Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Government Schools vs School Privatization

In many cases the reformers of public education prefer to have public schools operated by Turkish, muslim-dominated, self appointed foundations, than by our elected school boards

Haters of our public school systems have hit upon what they think is a great way to rebrand and stigmatize our public schools with a negative image. These public school opponents, such as Fox News commentator, John Stossel, now often refer to our public schools as "government schools". The implication is that anything run by government is somehow substandard while anything run by private business, religious groups, or entrepreneurs is inherently good and successful.  Favored "non-government" school groups include Turkish muslim dominated foundations such as those established by Turkish immigrant Fetullah Gulen. Louisiana originally had two such schools. Gulen schools are the second largest group of charter schools in the U.S.

This trend in school privatization denies the democratic underpinnings of our public schools, where we the people elect the school boards that manage the public schools funded with our tax dollars. The animosity that is being generated toward our "government schools" assumes that the voters are not capable of electing persons who are qualified to manage our schools. Yet at the same time we are being led to believe that it is OK to hand over our schools with minimal oversight to profit seeking managers. The only apparent requirement is that these unsupervised managers raise student test scores. We now have ample evidence that test scores can be artificially raised in numerous ways that in no way reflect academic achievement! 

I believe this privatization movement is a recipe for the destruction of our public schools, yet the Republican party platform adopted just this week calls for major expansions of school choice using charter schools and vouchers. Unfortunately this trend is not restricted to only one political party. The sub-group, Democrats for Education Reform strongly advocates for the expansion of charters.

In Louisiana the experiments in school privatization through "government" funding of charter schools and voucher schools has produced a plethora of highly inefficient and often fraudulent school management schemes. I would like to point out some of the most serious abuses.

The charter schools across our nation inspired by the Turkish cleric, Fetullah Gulen are characterized by Turkish male dominated, autocratic management. In Louisiana, investigations have uncovered  rigged construction bidding using our tax dollars favoring Turkish construction companies, abuse of special education regulations, cover-ups of child abuse and attempts to avoid serving the most at-risk students. One of the Turkish dominated charter schools in New Orleans was finally closed by BESE following a child abuse scandal, but only after a whistleblower from the LA Department of Education who revealed unethical and possibly fraudulent actions was fired. Yes, our Department of Education fired the whistleblower who had recommended protection for whistleblowers!

Other charter schools have been characterized by a similar culture of corruption, misuse of public funds, cheating on state tests and the use of disciplinary policies to remove the most difficult to educate students. Instead of taking on the challenge of better educating underprivileged students, charter managers have put their energy into funneling tax dollars and foundation support into their own pockets.

Virtual Charter Schools Are the Worst Performers!
Both charters and voucher schools in Louisiana have sprung up primarily to reap the tax dollars made available to anyone who could put together an advertising campaign to attract parents with promises of high academic performance for their children. One of the best examples of false advertising are the online virtual charter schools that advertise with appeals such as "for students eager to receive instruction above their grade level". It turns out that scientific studies have demonstrated that students enrolled in such schools on average, lose one year of progress for every year of enrollment.

Voucher Schools Shortchange Parents Who Choose Them
One of the largest voucher schools in the early days of privatization in Louisiana was a shell of a school designed to enrich a local preacher. This school was finally closed when the news media revealed the lack of facilities and qualified educators. One of the abuses designed to encourage proliferation of charter schools and vouchers was the legislative exemption that was passed by Jindal to allow non-certified teachers. This study by the Brookings Institute showed that student test scores declined after they transferred to voucher schools.

So charter schools in Louisiana funded by state MFP tax dollars with a minimum of oversight, exemptions from quality controls, with self appointed boards, often hire for-profit operators who pay themselves whatever funds they can divert from our tax dollars. However, these schools and a major portion of voucher school budgets are really government funded schools but without the accountability that is demanded of the real public schools. State legislators who love "choice schools" probably because they receive political contributions from the operators, forget to note that at least two-thirds of each student's funding to choice schools comes from taxpayers who have no children in K-12 schools. So every time a parent takes the MFP funding for their child to a private or charter school, I am being denied the choice of how my education tax dollars are to be spent. The only way to insure that all taxpayers benefit from "choice" is to insure that all schools receiving tax monies are overseen by elected school boards. Sure charter and voucher students are required to take the state tests, but their school managers use every trick in the book to juke the stats. Recently the New Orleans media found that some students were hurriedly pushed back to lower grades to boost test score averages. It was also revealed that one school had falsified testing results to insure certain large foundation grants would be received.

It is now pretty clear that there is no real difference between for-profit and non-profit charter schools in Louisiana. The so called non-profits often launder our tax dollars into exorbitant salaries for top administrators. Students are often taught by unqualified and minimally trained teachers. The biggest abuses are usually in the area of special education where such schools often divert special education funding to regular programs.

Why do I believe that these smear tactics against public schools and the replacement of public schools with charters and vouchers threatens the very existence of public schools? Public school funding is being steadily drained each year to the point that soon our real public schools will have difficulty providing a first class education to future students.  Evidence is building that choice schools generally (except for those with selective admission) have lower student performance. We are also finding that because of the over-emphasis on state test scores, students in choice schools are not getting a well rounded education. There is almost no preparation of students for vocational-technical careers. I recently found by reviewing college enrollments that few Recovery School District students ever make it through college. But in addition, the lowering of standards for the teaching profession to accommodate charter schools and the focus on rating teachers using student test scores is doing irreparable damage to our teaching profession. Our once attractive teacher retirement system which kept many teachers teaching for a career is being seriously eroded as charter and voucher schools are allowed to opt out of teacher retirement plans. Even if our public officials finally wake up to the damage being done, it will be more difficult to rebuild our public schools. That's why those of us who know that the real public schools are critical to the future of our state and nation need to act now in electing pro-public education legislators and governors. At least we have made one giant step forward in electing Governor John Bel Edwards, but he needs our help in supporting and improving public education.

So next time you see a story about the need to do away with, or provide competition for our "government schools" be aware that these folks want to take away "your right to choose" the management of your tax dollars that need to be carefully monitored to insure the education of all American children.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Myth of the Broken U.S. School System

This article by a distinguished professor of Education exposes the use of false negative propaganda about the U.S. public K-12 school system. Apparently school reformers decided over a decade ago that it would be much easier to sell their pet projects for school reform if the American public could just be convinced that our public schools were failing and beyond repair. Then we would have nothing to lose by scrapping the whole "broken" system and trying any reform scheme the reformers could dream up. This would allow reformers to implement revolutionary changes without the need to provide credible evidence that such changes would actually improve student performance.

Here is another article in the Huffington Post that shows how one of the buzzwords of education is used to "deform" our education system.

It is worrisome that the major proponents of revolutionary changes in education are people who have no education credentials and minimal background in actual teaching. This would be like allowing people with no medical training to change the structure of the medical profession. For example, in Louisiana, major education reform designers included an attorney, Paul Pastorek, lobbyists from the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, legislators, and a governor with no education credentials. The major elements of school reform nationwide fall more into the category of ideology than of legitimate education strategies. Here are the questionable assumptions of American education reform:
  1. Standardized testing of students in math and English language arts is the best way to determine the effectiveness of a school.
  2. Any school where students perform significantly below average on standardized tests in math and English language arts should be considered a failing school.
  3. Firing and replacing the principal and at least half the teachers in a failing school will ultimately produce better student performance.
  4. State takeover of so called failing schools and conversion to privately managed charter schools will result in significantly better student performance on standardized tests.
  5. The use of taxes dedicated to public schools to provide parents a "choice" of sending their children to charter schools and private voucher schools at public expense will result in better student performance.
  6. The main thing preventing at-risk or high poverty students from performing is the low expectations of their teachers.
  7. The best measure of teacher performance is performance of students on standardized tests.
  8. Any low performing student who is taught by highly effective teachers over a three year period will improve up to grade level without any other assistance.
None of the above strategies are supported by research or experience.

In Louisiana, the Recovery District is a state run bureaucracy designed to take over and turn over so called "failing schools" to education entrepreneurs who establish charter schools to replace the traditional schools. State Superintendent Paul Pastorek who led the takeover effort had a background as a lawyer and no training in education. He brought in Paul Vallas from Chicago whose training was in accounting and finance to run the Recovery District. In a few short years the RSD was declared a big success that should be used as a model for other states. The only problem is that the measure of success was a bunch of carefully selected statistics that seemed to show amazing growth in student test scores and graduation rates. Later it was learned that the growth in test scores was simply a part of teaching to tests and lowered standards which did not show significant improvements relative to other school systems in the state with similar demographics. The "improved" graduation rate was found to have been inflated by listing dropouts as transfers to other states. The graduation rate of the RSD is now listed as the lowest in all school systems in the state and student performance in math and English is in the bottom 20% just as it was at the time of takeover. Some RSD schools have been simply shut down because of lack of support from parents and others have been returned back to the original school systems because of dismal results.

But to make matters worse, other states are still trying to imitate the Louisiana Recovery District by creating Achievement Districts. All have failed or shown little progress in student achievement. This idea for reform was totally bogus, but did help to promote independent charter schools which are now referred to as choice schools.

The concept of school choice which includes the funding of charter schools and private voucher schools with public money has become extremely popular with politicians. That's because of the completely unsupported claim that parents are best qualified to decide which school is best for their child. Corporate reformers have greased the wheels of the choice movement by making generous contributions to politicians.

Now it apparently does not matter whether a school produces academic results as long as parents choose it for their child. For example, a recent study found that the for-profit, online virtual charter schools are the lowest performing schools in the nation, yet there is no move to close or restructure these very profitable schools. Instead, many reformers claim that individualized education plans that can be accessed by a student anywhere with a computer are the true waive of the future. There is not one shred of evidence that this works better than students attending public schools with real live teachers, yet the online schools are lavishly funded compared to the real public schools because their platform for delivery of services is so much cheaper than brick and mortar schools. The only problem is that on average, students show minus one year of progress for every year enrolled in virtual schools. It is true however that some highly motivated, high performing students, do quite well in virtual schools. But that success is due more to the quality of the student than to the school type.

Many of the principles of school reform we see today in America should be classified more as wishful thinking rather than as legitimate alternatives. Reformers have an almost religious belief in certain methods of reform without evidence that they work. For example, it is an absolute article of faith of most reformers that: if we insist on higher standards, our students will increase their performance to meet those standards. There is no evidence for the article of faith of reformers. In Louisiana, and in many other states, the performance of students on the new Common Cores tests has been nothing short of disastrous. In Louisiana, the average passing score on the latest standardized tests has been reduced to an average cut score of only 30%. Students could come close to achieving this passing score by just guessing. Is this raising the bar?

Use of student test scores to rate, pay, and even dismiss teachers has also been an absolute disaster. Many otherwise highly respected teachers have been declared "ineffective" because of flaws in the Value Added Model of teacher evaluation. The widespread use of VAM has already resulted in a growing teacher shortage and a drastic decline in enrollments in colleges of education.

No one has ever been able to verify the theory that three highly effective teachers in a row will raise student performance to grade level particularly when the student must deal with handicapping factors outside the school.

The idea that any parent should have the right to take the state and local school tax allotment for their child and enroll them in any private school or charter school they choose violates the very principles upon which our successful education system was built. That is public schools are funded by all taxpayers and run by school boards elected by all the voters. On average, over two thirds of the Minimum Foundation Funding for each child to attend school is paid by persons who do not have a child enrolled in a K-12 school. The funding of public education for all children no matter the income of their parents is considered as part of our public responsibility. But when we turn the entire school funding for a child over to the parent we are violating the rights of all taxpayers to demand that their tax money be used wisely. Some voucher schools are still allowed to keep public funding for students that would be considered to be attending a failing school. So school reform has produced a double standard that encourages the misuse of our school taxes.

The Atlantic article should be a wake-up call for all Americans. It time to start demanding accountability of the education reformers.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

State LDOE Proposing to Test Younger Students

Higher test scores are the only thing Superintendent White and his TFA assistants care about in the operation of Louisiana schools. Now they are apparently pushing standardized testing for kindergarteners as a way of preparing all students for college. A report by Assistant Superintendent, Jessica Baghian to the Accountability Commission seemed to imply that local school leaders want to extend standardized testing to grades K-2. Also, now the LDOE is admitting that the new Common Core standards have widened the achievement gap between middle class and poor students.   Remember when we were told that the new Common Core standards would help close the achievement gap? Another promise based on wishful thinking!

This recent article in Education Week describes the shortcomings of standardized testing. Recent trends show that even though we can expect a small improvement in state testing results as teachers become more familiar with teaching to the new Common Core related tests, student scores will soon plateau. Educators then begin spending inordinate efforts that result in only incremental improvements in successive years. Children just do not respond well to the constant test-prep school environment.

A few years ago, the decision was made to encourage almost all high school students to take college prep courses at the expense of vocational education. It did not work. Louisiana has the lowest number of students in the Southeast region completing 4 year college degrees. Then they maneuvered BESE into adopting the college prep Common Core standards. That's not working. Our students averaged 38% on the PARCC tests last year. Now the LDOE wants to push more testing and test prep to the K-3 grades. All that will do is to kill the joy of learning with boring high pressure test prep. None of this drill and kill strategy works. But the Accountability Commission is being told that if we just tighten the screws on students and teachers at the primary grades, then our students will finally become successful test takers. I'm not buying it.

Schooling should not be primarily about testing. Recent articles about the sacrifice of play activities for little children here and here have demonstrated that unstructured play for very young children is almost as important for proper development and socialization as structured classwork. Yet our so-called education leaders are reducing recess so kids can rehearse more for tests.

I've pointed out before that White is a one-trick-pony who believes that everything in the education of children is about raising test scores, yet after years of college prep and excessive emphasis on testing, our students are doing no better in college.

What about other priorities for our schools in developing well educated citizens? With all the emphasis on academic testing, kids are not being taught how to lead healthy and productive lives. Health problems of our high school graduates led by obesity are actually making about a third of our students insurance risks and therefore mostly unemployable, yet there is less emphasis on physical education and health.

My post below demonstrates that our graduates are no longer being taught the most basic life skills, yet we pretend to be preparing them for college.

Here is the problem with our younger students. Many children in high poverty homes have no books and few reading experiences in their homes. Many of these children are not stimulated to develop a rich vocabulary. Students from poverty start school with only half the vocabulary of more privileged students. Their primary teachers need to be able to spend time reading to their students from books for children that spark their interest in reading. Then the students will see themselves as readers and learners. To just start drilling kids with stacks of worksheets will turn them off to school and learning. Then no amount of testing and test prep will make them better students.