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Gold stars - and stripes

learning world

Gold stars - and stripes

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This week Learning World looks at the American education system and the challenges facing the US presidency as it tries to reform it.

One of the more controversial measures is a programme of privatisation. Charter schools are privately managed but open to the public. To some people they represent freedom of choice but for others they mean selling education to Wall Street.

Charter schools are profit making enterprises which promise academic success. They will take a chance on deprived children who have already been failed by public school. One of them is the Wildcat Academy, where the motto is ‘Everyone deserves a second chance’.

Maria Brunesson, a teacher at Wildcat explained: “In my classroom there are eight or 10 students. I know them personally. I know them academically. And I tailor what I know to suit them, so that they can succeed.”

The school’s principle, Ron Tabano, said the way it is run means economies are possible: “I control the budget. So I can order supplies when I want to order supplies. I can hire people that I want to hire. And how we set our scheduling and how we do our programming. We have that autonomy too. Charter schools are generally re-licensed every five years, and even more frequently if the Department of Education wants to see changes. So if they think the students aren’t succeeding – that’s the number one issue – or if your books are not balanced correctly or if you are not doing well financially, they can close you down, just like that.”

Charter schools are state funded, and are free to students. They can also accept private investments. But the biggest difference between charter and state schools is that charter schools have complete freedom to write their own curricula: at the Wildcat Academy, for example, students alternate classes and work experience placements.

For more information about Wildcat, see:

Education historian Diane Ravitch certainly doesn’t believe Charter schools are a good model. She shared her views with Learning World:

“In 1991 I was invited to become Assistant Secretary of Education during the administration of the first President Bush. In 1998 Clinton appointed me to serve on the National Testing Board. But I’ve been writing about education since the late 1960s. I’ve written over 500 articles and 10 books and edited 14 books. I’m not even sure, it could be more, it’s not less, but it could be more!

“Race to the Top is (Secretary of Education) Arne Duncan’s programme in which he encourages the development of privately managed schools – they are called charter schools, but I consider them to be privatisation – in which he encourages use of more testing and judging teachers by whether their students’ scores on very bad tests go up or go down. If the scores go up, they are good teachers, if the scores don’t go up, they are not good teachers. And I believe that’s wrong.

“The people who support charter schools are largely from Wall Street. They are speculators, they are hedge-fund managers, they are people who make bets. And they have placed the bet to say that the private sector is better than the public sector. When a charter school moves into a neighbourhood in a city like New York, they take the easiest to educate children in the poorest communities and then they say: “We are better than you, we deserve your space.

“Our policy makers today believe that poverty is unimportant. And they say it’s just an excuse for bad teachers that can’t teach kids. In the US we have more than 20 percent of our children living in poverty. Poverty is the number one cause of low academic performance. The best way to improve schools is firstly to improve society by reducing or eliminating poverty, and secondly to improve schools by making sure that every child has access to a very rich and balanced curriculum.”

While there may be a debate about education systems, most people would agree nothing inspires kids to succeed more than a good teacher. The US president rewards teaching excellence with a special annual award.

Every year in Washington DC the nation’s top teacher is chosen from the top teachers nominated by every state. The winner then spends a year travelling the country, being an education spokesperson, and meeting students, teachers, parents and policymakers.

Introducing this year’s winner, US President Barack Obama said: “America will only be as strong in this century as the education that we provide to our students. We desperately need the teachers who see the potential in students even when students themselves don’t see that potential. And the teacher standing next to me, Michelle Shearer, I think is an example of that kind of teacher.”

Michelle Shearer, Teacher of the Year 2011, spoke about the goals for educators: “We must be problem solvers. And as we continue to debate ideas, allocate resources and implement change, we must make progress in a positive direction and always, always see the faces of our students.”

Michelle is a secondary school chemistry teacher from Maryland. She started her career teaching students and believes that everyone enjoys working on a lab and studying chemistry. Her daughter is enrolled in a public school.

Explaining her career choice she said: “People say: you went to Princeton, you could have done anything you wanted. To which I respond: I am doing exactly what I want to do. I am a classroom teacher, that’s who I am, I am proud to be a teacher. It’s important in our society to recognise that teaching is just as noble, as honourable and rewarding as any other profession.”

The selection criteria to become the Teacher of the Year are demanding. Darla Strauss, Director of the Maryland Teacher of the Year Programme explained: “It’s their passion and the way people describe them as teachers. There are letters they have to submit: what they do that’s innovative in education? How do they work with parents and the entire school team? So, it’s just a really global look at what they do as teachers.”

For more information see:

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