One of the nation’s largest and most troubled school districts finally got desperate enough to try something new to rescue its schools: private-sector competition. The Los Angeles Unified School District approved a plan to turn 250 of its schools to the private sector for management as charter schools, after winning a battle with the teachers union. Union officials threatened to take the school district to court, while Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa practically dared them to try:
In a startling acknowledgment that the Los Angeles school system cannot improve enough schools on its own, the city Board of Education approved a plan Tuesday that could turn over 250 campuses — including 50 new multimillion-dollar facilities — to charter groups and other outside operators.
The plan, approved on a 6-1 vote, gives Supt. Ramon C. Cortines the power to recommend the best option to run some of the worst-performing schools in the city as well as the newest campuses. Board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte dissented. …
The action signals a historic turning point for the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has struggled for decades to boost student achievement. District officials and others have said their ability to achieve more than incremental progress is hindered by the powerful teachers union, whose contract makes it nearly impossible to fire ineffective tenured teachers. Union leaders blame a district bureaucracy that they say fails to include teachers in “top-down reforms.”
“The premise of the resolution is first and foremost to create choice and competition,” said board member Yolie Flores Aguilar, who brought the resolution, “and to really force and pressure the district to put forth a better educational plan.”
As a former Angeleno, I can say that this is both long overdue and absolutely stunning. Los Angeles has been in control of liberal doctrinaires for decades, at the school district, city, and county levels. Having the LAUSD adopt a platform of privatization and choice would be akin to California electing a Club for Growth conservative to statewide office. If it wasn’t impossible, it certainly seemed like it.
However, everyone knows that this is a move borne of desperation. The liberal-doctrinaire policies in LAUSD have long failed the students within the system, and the district has tried just about everything else within those paradigms. The only option they rejected was the union’s proposal to turn control completely over to them, which got almost no support from a board clearly seeing the union as part of the problem, if not the biggest part of it.
The union says they’ll take LAUSD to court to block the plan. Villaraigosa, no conservative stalwart, responded:
Shortly after the vote, Villaraigosa savored a political and policy victory at district headquarters in downtown L.A.
“We’re not going to be held hostage by a small group of people,” Villaraigosa said, referring to the teachers union and other opponents. “I’ll let you infer who I’m talking about.”
Villaraigosa wants to run for higher office, probably governor, at some point in time. He can build some credibility as a moderate by taking on the teachers union at LAUSD, but the unions will not forget it when it comes to Democratic primaries. He assumed considerable political risk in backing privatization, but saw it as the right thing to do.
Now we will see how choice and privatization works on a wide scale in one of the most underperforming districts in America. The union wants to prevent it at all costs, because they know it succeeds everywhere it’s tried.
Evidence that British girls cheat more in school
Coursework is wide open to cheating
Boys have moved ahead of girls in GCSE maths for the first time since Labour came to power, after coursework was abolished in the subject. Coursework is being cut or dropped from many other subjects next year, which could help boys — in recent years the underdogs — to catch up with girls. Today’s GCSE generation is the first to be educated entirely under Labour.
Pupils celebrated another improvement in results yesterday, with more than two thirds of exams marked at grades A* to C for the first time, and more than a fifth at A* or A. But boys’ performance in maths reignited the debate about whether coursework or an exam is a fairer method of assessment. Twenty years ago, before the introduction of coursework, there was concern about girls lagging behind boys.
Mike Cresswell, head of the AQA exam board, said that this was this first time that boys had done better than girls at GCSE maths since 1997. He added: “The obvious speculation is that it reflects the removal of coursework from GCSE maths. It’s well established that girls outperform boys at coursework.”
Coursework crept into most subjects after GCSEs replaced O levels in 1988. In maths it became compulsory in 1991 and eventually accounted for 20 per cent of the final grade. But a report by the qualifications regulator in 2006 said there was “striking evidence” that maths teachers did not consider coursework to be a reliable or valid way of rating pupils. [I wonder why?]
The number of pupils taking maths rose this year because of an increase in candidates entered for the exam a year early. Exam chiefs said that the scrapping of Key Stage 3 tests, which were taken by 14-year-olds until last year, had freed up curriculum time. More pupils took individual science subjects, a change welcomed by scientists. Biology entries were up 18 per cent on last year, chemistry by 20.3 per cent and physics by 21 per cent, despite the GCSE-aged population shrinking by 3.5 per cent on last year. The Royal Society said: “At a time when the UK needs to ensure a healthy supply of scientists, that we have more students better prepared to pursue science post-16 is great news.”
The proportion achieving top grades in science subjects fell slightly. A report this year by Ofqual, the exam regulator, said that parts of GCSE science had become too easy. Exam boards reacted to the report by adjusting their marking.
However, there was more bad news for modern languages, which have been in decline since 2004, when the subjects stopped being compulsory after the age of 14. French was down by 6.6 per cent, from 201,940 candidates last year to 188,688. More than 340,000 candidates took the subject in 2002. German declined by 4.2 per cent, to 73,469, and Spanish stalled at 67,000. There was a small increase in Arabic, Polish and Russian. Christine Blower, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said that the decline was a matter of concern. “This is precisely the opposite of what should happen in a world where national boundaries are less and less important,” she said.
The gulf at top grades between independent and state schools widened in yesterday’s results. Fee-charging schools enjoyed a 2.5 per cent rise in A and A* grades, but comprehensive schools’ A and A* grades rose by only 0.9 per cent.
A small number of candidates were the first to be awarded a Diploma, the new two-year qualification. It will be taken by about 12,000 teenagers next year, but about 200 pupils took their Diploma in a year instead. The higher-level Diploma, equivalent to seven good GCSEs, is ranked A* to C, with no D or E grades. None of the 91 students who took it in one year was awarded an A* or A grade, more than half got a C and more than a quarter failed.
British High School science students get a mark for naming an illegal drug
New dumbing-down row over this year's exams
Pupils taking this year's GCSE science exams were awarded marks for simply being able to name an illegal drug. And those taking languages were allowed to take a cue card to prompt them in their oral tests. The latest revelations are sure to intensify the debate over the 'dumbing down' of the exam system.
Watchdog Ofqual revealed in March that rigorous science standards had been compromised by reforms to the exams. But it warned improvements towards a more acceptable standard will be gradual and that this year's results will still be tainted. Science exams were changed to make the subject more 'relevant' to teenagers, but Ofqual said some questions were no longer challenging enough.
Now an analysis of this year's papers has renewed criticism that some questions are not a sufficient test of pupils' knowledge, particularly in the sciences. One chemistry question asked candidates, for two marks, to give an example of 'a legal recreational drug' and 'an illegal recreational drug'. Meanwhile, a physics question asked what uses there were for microwave energy, other than in mobile phones. It comes just days before more than 500,000 teenagers across the country discover their GCSE results.
The Conservative schools spokesman Michael Gove said: 'Since the last curriculum changed, experts have warned that science GCSE is no longer as rigorous as it should be. 'We have seen questions that are not a proper test of scientific reasoning crop up in exam paper after exam paper. 'It's important we keep up with other nations that are pulling ahead in maths and science and making sure that our students sit exams that properly stretch and test them.'
The Mail revealed last month that eminent scientific bodies which investigated science GCSEs had found there are questions that have 'no relation to science' and that vital maths is 'woefully represented' in question papers.
The questions emerged in an analysis by the Tories as they announced plans to create an online library of exam papers from past years. Their findings also reveal how pupils are not required to commit key scientific formulae to memory. This year's GCSE physics paper supplied a list of basic equations to help pupils with calculations, whereas those taking the International GCSE were expected to have learned the formulae by heart.
Elsewhere, candidates were allowed to take a cue card with up to five headings into modern language oral examinations. There was no literature or extensive translation in modern language GCSEs to test the extent of their fluency. The archive also shows that the 2009 biology exam contains papers as short as 45 minutes. By contrast, the IGCSEs, which are increasingly offered by private schools, are typically one hour and 15 minutes long.
Multiple choice questions appear in the physics GCSE, but not in the IGCSE.
Almost half a million 16-year-olds a year fail to achieve five GCSE passes that include the core subjects of English, maths, science and a language, it has emerged. Fewer than a quarter finish compulsory schooling with the basic set of qualifications - down from nearly a third in 2001.
Tory spokesman Nick Gibb said: 'These are the core academic subjects that are highly valued by universities and employers. The fact that the number of children-attaining these GCSEs has fallen year on year since 2001 is a terrible indictment of the Government's record.'
The figures, obtained by the Conservatives, showed the proportion with five passes fell from 30.4 per cent in 2001 to 23.7 per cent last year. GCSE results released on Thursday are expected to show yet another set of record-breaking performances. Pupils are predicted to pass one in five exams at A* or A.