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.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Our Inflexible Standards Harm Students, Teachers, and Our Economy

We don't blame doctors and hospitals if they can't cure all their patients equally. We understand that when a patient comes to a hospital with lung cancer because he has chain smoked for 40 years, or a patient has diabetes because he is obese, doctors are limited in what they can do. Our medical professionals are especially limited if the cancer patient who has a lung removed continues smoking and the diabetes patient is not willing to change his diet.

In the field of education however, our professional educators are expected to produce certain prescribed results for each student no matter the background or life experiences of their students. This "no excuses" philosophy of our education policy makers has led to the labeling of almost all schools that serve high populations of at-risk students as "failing schools". The same policy makers also assume (without evidence) that simply closing down such schools and sending the students to private or charter schools will magically cure the problem. That would be like closing a trauma ward in a hospital because it is caring for too many hard to treat patients. Such a policy also stigmatizes the teachers that teach in high poverty schools as lazy or incompetent even though they may be working diligently to help students overcome their handicaps.

The success of our public schools has been made even more difficult by the adoption of uniform academic standards designed to make all students the same. That sameness is usually referred to as preparing students to be college and career ready. The use of the word "and" connecting these two outcomes assumes that students need to master exactly the same standards for many varied careers as they need for college prep careers. That would be as incorrect as assuming that all ill patients need chemotherapy or insulin therapy no mater what their ailment. But our lawmakers have decreed based on blind faith (not science) that all students should and can master a set of college prep standards even if some want to be welders, some want to be nurses, some want to be truck drivers and some want to be sales reps.  In Louisiana and many other states, all students are expected to become proficient according to the Common Core college prep standards. (Louisiana has only made minor changes in the standards) A recent poll of teachers by the pro Common Core Fordham Institute indicates that the 6-8 grade math standards may not be appropriate for most students. 61% of those teachers said the math standards were unrealistic for their students.

So the student who loves to work with her hands and who has demonstrated a talent for carpentry is forced to spend endless hours trying to master the proofs of theorems in Geometry such as the derivation of Pythagorean theorem using the area of triangles. If she really struggles with math and proofs, she may be denied a high school diploma and the opportunity to pursue her career goals may be limited.

Here is something I actually observed in my own neighborhood: A team of carpenters was busy one morning mapping out the foundation for a new house. They were outlining the corners of the new house using wooden stakes and string. As I approached, I noticed they were all speaking Spanish to each other.  Taking a chance, I introduced myself in English and asked them what method they were using to insure that the corners were square (90 degree angles). The foreman, who was the only one who could speak English, was friendly and told me they were using the 3, 4, 5 rule. That's where you set the stakes and the string to form a perfect 90 degree angle using a length of string 3 ft on one side and 4 ft on the other side so that the diagonal between them is exactly 5 ft long. This method works every time, and gives perfect square corners.

I said, "Oh I see, you are using the Pythagorean theorem."

The foreman who seemed to be reasonably intelligent said "What's that?"

I explained briefly that the 3, 4, 5 rule is an application of a geometry principle discovered by a Greek named Pythagoras. He was amused by my explanation and actually translated it for his crew. But very soon the crew was back to work and probably to this day would not be able to recall the name of Greek whose formula was used to design the method that helped them lay out a foundation.

My point is this: This skilled carpenter understands clearly that the 3, 4, 5 rule will give his house foundation perfectly square corners without knowing anything about the Pythagorean theorem. But if he had to meet the standards we now have for graduation, which includes an understanding of the Pythagorean theorem, he may not have received a Louisiana high school diploma. And if a diploma were a requirement for carpenter training, he may never have had a chance to make a good living as a skilled carpenter.

Of course I am guessing the construction company that hired this crew of carpenters does not require their employees to possess a high school diploma. The skills and motivation to do the difficult job of carpentry are probably more important than any sheepskin. This begs the question: "How many of our Louisiana high school graduates graduate with the minimum skills and motivation to enter an apprentice program to become a skilled carpenter?" I seriously doubt that our high school graduates who may have some knowledge of the Pythagorean are really career ready. I would not trust many of these graduates with a skill saw or even the ability to use a carpenter's level.

So our policy for K-12 education in Louisiana is to track all students into a college prep curriculum. How does that work? Here are the latest results: The average score for all students taking the PARCC tests in 2015 was 38%. The average passing scores on the new tests were set at approximately 30%. So even though the majority of students received a passing score, they actually knew only a small percentage of the material they are supposed to know for success in college. In addition, the passing scores on the end of course tests in high school have been set so low that even students with minimal knowledge can pass them and get a high school diploma.

So what we have done is required college prep standards which students do not actually have to master in order to receive a high school diploma. The majority of our students that graduate are not prepared for college or a career. I call that a failure! It is harmful to students and their teachers.

That's one of the many reasons I ask: "Why do we attempt to track all of our students into such a narrow and highly structured pathway to graduation?" Why do we refuse to understand that there are many differences in the natural abilities, talents and interests of our students? When we prescribe just one set of standards for all students we are denying the value of the wonderful diversity of human beings. This unproven policy is harmful to our students and to our state economy because we are not preparing workers for diverse careers.

Monday, June 13, 2016

What is the research basis of school policies? Hint: Anything goes!

This recent post on the Living in Dialogue blog asks the Question: Who uses educational research and how? One the groups that apparently does not need education research are education reformers. Often, new education policies are based on extrapolation of research findings but most reforms are totally untested. This ends up suggesting quick fix fads in education that do not work in reality. That's why we ended up with VAM as a magic bullet for identifying teacher effectiveness which was rushed into full implementation for most states with funding from the Gates Foundation and mandates from the U. S. Department of Education. VAM (the Value Added Model) was based on studies conducted by Edward Hanushek, Thomas Kane, and William Sanders that produced a false extrapolation that students who were performing as much as 3 grade levels behind their peers could be brought up to speed in just 3 years by having 3 straight years of highly effective teachers. The assumption here was that many students are being held back by ineffective teachers. Just replace the bad teachers with great teachers and all students would succeed in school. Unfortunately none of the applications of VAM have proved to be reliable for improving the teaching profession or improving student performance!

Here's a recent example of how education standards are added without the slightest bit of research: In this most recent legislative session, our lawmakers mandated the teaching of cursive writing to all students. There was no assessment of how much time it takes to teach cursive and what other standards may have to be pushed aside so that the cursive requirement can be met. This action was more of a knee jerk reaction to a feeling that our students may be losing a skill that was taught to previous generations of students. Using that logic, maybe the legislature should mandate the teaching of Latin or French, or memorization of the Declaration of Independence or memorization of the 64 parishes in Louisiana, or memorization of all the capitols of all the states as was done in the past. (The legislature almost passed a bill to require the recitation of part of the Declaration of Independence at the beginning of each school day)

Another non-research based reform relied on the assumption that privatization of schools,  was the magic formula that would convert so called "failing schools" into great schools. So far, we have seen no real improvements in educating students but we have seen numerous schemes where greedy con artists are using privatization to bilk taxpayers for their own financial benefit.

Another current fad in education reform assumes that if students are challenged with higher academic standards that they will rise to the challenge and magically start performing at a much higher level. Then all students will succeed in college. That was part of the rationale for the Common Core. The reformers apparently believed that all they had to do was to order teachers to teach more and teach tougher standards to make students successful. Using that logic, we could teach calculus in the third grade and students could take all their college work instead at the high school level. None of the Common Core Standards were field tested. Maybe that's why the first year of testing of Common Core in Louisiana resulted in a statewide average of 38% on the PARCC tests. There is no evidence that this scheme will succeed.

None of these seemingly revolutionary solutions have worked in even the slightest degree, mostly because they were not based on real scientific principles. They are simply a form of wishful thinking based on junk science. Meanwhile educators and students have been forced to endure and suffer through this barrage of endless education reforms, based on "miracle cures" for whatever is supposed to be wrong with our educational system. In most cases the "cure" did more damage then good.

For example, the VAM method for creating a force of highly effective teachers has incorrectly identified large numbers of really good teachers as ineffective,  causing the early exodus of many teachers and a severe decline in the number of bright young people entering into colleges of education. The entire VAM theory has been discredited by a finding of the American Statistical Association that the effectiveness of teachers accounts for only between 1 and 14% of student achievement. But since reform enthusiasts continue to want to blame teachers for what probably amounts to lack of good parenting and the crippling influences of poverty, still insist that we continue to use VAM as a major part of teacher evaluation. No one has ever been able to demonstrate the 3 year "catch up" of low performing students based on teacher effectiveness. Meanwhile, Teach for America is still getting government and private grants to send clueless temp teachers to schools in our neediest neighborhoods. The New Orleans reformers fired all the experienced teachers of color who once lived in the community and served as true positive role models and replaced them with temporary white teachers who would not be there when students needed them. The kids lost their real life role models while the charter operators made a nice profit by hiring cheap workers. Almost none of the promised gains in student achievement materialized.

Charter schools and voucher schools, while still a wildly popular with politicians who get major contributions from the profit motivated charter and voucher school managers have generally performed more poorly than the so called "failing schools" they were attempting to replace. The virtual for-profit schools which have the highest profit margin (because they operate without buildings and support services) have been identified by researchers as providing the poorest education of all the various types of schools. So now the reformists are putting their emphasis on the fantasy that parental choice somehow ensures that students using our tax dollars to attend the substandard private schools are somehow getting something better than they would get in the real public schools.

Louisiana and many other states never seem to get tired of putting our full faith in the latest untested school reforms. Now our Louisiana version of the Common Core standards are supposed to magically inspire all of our students to start performing at above average levels and prepare all of them to succeed in college. This latest fad is reenforced by our unqualified superintendent announcing every few weeks that he believes that our Louisiana students are just as smart as kids in any other state. Such a seemingly positive statement is based on zero evidence, but has 100% political correctness. It instantly shifts all responsibility for eliminating low student performance to our schools.. The beauty of that assumption for policy bosses is that it allows educators to be blamed for any failure of our students to perform at the prescribed levels. It absolves politicians of any responsibility to deal with poverty and child neglect. Of course politicians are seldom willing to assign responsibility to parents.

Charter advocates have embraced the Common Core standards primarily because one of their key beliefs is that students should be challenged with high expectations in order to be prepared for college. One of the KIPP charter school founders, Dave Levin has for years made college prep the absolute goal for all students attending his charters. At KIPP schools, at-risk students from impoverished backgrounds are literally indoctrinated with a college prep philosophy. They are incessantly prepared to score well on standardized tests that are considered predictors of college success. Most of KIPP students perform well beyond their high poverty peers on such tests. Part of that increase happens because students who are not motivated to work hard go somewhere else, resulting in a creaming of the best and most motivated students attending KIPP schools. But when one of the first groups of KIPP students who scored very well on all their tests, were followed beyond KIPP to evaluate their college success, it was found that most dropped out without completing college. Dave Levin started trying to find ways of better motivating KIPP students to succeed even after they left the highly regimented KIPP environment. This has led to one of the initiatives that seem to be next big fad of what I consider to be an endless cycle of school reform.

I have just finished reading a highly acclaimed book on school reform called How Children Succeed. The author, Paul Tough, is a non-educator, non-scientist, journalist who has also become an education reform advocate. He makes the case that the next wave of reform for our schools should be to have schools teach a form of character education to our at-risk students and to even our more privileged students.  Such training, according to its proponents such as KIPP founder, David Levin, would enable students to succeed in college even when standardized tests tell us they are not prepared for college.

The most obvious flaw I detect in this theory is that the writer assumes that all students come to school with approximately the same potential for academic success. He believes that some students just have not been taught the emotional traits they need to develop the academic potential that he believes exists in all students. Therefore, it should be just a matter of retraining these student's  minds to instill healthy habits that place emphasis on building up conscientiousness, tenacity, and a newly identified ability to overcome failure, which has been given the interesting label "grit". Tough, who himself is a college dropout, from a privileged background with no training in research or education has interviewed some of the leading reformers in the U.S. including the founders of the KIPP charter schools, and research psychologist Angela Duckworth to help him formulate this latest fad in education reform.

Actually I can see some value in Tough's findings, but I can't quite believe that schools can  re-program the minds of at-risk students (human minds are not like computers that can be reprogrammed at-will) to make a significant difference in overcoming the many handicaps both inborn and environment related, that slow the academic achievement of such a large number of our high poverty students. To mostly ignore the huge differences in students' intellectual capacity, talents, and interests and to try to require schools to erase years of physical and emotional neglect would seem to me to be setting up education reform for another big disappointment.

Partially because I come from a science background, I cannot ignore the huge influences that heredity,  and early development have in determining a student's potential. I also know that it makes no sense at all to try to force all students to pursue an academic career. Just like I believe it is wrong to track students into low pay, dead-end careers, it is just as wrong to stigmatize students who don't fit into the college prep for all track. Society still needs large numbers of persons who want to pursue  careers in the arts, crafts or various forms of skilled labor.

Even though I am not convinced that our schools can have a major impact on improving character, the importance of character, motivation, determination, perseverance and grit has real, convincing research backing it. Real research findings by Angela Duckworth and Carol Dwick demonstrate how important such qualities are for success in school and in life. But I am not sure that schools can instill these qualities in all students. Let me give you just 4 examples of students from 2 families with which I am intimately familiar .

First of all, let me explain that over the years I have come to believe that there are many different opportunities for success and happiness for our young people. I have observed a teenager with Down's syndrome who worked at clearing tables at a McDonalds who seemed to be a happy and productive worker. At the same time I am convinced that some of the most highly paid Wall Street brokers and bankers are some of the least productive workers. I am not convinced that making millions by bilking the real workers in our society of their savings can possibly make these privileged people happy.

To demonstrate my point that children are very different, even when we try to rear them in the same way, I want to describe 4 real students who demonstrate very different levels of academic ability and personalities. I am sure most of my readers have observed the same variations among students. Which of these students do you think are most successful?

Student # 1 is a young man who made good grades in high school and who scored a 32 on his ACT. His sister, student #2,  had a slightly above average academic record but scored only 18 on her ACT.  Two other siblings from a different family, are students #3 and #4.  #3 was a model student who took numerous AP courses, was a co-validictorian and scored 35 on his ACT.  #4 was a very poor student who wasted a brilliant mind playing hours of video games and who barely graduated form high school, but also scored a 35 on his ACT!

Following high school graduation, student #1 started LSU but did not like it and dropped out at the end of the first semester. He moved to Colorado, got married, and started working as a stocker at Walmart. Now, after only 3 years, he is working in a successful IT position for a financial services company. He and his wife are now the proud parents of one of the happiest, most well adjusted babies I have ever seen. They have many friends and seem to be blissfully happy with their average lives.

Student #2 who is #1's sister, wanted to attend LSU, but after consulting with family members decided she was not really prepared for LSU (she scored only 18 on the ACT) and instead enrolled in the Baton Rouge Community College. After a year and a half of straight A's at BRCC, she transferred to LSU and is now in her third year of a very demanding chemical engineering major with a 3.0 average. I am astounded that a student who scored 18 on the ACT could make such progress in academics.

#3, a student from a different family,  graduated high school with honors and enrolled at LSU in pre-med. He has now switched to biomedical engineering, He is in his junior year with a 3.4 average. This student has the ability and personality that I consider to be perfect for an academic career who will probably excel in any profession.

#4, his brother ,who was reared in the same manner,  barely graduated this May from high school after being allowed to take at least two credit recovery courses. He is now working 25 hours a week as a bus-boy in a local restaurant. Surprisingly, he is a very dependable worker, never misses a day of work, and is never late to work for this seemingly dead end job. But this is the first time he has been dependable at any task since the 5th grade when he won the school award for most books read over the summer. He refuses to register for college this fall. This kid is a huge frustration for his family, but I consider him work in progress. It is hoped that he will enroll in college sometime in the next year or so.

All of these children came from good homes with supportive parents who always kept close tabs on them and encouraged academic effort and performance. But look at how different they performed in their academic pursuits! Based on these 4 case studies, which do you think is more important; academic ability or the character traits of motivation, dependability, conscientiousness, and grit? Why did they all turn out so different? Could the schools they attended  have done a better job of steering each of these students to success?

Now imagine a similar study of 4 students who come from the most challenging low income backgrounds. Do you think that our schools which are already attempting to implement an extremely detailed curriculum will somehow have time to teach character education to supplement what at-risk students have not received at home?

Paul Tough believes he sees evidence that some students who come from at-risk backgrounds can be re-programmed to develop positive character traits that can result in academic success. What do you think? Should the reformers now launch a major campaign requiring public schools to teach positive character traits? That's what the KIPP administrators are now implementing with their students. Many KIPP schools enjoy lavish grants by charitable foundations to implement anything they choose.

It is still too early to judge this project, but that has not stopped the education reformers in the past few years from implementing the current fads of reform. What will the reformers do when it becomes obvious that the common core standards do not magically prepare all students for college? When will the reformers learn that not all students come to school with standard issue brains and personalities? When will the reformers learn that humans can be happy and successful working in a variety of careers, some of which do not depend on Batchelor degrees. Someone commented on one of the articles about Common Core with the question: Don't these people know that we still need auto mechanics, nurses, plumbers, electricians and construction workers. Those jobs cannot be farmed out to Internet workers in India because they actually have to be done on site.