eagerness to fire ‘underperforming’ headteachers could result in an own goal. Exam results do not tell the whole story in some instances

The brisk abolition of two quangos and the General Teaching Council was a good start, since teachers and parents on the whole prefer money to be spent on children rather than extra bureaucrats. The offer of academy status will be welcomed by many, though it will be interesting to see which local authorities (there are some) work so well and economically that their schools all turn it down. But in an interview at the end of last week, Mr Gove showed worrying signs of waving his scissors around too excitedly and stabbing himself.

What he said was that schools deemed “failing” and placed on special measures by Ofsted, the inspectorate, would have 12 months to climb out of that status before the heads were sacked and the school handed over to “organisations with a track record of educational excellence”. It sounds good — zero tolerance of failure, urgent repair of a broken system, every child a winner, all that. But I do not like to see a clever and principled minister veering away from reality.

For schools to fail children is obviously terrible. But know this: in the real world, unnoticed by amateur educational harrumphers, the definition of “failing” was sharply changed last autumn. Ofsted moved the goalposts, and the proportion of schools labelled as failing nearly doubled: from 4 to 7.5 per cent. This is not because they suddenly got worse. The change hinges on the word “attainment” replacing the word “achievement”: basically, under the new inspection criteria, all that really matters is a tally of exam results. More than 30 per cent must get five A-C grades at GCSE, including English and Maths.

Not only is it hard to raise everyone to the average (do the math!) but the raised bar takes little account of what a school adds to the lives and minds of pupils who started at a low mental, social and emotional level. Inspectors now have less flexibility to judge the difficult realities in front of them, but must tick boxes on exam results and compliance with “safeguarding” and “equality”.

For schools flying well above the average, this hardly matters. But for those who lead the most difficult ones it is a disaster. One gifted and dedicated secondary head who serves a tough estate in a middle-sized and otherwise affluent town says sadly: “There is absolutely no way that in a year’s time we cannot be still ‘failing’.”

The only thing that cheers him up is the reflection that if Mr Gove fulfils his rash promise of sacking, he’ll have the devil of a job finding any “organisation with a track record of educational excellence” willing to risk its reputation by taking on his particular lot — especially since the golden, long-awaited promise of decent new school buildings is now receding into the mists of recession.

This school serves one sprawling estate (nobody else would choose to go there) where many children are born to poverty, chaotic broken families and a drug culture fed by hard-eyed and armed dealers who target the most vulnerable. They grow up knowing that their patch of ground is shunned and feared by the comparatively affluent communities around, their school dubbed a “sink”.

Yet they are well cared for by this very school: it is the only calm, focused, kindly place in many of their lives, the only place they see an actual book. The head greets every one by name each day, they wear uniform, the teachers rejoice in every raising of interest and ability. Before the change, its last Ofsted report called it “good with outstanding features”, and spoke of inspiring leadership and staff commitment. Some of its pupils do remarkably well.

But to get a third hitting five A-C grades at 16 is probably a chimera. More than half the intake are on “special needs” registers. “Social needs” — that tidy euphemism — are high, as is the dread phrase “emotional and behavioural difficulties”. The poorest- performing local primary schools feed it. Among the parents, broken families, worklessness and criminality are common. The staff work hard to involve them, but many have negative memories of their own schooldays, resent the law that makes them send their children in, abuse the staff and counteract attempts at discipline.

There are not many schools like this, perhaps only a couple of hundred. Many are not in the multicultural and notoriously troublesome inner-city areas that get all the attention: they are in deprived corners of provincial towns that everyone forgets about. Of course they need help, and generous funding, and to be watched lest their morale plummet irretrievably. But they also need understanding, realism and some relief from the mass of legal, curricular and procedural stringencies loaded on them by decades of trigger-happy ministers.

To judge them on other things than raw grades is not to undervalue their children’s chances. It is just that there are more sophisticated measurements than pure exam grades: measures that set the entry level of pupils against their final academic and social achievements. On those criteria, schools such as this hit the same targets as top grammar schools.

And — since life goes on after schooldays — some of their alumni will later amplify their education and social progress, because they have been valued and shown a different path to that of their parents. But if Mr Gove means what he says, their failure to hit a statistical winning post from a start miles behind the line will get their school shamed and their heads sacked. Perhaps Mr Gove plans to get real and look again at the criteria for shouting “Failure!” I hope so.


Monday, June 07, 2010

Equality or diversity? Which one do Leftists want?

You can't have both

by Tibor R. Machan

For the last couple or so decades the universities and colleges where I have taught–and by all accounts, most of them in the USA–have had two mutually exclusive social objectives. (Yes, Virginia, higher education is now mostly embarked upon pursuing social policies, not so much educating students.) These two are equality and diversity.

On the one hand there is a big push toward eliminating any kind of inequality in the way students are being regarded and treated. Everyone is equal, just as Barrack Obama’s Vice President Joseph Biden insisted in one of his rallying cries. As he put it in the course of a moving eulogy for his mother (according to the Associated Press), “My mother’s creed is the American creed: No one is better than you,” he said. “Everyone is your equal, and everyone is equal to you. My parents taught us to live our faith, and to treasure our families. We learned the dignity of work, and we were told that anyone can make it if they just try hard enough.”

Of course Mr. Biden didn’t mean we are all equal today or will be tomorrow. What he meant is that in a rightly ordered world, one ruled by him and his associates, there would be total equality among human beings, on the model of, say, ants in their colony (excepting the chief ant, of course, just as this would be and has been the case with any large scale egalitarian experiment). I am not exaggerating. Just go and read Vice President Biden’s comment in full (here) and check out the many very prominently published books on the issue denouncing such dastardly inequalities, among others, as being more beautiful than someone else. Take, for example, Naomi Wolff’s The Beauty Myth from the 1980s and the recently published work of Deborah L. Rhode, The Beauty Bias (2010).

But at the same time that the push for full equality among people is carried out with official support, we also find widespread academic support for the idea of diversity –an idea that assumes, of course, that people aren’t the same at all but quite different–so our various prominent institutions must be inclusive of widely different people.

The differences at issue tend, of course, to be controversial. Some support ideological or philosophical or religious differences, so that those with different ideas, faiths, convictions and the like need all to be included. Some focus upon diversity in racial or ethnic or gender membership. Some stress differences in socio-economic status.

Whatever is the sort of diversity being considered, it is evident beyond any reasonable doubt that people are not equal by a long shot and their unequal status needs to be taken account of in how the relevant institutions–universities, high schools, clubs, corporations, etc.–are being managed, administered or governed. This is not merely a fact of life but a celebrated fact of life, given how so much of educational policy and administration is devoted to doing it justice.

One need but take account of the demographics of the United States of America, let alone the globe, in order to apprehend the underlying basis of this fact. People are not only of the same species, homo sapiens, but are at the same time individuals and members of innumerable special groups, most of them entirely legitimate (unlike, say, membership in the Ku Klux Klan or the Mafia). As a favorite social philosopher of mine, Steve Martin the very inventive and funny actor and writer, put it in the novel, The Pleasure of My Company, “People, I thought. These are people. Their general uniformity was interrupted only by their individual variety.”

So, on the one hand the objective is supposed to be, as VP Biden suggests, to erase all differences and render everyone equal in all important respects. On the other hand, as much of educational administrative policy suggests, diversity is to be celebrated, and the homogeneity that would be part and parcel of an egalitarian world, is to be rejected.

So then which will it be? An acknowledgement of benign human diversity or an insistence of homogenization so as to fulfill the egalitarian dream? There is no doubt about it for me: diversity is not just a fact of human life but a highly welcome one at that.


Britain's Tories take on the leather lady

THE new government is to throw a lifeline to independent schools by softening demands for them to provide more bursaries to pupils from poor families to justify retaining their charitable status.

Michael Gove, the education secretary, has ordered his officials to talk to the Charity Commission about giving the schools more credit for community work such as sharing teachers and facilities with comprehensives.

Under a law passed by Labour, schools have to prove they provide “public benefit” to retain the tax breaks they enjoy from charitable status.

Last year two schools failed pilot inspections by the commission, headed by Dame Suzi Leather, mainly because they were not providing enough bursaries. This provoked fury from independent school heads, who claimed Leather was over-interpreting the law and pursuing a politically motivated agenda.

Some wealthy schools with large endowments may have little difficulty providing sufficient bursaries, but poorer institutions have complained that they will struggle to do so.

Gove wants to soften the commission’s approach while also exploring new ways for schools to escape its jurisdiction altogether.

Before the election he looked at a plan for schools to become “non-profit trusts”. Under this option, which would require legislation, schools would lose the tax perks of charitable status but hold on to their assets and stay independent from commercial shareholders. Asked if Gove was still considering this, a source said it was “speculation”.

Another route may be for schools to become exempt charities, which are not subject to Charity Commission jurisdiction. New state academies will be given this status.

A small number of independent schools — mainly those in financial trouble — are expected to take a third route by converting into academies.

The source said: “[Gove] wants to meet the concerns of the independent schools and provide ways of escaping the jurisdiction of the Charity Commission for schools that wish to do so.”

The government will be reluctant to repeal Labour’s public benefit legislation entirely for fear of being seen to favour wealthy schools such as Eton and Westminster — attended by David Cameron and Nick Clegg respectively.

More than 1,000 independent schools are registered charities, meaning they are exempt from income tax and stamp duty and benefit from concessions on business rates and Vat. On average, these amount to 2%-3% of a school’s income.

David Lyscom, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council, said he would welcome the Charity Commission adopting “a more reasonable and legally defensible” approach, but strongly backed the introduction of legal alternatives to charitable status.

“We don’t want to have to rely on a political interpretation of public benefit depending on the whim of a particular government,” Lyscom said.

Simon Northcott, head of St Anselm’s, near Bakewell, Derbyshire, which failed its public benefit inspection for providing insufficient bursaries, said: “We’re aiming to play ball with [the commission] and pass. But I’m not sure they know what they’re doing ... after two visits to the school they have still not looked round it.”


Australia: Leftist educators still trying to dodge phonics

There is something in their addled brains which makes them hate the fact that it is the best way to teach literacy. They seem to see it as "too teacher-centred", or some such bulldust

THE place in the national curriculum for teaching letter-sound relationships to students learning to read is "submerged in a sea of competing strategies" that confuses teachers and students, say leading researchers.

In a submission on the national English curriculum, some of the nation's most respected scientists in reading research are concerned that while the requirement to teach phonics is included in the curriculum, it fails to clearly state the best way to teach it as shown by research.

The submission says the curriculum "makes reference" to sound-letter correspondences but it lacks a statement clearly specifying that all sound-letter correspondences be taught intensively and systematically. It also fails to specify the teaching of the skills of blending sounds for reading and of segmenting sounds for spelling, and that decoding skills be taught "to the level of fluency".

The signatories to the submission include Macquarie University professors Max Coltheart and Kevin Wheldall, who developed MULTILIT (Making Up for Lost Time In Literacy), a phonics-based remedial reading program that is being trialled in NSW schools this year. It is the first direct comparison in Australia between phonics-based and other teaching strategies for reading.

The submission argues that the curriculum continues to give emphasis to a discredited system for teaching reading, known as the three cues, which includes phonics as one part, but not the first step, in reading, alongside the syntax of the sentence and the shape of the word.

"The three-cueing system is a seriously flawed conception of the processes involved in skilled reading, and the practices flowing from its misconception may have contributed to the problems experienced by an unacceptably large number of students," the submission says.

"The Australian curriculum is unclear about which skills are crucial in learning to read. This leads to confusion between the processes involved in learning to read (decoding text) and the processes involved in understanding what has been read."

The dominant strategy for teaching reading in Australia since the late 1970s has been the "whole language" approach, which assumed children learned to read in the same way they learned to speak through exposure to books and reading.

Its proponents contend that children were taught to look at the picture on the page, the shape of the word, the initial letter and guess the word given its place in the sentence.

The submission quotes British studies of eye movement and brain research that have shown that, when reading takes place, decoding or sounding out always takes place before the understanding of words or sentences.


Sunday, June 06, 2010

Cleveland specialty high schools celebrate first graduates, but resentment remains from traditional schools

The Cleveland School of Science and Medicine and Cleveland School of Architecture and Design, both at John Hay, and all-male Ginn will present diplomas this weekend to a combined 171 seniors. The count would have been higher, but two seniors failed to pass all five sections of the state graduation test.

All the John Hay graduates are bound for college or trade school. Two Ginn grads are entering the military; the rest plan to go to college. That's remarkable in a district where nearly half the students quit before completing 12th grade.

The new schools draw cries of favoritism. Support from foundations, the schools' small, boutique settings and their freedom to pick students stir resentment.

Urban systems face a dilemma: Large high schools are ineffective, but smaller models can be expensive and need union consent for the flexibility that proponents say is essential.

One thing for certain is that Cleveland's niche choices keep more students from dropping out or leaving for charter and suburban classrooms. The alternatives also may save students who would end up in jail or dead.

"When you look at the performance of most of the comprehensive high schools, it's pretty dreadful," said former district innovation chief Leigh McGuigan, describing conditions across the country. "The end game has to be to put in place in every school the characteristics that exist in these schools."

The John Hay Campus, in University Circle, gives off the vibe of a private school. You can't tell now, but not long ago, the building was so out of control that then-Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett resorted to a drastic solution: Shut the classic 1929 structure down for remodeling, kick out the neighborhood kids and start from scratch with new concepts.

Science and Medicine and Architecture and Design require a 3.0 grade-point average for admission, a big reason why John Hay, rated as a single entity, scored "excellent" on its most recent state report card.

"We have tons of good students [in the district]. Shouldn't there be some public options for parents?" said Edward Weber, head of school at Science and Medicine. "I wouldn't say it's cherry-picking so much as students earn the right to be here."


British Schools leave Christianity in the wilderness

Schools have been accused of ignoring the views of their Christian pupils while paying careful attention to children of other faiths. According to Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, teachers are failing to educate children in the core beliefs of Christianity, ignoring their legal obligation to do so.

An Ofsted report released today says stories from the Bible are often used simply to teach children about their feelings or about how to empathise with the sick, but their religious significance is neglected.

The inspectorate finds there has been a sharp decline in the quality of religious teaching, particularly in secondary schools, over the past three years. “Insufficient attention was paid to ... pupils who were actively engaged in Christian practice,” the report notes. “Often, their experience was ignored ... this sometimes contrasted sharply with the more careful attention paid to the experiences of pupils from other religious traditions.”

Critics argue that too many teachers are both ignorant and embarrassed about Christianity and are frightened of causing tension in multi-faith schools.

However, supporters of the approach identified by Ofsted argue that teachers are simply reflecting the secular views prevalent in society.

Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, said: “There is generally in the culture a kind of embarrassment about talking openly about Christianity that doesn’t apply to other faiths.” He warned that teachers were in danger of presenting religions as a “smorgasbord of interesting rituals and feasts”.

Christine Gilbert, the chief inspector of schools, said: “All young people should have the opportunity to learn about religion [and] learn from religion. This requires good teaching based on strong subject knowledge and clarity about the purposes of religious education.”

The teaching of religion has become increasingly fraught. Last year, a primary school teacher from Tower Hamlets, east London, claimed he had been forced out of his job because he had complained to his headmistress about an anti-Christian bias among pupils.

Some had allegedly praised the September 11 hijackers, while one boy had said he was glad about the death of a lawyer who had been stabbed “because he’s a Christian”.

Schools are obliged to teach religion, although it is not part of the national curriculum. Lessons are also supposed to reflect the fact that Christianity is the main religion in Britain, while taking account of the other leading faiths.

To assess how well they were meeting their obligations, Ofsted inspectors studied 94 primary and 89 secondary schools and compared the teaching with what it had found in a similar study three years ago. The report says: “There is an urgent need to review the way the subject is supported.” It adds: “In the sample of primary schools ... not enough [religious education] was of good quality. The quality of RE in the secondary schools visited was worse than in the schools involved in the 2007 survey.”

Ofsted says: “It was common for teachers to use Jesus’s parables to explore personal feelings or to decide how people should behave, but not make any reference to their religious significance.” In one primary school lesson, a teacher told the story of Christ’s healing of a blind man and said the purpose was to understand how it felt to be blind. The pupils were given a “feely bag” and asked to write a poem about what they would miss if they could not see. “The pupils were confused and began to lose interest,” the report notes.

Ofsted also found that teaching about Islam in secondary schools avoided any reference to controversial topics such as the place of Islam in Britain.

Andrea Minichiello Williams, director of the campaign group Christian Concern for our Nation, said: “It’s good Ofsted is starting to recognise the marginalisation of Christianity. Increasingly teachers feel they are not free to talk about faith ... Christianity is not given a level playing field.”

However, Keith Porteous Wood, director of the National Secular Society, said: “In the last week, we have had complaints of children in community schools being forced to pray before lunch and their libraries having far more books on religion than science. Yet Ofsted is pressing for the indoctrination of pupils to be stepped up.”


Black educational achievement can be greatly improved -- by strict drill, not by woolly-headed Leftist methods

By Miranda Devine, writing from Australia

When the Cape York Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson was in year 5 at Hopevale primary school, in the mid-1970s, a fill-in teacher arrived to take his class. She was an older woman, but he can't remember her name. He can remember names of more charismatic teachers.

He just remembers a "long, torrid" year with this nameless teacher, who had once taught high-school English and who drilled the children in literacy so intensively it felt "like doing football practice day in and day out".

That was the year of his "literacy breakthrough", he remembers, and when he went away to boarding school in Brisbane at the Lutheran St Peter's, he outshone most of his contemporaries in English. He continued to do so at Sydney University where he took his history and law degrees.

It was in this teacher's classroom that the seeds were sown for the high-stakes education revolution he has launched on Cape York, to erase a generation's dysfunction and lost opportunity.

It was there that Pearson came to understand that the "essence of the good teacher is above all the quality of their instruction", as he wrote last year. This led him eventually to the door of a 78-year-old professor at the University of Oregon last year.

Pearson remembers his old teacher used a boxed set of cards for the literacy exercises, which the children called "SRA cards" because they were published by the mysterious sounding Science Research Associates. Thirty-five years later he discovered the SRA and its cards had been part of a teaching method known as Direct Instruction, designed by Professor Siegfried Engelmann.

The discovery came via Bernadine Denigan, the inspirational chief executive of Cape York Partnerships, who went to the US on a Churchill fellowship two years ago and discovered the startling successes Direct Instruction was having in similarly disadvantaged schools in places as diverse as Harlem and Nebraska.

As Pearson wrote in a brilliant article entitled Radical Hope in Quarterly Essay last year, Engelmann's contribution is "the most profound of any education theorist in the modern era and yet he labours in near complete-obscurity".

The American adman turned education professor designed the teacher-proof program that allows children, particularly those from disadvantaged background, to excel. The teacher reads exercises to children from a set script, with clear examples, consistent working and explicit phonics, delivered with high energy and at a fast pace. Children are placed in classes according to ability and only progress when they have mastered every lesson in the workbook. Like phonics, it is unfashionable in the "pupil-directed learning" milieu. Pearson had to fight to get the $7 million, three-year trial off the ground at Coen and Aurukun schools this year.

Undermined by elements of the Queensland education bureaucracy, he had to replace both principals this year and a number of teachers.

But he expects the program to work better than what he calls the Groundhog Day of "shameful failure" in which Aboriginal children are two to four years behind their non-indigenous counterparts.

At Aurukun school last week, where I saw the program in action, Lizzie Fuller, a 25-year-old from Orange, says Direct Instruction just "makes sense. It takes all the guesswork out of teaching. You thrive on the results and the kids thrive on the lessons."

She tells of the student who was moved into a higher ability group who came to her at the end of the day and said: "Miss, I am just so proud of myself."

This is real self-esteem, says Pearson, the kind that comes from achievement rather than the illusory sort that comes from people offering you false praise.

Last week, a year 4 girl, Imani Tamwoy, became the first child to catch up to her grade level in reading, a significant achievement in Aurukun.

Colleen Page, a 24-year-old teacher from the Sunshine Coast, in her third year at the school, says her students revel so much in synonyms they now will say, "Miss, I'm feeling indolent today" rather than "lazy".

Another teacher, Patricia Thompson, has also noticed "a big change in my kids - there's been a big improvement in behaviour because they've learned to read … We [teachers] love it."

At Coen School, where Pearson's cousin Cheryl Canon, from Hopevale, is the new principal, results are similarly pleasing after just 18 weeks.

Visiting the school last Friday, Pearson is delighted at what he sees in Majella Peter's class. A tall, elegant Coen local, she is not a trained teacher but a tutor who completed an 18-month traineeship at the school in 2006, and had a four-week crash course in Direct Instruction this year. With her script in front of her she briskly moves her small class through the morning's work. "Is this food?" she says in the instructor's bright, energetic voice. "What kind of food is it?"

"This food is a carrot."

Her pupils sit in rapt attention, calling out answers in unison.

Pearson says it was NAPLAN testing in 2008, showing abysmal scores for Aurukun, Coen and other Cape York schools, that prompted concerns by parents. For all the sophisticated explanations from teachers' unions about why NAPLAN rankings are a disaster for our children's education, there is a countervailing story out in the real Australia.

On Cape York, in the nation's most disadvantaged schools, the NAPLAN tests of 2008 actually empowered parents to demand a better education for their children. When they saw how far below the national average their schools had scored in the 2008 test, they demanded answers.

At Aurukun, test results were at least 70 per cent below the national benchmark in reading, writing, numeracy, spelling, grammar and punctuation. The precipitous step on a bar chart of comparative results says it all.

At Coen School, Pearson's Cape York Institute has been running a successful phonics-based remedial literacy program MULTILIT with Macquarie University. The results were more encouraging, with all year 7 students at or above the national minimum standard in writing, spelling and numeracy.

But having made the commitment to send their children to school - and with attendance rates climbing - Cape York parents felt the schools were letting them down on their side of the bargain.

It was welcome criticism for Pearson, who has spent years drumming up parental involvement in education and has introduced a suite of radical social reforms, including student trust accounts to pay for future education expenses. Education is the crucible around which his plans for Cape York revolve - for welfare reform and economic self-sufficiency to end the cycle of despair that comes from passive welfare dependency.

The next NAPLAN results in 2012 are expected to bear the fruits of his work.