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Nation Builders; In Defense of Teachers

March 20, 2011 3 comments

“In South Korea, teachers are known as nation builders. I think it’s time we treated our teachers with the same level of respect right here in the United States of  America”

President Barack Obama

The McGraw-Hill Research Foundation issued a report titled, “What the U.S. Can Learn from the World’s Most Successful Education Reform Efforts.” It compared the U.S. education system to those of the highest performing countries as ranked by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). According to the most recent PISA, the U.S. was ranked on average at 19th among more than 50 countries for science, 15th for reading, and a dismal 27th in math. Chinese, South Korean, Japanese, Canadian and Finnish students left ours in the dust.

The McGraw-Hill report found four key differences between the United States and the most successful countries:

1.    In successful countries, teaching is held in much higher esteem as a profession than in the U.S. Entering the profession is difficult, and candidates are drawn from the top of their university classes. These countries provide more resources for teacher training and professional development, and they give teachers more responsibility for leading reform.
2.    High-performing nations establish rigorous student achievement standards, premised on “the proposition that it is possible for all students to achieve at high levels and necessary that they do so”.
3.    The U.S. spends more money per pupil than almost all countries studied but lavishes resources on the more economically advantaged schools. In high-performing nations, budgets are often much smaller and extra resources go to disadvantaged schools.
4.    The U.S. is no more stratified socio-economically than the average country studied, but class differences have a much more pronounced effect on educational achievement here than in high-performing nations.

How can we change the results we are NOT achieving in our public schools?

First, we can upgrade how we value teachers. As a profession, education is not held in high esteem in the U.S. It is noteworthy that countries that have succeeded in making teaching an attractive profession have often done so not just through pay, but by raising the status of teaching, offering real career prospects, and giving teachers responsibility as professionals and leaders of reform. Perhaps more important than boosting pay, we should create methods which place teachers in charge of policing the standards of their profession. We need to give them resources for professional development. Principals should be chosen from the ranks of the most successful teachers. Testing and assessment should serve not to punish schools, as in the U.S., but to assess which students and classrooms need more attention, as in high-performing countries. When teachers are given both resources and responsibility to help under performing students, even school systems with strong teachers unions, such as Ontario, Canada, perform at a high level.

Most high performing countries have developed world-class academic standards for their students and these standards are responsible for the overall performance of their education systems. The approaches to standard-setting in countries range from defining broad educational goals up to formulating concise performance expectations in well-defined subject areas. Most of these countries have also incorporated their standards into systems of high-quality curricula and external examinations at the secondary school level. For example, our son’s attended school in England where they took their GCSE exams (our high school equivalent) prior to their admittance into their A-Levels. The GCSE exams are used to construct clear gateways for students either into the workforce and good jobs or to the next stage of education, the A-Levels and universities. Children meet your expectations because they don’t know any better. If we think they are stellar they will believe it because we believe it.

PISA results show that the amount of money a nation or state spends on education is not a decisive factor in achieving high scores on student assessments. Despite spending more money per student than other countries, neither Luxembourg nor the U.S. has managed to break into the ranks of top PISA performers. The U.S. hovers in the middle ranks, along with countries such as Estonia and Poland, each of which spend half as much per student as the U.S. New Zealand, one of the highest performing OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, spends well below the OECD average. The number-one ranking Shanghai, with top scores in every category, illustrates forcefully what can be achieved with moderate economic resources in a diverse social context. In about half of OECD countries, disadvantaged schools tend to have a lower teacher/student ratio, on the assumption that children from less economically advantaged neighborhoods and cultures should have more and better teachers. High-performing Singapore sends its best teachers to work with students who are having the most difficulty. That pattern is reversed in the U.S., Israel, Slovenia and Turkey, the only four OECD countries to favor their economically advantaged schools with more teachers on a statistically significant basis. In the U.S., this is partly due to school systems that are locally financed with tax rates based on the value of local homes and businesses. This allows people who are better off financially to form a school taxing district that can raise more money for hiring the best teachers and providing other desirable resources.

Most importantly, and above all, the top countries in the world value their teachers and the human capital for which they are responsible. Finland regularly tops global comparisons of national performance. In 2010 it was ranked Number One in educational achievement in a Newsweek magazine survey of “The World’s Best Countries”. In Finland, it is a tremendous honor to be a teacher. They are afforded a status comparable to what doctors, lawyers, and other highly regarded professionals enjoy in the U.S. Only one out of every ten applicants makes it into the Finnish training pool for teachers. Despite their high status, teachers in Finland are not paid much more than teachers are in the U.S. on a comparative basis keyed to per capita GDP. However, they do enjoy tremendous respect and regard from both the general public and their nation’s political leaders. One teacher who was asked what made him want to be a teacher, replied that, “It is the most honorable of all professions; it is a patriotic, and a national calling to be a teacher”.

Finnish teachers take great care to protect and maintain the status of their profession. They regularly stay after school, uncompensated, and work together on each others professional development. They set their own performance standards. The Finnish government establishes some achievement guidelines, but as a general rule there are few attempts to enforce performance, and there are not many measures taken to ensure accountability. Government education leaders trust their teachers to do their jobs well. Precisely because Finnish teachers enjoy that level of trust from education officials, they accept the responsibility and reciprocate by excelling in the classroom every day.

The examples set in the best-performing PISA nations show so decisively that the U.S. needs great teachers to once again be a great nation when it comes to educational development and achievement.  We must do our best to both develop exceptional teachers and raise the level of professional regard in which the job of teacher is held by the public and officials.

Last, in countries where teachers are respected and valued we see parents raising their children to have high regard for education and educators. Their incidence of teacher abuse and disrespect is nearly nonexistent. Their classrooms are orderly and serious. When we value teachers as professionals in the U.S. we will find a return of respect, order, and seriousness to our classrooms. Teachers are NOT baby sitters. They do NOT teach Values. They teach our children how to reason and become creative problem solvers. Parents teach values, respect, behavior, and a desire for knowledge. Parents should do what they do best and teachers should be allowed to do what they do best.

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Education; Critical Thinking vs Rote Memory in American Education

January 28, 2011 6 comments

"Imagination is more important than knowledge." Albert Einstein

We have an American educational system that languishes under the premise that if a student repeats something many times he will learn it. He may not understand it, but he will learn how to repeat it so he sounds knowledgeable. Our primary classroom teaching methods use Rote Learning, defined as, “…a learning technique which avoids understanding of a subject and instead focuses on memorization. The major practice involved in rote learning is learning by repetition. The idea is that one will be able to quickly recall the meaning of the material the more one repeats it.” Wikipedia

This is how teachers continue to process your children in grades K–12 and our students in colleges and universities throughout America in the 2011 Global Knowledge Economy, which is driven by information and technology. This is a time and age when students have to be able to deal with changes quickly and effectively. This new economy places increasing demands on flexible intellectual skills, and the ability to analyze information and integrate diverse sources of knowledge in solving problems. NO ONE will advance in this new information age with rote memory skills. Those are the skills of mindless workers who put this gidget with that gadget for eight hours a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year, for 30 years. That age is over in America. It left for China and India more than10 years ago.

Why do our teachers and educators continue to use a mode of education that consigns our children to a life of irrelevancy? Why do they resist change, flexibility, and new thinking techniques?

I believe it is because it threatens their lifelong Rote learning habits. Technology threatens them; teachers are artifacts from a time where they were taught they had to know all the answers. They believe in authoritarianism in an age when large groups are sharing information every day in a world without Ethernet boundaries; this is how teachers were taught to teach. They see technology as a threat rather than a challenge. Their students know more than they do in this Knowledge Economy and so they avoid the embarrassment of having to admit they are fallible by demanding safe Rote answers to safe standardized  test questions.

Educators have forgotten that one of the most exciting teaching moments is when the student teaches the teacher. Information exchange between teachers and students allows everyone to participate in the exciting adventure of Critical and Creative thinking. The teacher becomes the guide who helps channel student energy, creativity, intellect, and critical thinking into new solutions that awaken enormous possibilities for all. Teachers do not have to have all the answers; they need to ask the right questions! Their students will find the answers.

There is a serious relationship between Critical thinking and Creative thinking. They are like a hand in a glove. Creative solutions to problems involve not just having new ideas. New creative ideas must also be useful and relevant to the task at hand. Critical thinking plays a crucial role in evaluating new ideas, selecting the best ones, and modifying them if necessary.

Now what is Critical Thinking? The list of core critical thinking skills includes observation, interpretation, analysis, inference, evaluation, and explanation. There is a reasonable level of consensus among experts that an individual or group engaged in strong critical thinking gives due consideration to:

•    Evidence through observation
•    Context of judgment
•    Relevant criteria for making the judgment well
•    Applicable methods or techniques for forming the judgment
•    Applicable theoretical constructs for understanding the problem and the question at hand

Critical thinking employs not only logic, but also broad intellectual criteria such as clarity, credibility, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, significance, and fairness. A teacher or student disposed toward critical thinking includes a courageous desire to follow reason and evidence wherever it may lead. They are open-minded, display attention to the possible consequences of choices, have a systematic approach to problem solving, inquisitiveness, fair-mindedness and maturity of judgment, and a confidence in reasoning.

To be fair, the real question is, do our educators possess this kind of thinking? Are they able to develop critical thinking in their teaching methods so their students have a future in the fast moving, ever changing world of the Global Knowledge Economy? If our educators cannot make this transition between Rote Memory and Critical Thinking then our student population is doomed to languishing in Industrial Age thinking while the rest of the world, i.e., China, India, and others leap forward, above, through, and beyond them.

It is NOT about money. Socrates taught under a tree.

It is about questioning old assumptions, creating group think in classrooms, exciting students and challenging them to question everything they are told, and requiring them to develop their own solutions to problems, which may or may not agree with ours. It is about trust and belief in our ability to learn along with our students as they learn along with us.

Finally, the student must be taught not how to know the answer, but how to ask the question. Teachers and students must first embrace what they do not know and Critical thinking is a primary tool in approaching this. Spend some time with any 3, 4, 5 or 6 year old and count how many times they ask you, “Why?” Watch them play and watch how they solve problems and disputes. They have it! Then we turn them over to government schools that Drill and Kill it out of them.


Education; The Lost Art of Engaging Students in Public Education and Universities

January 26, 2011 1 comment

“No one is thinking if everyone is thinking alike.”
General George S. Patten, Jr.

There is a high school in a poor section of the Bronx called the Theater Arts Production Company School. Report card grades were released in the fall for New York City’s 455 high schools, and the highest grade went to this school. It is a school that believes that no one should fail!

The principal’s instructions as codified in the teacher’s handbook states that all teachers should grade their classes in the same way: 30% of students should earn a grade of A, 40% should earn B’s, 25% should earn C’s, and no more than 5 % should earn D’s. As long as they show up, they should not fail. According to a New York Times article on January 19, 2011, “…even students who missed most of the school days earned credits. They also said students were promoted with over 100 absences a year; the principal, rather than a teacher, granted class credits needed for graduation; and credit was awarded for classes the school does not even offer.”

One teacher discussed a student who was absent 98 days in one year. This student was promoted to the next grade, earning credits for classes including cooking, yoga, and independent study. The school does not offer a cooking class. The principal, Lynn Passarella, created an independent study course called cooking, which was given after school. “I don’t know how they think they are raising these kids to think that they can do what they want with no consequences and still get good grades,” said a teacher who left due to an illness. “It’s just so wrong on so many levels.”

The city is opening an inquiry into the practices of this school.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, ACTA, confirms that many students aren’t learning very much in their first two years of college. As troubling as it is, it comes as no surprise to ACTA. Their study of more than 700 top colleges and universities, which enroll more than 6 million students, documents that, “…students can graduate from college without ever having exposure to composition, literature, foreign language, or American history.

“To be specific, our study found that less than five percent of schools require economics and less than a quarter have a solid requirement of literature. Of the more than 700 schools, sixty percent received a “C” or worse for requiring three or fewer subjects.”

Is it any wonder that students learn little and do little, when colleges today expect little of them?

So what is to be done?  The goal is not simply to have more students with diplomas, but rather to graduate students who have a rich and rigorous education that prepares them to think CRITICALLY. The ACTA is reaching out to 10,000 of these colleges and universities to address this national scandal.

Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, asks, “Why is anyone surprised to find that standards and expectations in our colleges are too low? High school graduates, a rapidly dwindling elite, come to college entirely unaccustomed to close reading, habits of disciplined analysis, skills in writing reasoned arguments and a basic grasp of the conduct, methods and purposes of science.”

Can there be any question why America increasingly finds itself at a competitive disadvantage when our K–12 public education and higher educational institutions are failing to do their job? By the way this failure from a post secondary system costs more than twice as much per pupil as the average expenditure in other industrialized nations. We outspend and we underachieve.

President Obama in his State of the Union Address last night wants to “invest” in education. He and the Department of Education can pour billions, even trillions of dollars into the public education system, but nothing will change because MONEY IS NOT THE PROBLEM. We have Industrial Age educational institutions at the K-12 and college levels. We do not have a Technological Age educational system. We continue to educate as if our population will be working in factories, or as bank clerks, or manufacturing zombies.

Our teachers/professors are secure in their chalkboards and books, notes and standardized tests, lectures and authority. As a matter of fact, most of the instructors in the first 2 years of college are NOT PhD professors. They are graduate students, who are making little money teaching while they work on their higher degrees. Research and graduate education dominate American higher education, placing undergraduate education at the margins.

As a result of our perpetuating the past in our teaching methods and material, our students only know rote learning and how to respond to mediocre, standardized tests to receive grades. There is no vital connection made in the classroom between learning and life, much less any affection for voluntarily using one’s mind in the rigorous, sustained, and frequently counter intuitive way that leads to innovation and the advancement of knowledge.

This is the century of innovation! This is the century of technology! Our children have daily access to worldwide communication, to instant knowledge via Twitter, Google, Facebook, iPhones, iPads, etc. They know when someone in the world is assassinated the moment after it happens. They are exposed to worldwide events on a daily basis! This generation is smart, inquisitive, hip, curious, and able. They DO NOT like being bored by someone holding a piece of chalk in their hand.  Most of their learning occurs outside of school. What a comment on Education in this country.

This is the generation who invented a whole new language; Mouse, Apps, Email, Domain, Emoticon, Firewall, Flash Drive, Gigabyte, Hyperlink, Icon, jpg, JavaScript, LOL, Adware, Avatar, Bitmap, Blog, Bluetooth, Malware, Browser, Cache, Megapixel, codec, Cookie, Desktop, Motherboard…You get the picture!

These are not idiots! This is a generation trying to sprint into the New Age while being anchored in the Industrial Age by their Industrial Age teachers, buildings, and thinking. Let’s catch up and then lead them forward into a life of rigorous and sustained Lateral and Critical Thinking.

It’s NOT about money. It’s not about billions and trillions of “invested” dollars!

“I skate where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”
Wayne Gretsky

Education; Vertical Thinking – Lateral Thinking

January 23, 2011 1 comment

“You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.”

Edward DeBono

In the last post “Race to NOwhere – NOWhere” our students are falling asleep in their one dimensional learning rooms. What the chalkboards and rows of desks lack is creativity and excitement in thinking and problem solving. We are a nation whose public school system is churning out vertical thinkers in an age of 21 year old internet multi-millionaires, who are thinking laterally, way ‘outside the box’. These lateral thinkers are changing the millennium. Some have dropped out of prestigious Ivy League schools and their rows of desks and chalkboards  to create and implement their extraordinary ideas and solutions to problems, i.e., Facebook, SCVNGR, Microsoft, and others.

Vertical thinking, which is the primary thinking method practiced in the American public school system, is a method of the Industrial Age, not the High Tech Age. It destroys creativity in children by forcing them to seek the one “correct” solution to a problem while working within defined boundaries. Lateral thinkers use techniques for changing concepts and perceptions, and generating new ones. They explore multiple possibilities and approaches instead of pursuing a single approach. Lateral thinking was developed by a major force in British creative thinking, Edward DeBono, who has doctorates from both Oxford and Cambridge and is most famous for this term in his 1967 book, ‘The Use of Lateral Thinking’.

A way of understanding lateral thinking is through its opposite, vertical thinking. A vertical thinker is analytical, careful and precise, taking the data around a problem and analyzing it with defined methodologies to find logical solutions. A lateral thinker understands vertical thinking, but chooses to deliberately look outside of this bounded thought process. It requires digging in many other places because creativity is like a joke; you don’t get it until the punch-line at the end. It is not an easy concept to teach in a vertical thinking society and a good way to learn is through examples. A good example of lateral thinking is:

You are driving down the road in your car on a wild, stormy night, when you pass by a bus stop and you see three people waiting for the bus; An old lady who looks as if she is about to die; An old friend who once saved your life; The perfect partner you have been dreaming about.

Knowing that there can only be one passenger in your car, whom would you choose?
Click here for The Solution.

Lateral thinking is thus very much about standing back, looking at the big picture and understanding concepts. It also requires that you focus in on the parts that have perhaps been overlooked, challenging assumptions, and seeking alternatives. To be more simplistic:

•    vertical thinkers – CHOOSE
•    lateral thinkers – CHANGE
•    vertical – LOOKS FOR WHAT IS RIGHT
•    lateral – LOOKS FOR WHAT IS DIFFERENT
•    vertical – ONE THING MUST FOLLOW DIRECTLY FROM ANOTHER
•    lateral – MAKES DELIBERATE JUMPS
•    vertical – CONCENTRATES ON RELEVANCE
•    lateral – WELCOMES CHANCE INTRUSIONS
•    vertical – MOVES IN MOST LIKELY DIRECTIONS
•    lateral – EXPLORES LEAST LIKELY DIRECTIONS

Vertical thinking is mostly an individual process, solitary. Lateral thinking involves not only individual thinking, but also group thinking. Many large corporations use group lateral thinking to solve difficult problems by creating new solutions through brainstorming and close collaboration.

We desperately need to reorganize our classroom structure so that children may explore, share, and brainstorm for new ideas and new solutions outside the vertical path. There was a time in American education of the one room school. The teacher taught all grade levels, oftentimes with the help of her older students who looked after and help teach the youngest. The group dynamics of that generation, who had the opportunity to explore the best and most compelling ideas and solutions, led us into the Industrial Revolution.

The Volkswagen Company sponsored an initiative called  Thefuntheory. They invited people to invent a new structure for a mundane, already existent idea. Their challenge was to make this mundane, every day experience FUN for people to experience. They believe that “Fun can change people for the better!” The initiative produced the most extraordinary results and was held in Odenplan, Stockholm. One of the most intriguing ideas dealt with changing people’s behavior in taking either an escalator or the stairs. This is an amazing video of lateral, individual and group thinking! You will smile…

What would happen to our American educational system and our students if we unleashed this kind of fun, exploration, creativity, excitement, and learning in our classrooms? I suspect that every building, every classroom would be a beehive of energy and engaged participation. I would love to try this out somewhere! It’s not about not enough money. It’s not about better buildings. It’s about teachers letting go of their preconceived notions of education they bring into our classrooms from the Industrial Age. It’s about teachers challenging their students to come up with more than one solution to a problem. It is their obligation as professionals to explode the creative energy within their students, not destroy or inhibit it.

Learning to read together, all ages in creative Group Learning.

Education in Crisis; American Diploma Requirements & Then There’s the British! Part 5

March 17, 2010 Leave a comment

I recently read an interesting article on the real costs of public education in the Unites States. It is called, “They Spend WHAT? The Real Cost of Public Schools”, by Adam Schaeffer. Adam B. Schaeffer is a policy analyst with Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of “The Poverty of Preschool Promises: Saving Children and Money with the Early Education Tax Credit,” Cato Institute Policy, Analysis no. 641, August 3, 2009. http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/html/pa662/pa662index.html

Mr. Schaeffer makes the case that the real cost to educate our children in an average public school system is equivalent to the cost of a private school education. If  this is true then why are we required to educate our sons and daughters in a public system that is generally mediocre, run by teacher unions for their benefit, that costs as much as private schools, and which doesn’t produce  scholars, problem solvers, innovators, or serious thinkers, and whose dropout rates are staggering? Maybe, if we gave that money back to the taxpayer they could use it to send their children to private schools that are exceptional or above average and their children could receive an education that prepares them to meet or exceed life’s challenges.

Since it is proclaimed that we have worldwide dominance in education, let us compare the U.S. public educational system with that of the United Kingdom. We need to begin with the high school graduation requirements for the United States as calculated by the National Center for Educational Statistics, U.S. Department of Education: http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d08/tables/dt08_167.asp

Grades 10 thru 12: The educational system calculates “credits” in the Carnegie unit, which is a standard of measurement that represents one credit for the completion of a 1-year course. (All States differ in their requirements.)

Mathematics; 3 credits – Algebra I, II, and Geometry

English; 3 credits – Grammar, Literature

Science; 3 credits – Biology I, II, and Chemistry (Physics or Astronomy if offered can be selected)

Social Studies; 2 credits – American History, World History (State & Federal Government, Civics or Geography if offered can be selected)

Foreign Language; 2 credits

Electives; 3 credits – Physical Education, Art, Music Appreciation, Theater, Vocation or Technical Classes, if any of these are offered due to budget cuts in high schools across the country

The average American school day usually begins at 8:00 am and ends at 3:00 pm. This is 7 hours of school per day for five days. However, there is one hour for lunch, so that leaves us with 6 hours of teaching. Most high school teachers have to take roll and get class settled. This takes from 5 to 15 minutes, depending on the teacher. Best case scenario of 5 minutes, we now have instead of 6 hours of teaching, 5 ½ hours of instruction, this is 27 ½ hours of classroom instruction per week.

The American concept of a school transcript is unfamiliar in the UK. Schools in the UK do not generally rank pupils within their year; currently, the principal standards are the GCSE (3 years), AS-Levels (2 years) and A-Level examination results at the end of the 2 year AS-Levels.

The UK instead teaches for comprehension. The first level of education is called the General Curriculum for Secondary Education (GCSE) and the exams are taken after 3 years of general education and, if passed, the student proceeds to the next level of education, AS-Levels. All of the knowledge they have acquired in the 10 or more subjects they take for 3 years in the GCSE level is tested on that one important exam for each subject. The GCSE exams are rigorous and require not only questions and answers, but also written essays, which evaluate the level of subject comprehension and integration within the 3 years of instruction. The GCSE is a single-subject examination set and marked by independent examination boards.

There is no official method of equating British and American primary and secondary educational qualifications. The educational systems are entirely different and attempts to compare them must be done on a strictly conditional basis. However, in general 5 GCSE passes are considered to weigh closest to the three-year American high school diploma.

Now let’s take a look at the British system of education. It ranks among the best in the world and is where many foreign heads of state send their children to be educated and to learn English as a second language. The British philosophy of education has a different perspective and produces different results when compared to the American system. Their school week is usually 40 hours of classroom instruction, includes Saturday, and there are required extra curricula activities above this.

National UK Curriculum Core subjects are: English, mathematics, and science; Foundation subjects are design and technology; information and communication technology; history; geography; modern foreign languages; music; art and design; physical education; religious education; and citizenship.

Below is a quote from a UK boarding and day school:

“The pupils here work hard and are worked hard and it is important that they leave us with the best possible examination results. Most do and that is as it should be. None of us though must forget that there are many fundamental qualities which are not examinable: curiosity, shrewdness, initiative, an awareness of beauty, a sense of humour, a sense of responsibility and a gift for friendship. These and other basic qualities need to be developed in an institution which regards itself as educational. The development of many of these qualities requires time and commitment.” http://www.rugbyschool.net/academic/files/lscg09_10.pdf

The first year in the British system, called the “F Block”, somewhat equivalent to our 9th grade in the American high school, includes the following hours per subject per school week:

English, 4 hours

French, 4 hours

Mathematics, 4 hours

Sciences, 9 hours

History, 3 hours

Geography, 3 hours

Creative Arts (a modular course), 4 hours

Divinity (study of all religions), 1 hour

Option A (may select from German, Spanish, Extra English, Extra Mathematics), 4 hours

Option B (may select from Classics, Music, Extra English, Extra Mathematics), 4 hours

All students are expected to participate in Games, physical activity, at least twice a week after school. These games last for several hours and are generally team games. Each week there is a 45 minute meeting in small groups that is led by a staff member and it covers an informal discussion of issues such as smoking, drug abuse, healthy eating, as well as personnel issues such as friendships, home-sickness, relationships, loss and death.

Upon completion of the GCSE exams, students may leave secondary schooling; alternatively, they may choose to continue their education at vocational or technical colleges, or they may take a higher level of secondary school examinations after an additional year of study known as AS-Levels. Following two years of study, students may take A-Level (short for Advanced Level) examinations, which are required for university entrance in the UK. The A-Levels are equivalent to our freshmen year at American universities. Many students take a “Gap Year” (a year off), which includes travel or rest, after completing their A-Level examinations and before entering their chosen university. They need it! My sons attended Rugby School and they needed it after 5 years of hard work. After their Gap Year they went off to MIT in Cambridge, MA.

Do we have the best public educational system in the world, as has been often said by our politicians and many educators? If so, how do we explain dropout rates, graduates who cannot fill out a job application, graduates who cannot calculate the square footage of their house so they can buy carpet, or the graduate who has no employable skills or technical knowledge?

Can we as a nation continue down an educational road that leads to dead ends and flawed results? How do we justify 27 ½ hour weeks of instruction in our dilapidated schools, where teachers generally teach to the test and where children are not required to solve problems, analyze or think?

We MUST do better than this!

Education in Crisis; Teachers and Tenure, Part 4

March 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Definition of Tenure:

A system of due process and employment guarantees for teachers. After serving a two-year probationary period, teachers are assured continued employment in the school district unless carefully defined procedures for dismissal or layoff are successfully followed.

As initially conceived, academic tenure guarantees the right to academic freedom. It protects teachers and researchers when they dissent from prevailing opinion, openly disagree with authorities of any sort, or spend time on unfashionable topics. Thus, academic tenure is similar to the lifetime tenure that protects some judges from external pressure. The intent of tenure was to encourage original ideas to be expressed by giving scholars the intellectual autonomy to investigate the problems and solutions about which they are most passionate, and to report their honest conclusions. Originally this was a good idea.

Tenure Today: Jennifer DeFoor, a 35 year old 2nd grade teacher, sexually abused a 14 year old female student and had sex with her 18 year old brother in front of her. She was convicted but still remains on the Alabama school payroll because it could take up to six months or more to remove her. State law requires tenured teachers to go through a dismissal process whose legal costs are formidable if not followed exactly.

Last year the Los Angeles Times ran a series documenting the unwillingness of the education bureaucracy to fire bad teachers. There was the teacher who told a student who tried to commit suicide to “carve more deeply the next time”, and another who kept pornography and cocaine at school. Both are still teaching. And then there is the notorious New York “rubber room” where teachers waiting for legal action to be completed sit with full pay and no teaching responsibilities, some for several years. They collect pay and do nothing.

The Indianapolis Star reported that Lawrence Township schools quietly laid off, with generous cash settlements and confidential agreements, a teacher accused of sexually assaulting a student; another accused of kissing a high school student, and another with a 20 year history of complaints of injuring and harassing students, including a 1992 rape allegation. When the story ran last summer these teachers still held active teaching licenses.

In New York City in 2008, three out of 30,000 tenured teachers were dismissed for cause. The statistics are just as grim nationwide; 0.01% in Chicago, 0% in Akron, Ohio, 0% in Denver, 0.01% in Toledo. In no other socially significant profession are workers so insulated from accountability. Year after year 90% of teachers are rated as “satisfactory” by their principals because firing a teacher invites a costly court battle waged by the teacher unions.  (Newsweek, March 6, 2010)

What is so disturbing, setting aside the sensationalism generated by some teachers, is the immunity enjoyed by thousands of teachers who let their students down in more ordinary ways. Their mantra is; it’s the Parents or absence of Parents, it’s society with its distractions and pathologies, it’s the kids. So they keep the assembly line flowing with “social promotion”, regardless of academic performance. Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, says, “By 1992 there was such a dramatic achievement gap in the United States, far larger than in other countries, between socioeconomic classes and races. It was a scandal of monumental proportions, that there were two distinct school systems in the U.S., one for the middle class and one for the poor.”  The decline in American education is embarrassing and has put our nation at risk. There was a time when American students tested better than other students in the world. Now we do as well as Lithuania. (Newsweek, March 6, 2010)

Nothing is more important than hiring good teachers and firing bad ones. Teaching in public schools has not attracted the best and the brightest. It is said that men and women enter education because they can’t make it in any other profession. McKinsey & Co., the management consulting firm, reported that most school teachers are recruited from the bottom third of college-bound high school students. Finland takes the top 10%. Newsweek, March 6, 2010

But what makes a good teacher? Bill Gates announced recently that his foundation was investing millions in a project to improve teaching quality in the United States, he added a rueful caveat, “Unfortunately, it seems the field doesn’t have a clear view of what characterizes good teaching”. Gates said, “I am personally very curious.”

I am too!

Education in Crisis; America’s High Schools & Rhode Island, Part 2

March 2, 2010 4 comments

Central Falls is one of the poorest towns in the state of Rhode Island. There are lots of boarded up windows, abandoned buildings, and decrepit factories. It is a depressed community. Wikipedia states the median income in Central Falls is $22,000. Teacher’s salaries at the high school average between $72,000 and $78,000 (which exemplifies a nationwide trend in which public sector workers make far more than their private sector counterparts and with better benefits). Fifty percent (50%) of their students are failing all of their classes, the graduation rate is under 50%, and only 7% of its 11th graders were proficient in math in 2009.

Does this sound like a high school where you live? It has too, because we have more than 5000 high schools in our country that are considered “non-performing” and 2,000 of those high schools produce more than half of the nation’s dropouts.

Sooooo, to try and alleviate the serious educational problems these students face at the Central Falls High School, School Superintendent Frances Gallo developed a modest plan to help her students in this failing school. She asked her teachers:

  • to work 25 minutes longer each day without extra pay
  • to eat lunch with the students once in a while
  • to help with tutoring students after school

The teachers didn’t blink. They refused these onerous demands of doing extra work for no extra pay (to help their failing students graduate). The Central Falls Teachers’ Union refused to accept a reform plan for one of the worst performing high schools in the state.

Superintendent Gallo didn’t blink either. After learning of the union’s decision she notified the state of Rhode Island that she was switching to a plan she hoped she could avoid and she fired the entire staff at Central Falls High School, 100 teachers, the principal, all administrators, and assistants. They all lost their jobs.

Superintendent Gallo is replacing everyone!

The Teacher’s Union responded at a rally at the city park before a school committee meeting. George Nee, president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, told the crowd, “This is immoral, illegal, unjust, irresponsible, disgraceful, and disrespectful.” Mark Bostic, a representative from the American Federation of Teachers, said it would stand behind its teachers “as long as it takes to get justice.”

NOW, who among us will stand behind the students “as long as it takes to get justice”?  Who among us will SHOUT OUT  that the failing rates across this country is “immoral, illegal, unjust, irresponsible, disgraceful, and disrespectful”? The students at Central Falls High School are failing, dropping out, and living wasted lives in an economy that demands, more than ever, an education in order to have a future? Where are the parents and where is their voice? Does anyone hear their voice?

Since I am a self employed business owner with no benefits, I must leave this post to attend a meeting. I will have more to say in the next post about Teachers, Unions, and our “Obsolete” (Bill Gates said this), “State of Emergency” (Oprah Winfrey said this), “Unrecognized Educational Crisis” (Former U.S. Secretary of Education, Ron Paige said this) educational system.

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