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.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Louisiana's K-12 curriculum is not preparing students for college or for life!

Part I of a two part examination of our failing graduation standards

The Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education announced recently that only 18% of our students are succeeding in college.
At the joint meeting of BESE and the Board of Regents in December 2019, the Commissioner of Higher Education, Kim Hunter Reed, reported on studies that reveal that:
 of 100 ninth-graders, only 45 enter college and 18 will earn a two- or four-year degree.
This is a tacit admission that the big push for college prep by BESE and the Department of Education for the last 20 years has been a dismal failure. But the Advocate report of the joint meeting quotes the education leaders promising to double down on college prep for all by offering more dual enrollment courses. The only positive result of this version of college for all is that now, vo-tech courses will be added to the menu.

During the school years spanning from 2000 to 2015, our state education officials had abandoned almost all support for career and vocational education in our K-12 schools. BESE had shifted to pushing virtually all students to take a college prep curriculum without regard to student aptitude or preferences. At the urging of education reformers, BESE had adopted the Core 4 curriculum for high school graduation which was designed to prepare all students for college. The education reformers and business leaders breathed a sigh of relief that soon almost all students in Louisiana would be prepared for college. The assumption was that even students who chose to seek technical careers that did not require college would benefit from this superior, more rigorous education. But those of us who study the dismal performance of many of our graduates in the classrooms and on state tests know that most students have not benefited from the new standards which are really far from rigorous. This blog has revealed that students can pass some of the supposedly rigorous college prep courses by knowing as little as 10 to 20 percent of the tested material. If the college prep courses of today had the same rigor as 30 to 40 years ago, more than half of our students would not graduate. Here is a link to a blog post I wrote in January of 2010 titled The Wrong Future,  predicting that the Core 4 curriculum would produce the opposite of what was intended. My only mistake was that I thought that the Core 4 courses would maintain a reasonable level of difficulty.

As a result of the heavy emphasis on enrolling almost all students in the Core 4 curriculum, the Vo-Tech departments of most high schools were decimated and hundreds of highly experienced vo-tech teachers were laid off. By focusing on college prep for all the education reformers had just about strangled vo-tech out of existence.

But starting about 2015, Superintendent John White and his staff realized that a large number of students were falling though the cracks created by Core 4. Someone pointed out to Superintendent White that there was a provision in state law called the Career Diploma that was designed to provide a good alternative to students that could not, or would not attend college. The only problem is that the Career Diploma had been denounced by reformers as a watering down of standards. White realized that if he somehow renamed or rebranded the program as part of his school reform campaign, maybe by calling it something new like "Jump Start program", it may become acceptable to his puppet masters at LABI and across the reform community.

 So the Career diploma was rebranded as the Jump Start initiative. The career diploma law had been passed by the legislature at the request of many local superintendents in the 2009 legislative session. Unfortunately the career diploma had been sabotaged by the previous State Superintendent, Paul Pastorek, who wanted to promote only college prep . But even White's recent efforts have fallen far short of what was contemplated by the authors of the career diploma law. The Jump Start courses are designed only for high school juniors and seniors, severely restricting vo-tech courses in earlier grades. Under John White, the career diploma is intentionally regarded as a second class diploma, which does not bring schools the recognition or credit they get from offering college prep courses such as AP. White's administration has refused to provide the  career exploration activities for middle school students that have been in state law since before 1998. As teachers spent more and more time in the school year drilling students for the college prep Common Core based state tests, there was no time in middle school to implement any vo-tech exploration courses.

In addition to the short changing and stigmatizing of vo-tech training,  instruction in the arts, physical education, health, social studies, and civics, have all been neglected so that students could be drilled incessantly in preparation for state tests that were expected to insure success in college. The most useful education to most students for future careers was all but abandoned and sacrificed in the push to prepare all students for college. Unfortunately this sacrifice was in vain, as is demonstrated by Louisiana being ranked second to last among the states in ACT performance and by having only 18 percent of students succeeding in college.

Note: Soon after I posted this blog, one of my readers texted me asking for an explanation of the poor college performance of our students after a much larger number started taking the college prep curriculum. Here is my best guess:

Soon after the adoption of the Core 4 curriculum for high school, several other changes were made. (1) The state started awarding high schools credit on the school grading system for a better graduation rate. Pressure increased on principals and teachers to pass almost all students even in the so called college prep courses. (2) The state stopped requiring that students pass their 8th grade LEAP tests in order to enter high school and BESE stopped requiring most remediation for students who failed. (3) Louisiana shifted to the Common Core standards (4) The cut scores for passing the high school end-of-course tests were lowered to extremely low levels. All of these factors resulted in more students graduating high school (some of them as functional illiterates). That's why so many students can't handle college. Its all about the law of unintended consequences. Unfortunately, our education leaders don't have a clue about the real results of their "reforms". Even with the new changes proposed by BESE and the Board of Regents to add more dual enrollment, we can expect further declines in college success because the full effects of the decrease in standards have yet to be observed.

Vocational and technical education is a most vital need that has been neglected nationwide
This excellent article in Forbes magazine makes the case for bringing back modern vocational training to our K-12  curriculum. I strongly recommend that all persons interested in improving our school curriculum read the entire article.

The Forbes article points out the following "Yet despite the growing evidence that four-year college programs serve fewer and fewer of our students, states continue to cut vocational programs." 

I would add that pressuring virtually all of our students to take a college prep curriculum in K-12 education, leaves literally no time for teaching modern vocational skills or even vital life skills including proper nutrition,  physical education, and money management. Medical researchers know that many of our graduates will live a life shortened drastically by the onset of diabetes and heart disease directly caused by a cheap fast food diet. Louisiana has one of the highest obesity rates in the nation (35%) but our schools have no time to educate children about healthy diets, nor is anyone teaching them how to cook! (remember home economics?)  These critical needs of our students are being neglected so that our education reformers can continue to chase the illusive "college for all" dream. 

Watch for Part II of this post titled:
Some of our graduates don't even know how to tighten a nut!

Thursday, January 9, 2020

The Legacy of Superintendent John White

John White has submitted his letter of resignation from the position of Louisiana State Superintendent of education.

In his resignation letter White claims the following:
"Louisiana is better educated today than any point in its history," 

BESE Vice-President Holly Boffy, said the state made "great strides" during White's time.

This post examines the key measures that John White himself set as standards for determining success and therefore the legacy of his superintendency.

John White was appointed State Superintendent of Education for Louisiana in January 2012 for the purpose of raising achievement standards, closing the achievement gap between rich and poor students and to insure that our high school diplomas indicated real achievement and eliminated diploma mills. White was appointed at a time when Louisiana’s education performance was considered to be embarrassingly low compared to all the other states. It was expected that White would get Louisiana off the bottom of the state rankings and also take steps to close the gap between high poverty students and more privileged students. In addition, White and his TFA staff members at the LDOE set a goal of preparing all high school graduates for college or 2 year Associate degrees.

White has claimed repeatedly that Louisiana’s students were just as smart as kids in other states and  that there was no excuse for our low ranking among the states. White had never been trained as a real teacher but instead was one of those "no excuses" TFA trained reformers.

White embraced the theory that teachers were to blame for low student performance
White immediately teamed up with the big business lobbying group, The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, with the goal of totally reforming our K-12 educational system. LABI had just succeeded in electing almost all of the BESE members just as White came on, and Governor Jindal was passing legislation that blamed the teaching profession for all imagined failings of education. White eagerly implemented those reforms including placing 10% of teachers on a path to dismissal each year based on student performance on state tests. White also implemented a new, untested teacher evaluation system that was so poorly designed that principals did not have enough hours in the school year to evaluate teachers, even if they neglected all their other duties. That evaluation system had been written by an LDOE staff member who had never taught a day in her life.

The White teacher evaluation system began imploding after only one year, with some of the most highly respected teachers getting failing evaluations. The combination of the draconian evaluation system along with the shift to requiring teachers to spend most of their teaching day rehearsing students for state tests drove thousands of the best teachers to quit or retire early. The original legislative author of the requirement that teacher evaluations be based on student test scores wanted to repeal his own legislation, but White and LABI would have none of it.  They succeeded in retaining a large part of the defective evaluation including the link to student test scores. But then, because of a growing teacher shortage, White had to push BESE to allow the permanent employment of alternatively certified persons as teachers. White thought that was OK because new teachers needed only to be trained to teach to the state tests. Teaching and learning was steadily converted to a boring process, with little teacher creativity allowed.

The new Common Core standards have proved to be a failure
White promised that he would raise education standards in Louisiana and insure that our students would achieve those higher standards. He often expressed the ideology that Louisiana students would respond favorably to higher academic expectations.  The new Common Core standards had just been approved when White began his term. White embraced the new standards even though parents revolted against Common Core and Jindal changed his position to opposition of the standards. LABI and White fiercely defended the untested standards. The legislature ordered a revision of the education standards, but White rigged the revision process to allow only minor revisions of the Common Core standards. The new standards have been in effect for seven years, and student performance is now so poor now that White has had to secretly lower the passing scores on state tests to an average of 30% correct answers for a rating of "basic". White's stated goal of "mastery" requires only about 45% correct answers, but the majority of students have failed to get to that level. Over 20% of Louisiana students regularly fail both math and ELA state tests but are promoted to the next grade anyway. The new standards have resulted in a widening of the achievement gap between white and black students and between rich and poor students.

White is now completing his 8th year as the top education leader in Louisiana. He is the longest serving state superintendent in the nation. He has had more time than any other education reformer to improve student performance. So using the criteria described by White himself, what exactly is the measure of success of the John White era?

Louisiana is now at its lowest ranking ever on standardized tests
Louisiana is now 49th out of the 50 states in average ACT scores, 47th out of 50 states in NAEP scores, and the gap between rich and poor students in Louisiana is now the widest ever in recent history. The takeover charters that White authorized are still some of the lowest performing schools in the state. The standards for student promotion from one grade to the next have been dropped altogether by BESE at the urging of White. The cut scores for end-of-course graduation tests have been set so low that an average third grader could pass some of the high school tests  just using random guessing. These lowered standards easily account for White's highly touted improved graduation rate.

The Louisiana Recovery District is still on life support
Early in his term, White eagerly took over low performing schools and turned them over to charter groups for the purpose of raising their performance. The  local and national news media have been fed propaganda about how the Louisiana Recovery District, which White originally oversaw in New Orleans deserves to be seen as a model for the country to imitate. But despite the huge infusion of extra state and federal funding and lavish support for Teach for America, and the multimillion dollar grants by charitable foundations, the Orleans school system is now performing at the bottom 20 percentile compared to all public school systems in the state. That is extremely low level performance in a state that ranks very close to last in the entire country! The RSD schools outside of New Orleans are doing even worse. Toward the end of his tenure White has avoided school takeovers by the state.  Now his charter managers are going after high performing students, leaving the low performers to be educated by the real public schools. Not a great model for other states to imitate.

Some shocking statistics have been carefully hidden until now
A critical study by the LA Board of Regents was revealed at a recent joint meeting of BESE and Regents. Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed reported the shocking statistic that out of every 100 students entering 9th grade today, only 18% will actually achieve either a 2 or 4 year college degree. This reveals that one of the highest priorities of White's administration has been a disaster. The propaganda coming out of the LDOE about college preparation of our students focuses on FAFSA applications completed and on how many of our students are accepted for college. High school ratings depend in part on guidance counselors getting students to fill out applications for college. There are some so called "colleges" that would accept a ham sandwich if the application is filled out correctly. So sure enough, a higher percentage of graduates are now being accepted by college admissions. But that does not mean that students actually attend college or that those who start college actually get a degree.  The LDOE, up until now, had not reported this vital statistic about White's effectiveness in preparing students for college.
Another sad example of the hyped up phony success of charter schools is this article in The Nation where the reporter actually followed up on the college experiences of graduates from the highly touted Sci Academy charter school in New Orleans. A tiny percentage actually succeeded in college.

The teaching profession in Louisiana has been severely damaged
In his first few months as Superintendent, White testified before the legislature that a teacher's experience did not matter, that seniority should not be considered, and that teacher tenure should be made almost impossible to achieve. White and LABI decreed that Louisiana would transition to a merit system for teachers where the best teachers could command higher salaries. This new system would revolutionize teaching to transform it to a much more desirable profession.

White's reforms of the teaching profession have been a disaster. The dream of high salaries for excellent teachers never materialized. Teacher salaries in Louisiana had stagnated severely until Governor Edwards passed a $1,000 across the board raise effective this school year.  Today almost no practicing teachers are encouraging their own children and nieces and nephews to go into the teaching profession. Teachers today are sick of doing almost nothing but rehearsing kids for state tests. One major legacy White has produced is fewer qualified, experienced teachers, lower teacher morale, and a growing teacher shortage in Louisiana. Not exactly a model for other states to imitate!

Reformist propaganda does not educate children. The true John White legacy is that he has let down our students and failed on all the measures he, himself, had established for success.