Friday, December 17, 2010

Shanghai China Schools Number One, U.S. Falls

The public schools of Shanghai, China have scored first place among the industrialized nations of the world in all categories of academic achievement as measured by the 2009 PISA assessment, a test administered every 3 years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The test is given to a sampling of 15 year old students in the subjects of Reading, Math and Science. The United States has shown declines in all areas and now ranks 30th out of the 64 nations tested in Math.

Yes, we should be very much concerned about these results because academic achievement of our students could be indicators of where our country is headed in the worldwide competition for economic progress. Click on this link to view a short video on the educational system in Shanghai as well as other leading countries on this important assessment.

A book I read recently on the tremendous educational potential of all students (discussed in my post dated Dec. 3) convinces me that our country could do much better in educating its future citizens and leaders. We would do well to carefully study the educational systems in China, Finland and neighboring Canada to gain insight as to what educational strategies may improve our system of education. But some of our problems in U.S. education are unique to our society and will require reforms that reach beyond the schools. Amazingly, as you can see in the recent post by Diane Ravitch (see the Dec. 14 post), our education reformers in the U.S. seem to be totally ignoring the main features of truly successful school systems as we rush headlong into a Stalinist-like purge of our educational institutions and practitioners. While other successful countries seem to revere their teachers and value experienced professional educators, our reformers want to install non-educators in administrative positions and remove any consideration of experience and even higher levels of training in determining teacher salaries and layoff procedures.

Yes, there is something seriously wrong with education in the U.S. and in Louisiana, but its not caused by lazy, incompetent teachers. Some of our teachers certainly are burning out because of the overwhelming challenges they face, but that's a symptom not a cause. Our teachers need support from education leaders and especially from parents to engage and motivate our students to achieve their potential in school, not mindless reprisals against teachers and principals.

Lets face it, many of our students don't know and don't seem to care why they are in school. These kids don't have a single book of any kind in their homes, they spend countless hours watching TV and playing video games, or hanging out with friends til all hours of the night. Teachers in some schools are reluctant to assign homework that requires the use of the student's textbook because so many students lose their book when they take it off campus. These kids don't have a quiet place to study, they are often kept awake till late at night by loud music, and no one sees to it that they get to school on time. Often when the school secretary calls home to check on an absent student, no one knows where he/she is. Compare that to the video you can watch on the educational climate in Shanghai or Finland. Now tell me honestly, are we going to fix this problem by firing the bottom 5% of teachers based on student test scores? There seems to be no relation between the fixes that are proposed by reformers like Bill Gates and Arne Duncan and the reality on the ground.

Note: My interview with Jonathan Plucker, an educational psychologist from the University of Indiana who recently visited the schools in Shanghai has been delayed because of a minor illness. I hope to conduct the interview early next week. Please check back for some enlightening insights on how the educational climate differs in the U.S. compared to China.

Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Virtual Charter Could Have Major Impact

A new virtual charter school approved this month by BESE has the potential to have a huge impact on public education in Louisiana! (click here to view the Advocate article) The Connections Academy virtual charter school will be based in Baton Rouge and will provide on-line instruction to students who are accepted from throughout the state. This new charter school will not have physical classrooms and will have little direct contact with students but will receive 90% of state and local per pupil funding according to the plan approved by BESE. Proponents claim that most of the per pupil funding is needed to pay for the high cost of technology instead of providing physical classrooms. Students will be expected to communicate with the school mostly by computer and by telephone. Its not clear from the packet provided to BESE what the pupil-teacher ratio will be, but the Connections Academy web site claims that teachers are required to conference with each student at least once every two weeks. This could be very minimal contact indeed! The material provided to BESE states that the Connections Academy will target a population of “high needs” students and has a plan for providing services to such students as well as for students with disabilities and to gifted students.

The service provider for this new charter is a national group that claims to service schools in 22 states. Click on this link to access the information on their web site. A similar virtual charter was also approved for the New Orleans area and is expected to serve 1100 students.

The Baton Rouge Connections Academy plans to start with 500 K-12 students beginning with the 2011-2012 school year and increase to 1750 students by the fifth year. Even though the president of the board for the type 2 charter school stated that such a school could be especially helpful to students who may be in danger of dropping out from a traditional school, there is no way to tell at this early date what type of students will be attracted and actually enrolled.

My best guess is that the school may attract a significant number of students away from private and parochial schools. Parents who had fled what they considered to be undesirable public schools may jump at the chance to save thousands of dollars in tuition by transferring their child back to a publicly funded virtual school. Also, many parents who have attempted home schooling may wish to utilize the services of this virtual school because they may feel that it takes some of the financial and time commitment burdens off of the parent to provide instruction to their child. According to the Connections website however, parents are still expected to serve as “learning coaches” directing the daily activities of their child in the virtual school. Finally, some public school parents whose children have been assigned to low performing public schools may find the virtual school to be a way to escape what they may believe to be an undesirable school environment. The virtual school may even attract students from low performing charter schools. This type of school could be a real competitor for all schools, public and private, where parents want to save money and keep their child in a controlled home environment.

It is not clear from the information provided in the BESE packet whether the Baton Rouge based virtual charter school will be a “for profit” or “non-profit” or if the school itself will be non-profit while the national service provider will be allowed to pocket a profit from the operation. This is a very critical question since once you add the profit motive, it can compete with the best interests of the customers (children). I hope to get an answer to this from the State Dept. Charter School office and post it to the blog in the near future.

As the new BESE approved school rating system goes into effect and parents begin receiving letter grades of “D” and “F” for their child's school, the virtual charter school may become even more attractive, especially if the student selection process for the virtual charter results in a more highly motivated student body. As we have explained in other posts of this blog, the most important factor in producing a high performing school is the practice of enrolling high performing students! If this first school succeeds, we can look for many imitators and for a major expansion of the Connections Academy.