Teachers rapped over the knuckles

6th June 2008 at 01:00
Truancy is a problem in some parts of Florida
Truancy is a problem in some parts of Florida. But it is not pupils who are missing from the classroom, it is the teachers!

The problem is most evident on sunny Fridays, according to a report in the Orlando Sentinel. One school district, it states, had 35 per cent more teachers sick on Fridays than on Wednesdays. "There should be tougher attendance measures," one parent demanded.

But few superintendents of education are willing to confront the powerful teachers' unions on the matter, in spite of the hefty cost of teacher substitutes and new research from Harvard University which shows, predictably, that teacher absences have a negative effect on pupil attainment and motivation. Perhaps, a correspondent suggested in all seriousness, absentee teachers should be required, like pupils, to provide sick notes from their parents or doctors.

Another suggestion for improving teacher turnout is rewards for good attendance. But officials are best to avoid the scheme introduced in nearby Seminole County in which pupils with good attendance, and grades, were to receive free Happy Meals from McDonald's. In return, McDonalds would be allowed to advertise these meals on the jackets of pupils' report cards. But parents complained and the scheme, and the unhealthy report covers, have been binned.

Gordon Brown recently visited the United States and when asked how America could improve its tarnished international image, our PM provided, in my opinion, an excellent suggestion. America's gift to the world, Mr Brown said, should be to offer every child in the world the chance of an education. But some Americans quickly added up the cost of such a gift and complained that the canny Scot was being extravagant with other people's cash. My calculations suggest the cost would be a lot lower than that of its trillion-dollar military intervention in Iraq.

The standard of reading I observe in a second-grade classroom in Orlando is slightly lower than what I have seen in similar classrooms in Scotland. This is in spite of the Bush administration's costly "Reading First" initiative which hasn't, experts say, raised levels of literacy. The multi-billion dollar reading improvement programme has also been beset by controversy and a Congressional investigation has been initiated to determine whether top advisers have improperly benefited from contracts for textbooks and test materials.

Teachers who have little time for "ice-breaking" activities on in-service days can blame the Americans who invented most of them. But sometimes these activities do some good. In Orlando, I heard the story of a teacher who pinned a blank page on the back of each of his low-performing, final-year students and asked everyone else to write something positive on each sheet.

No pupil could see what was being written and at the end of the lesson the teacher put the sheets in envelopes and presented them to his pupils as a parting gift. A year or so later, a mother came to see the teacher and told him that her son had been killed in Iraq and that when his commanding officer returned his possessions, they included his letter with all the nice things his classmates had written.

"My son treasured this sheet," the mother said tearfully. "He never realised that his classmates thought so much of him. No one had told him. He had kept his letter with him at all times and it was in his pocket when he was shot dead by a sniper's bullet."

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