31 de março de 2012

violencias en las escuelas

¿Vivió de cerca algún caso de hostigamiento escolar?

Democratic mayors challenge teachers unions in urban political shift

Washington Post

By Published: March 30

As a young labor organizer in Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa worked for the city’s teachers, honing his political skills in the fight for a good contract. The union loved him back, supporting the Democrat’s election to the State Assembly, City Council and, finally, the mayor’s office he occupies today.
But now, Villaraigosa, a rising star in the national Democratic party, has a different view. He calls the teachers union “the one, unwavering roadblock” to improving public education in L.A.
Villaraigosa is one of several Democratic mayors in cities across the country — Chicago, Cleveland, Newark and Boston, among them — who are challenging teachers unions in ways that seemed inconceivable just a decade ago.
“This is a very, very interesting political situation that is way counterintuitive,” said Charles Taylor Kerchner, who has written two books about teachers unions.
At at time when most Americans believe that U.S. education is imperiled, and cities are especially struggling to improve schools, the tension between the mayors and the unions is causing a fundamental realignment of two powerful forces in urban politics.
In the clash over what is best for children, adults on both sides are gambling.
The mayors risk turning labor friends into enemies, a lesson D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty learned in 2010 when he lost his seat in part because teachers were enraged by his school reforms. The unions, meanwhile, risk appearing recalcitrant and self-serving, further alienating a public frustrated by failing schools and growing cool to organized labor.
The mayors want a raft of changes. They want to replace the uniform pay scale with merit pay. They seek to expand public charter schools, which are largely non-union. Some want to lengthen school days, requiring teachers to work more hours.
And nearly all of these mayors have set their sights on the one workplace protection that teachers have held central for more than 100 years: tenure.
The unions say many of the “fixes” embraced by the mayors are trendy ideas without evidence that they help children learn. Instead, they allow politicians to appear as if they are making improvements without having to confront the profound problems of urban schools, labor leaders say.
“We don’t want to have honest conversations about poverty and segregation and race and class, all those other sorts of ills,” said Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union. “Those are really tough issues. So this gives them an excuse to focus on something else.”
Her union fought Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s effort to add 90 minutes to the school day in Chicago, which has the shortest school day of any major city. Emanuel, the former chief of staff to President Obama, got the Illinois legislature to pass a law that will allow him to impose a longer school day starting in September. It also makes it harder for the union to strike, among other things.
On the national level, teachers unions have started to recalibrate, looking for ways to work in partnership with politicians.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, acknowledged that the unions have been too focused on fairness for their members and not necessarily quality in the schools.
“We have made mistakes,” she said. “You have to really focus to make sure you’re doing everything you can so that kids are first. Tenure, for example. Make sure tenure is about fairness and make sure it’s not a shield for incompetence.”
First awarded in the 1920s to protect female teachers who could be summarily fired for getting pregnant or marrying, tenure is considered by teachers to be their main protection against firing for political or personal reasons.
But today, tenure makes it nearly impossible to get rid of weak teachers, the mayors say.
“We know how difficult it is to fire a doctor in most of our states — it is significantly more difficult to fire a teacher,” said Villaraigosa, adding that the dismissal rate in L.A. is less than 1 percent and 97 percent of the teachers get tenure after two years. “Our current tenure practice is meaningless, so we are challenging it.”
The tough talk coming from Democrats has angered many teachers, who already feel under assault from Republicans. “Teacher unions feel extraordinarily betrayed across this country,” said Lewis of the Chicago Teachers Union.
Many of the mayors are emboldened by reforms promoted by the Obama administration, private philanthropies such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a national political action committee and advocacy group.
“All of us, in one way or another are swimming in their wake,” Emanuel said, referring to President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
The mayors say the economic health of their cities depend on better schools.
“Long-term prosperity depends on the ability to keep middle-class families — black, white, Latino — in the city,” said Ed Rendell, a Democrat who served as Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor. “There’s a growing understanding among the mayors that, in some ways, it’s the whole ball of wax.”
In Cleveland, Democratic Mayor Frank Jackson has proposed a sweeping education plan that would reset the relationship between the city and its teachers.
Jackson wants to disregard seniority when it comes to firing and is seeking a “fresh start” provision so that future teacher contracts are negotiated from scratch, among other things.
“I don’t think Democrat or Republican, pro-union or anti-union, public school or charter school,” said Jackson, who is in his second term. “I’m going to have a conversation about educating children. When you do that, all those other things don’t matter. ”
“I’m opposed to anything that eliminates collective bargaining,” Jackson said. “But I’m also opposed to collective bargaining standing in the way of educating children.”
David Quolke, president of the Cleveland Teachers Union, said the mayor crafted his plan with input from business leaders but not teachers.
“This isn’t an education plan,” Quolke said. “The message is ‘Let’s fire our way to improving the schools.’ Republican or Democrat, that’s just the wrong way to proceed in terms of school improvement. It makes it worse, in a sense, that he’s got a D next to his name.”
Jackson’s plan must be approved by the Republican-controlled state legislature and he has found a powerful lobbyist in Gov. John Kasich (R), whose own battle with unions made Ohio a national focal point last year.
Kasich tried to curtail bargaining rights for government workers but his law was repealed by voters in November after unions waged an expensive campaign against it. Now the Republican governor said he is praying for the Democratic mayor’s proposal in the hope that it could be expanded statewide.
Jackson said he needs to take drastic action to win political support for more funding for the Cleveland school system, which is teetering on the edge of insolvency, faces a $65 million projected deficit and is among the state’s lowest performing school districts. In the past 10 years, city school enrollment has plummeted by 30,000, with students either moving out of the city or into public charter schools.
“I want a longer school year, flexible days, preschool — all that costs money,” said Jackson, who intends to seek a new school tax in November. “The only way we can get a levy is to demonstrate to people that they will be paying for something that’s different.”
Mayors are not only wrestling with immediate budget shortfalls but see a pension crisis looming ahead.
“Almost all the major districts have hidden huge costs in terms of pensions,” said Kenneth Wong, a political scientist at Brown University who studies mayoral control of urban schools. “The mayors are beginning to realize there is no way the current tax base can support current operations and also deal with pension liability. This is a huge factor in why we see mayors getting more involved.”
The two largest teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, are showing some flexibility by supporting some previously untouchable reforms, such as teacher evaluations. And some local unions in cities such as Baltimore; New Haven, Conn.; and Hillsborough County, Fla., have agreed to embrace some reforms.
Locally, the teachers union in Montgomery County has long collaborated with the administration. Teachers and principals work together to evaluate educators, identifying weak teachers who need extra support and dismissing those who cannot improve. The 12-year-old program has been held up by the U.S. Department of Education as a national model for labor-management cooperation.
But so far, they’re the exception.
“The problem is the teachers unions are decentralized, so you’ve got people on the national level saying one thing, but on the local level, the leaders are older, activist teachers who tend not to want much change,” said one former national labor leader who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak frankly about another union. “Rather than having a national strategy for improving quality, they’re on the defensive.”
Still, the mayors face some political risks from the unions, which remain heavy Democratic donors on the state and national level.
In addition to Fenty in D.C., Villaraigosa has also felt the wrath of the unions in Los Angeles. His pick for school board was defeated last spring by a candidate backed by the union. The union and the school board both pushed back against the mayor’s attempt to win direct controls of the schools.
Confrontations between teachers and mayors come as the public has grown cool toward teachers unions. In a 2011 Gallup poll, 47 percent of respondents said teachers unions hurt the quality of education, while 26 percent said they helped. That 2-to-1 margin is a new high point since Gallup began asking the question in 1976.
“In education, most people believe they aren’t getting anything anymore,” said Ester Fuchs, an expert in urban politics who teaches at Columbia University and has worked in the Bloomberg administration in New York City. “If teacher unions stand in the way of trying new things, they’re going to be an easy political target.”
Democrats are still more likely to back teachers unions than Republicans and independents, Gallup found.
While most public school teachers belong to a union, just 7 percent of private-sector workers do, making it harder for the public to support pensions, tenure and other benefits they don’t enjoy in their own jobs.
“The teachers unions lost the battle of the op-ed pages,” Kerchner said. “Up until Randi (Weingarten), there hasn’t been a prominent voice making the case that what’s good for teachers is also good for kids is good for America . . . They’ve lost intellectual leadership on the one hand, and on the other hand, they’re engaged in a political blocking game. It’s a legitimate tactic, but not one you can use without cost.”

Washington Post polling manager Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.

Violencia: Metade das capitais já tem ou prepara guarda municipal armada para ser "polícia preventiva"

Carlos Madeiro*
Do UOL, em Maceió
Criada para proteger o patrimônio público das cidades, as guardas municipais ainda lutam para ganhar reconhecimento como uma força de segurança no país. Em meio à falta de regulamentação sobre a função dessas tropas, as capitais brasileiras passaram a armar os guardas, que em algumas cidades . Segundo levantamento feito pelo UOL, 13 capitais já usam armas ou estão com processos em andamento.
Segundo o Ministério da Justiça, existem hoje mais de 86 mil guardas municipais no Brasil, que atuam em uma profissão sem regulamentação federal. Além de armas, a categoria –que ainda não possui sequer um órgão sindical nacional-- reivindica que as guardas sejam regulamentadas como “polícia preventiva” e atuem para evitar crimes nas cidades, e não apenas na segurança do patrimônio.
De acordo com o Estatuto do Desarmamento, de 2003, os municípios com mais de 50 mil habitantes podem armar suas guardas municipais. Desde lá, muitas capitais adotaram o uso de armamento pela guarda. Cidades como São Paulo, Porto Alegre, Vitória, Florianópolis, Curitiba, Belém e Aracaju já usam armas há algum tempo.
Outras capitais estão em processo avançado e devem passar a usar armas em breve, como Belo Horizonte e Goiânia, onde os convênios com a PF (Polícia Federal) –responsável pelo porte de armas-- já foram assinados. Na capital mineira, por exemplo, as armas já foram compradas, e apenas os portes são aguardados.
No Nordeste --região onde o número de homicídios vem crescendo-- é que se verifica o maior interesse atual em armar as guardas. Recentemente as prefeituras de Natal e Salvador anunciaram convênios com a PF para fornecer o porte aos guardas. Em João Pessoa, um projeto que prevê o uso de armas foi aprovado pela Câmara de Vereadores em dezembro de 2011. Em Maceió, um projeto encaminhado pela prefeitura está em análise desde 2010 na Polícia Federal.

Segurança desarmada

Em outras capitais, como Rio de Janeiro, Recife e Fortaleza, os guardas ainda fazem a segurança de prédios desarmados, e não há previsão de uso de armamento. E foi justamente a atuação desarmada que gerou polêmica esta semana, quando os guardas municipais de Fortaleza iniciaram um protesto por conta de dois casos de violência sofrido no início da semana.
No último domingo (25), dois guardas foram baleados por torcedores no terminal de ônibus do bairro Antônio Bezerra, após o clássico entre Ceará e Fortaleza. No mesmo dia, outros guardas não conseguiram impedir uma invasão e assalto à Câmara de Vereadores --eles ainda foram algemados durante a ação.
Em protesto, os guardas paralisaram as atividades na quarta-feira (28), mas voltaram parcialmente na quinta-feira (29), após a prefeitura anunciar a criação de um grupo para discutir o assunto. Mas eles prometem só voltar às atividades de patrulhamento em locais de risco após o município aceitar comprar armamento.
“Essa discussão precisa passar também pela sociedade. Defendemos o armamento, mas de forma responsável, com capacitação. A gente quer que arme o servidor, mas não é só pegar uma arma e mandar ir para rua sem está preparado. Tem que ter treinamento. Só que a gente está pressionando as autoridades porque todo meliante tem uma arma de fogo e nós, só um cacete. Nem algema todos os guardas têm. E fazemos vigilância em escolas, hospitais de locais perigosos, não dá mais para seguir assim”, disse Márcio Cruz, presidente do Sindicato dos Guardas Municipais do Ceará.

Distorção de função

Legalmente, as guardas deveriam atuar apenas na proteção de bens, serviços e instalações das cidades. Mas não é isso que ocorrer em algumas cidades. Em Aracaju, por exemplo, a guarda municipal tem como uma das missões "coordenar e exercer atividades de policiamento, fiscalização e vigilância ao meio ambiente, bem como os objetos e áreas que integram o patrimônio histórico, cultural, artístico, turístico e paisagístico local."
A ideia de armar as guardas é vista com bons olhos, mas ao mesmo com ressalvas pelo delegado federal aposentado e atual secretário de Segurança e Cidadania de Maceió, José Pinto de Luna. O problema estaria em atribuições equivocadas da guarda, como ocorreria na capital sergipana.  Segundo Luna, a Polícia Federal já precisou intervir para tirar o poder dado a algumas guardas municipais armadas pelo país, especialmente em São Paulo, onde atuou por décadas como delegado.
"Para proteger o bem público, as guardas municipais têm de estar armadas e ter os recursos necessários. Mas isso tem que ser visto com muita responsabilidade. Têm muitos lugares no interior de São Paulo onde a guarda ultrapassou a corporação militar. Em alguns locais, o guarda tomou gosto pelo poder de polícia, que ele não tem, e aí começaram a nascer grupos de extermínio", disse. 
Luna defende que Maceió --capital com maior taxa de homicídios do país, 107 para cada 100 mil habitantes, segundo o Mapa da Violência 2012--, mas avalia que existem exigências que encarecem e dificultam o processo. "Temos uma dificuldade de implementar por conta de uma grade curricular sugerida pela Secretaria Nacional de Segurança Pública, que envolve 600 disparos. Se você somar isso para 850 guardas, fica uma fortuna. Esse está sendo o principal entrave. Estamos vendo se essa grade pode ser flexibilizada ou pegarmos o mais preparados fisicamente e psicologicamente para o corpo armado da guarda", afirmou.

Polícia preventiva

A discussão sobre os critérios para regulamentação dos guardas está ocorrendo no Congresso, e pode resultar em mais poderes à categoria. Na quarta-feira, comandantes de guardas municipais, sindicalistas e parlamentares defenderam a regulamentação do trabalho da categoria na prevenção da violência. O tema foi discutido em audiência publica da Comissão de Trabalho, de Administração e Serviço Público da Câmara dos Deputados. Segundo sindicalistas, a ideia é dar um leque maior de atuações às guardas.
“Hoje, temos polícia de pronto atendimento que atua depois do ato de violência. Queremos desenvolver o papel de uma polícia preventiva, próxima do cidadão, dando a ele a sensação de segurança”, disse o presidente do Sindicato dos Guardas Civis Metropolitanos da Cidade de São Paulo, Carlos Augusto de Souza, que faz parte de um grupo de trabalho criado pelo Ministério da Justiça, em 2011, para discutir a regularizar da profissão.
O deputado Vicentinho (PT-SP) também defendeu a ação preventiva das corporações. “A guarda municipal tem de ter uma atuação pacífica, pacificadora e comunitária. Ela deve atuar sobre a causa, não a consequência”, afirmou.
*com Agência Câmara

Speak Up? Raise Your Hand? That May No Longer Be Necessary

Callie Richmond for The New York Times
Children practiced using clickers for a quiz at Southgate Church of Christ in San Angelo, Tex.

When sororities elect officers, this is how they typically conduct voting: Members write names on paper slips, which are then folded, collected, unfolded and counted. And if there are runoffs? Repeat process. When you’re electing 13 officers, the evening becomes a triumph of sisterly dedication over marathon tedium.

The sound of this venerable tradition crumbling? Click.
Nearly 200 Alpha Phi sisters at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign gathered in November in their chapter house with devices that they typically use for class — clickers, hand-held wireless devices with just a few buttons.
The names of three candidates were projected on a dining hall wall. Clickers were placed on tables, and a supervisor checked that nobody was hiding a second one in her lap. Voters clicked their choice: A, B or C. The results were transmitted on a laptop. Five minutes later, Colleen Leahy, a 20-year-old sophomore, was named president.
“I liked finding out quicker,” Ms. Leahy said. “Our lives are fast-paced.”
In recent years, college students have been bringing clickers to lecture halls, where professors require their use for attendance, instant polls and multiple-choice tests. Corporate executives sometimes distribute the devices at meetings, and then show survey responses immediately on Power Point slides. Just two of many companies that make clickers have sold nearly nine million units, which typically cost between $30 and $40 apiece, in under a decade. One the companies, Turning Technologies, sold 1.5 million in 2011 alone.
But clickers can now be found in some surprising corners of American life, too, as churches, fire departments, cruise ships and health care providers discover uses for them, essentially spreading the phenomenon of online crowdsourcing to off-line crowds. Fans of the devices say they are efficient, eco-friendly and techno-tickling, allowing audiences to mimic TV game-show contestants.
While giving an opinion by actually raising one’s hand may never become completely extinct, the devices can give voice to people too shy to speak up.
“Those who talk in class aren’t necessarily those who have the most to say,” said Eric J. Johnson, director of the Center for Decision Sciences at Columbia Business School. “But with a clicker, everyone in the room has input and they can express their opinion anonymously.”
But critics say that feedback from clicker surveys is inherently superficial, foreclosing nuanced analysis. And they point out that they can become just one of many must-have devices that are easy to lose, like a Kindle or a cellphone.
All true, perhaps. But what about the fun factor?
Brianna Goodwin, a fire and life safety educator with the Colorado Springs Fire Department, teaches a class about fire prevention to middle-schoolers.
Last spring, to better engage them in techno-speak, their native tongue, her program purchased 120 units of a model sold by Macmillan. She hands them out to the students as they file in. “They are so pumped!” she said in a phone interview.
She warms up the students with pop culture questions. She then surveys their knowledge of the consequences of arson: injuries, fines, imprisonment. At the end of the session, she repeats the questions. Because she can instantly show the correct answer and a breakdown of responses, Ms. Goodwin said, the students “start cheering if they get the answer right.”
Whoops and hollers have also been erupting from an older crowd on the cruise ship Crystal Symphony. In January, Crystal Cruises began handing out clickers from Turning Technologies to guests for judging debate panelists and on Liars’ Club, a game show night.
“It’s like a Christmas toy,” said Bret Bullock, vice president of entertainment at Crystal Cruises. “Finding out how everyone is thinking is so much fun — you’re part of the show.”
The delighted shouts from middle-schoolers and seniors alike suggest that neither group is accustomed to having its opinions solicited. But with a clicker, “suddenly their voices are important,” said Professor James Katz, the director of the Center for Mobile Communication Studies at Rutgers. “If people feel their opinions really count, they’ll be happy and likely to give more opinions.”
The dynamic of social comparison — understanding where you stand relative to your tribe — is also a draw. Clicker software satisfies that curiosity by immediately displaying a bar graph of responses in the room. “This is a new form of transparency for crowd psychology,” he said.
He added some cautions about using clickers, also called audience response systems. In a society in which checking the crowd’s opinion becomes the norm, Professor Katz said, taking risks or relying on one’s instincts may be devalued.
“Those who want to strike out in new directions and challenge the sentiments of a crowd, like artists and writers, have an additional burden with this technology because they can know that no one takes comfort in their vision,” he said. “There goes the Great American Novel.”
Clickers are also being used in team-building exercises. Paula Miller, an education coordinator for Whole Foods Market, purchased 105 of them last year. At employee meetings, she might hang up a white bed sheet near the cash registers and put up a slide with a multiple-choice vote about, say, where to hold the annual holiday party. Or she can create team competitions. Game on: bakery workers will click in as A; butchers, B, and so forth.
Southgate Church of Christ in San Angelo, Tex., has 150 clickers for its annual Bible Bowl on Saturday. This year, elementary and high school teams from six churches studied 1,322 questions about Genesis. At the contest, they will use clickers to answer 180 multiple-choice questions.
“The hardest ones are the ‘begats,’ ” said Dawn Stanley, the Bible Bowl coordinator. For example, “Which of the following was a son of Raamah?” Click: a. Dedan, b. Elishah, c. Madai, d. Havilah, e. Meshek. (The answer is a.)
As the benefits of clickers catch on, the clickers themselves, which require a base system that costs about $250 to record answers and produce real-time graphs, may face an uncertain future. Companies are plotting their obsolescence. Software from Poll Everywhere, for example, allows participants to text responses from their cellphones.
One fan is Wayne Cordeiro, the pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship, an evangelical church in Honolulu. He knows that congregants peek at their smartphones during services, so sometimes, mid-sermon, he poses multiple-choice questions on a Power Point slide, such as: “If there was no chance of anyone ever finding out, I would: a. have sex outside marriage, b. do drugs, c. have someone exterminated.” Text your answer. Anonymity assured.
As congregants watched the responses roll in, nervous laughter and gasps erupted around the church, he said.
Mr. Cordeiro explains that he is merely following in the footprints set by Jesus. To preach to thousands on a hillside at Capernaum, Jesus asked Simon to row him out on the water.
“He didn’t have a microphone, so he used the bay as a natural amphitheater and the water as an amplification device,” Mr. Cordeiro said. “He just used the technology that was available.

Why we need to bring creativity and technology back together across the curriculum

    The Guardian

A professional den-maker on how she helps teachers transform their classrooms into thrilling learning environmentCroxteth primary
An inspiring learning space created at Croxteth Primary School in Liverpool. Photograph: 4Dcreative
Last year Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google challenged the British education system. He said he was flabbergasted to learn that computer science isn't taught as standard in UK schools. "Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it's made. That is just throwing away your great computer heritage."
Schmidt's point goes deeper than a critique of today's ICT teaching. He was highlighting the divisions between those who teach and learn humanities in Britain and everyone else in the science and engineering "camp". Schmidt encouraged UK educationalists to reunite art and science, something that Apple's founder Steve Jobs had advocated the benefits of many years earlier. In an interview with the New York Times in 1997, readers were reminded that Jobs had once said the Macintosh turned out so well because the people working on it were musicians, artists, poets and historians who also happened to be excellent computer scientists.
This enforced separation between technical and creative teaching and learning is something I see a lot in schools. I make my living as a den-maker – helping teachers morph dull classrooms into thrilling learning environments. Technology is essential to what I do, as important as the fabric, boxes, plastic hoops and giant envelopes I use.
I might project images of children working in a 19th century mill on the walls for a lesson on the industrial revolution. Sounds of the hum and crash of machines and the drip of water trickling down the walls is piped into the room. Lights are darkened and students are asked what it feels like to be twelve and working fourteen hours a day in a damp factory.
Children touch cold metal parts from an old weaving machine and feel the clumps of cotton threads which they might have had to clear from under machines if they had lived in Manchester 200 years ago. They see a bloodied bandage on the floor and talk about the dangers of working in a mill.
Suddenly the atmosphere changes and pupils stop what they are doing. We are in a state of the art computer factory, down the road in Manchester. Pictures of hi-tech machines fill the walls and the zoom and whiz of technology is heard all around us. Flashes of light convey a busy working environment. The children build a modern day work station complete with computer, desk, phone and iPad. Using large cardboard speech bubbles they talk about the differences between this twentieth century factory and the old mill. How have working conditions changed? How have the industries in their city developed in the last 200 years?
It's this combination of low and high-tech resources that enables immersive learning to take place. Children see, hear, touch and imagine new ways of finding out about the industrial revolution. They ask questions, want to know more, they are keen to try things for themselves and own their learning. This is something you might not get from using text books or a video.
The key is integrating technology and creativity. I will never give up the bobbly white blanket, the large cardboard tubes, the crackly blue plastic sheet and bucket of polished stones that I use in many schools. But when these found materials are combined with sound, projected image and light to create an imagined environment, children are totally engrossed in the experience. They begin to empathise with twelve year old children in the Victorian era who had to work long hours and risk their fingers on sharp machines in the damp textiles mill. Their understanding is enhanced and they begin making links.
Yet in so many schools today science and the arts are kept separate. Children sit on their own in front of computer screens completing maths games rather than using video cameras in the school grounds to make films about number patterns in nature. Lights are saved for the school play, audio equipment for modern foreign language lessons.
Instead we need to use ICT to create socially rich experiences, right across the curriculum. It's great that Michael Gove is encouraging teachers to use gadgets in computer science to develop the vision, imagination and creativity of children but what about drama or geography, history or creative writing lessons? We need to get better at using electronic resources creatively to make learning and teaching more effective.
• Cathy Cross is creative director of 4D creative

30 de março de 2012

American education and the media

From AJR,   February/March 2012,American Journalism Review

Flunking the Test   

The American education system has never been better, several important measures show. But you’d never know that from reading overheated media reports about “failing” schools and enthusiastic pieces on unproven “reform” efforts. Fri., March 30, 2012.
By Paul Farhi
Senior contributing writer Paul Farhi (farhip@washpost.com) is a reporter for the Washington Post.  

Fareed Zakaria is worried about the state of American education. To hear the CNN host and commentator tell it, the nation's schools are broken and must be "fixed" to "restore the American dream." In fact, that was the title of Zakaria's primetime special in January, "Restoring the American Dream: Fixing Education." Zakaria spent an hour thumbing through a catalog of perceived educational woes: high dropout rates, mediocre scores by American students on international tests, inadequate time spent in classrooms, unmotivated teachers and their obstructionist labor unions. "Part of the reason we're in this crisis is that we have slacked off and allowed our education system to get rigid and sclerotic," he declared.

This is odd. By many important measures – high school completion rates, college graduation, overall performance on standardized tests – America's educational attainment has never been higher. Moreover, when it comes to education, sweeping generalizations ("rigid and sclerotic") are more dangerous than usual. How could they not be? With nearly 100,000 public schools, 55 million elementary and secondary students and 2.5 million public school teachers currently at work in large, small, urban, suburban and rural districts, education may be the single most complex endeavor in America.

Zakaria's take, however, may be a perfect distillation of much of what's wrong with mainstream media coverage of education. The prevailing narrative – and let's be wary of our own sweeping generalizations here – is that the nation's educational system is in crisis, that schools are "failing," that teachers aren't up to the job and that America's economic competitiveness is threatened as a result. Just plug the phrase "failing schools" into Nexis and you'll get 544 hits in newspapers and wire stories for just one month, January 2012. Some of this reflects the institutionalization of the phrase under the No Child Left Behind Act, the landmark 2001 law that ties federal education funds to school performance on standardized tests (schools are deemed "failing" under various criteria of the law). But much of it reflects the general notion that American education, per Zakaria, is in steep decline. Only 20 years ago, the phrase was hardly uttered: "Failing schools" appeared just 13 times in mainstream news accounts in January of 1992, according to Nexis. (Neither Zakaria nor CNN would comment for this story.)

Have the nation's schools gotten noticeably lousier? Or has the coverage of them just made it seem that way?

Some schools are having a difficult time educating children – particularly children who are impoverished, speak a language other than English, move frequently or arrive at the school door neglected, abused or chronically ill. But many pieces of this complex mosaic are quite positive. First data point: American elementary and middle school students have improved their performance on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study every four years since the tests began in 1995; they are above the international average in all categories and within a few percentage points of the global leaders (something that few news reports mention). Second data point: The number of Americans with at least some college education has soared over the past 70 years, from 10 percent in 1940 to 56 percent today, even as the population has tripled and the nation has grown vastly more diverse. All told, America's long-term achievements in education are nothing short of stunning.

As the son and husband of schoolteachers, I can't say I'm unbiased on this subject. But as a journalist, I can't help but see the evident flaws in some of the reporting about education – namely, a lack of balance and historical context, and a willingness to accept the most generic and even inflammatory characterizations at face value. Journalists can't be faulted for reporting the oftentimes overheated rhetoric about educational "failure" from elected officials and prominent "reformers" (that's what reporters are supposed to do, after all). But some can certainly be faulted for not offering readers and viewers a broader frame to assess the extent of the alleged problems, and the likelihood that the proposed responses will succeed.

Check out some of the 544 articles that mentioned "failing schools" in January; they constitute an encyclopedia of loaded rhetoric, vapid reporting and unchallenged assumptions. In dozens and dozens of articles, the phrase isn't defined; it is simply accepted as commonly understood. "Several speakers said charter schools should only be allowed in areas now served by failing schools," the Associated Press wrote of a Mississippi charter school proposal. The passive construction of the phrase is telling: The schools are failing, not administrators, superintendents, curriculum writers, elected officials, students or their parents.

The running mate of "failing schools" in education stories is "reform." The word suggests a good thing – change for the sake of improvement. But in news accounts, the label often is implicitly one-sided, suggesting that "reformers" (such as proponents of vouchers or "school choice") are more virtuous than their hidebound opponents. Journalists rarely question the motives or credentials of "reformers." The Hartfort Courant hit the "reformer-failing schools" jackpot when it reported, "Like most people seeking education reform this year..the council wants policies that assure excellent teaching, preschool for children whose families can't afford it, and help for failing schools."

One reason schools seem to be "failing" so often in news accounts is that we simply know more than we once did about student performance. Before NCLB, schools were measured by averaging all of their students' scores, a single number that mixed high and low performers. The law required states to "disaggregate" this data – that is, to break it down by race, poverty and other sub-groups. One beneficial effect of the law is that it showed how some of these groups – poor children and non-English speakers, for example – lag children from more privileged backgrounds. But rather than evidence of a "crisis," this new data may simply have laid bare what was always true but never reported in detail.

What or who was responsible for the poorest performing schools? Quite often, news media accounts have pointed the finger at a single culprit – teachers. In late 2008, Time magazine featured the District of Columbia's then-School Chancellor Michelle Rhee on its cover wielding a broom to symbolize her desire to sweep out underperforming instructors. The magazine endorsed her approach not just as prudent but as scientific: "The biggest problem with U.S. public schools is ineffective teaching," wrote reporter Amanda Ripley, citing "decades of research." This view – a favorite of wealthy education "reformers" such as Bill Gates and real estate developer Eli Broad – was also a theme in the critically adored documentary "Waiting for 'Superman,'" which featured Rhee.
But like "failing schools" and "crisis," the phrase "ineffective teachers" has become media shorthand (it appeared 136 times in news accounts during January alone, Nexis says). And given the many factors that affect learning, it also looks like scapegoating. NPR's Tovia Smith, for example,concluded her story in early March about a program that holds back third graders who are having trouble reading this way: "As another academic put it: This policy flunks kids for failing to learn, but given how widespread the problem is, maybe it's the school that should flunk for failing to teach."

The notion that education is in "crisis" – that is, in a moment of special danger – is another journalistic favorite. While few reporters ever mention it, anxiety over the nation's educational achievement is probably older than the nation. Zakaria's concern that American students aren't being prepared for the modern workforce echoes the comments of business leaders at the turn of the century – the 19th century. Then as now, they worried that schools weren't producing enough educated workers for an economy undergoing rapid technological change.

Nor are the fears that international competitors are bypassing us without precedent. Five months after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in October 1957, Life magazine contrasted the rigorous academic workload and extracurricular activities of a Moscow teenager (physics and chemistry courses, chess club) with the carefree lifestyle of a Chicago schoolboy (sock hops and soda shop dates with his girlfriend). The cover line: "Crisis in Education." Cold War worries gave way to fears that Japan was gaining on us in the 1980s; the Reagan-era education reform manifesto "A Nation at Risk" warned that "a rising tide of mediocrity" was threatening "our very future as a nation and a people."

"The idea that we have a crisis in American education, that there is pervasive failure, starts with policy makers," says Pedro Noguera, the eminent education researcher and New York University professor. "This is the line we hear in D.C. and in state capitals. There are certainly areas in which we're lacking, but when you report it that way, it doesn't at all acknowledge the complexity of the situation [and] where we're doing quite well. The discussion is quite simplistic. I'm not sure why exactly. My suspicion is that the media has trouble with complexity."

Noguera praises some of the journalism about education, such as work by the New York Times and NPR, two outlets that have full-time, veteran reporters covering the subject. He also noted a "Dan Rather Reports" program on the little-seen HDNet channel last year that explored the link between school performance and poverty, a subject often ignored or noted only in passing in many stories about academic achievement.

The news media's general portrayal may help explain a striking disconnect in public attitudes about public education. Since 1984, a year after the publication of "A Nation at Risk," the Gallup Organization has asked parents to assess their local schools, and the public to rate schools generally. In 2011, the percentage of parents who gave their children's school an A grade was at its highest ever (37 percent), whereas only 1 percent of respondents rated the nation's schools that way. Why the disparity in perceived quality? Gallup asked people about that, too. Mostly, it was because people knew about their local schools through direct experience. They only learned about the state of education nationally through the news media.
The leading, or at least most widely viewed, source of education reporting is NBC News, which covers the topic on multiple programs and platforms – "NBC Nightly News," the "Today" show, MSNBC and Telemundo, among others. It is the only commercial broadcast network to employ a full-time education reporter, Rehema Ellis. NBC is so devoted to education reporting that in 2010 it began branding its coverage under its own banner, "Education Nation." It has also gone beyond mere reporting by hosting an annual education "summit" that last fall brought together 10 governors, former President Bill Clinton, former First Lady Laura Bush, educators and other dignitaries at its Rockefeller Center headquarters to discuss ways to improve education.

"We've really tried to put a very bright spotlight" on this topic, NBC News President Steve Capus said in an interview. "We felt the subject matter was important, and it wasn't getting as much attention as it deserved." Result? Capus, who used to cover school board meetings in the Philadelphia area as a young stringer, proudly points to an Aspen Institute study showing that one in five Americans has heard of "Education Nation" and almost one in 10 has seen some of its reporting.

But while "Education Nation" occasionally escapes the "crisis-in-education" paradigm, its gaze is squarely on perceived flaws and, yes, failing schools. "America's public school students are struggling," said Ellis, beginning a "Nightly News" story during the NBC-sponsored summit in September. The segment included an NBC-commissioned poll showing widespread public dissatisfaction with public schools. Gallup's multiyear findings on the same topic weren't mentioned.

In the past six months, NBC has done "Education Nation" stories on online public schools; on the success of Shanghai's students on an international exams; on "unschooling" (a less structured version of home-schooling); and on a "wave" of new "parent trigger" laws that allow parents to petition for dramatic changes in "troubled" local schools, including firing teachers (in fact, only three states have enacted such laws).

Yet NBC and "Education Nation" have rarely looked closely at the effect of poverty and class, the single greatest variable in educational achievement. Academic research has shown for many years that poor children, or those born to parents who are poorly educated themselves, don't do as well in school as better-off students. More recent work by, among others, Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University, suggests that the achievement gap between rich and poor children has grown wider since the 1960s, reflecting in part the nation's growing economic disparity. The problem is vast – some 22 percent of American children live in poverty, the highest among Western democracies.

Instead, NBC has concentrated on initiatives favored by self-styled education reformers. The network has been particularly generous to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into promoting teacher merit pay proposals and privately run charter schools – an agenda strongly opposed by many public school teachers, labor unions and educators. (Zakaria also featured Bill Gates on his CNN special.)

During its first "Education Nation" summit in 2010, for example, "NBC Nightly News" aired a profile of a Gates Foundation initiative, "Measures of Effective Teaching," which seeks to create a database of effective teaching methods. The reporter was former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw. During the second summit last fall, Brokaw showed up on "Today" with Melinda Gates to discuss the same Gates initiative. Turning from reporter to advocate, Brokaw told host Natalie Morales, "So what Bill and Melinda have done, and it's a great credit to them, and it's a great gift to this country, is that they have taken the kind of episodic values that we know about teaching and they've put them together in a way that everyone can learn from them. So that's a big, big step."

Brokaw also put his gravitas behind Gates and other billionaire education reformers in a syndicated column that appeared in newspapers during the NBC summit in 2011, writing that "Entrepreneurs and captains of industry such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, home building tycoon Eli Broad, hedge fund billionaires in New York's Robin Hood Foundation, have put education reform and excellence at the top of their personal and financial agenda." Brokaw didn't mention the objections to these "reforms" from teachers, nor ask why billionaires should be accorded expert status on education policy in the first place.

(An NBC spokeswoman declined to make Brokaw and Ellis available for comment, saying that the story sounded "negative.")

NBC News does more than just report on the "reform" movement; it's also in business with those who are promoting it. Among the corporate sponsors of its "Education Nation" summits are the for-profit education company University of Phoenix, the book publisher Scholastic Inc. and...the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Remember that Aspen Institute study showing broad public awareness of NBC's "Education Nation" efforts? It was funded by the Gates Foundation.

Capus says such a relationship doesn't pose a conflict of interest for the network's journalists because an editorial "firewall" prohibits sponsors from influencing coverage. Nevertheless, representatives of each of these sponsors, including Melinda Gates and Scholastic Senior Vice President Francie Alexander, have appeared repeatedly on "Today" and "NBC Nightly News" to discuss various education proposals and ideas (their financial connection to NBC News has never been disclosed on the air, according to a Nexis search). Meghan Pianta, an NBC spokeswoman, defended using the billionaire couple as a news source because of their "prominence and importance in the education debate."

Some teachers, on the other hand, can't help feeling that the network has stacked the deck in favor of the "reform" agenda. NBC's approach "is beneficial to those who promote privatizing schools, those who peddle tests and tests to prepare for tests, and curriculum based on tests to prepare for tests," wrote Randy Turner, an English teacher in Joplin, Missouri, on The Huffington Post last fall, as he watched the network cover its own summit. "It is also beneficial to those whose chief goal is to eliminate unions of all kinds, including those representing teachers."
On a more prosaic level, veteran education reporters say they face a simple yet profound barrier to doing their job: It's hard to get inside a classroom these days. They say administrators are wary about putting potential problems on display, particularly in the wake of No Child Left Behind and the Obama Administration's initiative, Race to the Top.

"School systems are crazed about controlling the message," says Linda Perlstein, author of two books about schools and, until recently, public editor of the Education Writers Association. "Access is so constricted." As a result, she says, "There's great underreporting of what happens in classroom, and it's just getting worse."

Perlstein spent three school years in classrooms to report a series about middle school for the Washington Post in 2000, and for her books, "Not Much Just Chillin'" (about middle schoolers in Columbia, Maryland) and "Tested" (about high-stakes tests). But Perlstein says other reporters were never able to gain similar access to other schools, including those in Washington, D.C., where the reform efforts of former Schools Chancellor Rhee attracted national attention.

Even with a cooperative principal or school superintendent, few reporters could make the lengthy commitment that Perlstein did in her reporting. That means journalists don't get to see the very thing they're reporting about. Imagine if sportswriters never got to see athletes play or political reporters never attended a campaign rally. Some districts even forbid teachers from speaking to the media on the record outside the classroom.

What to do? "You rely more and more on talking heads and less on what a school looks like," Perlstein says. She adds, "That matters." Ironically, superintendents and administrators "always tell me that the media gets it wrong. Well, how can we get it right when they won't talk to us?"

This compels education journalists to talk to secondary sources: administrators and bureaucrats, labor leaders, politicians and the occasional billionaire. Not necessarily a bad thing, since at the moment, there are perhaps a dozen ideas (tenure reform, vouchers, charter schools, teacher accountability, etc.) floating around and plenty of disagreement about how or whether to implement them.

But pronouncements and policy nostrums often don't get the checking they deserve. "Some reporters don't do enough to synthesize and explain the wealth of peer-reviewed research available on the proposals being batted around," says Jessica Calefati, an up-and-coming education reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark. For example, if a school district or a state is pushing for teacher merit pay, it behooves a reporter to point out that few studies link merit pay with increased student achievement, she says. Some reporters, says Calefati, "gloss over the nuance."

Washington Post education blogger Valerie Strauss goes much further, giving her media colleagues an F for legwork. "The mainstream media has failed to do due diligence [on the school reform agenda] for over a decade," she says. "They bought into the rhetoric of school reform and testing" mandated by No Child Left Behind. As for President Barack Obama's proposed Race to the Top initiatives, Strauss faults the news media for failing to ask whether "the rhetoric matches the practice. There's nothing new under the sun. Some of the things that didn't work 30, 40 or 50 years ago still don't work....We've taken as truth whatever Bill Gates says."

Strauss points out that leading Democrats, such as Obama, and Republicans have both embraced school choice and charter schools to some degree. This unusual political comity has led some mainstream outlets to position "reform" as a centrist, bipartisan idea, she says. There are a few consistently skeptical voices – she mentions New York Times education columnist Michael Winerip, and I'd mention Strauss – but for the most part, she says, the media have romanticized reform figures like Gates and Rhee, and the KIPP Schools, the darlings of the private charter movement.

"The mainstream media hasn't been digging," Strauss asserts. "Generally, reporters have gone along with the reform of the day. Well, I've got news for you: It's much more complicated than that."

Ganhos e perdas na senda da inovação, artigo de Washington Novaes

Washington Novaes é jornalista. Artigo publicado no jornal O Estado de São Paulo de hoje (30).

Quase à mesma hora em que era sepultado em São Paulo, há duas semanas, o corpo do professor Aziz Ab'Saber, uma das figuras mais importantes do pensamento científico e ambiental brasileiro, chegava às mãos do autor destas linhas o livro Espécies Nativas da Flora Brasileira de Valor Econômico Atual ou Potencial, editado pelo Ministério do Meio Ambiente, sob coordenação do gerente de Recursos Genéticos, Lídio Coradin - obra importante para o País na área em que o falecido professor da Universidade de São Paulo (USP) foi um expoente.

Considerado referência em geografia no mundo, mas também em geologia, geomorfologia, biologia evolutiva, ecologia, autor de mais de 300 trabalhos acadêmicos, ex-presidente da Sociedade Brasileira para o Progresso da Ciência (SBPC), condecorado pela Organização das Nações Unidas para a Educação, a Ciência e a Cultura (Unesco) e outras instituições, o professor Ab'Saber era um homem simples e acessível, que aos 87 anos e com a saúde atingida não desistia da luta. A mais recente foi contra a versão de Código Florestal defendida pelos ruralistas - a seu ver, um forte retrocesso com graves consequências, principalmente por desprezar a variedade de cenários naturais no Brasil e a necessidade de regras diferenciadas para cada um.

O autor destas linhas conheceu-o pessoalmente em 1987, durante um debate promovido por este jornal sobre um dos programas da série Caminhos da Sobrevivência, que dirigia para a televisão. O debate era específico sobre um documentário a respeito da Bacia do Rio Tietê feito por Eduardo Coutinho. Havia muita confusão entre os debatedores, quando o professor Ab'Saber começou a falar. E a impressão de toda a plateia foi de que, a bordo da nacele de um balão, todos tinham subido ao céu e lá do alto haviam começado a enxergar a bacia do rio, hoje e na História: a ocupação humana, que começara pela planície, subira os morros e se estendera; os dramas causados pela ocupação desenfreada do solo e suas consequências na bacia hidrográfica, inclusive por causa do sepultamento sob o asfalto de dezenas de córregos e outros afluentes.

Pouco tempo depois, num debate em Mato Grosso do Sul sobre os dramas do Pantanal, quando se discutia a necessidade de desassorear o Rio Taquari, que já fora o grande leito da navegação no bioma e estava reduzido a um palmo d"água, o professor Ab'Saber, com seu saber, pôs a discussão no lugar: "Vocês podem planejar então desassorear o rio durante séculos, porque o desmatamento e a erosão que ele provoca, de fato, são problemáticos; mas a questão central está em que aquela região é de formação ainda recente, em evolução, e está no centro de um cone de terra com a base invertida para cima, milhares de quilômetros de diâmetro, que ejetam areia de baixo para cima; desassorear é útil, mas o problema mesmo durará séculos, milênios".

Era assim o professor Aziz A'"Saber, que antes de cursar a USP e nela ser professor foi, ali mesmo, jardineiro. E com essa simplicidade seguiu pela vida fora. Fará muita falta ao País.

Ele certamente gostaria de ler o livro sobre as espécies brasileiras, porque era um dos defensores exponenciais da nossa diversidade vegetal - 13% das espécies do planeta, segundo o texto, que tem como objetivo "promover o uso sustentável de espécies da flora brasileira de valor econômico atual e potencial, utilizadas local e regionalmente". Isso significa, diz o livro, novas opções para a agricultura familiar, oportunidades de investimento industrial, contribuição para a segurança alimentar, redução da vulnerabilidade do sistema alimentar brasileiro e formatos de favorecimento de comunidades locais. E todos esses caminhos são importantes para a área medicinal, para a produção de cosméticos e aromáticos, para plantio e comercialização de alimentos, para seleção de espécies adequadas ao clima, etc.

No mundo já se conhecem 250 mil espécies vegetais, dizem muitos estudos (outros apontam números menores) e a maior diversidade está no Brasil. Mas, apesar dela - observa o livro -, a nossa dieta é "altamente simplificada e dependente de recursos genéticos externos", enquanto poucas das nossas centenas de espécies comestíveis estão disponíveis no mercado. E tanto é assim que a nossa agricultura depende de espécies vindas de outras partes do mundo - café, arroz, soja, laranja, milho, trigo; na silvicultura, de eucaliptos e pinheiros; e mesmo fora das espécies vegetais, como na piscicultura (tilápias africanas e carpas asiáticas), na apicultura (polinizadores africanos), na pecuária (bovinos indianos, caprinos asiáticos, gramíneas africanas).

Então, o conhecimento das nossas espécies é vital, já que a produção mundial de alimentos, em grande parte cartelizada no comércio internacional, hoje depende basicamente de apenas 150 espécies; 15 espécies respondem por toda a energia de que depende o ser humano - e só quatro (arroz, batata, milho e trigo) respondem por metade dessa energia, segundo a ONU. Entre as pouco mais de 150 espécies mencionadas, só duas são brasileiras: mandioca e amendoim. E a própria evolução da biotecnologia entre nós dependerá do avanço no conhecimento nessa área. Até mesmo na área de medicamentos, em que os números do comércio mundial variam entre US$ 20 bilhões e US$ 250 bilhões anuais. Mas a produção interna não passa de US$ 500 milhões/ano. Só temos registrados 512 produtos fitoterapêuticos derivados de 162 espécies vegetais.

O conhecimento na área, portanto, é decisivo, até porque a perda da biodiversidade no mundo avança celeremente e já se perderam pelo menos 25% das espécies, diz o Programa das Nações Unidas para o Meio Ambiente (Pnuma), que recomendou há dois anos ampliar para 17% as áreas terrestres protegidas e para 10% as áreas oceânicas.

Nas encruzilhadas que se apresentam para o Brasil em seu comércio exterior, em sua indústria, na política cambial, a inovação tecnológica será o fator preponderante nos próximos anos. Por isso são tão importantes os caminhos trilhados pelo livro.