Posts Tagged ‘education’

Education is a hot political issue here in the States, and it’s no wonder that Waiting for Superman has hit the headlines.  In my last blog I wrote about Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Success Academy and honoured guest at this year’s Conservative Party Conference.  

Another prominent character in the film is the feisty and controversial, Michelle Rhee, Chief of the Washington Schools District, whose resignation this week was a major news item. Rhee has been responsible for a radical shake-up in the system which included the sacking of hundreds of teachers, seen by her as ineffective.  Her departure is in the wake of the failure of Washington’s Mayor, Adrian Fenty (who appointed Rhee to the job), to make it through the Democratic primary.  Fenty lost the nomination, following a strong campaign against him by the teacher unions.

Also in the headlines has been the spate of suicides by teenagers, linked to anti-gay harassment. This is a highly emotional topic in Minnesota, where local Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann has campaigned vociferously against the acceptance of homosexuality as normal and natural.

At least five students in the Anoka-Hennepin school district of Minnesota have killed themselves in the past year. Bullying is likely to have been a factor in at least two cases.  District School Superintendent Dennis Carlson spoke out this week about his concerns that the district’s policy on sexuality (“neutrality” in classroom discussions of sexual orientation) may have created the impression that school staff wouldn’t confront anti-gay bullying. At a press conference, Carlson catalogued the hate mail the district has received — from left and right — in response to its review of anti-bullying strategies.

Both here in the States and at home in the UK schools are increasingly becoming the battle ground on which controversial issues in society are being fought over. And as one of the American principals whose school is at the maelstrom told me this week, ‘Our job is to keep our kids safe – practically and emotionally. But it’s hard to do this when views are so entrenched.’


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On an unseasonably hot night in Minneapolis St Paul, I saw Waiting for Superman, the film American educators have either just seen, or are avoiding seeing. It’s a documentary about the failures of the American public (state funded) education system. It follows the fate of several children participating in competitive lotteries for places in sought-after charter schools. The desolation and sense of failure of the unlucky vast majority is hard to witness.

One of Waiting for Superman’s star contributors is the engaging Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Success Academy (a charter school) and prime mover in the Harlem Children’s Zone (an audacious enterprise with a cradle to grave approach to tackling poverty). Two weeks ago, Canada was on stage at Conservative Party Conference. The Guardian reported that he gave Education Minister Michael Gove a stark message: Teacher Unions are the biggest threat to education reform.

When politicians embark on educational reform, they frequently like a villain or two. They like quick fixes. And they like to ‘borrow’ policies from elsewhere. The current villains are the Teacher Unions, in their opposition to coalition plans to expand academies and free schools. There are no quick fixes in education. And in ‘borrowing’ the free school policy, the coalition government needs to recognise that the evidence on charter schools is patchy (according to a recent Harvard study).

Today, I visited a magnet school in one of the poorest parts of Minneapolis St Paul. The school serves a predominantly Afro-American community and will soon benefit from a Harlem Children’s Zone initiative. If this brings resources and opportunities to an area where unemployment is endemic; where the entire school population is on free or reduced lunches; and where families queue for food parcels – then this is fantastic.

But Harlem is not London, or Birmingham, or Manchester. Sometimes, we don’t have to borrow. We already have policies that are working. The London Challenges, for example, has contributed to significant gains. London students now perform above the national average. It worked through targeted efforts to support struggling schools. Sadly, Mr. Cameron and Mr. Grove, the London Challenge will fold in March 2011.

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Well, we finally have a new Prime Minister, David Cameron. What will his new Coalition Government do on Education?   The last time I ‘blogged’ I asked the question: Should we be listening to what students have to tell us?   My answer was a resounding yes.

Have a look at the Education Guardian (11th May, 2010, p.5) for some advice from young people to Prime Minister Cameron.

Dear Prime Minister ….

I can’t say I want much from the government: smaller class sizes, equality of opportunity and a curriculum that doesn’t stifle my creativity.

If schools work collaboratively, rather than in competing with each other, they perform better.

We need more social harmony in Britain, and the best way to start is in education.

Letting parents take control of ‘failing’ schools is an ineffective idea.

If cuts have to be made, they shouldn’t be in education. Young people in this country are the future, and we need to keep up a world class education.

Three of the four schools who contributed to the Guardian are part of the project London Lives.  Through the project we’ve trained them to be researchers and on Friday May 7th they presented their research findings to a spell bound audience at the  Institute of Education  which included journalist and education campaigner, Fiona Millar and the Institute’s Director of Research, Michael Reiss.

The students involved in London Lives are from three London schools: Henry Compton Boys School in Fulham,  Kidbrooke Secondary School, Greenwich and Mulberry School for Girls, Tower Hamlets. They reported on their research on youth crime and how it effects their lives; social cohesion (how well do communities work together); bullying; young people’s priorities for school improvement. They raised challenging questions about how young are stereotyped, for example, as young Muslim women, or as young black men.

One of the things I’ve learned from this research, and other work I’ve done in our challenging urban areas is that not all  young people think that London, or Britain  belongs to them. But if we can create a ‘buy in’, a belief that their views and opinions really count, not only are they less likely to be drawn into anti-social behavior but they are also more likely  to believe that they can help shape the future.  

While we all hope that the next Government might help us muddle through the immediate economic crisis, our long-term future lies in the hands of the young people who wrote their messages to the Prime Minister. Are you listening David Cameron?

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Should we be listening to what students have to tell us?  Well, probably not, according to the NASUWT who recently compiled a dossier listing some 200 ‘disturbing’  incidents,   to justify their opposition to government  proposals to give students a  greater say in how they are taught.

I think they have got it wrong. A couple of years ago, I worked on a major London Challenge project on re-engaging disaffected students in learning. We listened to what the young people had to say and we changed the learning environment (made it  more active, more inclusive). We changed the ways in which they worked with each other (much more team work).  And  we changed the relationships between staff and students  ( much more trust and respect all round).  The outcome – happier staff, happier and much more productive students.

On May 7th students from three London schools will be speaking about issues that affect them and their education, at a research conference at the Institute  of Education. They are part of the London Lives project and have been trained to be researchers by staff at the Institute . They’ve been exploring such questions as: How does youth crime effect communities? How do  different communities integrate with each other and what does this mean for schools?

One day into a new government…. I’m sure they will have some important messages for our politicians!

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