Monday, August 8, 2016

Is Superintendent White's Praise of Louisiana Students Genuine?

State Superintendent John White loves to talk about how smart our Louisiana students are. For example, he begins his Power Point presentation at each of the public forums on the new ESSA law with the following assertion:
  "Louisiana’s students—all of them, no matter race, disability, or creed—are as smart and capable as any in America. They have gifts and talents no lesser than those given to any children on this earth."

White came to us only four years ago from New York state with a minimum of education credentials, and no training in tests and measurement, yet he often makes this announcement at public meetings when discussing school accountability. This statement seems like a nice complement to Louisiana students, but as far as I know there is absolutely no documentation whatsoever that supports this assertion. That is unless White has secretly conducted  IQ or aptitude testing of all or a representative sampling of Louisiana students.  

When I first heard the statement, I thought is was a nice gesture to the citizens of Louisiana. But now I am beginning to believe there is a more sinister motive to this "complement" about our students. 

Education reformers such as White love to claim that their reform efforts are data driven. They want us to believe that everything they do is based on what is factual and what works, and is supported by education research.  So what does the data tell us about Louisiana students?

The data tells us that Louisiana ranks second to the bottom in the country in student poverty, just ahead of Mississippi. We also know that student achievement is more closely statistically connected with student poverty than with any other factor. No one really knows what our student potential really is, but we do know that areas of high poverty also have more students with disabilities, more students whose school performance is adversely affected by poor health and poor nutrition, and more students who miss school habitually. High poverty school zones have much fewer books in the home, and on average children from these zones begin school with a vocabulary only about half the vocabulary of middle income students. Tests on such students for suspected disabilities yield a higher percentage of students with cognitive disabilities than that demonstrated by the general population. So why would White insist on repeating such an unsupported assumption about Louisiana students?

This is my theory: White is in his fourth year as State Superintendent. He came from another state (New York) possessing no real education credentials, but with a reputation as an education reformer under New York mayor Bloomberg. Governor Jindal insisted on hiring White because he was the guy Jindal thought could greatly improve Louisiana's standing in the area of education. 

When he got the appointment despite the criticism of his lack of credentials, White must have felt a need to at least ingratiate himself with the citizens of Louisiana by expressing confidence in the abilities of the students in his adopted state. But White's entire educational reform program for Louisiana students and the expectations of the big business community, who supported White's appointment, is based upon improving student test scores. In order to be seen as a successful reformer, he has to show significant progress in improving student test scores and improving Louisiana's ranking compared to other states.  If that does not happen, White could be seen as a failure. For White to survive, there would need to be a some other cause for this apparent failure. It would not be seen as politically correct to blame the students or the parents, so there must be a scapegoat . . .  or more accurately about 45,000 scapegoats. If Louisiana students are just as smart and capable as any in America, then it must be the teachers who are to blame if we fail to improve our ranking in education. This may be the real reason for White's praise of Louisiana students.

But after four years of White, and all the major reforms,  Louisiana ranks just slightly below where we were in comparison to other states just before hurricane Katrina. This blog has pointed out that in the comparison of student performance between the states, the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests (NAEP),  continues to place Louisiana somewhere among the bottom 5 states. The most recent NAEP tests did show a small improvement in the ranking of Louisiana for 4th grade students in English and math, but there was also a slight decline in the ranking of 8th grade students on the same measures. This Advocate article still ranks Louisiana near the bottom of the states in student performance and a ranking by the group wallet places Louisiana dead last among the states in education.

White did not come to Louisiana promising to help our students reach their greatest potential. He came here promising to make radical changes that would raise student test scores to a level competitive with other states. In order to accomplish this he helped Jindal remove teacher job protections and base evaluations and teacher pay on student test performance. Those reforms were supposed to bring about dramatic improvements in student test scores. Instead they have resulted in flatlining scores while driving away some of our strongest, most highly respected teachers who refused to work in a system where they were required to spend the majority of their time rehearsing students for tests.

Now we are giving state tests in math and English where the passing scores has been reduced to an average of 30% correct answers. Our LDOE and its testing company somehow converts that 30% raw score to a scale score of 725 out of a possible score of 850. The average parent, many teachers and most BESE members have no idea how many questions the students actually missed on the tests, 
but we are told they are making gains. Even so, Louisiana's ranking on NAEP stays near the bottom.

Teaching to a narrow range of tests in limited subjects is not real education. Our students really are capable and deserving of much more.

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