Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Fight Back Against Phony Destructive Reforms

A couple of months ago I requested that educators, particularly those that had signed up for our “Defenders of Public Education” data base make it a point to meet with the legislators in their home districts to point out why Governor Jindal's reform legislation which was so hastily rammed through the legislature was already revealing its obvious flaws. Our concern was that many of the legislators who voted for this package may not have been fully aware (although they should have) about how subversive and damaging this legislation was at the time they voted for it. Many educators had warned that some of the new vouchers may go to schools run by persons who had selfish motives and would subject our students an inferior level of education compared to what they would have received in the public schools. At the same time this system results in crippling raids on MFP funding that is vital to our public schools. Since then we have seen the approval of a voucher school run by a guy who calls himself the “prophet”, other schools that do not have the bare minimum of classrooms and instructional materials and many who will teach various forms of creationism instead of Science. Some of our “Defenders” sent me emails describing the meetings with their legislators and giving me vital feedback which I intend to share with lobbyists for the Coalition for Public Education so they can be better prepared for the next legislative session.

Probably the most revealing insight on legislators' thinking when they voted for this garbage reform package came from one legislator who said he voted for the legislation because at least it was an attempt to do something about our failing education system. He claims he voted for the Governor's proposals because the teacher unions and the school boards had not offered any significant alternatives for reform. I would like to discuss with you why I think this reasoning is not only a weak cop-out for voting for the ALEC inspired destruction of education package, but mainly because it is totally wrong in its assumptions and remedies.

Point # 1: Those who claim that public education in Louisiana is broken or failing are dead wrong. Last year I linked two spreadsheets with data from the Louisiana Department of Education to produce a comparison of our almost 1300 Louisiana public schools that were assigned letter grades with the level of poverty of the students attending each school. You can access the resulting spreadsheet by clicking on this link. You will find as I did that schools with low poverty (10% to 20% of students on free or reduced lunch) all received an “A” rating from the state, except for one charter school. The next group (20% to 30% free or reduced lunch) had a grade point average of 3.5 on a 4 point scale. As you look at schools in higher poverty communities, the grade average goes down steadily until we get to schools with 90% or more free and reduced lunch who got a grade point average of .9 Poverty was such a powerful factor that 5 times as many schools in the 90-100% free or reduced lunch category got F as did the schools in the 80-90% free or reduced lunch category. From this analysis I determined that our education system is far from broken when it deals with kids who do not come from a high poverty background. They are all rated as A or B. Our only real problem is in properly educating the students who come from a very high poverty community. Yet the Governor and his big business supporters have condemned the entire public education system. But when the state allowed some high poverty students in New Orleans to attend private (voucher) schools they performed on average lower than the New Orleans Recovery District which was the second lowest performing school system in the state. So allowing high poverty kids to get vouchers was certainly not the answer to producing better achievement. The point is nobody has come up with a school reform solution that magically boosts the achievement of all high poverty students.

Point # 2: Our new State Superintendent and other reformers have concluded that the reason some of our students perform poorly must be because we have a large number of ineffective or incompetent or just plain lazy teachers. All we have to do according to the reformers is to fire and replace the bottom performing teachers and we will soon have all of our students doing just great! Again their assumptions and conclusions are completely wrong. There was an easy way the reformers could have checked out the theory that poor student performance was directly related to poor teaching. They could have taken the teachers in one of our highest rated schools (an A school) and switched them with the teachers in one of our lowest rated schools (an F school) and monitored the results for a couple or three years to see how performance would change. I believe there would be very little change in the performance of students at the two test schools because the controlling factor was not poor teaching or excellent teaching but instead was the socioeconomic level of the children. Good teaching always makes a positive difference but it is not enough to overcome the negative influence of poverty. To add insult to injury for teachers, the new evaluation system in the Governor's plan is set up to find at least 10% of Louisiana teachers to be ineffective based on value added formulas. I must point out that this 10% is not a scientific finding. It is a preset requirement before a single teacher is evaluated. Analysis of the data coming from a similar system in New York (see Gary Rubinstein's blog) found that the ineffective rating is so extremely volatile from year to year as to be useless. Also in the Louisiana plan it is not true that the value added score only counts for 50% of a teacher's evaluation as was promised in the legislation. In our system the state has put a provision in the plan that if a teacher falls in the bottom 10% of value added, that score totally overrules the principal's evaluation and the teacher must be rated ineffective.

Point # 3: Louisiana school boards and local administrators and teachers were already making significant improvements in student performance in our lowest performing schools before these “reforms” were enacted. In fact since the Legislature created the so called Recovery District, a much larger percentage of low performing schools managed by local school boards have moved up to better ratings than have those managed by the Recovery District. In fact all of the schools that were taken over by the Recovery District outside of New Orleans are now performing more poorly than before they were taken over! And the ones taken over in New Orleans are still the second lowest performers in the state. The reformers at the State Department have failed miserably compared to the efforts of local school systems. So why is the State Department of Education still in charge of the current reforms? In answer to my questions in my previous post, the State Department has proposed basically no accountability for the new choice courses. We have already seen what a fiasco they have made of the voucher school approval process.

Point #4: I have found that in some local school systems the State Department micromanagement of local disciplinary policies has become a major obstacle to improving the school environment. In East Baton Rouge, the State Department has appointed a special master that can overrule local administrators in the application of discipline. The special master often ignores or overrules teacher disciplinary rights specified in state law. One principal told me recently that often the school is not allowed to discipline students who routinely start fights and who threaten the safety of other students. This is one of the main reasons some parents are afraid to enroll their students in some public schools. On the other hand, charter schools in some parts of the state are allowed to routinely remove or counsel out students who are guilty of relatively minor discipline infractions especially if they are expected to be low performers on the state tests.

This is what I have to say to that legislator who felt he had to vote for something. First of all you should not have voted for laws that you did not have evidence would make any improvement. Second, you had no business blaming teachers for the effects of poverty on student performance. Our students who come to public school ready to learn are learning and teachers are already working as hard as possible to help bring up those who come to us with disadvantages. Finally, why don't you act to get the State Department to stop interfering with sound educational practices in locally run schools?

I would recommend that the legislature put a moratorium on adding any new voucher schools until we have time to assess the effectiveness of the ones already operating. The LEAP scores for every student participating in the voucher program this year should be aggregated and a letter grade assigned to the whole program using the same factors now being used to grade public schools. If the average is below the average for public schools there should be no new vouchers approved.

Also, the only choice courses that should be allowed are special vocational and career courses that are not now available because of lack of facilities or certified trainers in the public schools. Minimum hours of attendance for all choice courses should be required and the program regularly evaluated by evaluators outside the State Dept. of Education.

Finally, the first two years of the new value added teacher evaluation system should not count against any teacher. Outside experts should be asked to evaluate the consistency and validity of the new teacher evaluation system and after the second year of results, a complete review of the program should be made based on this independent evaluation.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like the same decision making process was used to get the legislator elected. He was better then nothing!
So many senior and highly experienced teachers are planning to retire as soon as possible. we stand to lose no ineffective teachers because they will be the only ones left to teach! If White and Jindal are waiting to see how November's election turns out before they do something, it is already too late. Professional intelligent and highly educated teachers understand what is happening and no teacher is going to risk losing their job and retirement! WE KNOW that 10% will be fired and WE KNOW that the evaluation system is so flawed it is only legal till the first lawsuit. The teachers have worked 20+ years and would have continued further but NONE of them is going to risk being evaluated as ineffective, and losing it all. Lets ties White's and Jindal's future pay and retirement to our collective LEAP scores. Lets see if they are willing to take the same risk under their laws as they are asking teachers to do.
In the military we were taught never to ask our troops to do something we were not willing to do.

It is time for them to put up or shut up!


Anonymous said...

The legislator who responded the way he/she did was probably also one who refused or was just so preoccupied to agree to sit down with educators and ask questions and get answers. The response was absurd. The legislator didn't want to do the homework. There were way too many components in the ed reform bills that resulted in Act1 and Act2. When you take something in one big bite, it's hard to swallow. Results... a terrible stomachache and a severe headache.

Thanks for the review of the flaws of the education legislation that is causing one huge headache!

Anonymous said...

Run, run, just as fast as you can; here comes another education plan! Teachers will reach the destination when government mandates quit altering the route.