Saturday, July 28, 2012

How to Create Failing Schools and Privatize Education

Our Governor and the news media have done a great job of creating “the failing schools of Louisiana”. This creation was a brilliant plan for the privatization of our k-12 school system. Once the government and the media announced that approximately 40% of our children in Louisiana are attending failing schools, it was an easy step to convince the public that something must be done! Any reform is good because at least it is not the status quo. Anyone who is against reform must be for keeping kids in failing schools and a defender of the status quo. In this environment almost anything the governor wants to do to education is considered good, even if it is not supported by research of any kind.

Why do I say that the Governor and the news media have created the failing schools of Louisiana? That's because the term “failing school” is a purely arbitrary designation. It is not necessarily valid, but once the government announces it has identified hundreds of failing schools, most people believe that such a designation must be based on fact.

To demonstrate how arbitrary the definition of a failing school is, let's conduct a thought experiment. Let's pretend that Louisiana had a great educational system, and that every single teacher was doing the best job possible in educating children. Let's assume that in this perfect school system there was not one bad teacher in our public schools! Let's assume that every teacher had complete knowledge of his/her subject matter and followed the state curriculum guide perfectly, used the best teaching techniques and worked with each student providing individualized instruction etc, etc.

But at the same time let's stipulate that those teachers and that the public education system would still be educating our current Louisiana students where about 60% qualify for free lunch because of the high poverty in our state, a large percentage of our students come from single parent homes, many do not have good nutrition, many do not have a quiet place in the home to study, many are not required by their parents to attend school regularly, and many have learning disabilities. But they would all be taught by perfect teachers, go to schools with great facilities, and have the best opportunities possible.

Let's also require in this system that at the end of the year the state would test all of these students in the basic skills to see how much each had learned. What do you predict would be the scores produced by our students in this ideal school environment? Would all students make the same scores as their classmates at their grade level in all schools in the state? Would the scores for each school across the state; some serving wealthy communities, some middle class communities, and the majority serving high poverty communities be pretty much the same? Would all the schools produce high student scores?

Common sense tells us that even if all the teachers are perfect and all the schools have good facilities and good administrators, there will still be major differences in student performance across the state caused by the many other factors that affect the academic performance of students. We can also reasonably conclude that the students from the wealthiest communities would do the best in school and those from the poorest communities would do the worst. (The statistics on this are irrefutable)

So now suppose we assigned each school a performance score that was based on the average performance of all students attending that school. The schools with high student scores would get a high performance score and the schools with low student scores would get a low performance score. Now suppose we came up with a letter grading scale so that the schools with the highest performance scores would be assigned an “A” and the schools with the lowest performance scores will get an “F”. Then suppose we allowed a committee of citizens to set the lowest score for a “D” at a level where approximately 10% of the schools will fall below the D level and establish a scale so that all the other schools are distributed between D and A. Then we would publish the results for all schools and announce that we have identified the "failing schools" of our state and that we are very disappointed in those schools and also in the schools that have been rated “D” and “C”. In addition, we are concerned that many thousands of students are “trapped” in these failing schools and that parents need other options for their children other than being forced to attend “C” through “F” public schools. Those options, we would decree, must be private schools where the students have never been tested by the standardized tests we have given to the public schools students. Some of those schools teach Creationism instead of Science, and we really have no idea what their curriculum looks like. But the one thing we know is that many of their teachers are not certified and many are not teaching in their field. By this system we would have “created” a huge number of failing schools and we could propose to fire the ineffective teachers in those failing schools. But wait, how would that make sense if all the teachers in all the schools were perfect to begin with. Also, how would it make sense to allow some students to transfer to schools with questionable curricula and untrained teachers?

The above thought experiment demonstrates how our state could create failing schools even if all of the children had been given the greatest opportunity possible. That's because anytime you test students from different backgrounds you will get a huge range of scores. All the testing experts know that student scores vary greatly no matter what school they attend and that students from poor neighborhoods score worse than those from wealthy neighborhoods. Of course not all teachers are effective in the real schools of Louisiana, but the point is we have no way of knowing how much of the low performance of our students is caused by poor teaching.

Then there is the issue of grade level performance. Here is an important revelation. It is mainly statisticians that have created the concept of grade level performance using the natural distribution of achievement scores produced by a representative group of test takers from across the nation or across the state. The statisticians look at the distribution of all scores and slice off a section around the median of all scores and that becomes the grade level range. Any tester who scores above that arbitrary range is considered “above grade level” and all those scoring below that arbitrary range are considered to be performing “below grade level”. Here's the important point We will always have a significant number of students scoring below grade level because the statisticians have designed the system that way, and because students always perform at different levels no matter how effective the teachers are. Guess what! Even where you have mediocre teachers, some students will still perform above grade level! That's because the students, and their aptitude and motivation have a lot to do with achievement in school, maybe even more than the effectiveness of the teacher. Thomas Jefferson was considered one of the best educated persons of his time even though he had almost no formal education. He apparently had a tremendous thirst for knowledge.

I have written all of the above to point out that the so called “failing schools of Louisiana” were created by the Governor, Superintendent White and the News media. There is absolutely no basis for assuming that the teachers in a “D” or “F” school are not doing their job as well as is humanly possible, just like it is wrong to assume that the teachers in an “A” school are all great teachers. Yet this is what the public has been led to believe and why this system is so unfair to educators and students. I believe that if you switched the teachers of the top performing school in a parish with the teachers in the lowest performing school in a parish, you would still get basically the same student scores as before the switch!

One more thing: There is no evidence that transferring students from low performing schools to other schools makes any difference in the performance of those students. This was done in Chicago under Arne Duncan, and studies have shown that the transferred students have not done any better than before their transfer. Milwaukee has had a system of Voucher schools for years and the results for students in those schools is no better than for their cohorts in regular public schools. Finally, in the case where vouchers have been tried in Louisiana in the New Orleans area, the voucher students have produced lower average scores than those attending the Recovery District schools which have the second lowest scores in the state!

I believe that what Jindal has done in Louisiana by creating this misleading grading system for schools is designed to privatize our schools and to allow his friends in the business community and for those in the far right religious factions to profit from children no matter how damaging it may be to the future of these children. This system and the privatization of schools is a giant step backward, and will be damaging to students and will eventually cripple our public school system. We must do every thing we can to stop it!


Randy pope said...

The best explanation yet. Great job!

Charlotte said...

Excellent. I was at a Recall (Retire) Bobby Jindal Party last night in Alexandria. It was great to meet with the people who are trying so hard to stop the Jindal plan to destroy our schools, health care and other areas. Everyone who reads your blog should be sure to sign a petition ASAP. I have a copy for people to sign in Shreveport. email me at if you are near Shreveport. The website is

Kathy said...

Newspapers have to sell their papers. Lead t.v. and radio news usually has the worst of the day's events first. It gets the reader's and listener's attention. What could be better than to cry "LA schools fail" to get an agenda of the governor and outside sources moving to their satisfaction. Of course John White was brought in to help it along.

I was always thrilled when no student "failed" a test or an assignment I gave, but there was always a low score and always a high score. I sure can't ever remember everyone getting the same score.

Again, good job with the explanation.

Anonymous said...

Charlotte You mentioned signing a petition. I had heard that the Gov was going to do a FOIA request as soon as the petitions are filed to get a copy of the signatures so he can look for state employees. Is that true? Can he do that?

fannycleaver said...

One word: Bravo.

The New Orleans Imperative said...

An point and excellent analysis......our children have been sold to charter operators and soon to be an influx of new private schools. These operators and private schools are going to get free money (our tax dollars) with no accountability. They can operate failing schools and if the private schools accept less than 40 students they don't even have to report how the voucher students are performing.