Saturday, April 21, 2007

Nickels and Dimes

Visiting the schools in San Francisco is like experiencing some kind of weird parallel universe, the similarities with England are frightening.

In San Francisco during the 1980s they pioneered 'Reconstitution', close a 'failing' school 'vacate' all the adults (teachers, cleaners, welfare staff) and re-open with new staff. Guess what? In the reconstituted schools there was a very high staff turnover, high percentages of supply and unqualified teachers, results didn't improve and discipline got worse. The teachers' union described it as the 'Clint Eastwood' approach to school reform, simple sloutions to complex problems. In England we had 'Fresh Start' which suffered that car-crash moment in 2000 when in one week four super-heads resigned.

For Academies read 'Charter Schools' in America - find a private sponsor to run your schools, there are now 3,500 of them educating one million students. Independent studies have not shown any appreciable improvements in results. In 2006 auditors in California reported on 'Options for Youth and Opportunities' run by Joan and John Hall. They were accused of over claiming $57 million in public funds. The Halls received annual salaries of $600,000 and the lease of sports utility vehicles.

George Bush has passed the 'No Child Left Behind Act' that prescribes high stakes testing with school closure as the penalty for failure. There are exactly the same practises we see in England - teaching to test, a narrow curriculum, constant tests, concentration on the borderline group, leading to pupil disaffection. Headteachers also display the 'bar-chart fetish' as they obsessively demonstrate the test score increases. Please remember the Ancient Greeks saying, 'Education is a festival of the mind'.

Some teachers I talked to said that the prescriptive curriculum and the testing culture was actually driving middle class parents towards the private education system because they wanted an enriched education for their children.

Ambitious Superintendents (Local Authority Chief Education Officers) are parachuted in to 'turn the schools around', they try to leave their mark with 'radical' solutions, after a couple of years they move on up the promotion ladder and teachers are left to pick up the pieces.

A massive difference in San Francisco is the huge numbers of children in the bi-lingual program, in some schools they educate up to the end of Infants in Spanish or Chinese. There is also the phenomenon of 'white flight', over 30% of children are educated in private schools.

Due to the high cost of housing it is very difficult for families on low incomes to live in the city, since 1960 the numbers of school age children has dropped by 30%. Young teachers cannot afford to get onto the housing ladder, average prices are $600,000 and teachers salaries start at around $40,000.

The extremes of wealth are startlingly apparent, San Francisco is the wealthiest city in the world - average income $37,000, but walk through the streets and the plight of the homeless is distressing.

Finally in all the years I've holidayed in America I've never worked out the value of 'Nickels' and 'Dimes', so a big thank you to the kindergarten teacher at Paul Revere Elementary School - you're never too old to learn!


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