Sunday, March 15, 2020

Why Education Reform is Failing

Education reform is based on wishful thinking, not science
Starting with the No Child Left Behind Law in 2002 and then proceeding to The Race to the Top, and now to The Every Student Succeeds Act, every reform of public education in the last 18 years has failed. In Louisiana, even though our Department of Education regularly reports imaginary success, like the phony improvement in 8th grade math scores, most of the data collected is indicating total failure of the reforms. The latest average raw scores in math and English on our state tests is only 40% for all children tested in 2019. The reforms have failed to improve student achievement!

How could it be that no improvement is occurring when the entire purpose of education reform was to produce better test scores, and more students succeeding in college? We are producing more high school graduates, but that is because we are now graduating almost any kid with a pulse. There are essentially no standards for graduation in Louisiana. We claim to be preparing students for college, but the latest reports from our Board of Regents for Higher Education indicate that only 18% of our students go on to get any type of higher education degree. This is failure, not reform! 

We should look to science for the answers
Let’s review the basics of learning. Scientists working with rats, pigeons, monkeys, and other lab animals have found that learning primarily occurs because of motivation. Motivation is simply the rewards or punishments that causes learning to happen. Motivation can be either positive or negative. 

Here’s an example: Lab rats can be taught to push a “white” lever if they get a reward of food when they push the correct lever. Rats can also be taught by getting negative feedback (a slight electric shock) when they push the wrong (“black”) lever. That’s how learning happens, whether it is in a highly controlled lab or in the rat’s natural environment. Learning works the same way with children.

Human children are like supercharged learning machines
Learning scientists have come to believe that humans as a species have an extra powerful natural instinct for learning. Just observe little children who naturally investigate their surroundings without prompting of any kind by adults. Teachers in Finland regularly let children run around freely outdoors because they learn a lot through natural play activities. Humans have an accelerated ability to learn language at an early age. Many toddlers start automatically picking up and repeating words. By age six, most children are learning 6 to 8 new words every day! So human children have a natural super-charged desire and ability to learn. That should make schooling a cinch! It actually takes a lot of negative motivation to stop children from learning! But our modern education reform efforts have succeeded in killing much of the drive for school learning in millions of children each year.

Motivation is essential to learning
Let’s go back to the lab rat experiment. Motivation for learning can be either a reward or a punishment. Reward for learning is what educators seek to do. Teachers often report observing a positive reinforcement when children get an intrinsic reward for learning a concept they have worked to achieve. Teachers often say, “I saw a child’s face light up when he finally solved the problem, or understood the concept. Or a teacher calls on a student who answers a question correctly and the teacher says “very good” so that the whole class hears it. The positive rewards for children can be that simple. It’s the pleasure sensation they get from learning or being praised for learning. It’s what locks in the learning and inspires children to seek more learning. But somehow education reform has managed to convert much of our school activities into more punishment rather than reward.

Education reform mandates mostly produce negative feedback
The common core state standards that are the basis of our curriculum now require children to learn rather obscure, complex, and often highly abstract tasks that seldom relate to real life. Then children have to demonstrate their learning by taking standardized tests where often the questions are tricky and are expressed in words and phrases that many students don’t recognize. Many children are getting immediate negative feedback as they take these tests, because they just don’t know the right answers. Many parents report that some little children come home from their testing days crying. 

To make things worse, there is no immediate reporting of results of the testing. The results from the spring testing of our students don’t come back until the Fall. By this time the student has a different teacher. So the students and the teachers don’t get to see their results in a time frame where action can be taken to teach kids to solve he problems or questions they missed. Also, because of test security rules, teachers and students never get to see the actual questions the students got right or wrong. So the constant testing is traumatic to children instead of a reward. It would be like the lab rat getting a whole bunch of shocks by pushing a lot of wrong levers. A huge percentage of our children are missing most of the questions on their spring tests. So putting all this together, it amounts to kids receiving a lot of negative motivation relative to their schoolwork. Kids are getting the message: “Don’t bother trying to learn. Schoolwork is unpleasant and is to be avoided. (Just like the lab rat avoids the black lever.)

Most of the feedback kids get teaches them that school instruction is irrelevant
But here’s the kicker that turns motivation on its head with our crazy education reform system. Eventually the children find out that it makes no difference whether they learn or fail to learn the lessons taught in school. Their parents are often never told how poorly they are doing and they automatically get promoted to the next grade. In Louisiana, automatic promotion happens all the way to graduation.  So for almost half the kids, formal instruction in the classroom becomes irrelevant. Many of those kids begin getting a perverse reward by disrupting the class to get the attention they crave that they are not getting from the boring stuff the teacher is forced to present every day. In many classrooms today, misbehaving children do not experience any penalty for misbehaving because the schools have been forced to prohibit almost all forms of punishment.  (There is a bill in the legislature right now that will make discipline problems even worse. See HB 663) It seems that punishment is thought of as unacceptable no matter the student’s infraction. So many of the kids that consistently fail their state tests are learning! But its not what teachers are trying to teach.

Just like we can’t make the corona virus go away by holding back on testing for it; we can’t make our students learn more by rigging the state test scores to make it look like learning is happening. Science does not respond to wishful thinking or cheating.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Almost Everything Recently Done in the Name of Education Reform Has Backfired

Here is an article informing us that the reduction of recess time so that children could spend more time being drilled for the almighty standardized tests has actually resulted in lower test performance! How can that be? Why isn't constant drilling on test taking skills at the expense of recess, PE, art, music, vocational education, and other "less important" instruction producing higher test scores? Maybe because the current trend to ignore fundamental child development principle's is harmful in every way, including killing the joy of schooling for both children and teachers! Teachers in Finland, whose students perform at the top of the rankings on international achievement tests, routinely take young children outdoors where they can play, investigate nature and develop normally as they are programmed by their genes to do. Why do American reformers insist on counteracting nature and instead have transformed our education system to motivation killing test drudgery?

Here is another new article challenging the removal of teachers from the decision making process of what kids really need in school. This outrageous trampling on the rights and critical input of the teaching profession in education decisions has actually resulted in the opposite of what our non-educator reformers said they wanted to do. Do you think our government can stop the Corona virus by ignoring the recommendations of the highly trained experts in disease prevention? The same is true of refusing to listen to real teachers about education reform. Do you believe, as the reformers would have you believe, that education reform in Louisiana is really working in preparing students for college and careers? Are you willing to ignore the most recent devastating revelation by our own Board of Regents that after all the reforms imposed on K-12 education in Louisiana, only 18 out of one hundred of our students will attain a college degree of any kind. Not even a two year associate's degree! These are the worst results I have ever seen! Don't blame the teachers. Teachers attended the legislative committee proposing these changes by the thousands to protest these untested ideas, only to be scolded for having the nerve to come to Baton Rouge on a school day (but that was the only time the Education committee was meeting!). Now the chickens are coming home to roost and thousands of our most dedicated teachers have left the profession.

The stranglehold over control of public education by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry promises even more failure with the upcoming appointment of John White's replacement.
Make no mistake about it, LABI has had almost total control over K-12 education for over 4 years since they used Michael Bloomburg's  and Walton family contributions to totally purchase all the BESE elected positions. They have made nothing but bad decisions with all this power. The school privatization they pushed has been almost a total failure with data showing that students who stay in their public schools do significantly better than they do when they move to a voucher or charter school.

Now LABI intends to hand pick John White's replacement.  If they select Jessica Baghian as the next Superintendent, Lousiana education will continue to be crippled by uninformed and ineffective leadership. Bagahian has been the right hand assistant to White in putting over the hoax of progress of our current reforms.

Let's look at some of the real results of LABI supported reforms. On their web site, LABI claims that Louisiana is closing the achievement gap between privileged and underprivileged students.  Data demonstrates instead that the exact opposite is true. They are also dead wrong claiming that ACT scores are improving. LABI is now down to apparently basing its education policies on wishful thinking rather than evidence.

The same is true of teacher evaluations based on student test scores using our defective state tests. LABI  has insisted that Louisiana evaluate its teachers partially on student test scores. But all the data proves that the VAM system used is unstable and inaccurate. So a couple of years ago I got thrown off of a state committee studying changes to VAM because I had the nerve to state on my blog that LABI was like the dog that caught the truck with this whole VAM fiasco. They don't have any idea what to do with VAM but they will never admit they were wrong. Meanwhile some very competent and dedicated teachers have had their careers ruined by VAM and thousands of great teachers have left the profession.

My most recent public records requests for actual data are showing a totally different picture from the propaganda-type announcements of great strides in producing better results for our students. Here are just a few revelations that have so far been kept hidden from the voters and parents of our students.
  • Louisiana's ranking in comparison to all other states has only gotten worse for both ACT performance and NAEP averages if you compare the results for 2019 to our results in 2011 (Before John White took over). The recent blip highlighted here by White's spin-masters indicating improvement in 8th grade math is extremely misleading. There was actually a decline in 8th grade math over the term of office of John White. My most recent research  reveals that about 50% of our students on free lunch which make up almost 70% of our students, flunked the 8th grade NAEP test in 2019! The parents of our students deserve to get the facts, not propaganda!
  • The achievement gap between economically underprivileged and other students has widened on every NAEP test given. We are definitely not closing the achievement gap. In fact my public records findings indicate that free lunch students are mostly failing all their state tests in math and ELA year after year and BESE policy is now allowing the promotion and graduation of students who are functional illiterates.
  • Analysis of our state LEAP tests reveal that the secret lowering of cut scores have made it appear that our students are achieving a much higher proficiency than that indicated by NAEP. This artificial inflation of our proficiency rate is in violation of state law.
  • My most recent public records requests reveal that some of our End-of-Course tests have had cut scores secretly manipulated by the LDOE and the testing companies to allow many students to get a passing score by just making random guesses on multiple choice questions instead of demonstrating any knowledge whatsoever!
  • It is clear that the boring test and retest culture forced on our schools by the LDOE has caused a huge proportion of our students to simply turn off to what they are being forced to do in our reformed classrooms and are not learning any academic material at all. I mean zero learning! That's what the raw data is showing. Don't believe anything you see relative to so called "scale scores". My public records findings show that the reported scores for our students are pure propaganda, not fact.
  • Teachers who have really studied the results of our state tests will tell you that the state LEAP tests and the standards upon which they are based are not age appropriate, are discriminatory against underprivileged students because they assume a vocabulary and academic sophistication totally unfamiliar to many of our students. Our state tests demonstrate the epitome of socio-economic bias! We have kids who miss many of the math questions simply because the questions are poorly designed.
  • Because of the VAM component of teacher evaluation, some teachers are losing their tenure and even the latest pay raise passed last year based upon invalid tests. This is an atrocity!
Look, I've been studying K-12 education in Louisiana for my entire professional career, and my best judgement tells me that the methods teachers are being forced to use with our children are just about the worst approach I could have ever have imagined. Our kids could learn so much more if teachers would be freed of mandated test prep and allowed to use their creativity to inspire children to love reading, to love science, to look forward to going to school every day. Most teachers instinctively know what works in the classroom and it's not what they are being forced to do. We need to have the courage to take back our schools for the sake of our children and for the future of our state.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Some of Our Graduates Don't Even Know How to Tighten a Nut

Are schools neglecting practical knowledge and skills?
Many of our students are graduating from high school with extremely limited practical knowledge essential to success in most jobs and everyday life. A good example is demonstrated by one large Louisiana company, which asks the following question to its job applicants: "In what direction would you turn an ordinary screw or nut to tighten it (clockwise or counterclockwise)?" Amazingly, a rather large proportion of applicants don't know that the correct answer is "clockwise". This begs the question: With all our emphasis on college prep for all students, are we neglecting practical knowledge needed for students to function effectively in all careers and in everyday life?

Before the shift to college prep for all, students in Louisiana in grades as early as 7 and 8 were required to take courses often labeled as "industrial arts" and "home economics". Such courses provided introduction to basic tools used in homes and work, budgeting, cooking, and introduction to various crafts and trades. All students, whether destined for college or careers were taught practical life skills. Our education reformers seem to have forgotten that young adults need practical knowledge as well as preparation for college.

Vocational/technical training along with practical math skills could really help to close the wealth gap.
We are now trying to teach students the solution of quadratic equations that most of them will never use, not even once in their lifetimes. The new college prep curriculum requires a technique called  "close reading" of various texts without reference to background knowledge. Many experts in reading question this requirement for elementary students.  But we are not teaching students how to avoid the entrapment of payday loan sharks that are now gobbling up much of the income of many young workers. Almost none of our students today are taught the power of compound interest for example, in utilizing a Roth IRA for retirement planning.  Such practical knowledge for all students could help close the wealth gap.

Reformist minded charitable foundation managers who contribute millions to the current school reforms have pushed college prep for all as the way to close the achievement gap.  But it's not working!  Nationwide, indications are that fewer students are now prepared for college, nor can they afford college. The most recent statistics from our Board of Regents show that Louisiana is leading the downward spiral. Less than 40% of our students who start college actually get a degree of any kind. Our Department of Education keeps pumping out propaganda about improvements in our high school graduation rate and the higher number of students registering for college. But the Board of Regents report shows that the key factor should be the percentage who actually get a college degree. Another major problem in pushing college for all is that students who drop out still have to pay off their college loans, often putting a debt burden on them for several decades.

The education reformers would have done better by supporting a broad modern curriculum that could actually teach kids how to overcome the wealth gap using practical knowledge and training for a variety of careers. We wonder why the curriculum in our schools today, despite the valiant efforts of our teachers, does not motivate most of our students to learn more and improve their state test scores. The answer is simple: there is very little in our current curriculum that will be useful to the majority of our students' lives and careers, and they have figured this out!

Some academic skills requiring college are a cheap commodity.
Here's the core of my argument: The assumption that training most of our students for academic jobs requiring college degrees is highly questionable. For example, it is extremely likely that the jobs of writing code and software for U. S. companies and providing technical support will more often be farmed out to cheap workers in India than to our college graduates. Just call up tech support for one of your electronic gadgets and see who answers the phone.

A critical job that cannot be farmed out is under our feet. 
So let's look at just one of the many  real jobs of the future. The job of a skilled plumber will require workers who must be here, not in India, to do this vital job.  The plumbing infrastructure of most of our cities is extremely old and deteriorating. Fresh water, sewerage, and natural gas are now leaking out of city utilities in intolerable quantities. The rebuilding of our municipal  infrastructure for the entire nation is an urgent need,  particularly in the area of replacing worn out plumbing. Modern plumbing work is highly sophisticated work requiring extensive training, mostly using apprenticeship methods, which don't leave a young worker with debt. That one job will employ thousands of well paid workers for many years to come. A job that must be done on the ground or more specifically "in the ground" here in America cannot be farmed out to low wage foreign workers. As a bonus, the new cadre of young plumbers who do that work could be taught in our schools to achieve early retirement with the wise investment of their earnings. Very little of this is being taught in our schools today!

What would Einstein say about our school reforms?
State law requires that our students be exposed to career exploration starting in middle school. But this requirement has been neglected as our education leaders have pushed teachers to do mostly preparation for the Common Core tests. Even though the career diploma law has been in effect since 2009, our LDOE forces students to remain in a college prep mode until their junior year. The problem is that our highly touted Core 4 college prep curriculum is simply not working! In Einstein's famous words: "The definition of insanity is to continue doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result".

Standards are not high if someone secretly lowers cut scores
The lack of success of the new so called "higher standards" has been purposely covered up by secretly setting the cut scores for a passing grade on the tests to extremely low levels.
 For several mandatory high school courses, the cut scores on the end-of-course tests have been set so low that a third grader could possibly pass the EOC test by just random guessing at the multiple choice questions. So now all students get much less preparation for college than when the standards for those courses were reasonable.  We are not preparing students for college and we are not preparing them for careers. That's why we need to reintroduce modern, relevant, vocational courses early, beginning with career exploration starting in middle school and not make students wait until their junior year to start career courses.

The way Core 4 was sold to BESE was by insisting that all students, even those not choosing college, would greatly benefit from the more rigorous courses. That has not happened. The so called rigorous courses have been watered down so education reformers can falsely claim success. We could make a much better case that a modern, well designed home economics course would be more valuable to all our students than advanced math.