Saturday, April 11, 2020

America Needs More Science and Less Stupid Politics

Note to readers of this blog: Most of my readers know that I started my career in education as a science teacher at the high school level. I still consider myself primarily a science teacher. That’s why I feel compelled to examine our country’s reaction to the current Covid-19 pandemic from the point of view of the relevant science. In addition, I believe there are critical lessons to be learned as we fight though this dangerous challenge. These lessons should be anchored in a reliance on science instead of knee jerk reactions of some of our inept and unethical politicians.

Someone recently sent me a slick public relations video of the city of Wuhan China. This is the city of 11 million people where the Corona virus got its start. The video showed an aerial view of a fabulous city featuring beautiful architecture and amazing infrastructure including complex highway systems, attractive high-rises, and even beautiful public art works in the center of the city. 

I was skeptical of such an obvious propaganda video, so I went to the Internet and did a little research. I found that Wuhan does have some amazing architecture and much of the infrastructure represented on the PR video. I concluded that Wuhan was quite an impressive city, regardless of the problems that we know would carefully be excluded from a PR video. I am not including a link to the PR video here because I don’t want to be part of any propaganda effort by the Chinese government.

But none of this keeps me from concluding that any society or country that could build such a fabulous city must have more going for it than just one-sided-trade policies. (Some popular media sources have been blaming China for many of our country’s failings in dealing with Covid-19 by pointing to what they claim to be one-sided trade agreements. Speaking of propaganda, these sources very seldom feel the need to explain or document their claim of one-sided trade agreements).  

My reaction to all this finger pointing is that the Covid-19 pandemic is far too serious for our country to continue dwelling on Bogymen. We in America can’t continue to just blame the Chinese for some of the obvious shortcomings of our own government and our inability to deal with serious health dangers to our country. 

It is believed by epidemiologists that Covid-19 started as a crossover disease caused by a virus infecting bats that mutated to the point that it could thrive in other mammals, including humans. It probably started in Wuhan, China when probably just one human came into contact with infected mammals that were being sold as food. Unfortunately, it was highly communicable. This caused the first cases of Covid-19. From then on it spread like wildfire for the many reasons that we find it hard to stop the spread today. 

Of course many Americans are disgusted by the thought of strange food practices in some countries, along with the fact that the early cases of Covid-19 were kept secret as the Chinese struggled unsuccessfully to stamp out the epidemic. So some TV talking heads apparently now believe that punishing the Chinese government would be in order. That may be true, but it does not at all address the fact that such a pandemic could probably start almost anywhere in the world. Even with complete transparency by the country of origin, there is no guarantee that the world could be warned in time to stop the development of a pandemic. Trump’s so called Chinese travel ban certainly did not stop the spread of Covid-19 to America.  There are no nations that succeeded in stopping its spread to their populations.

Without going into the scientific details, it occurred to me that it would have been just as easy for a bunch of Cajuns in Louisiana to set off a similar pandemic of a crossover disease, such as mad cow disease, by their habit of eating squirrel brains. (Fortunately for my Cajun buddies and relatives that claim turned out to be groundless).  Or maybe some high status Midwesterner could contract a new flu virus from coming into contact with infected pork, like the American woman in the movie Contagion. (Louisiana’s own Steven Soderbergh made that extremely well researched movie.) Often our health authorities can’t know if meat is infected with a novel virus because there can be no test for it. A contagion or a pandemic could start for completely innocent reasons anywhere in the world. You can’t pass a law banning pandemics. 

It makes no sense therefore, to label a particular country or society as evil just because a deadly disease started on their shores. Nor is any big company in this country prepared to stop trading with or manufacturing products in China simply because their government leaders cheat and lie. (Think about that one for a minute.) Not only that; my God, we’d be shutting down Walmart and all the Dollar Stores!  

Crossover diseases have caused serious epidemics such as AIDS, the recent H1N1 flu, and even the Bubonic Plaque. The present conditions in the modern world, because of our dense populations and the explosion of business and tourism travel are now more dangerous than ever for the proliferation of numerous horrendous pandemics that could sweep across the entire earth in the coming decades. Some of our most brilliant biological scientists have been trying to sound the alarm about the need to prepare defenses against infectious disease pandemics for the last 20 years. Because of recent discoveries in the field of genetics, there are now effective ways of battling even novel infectious diseases if we have the will and intelligence as a nation set up defensive systems. But those warnings by our scientists have been almost totally ignored by several of our recent federal administrations. The last administration had at least created a branch of our public health system devoted to pandemic response, which was promptly dismantled by the Trump administration for no announced reason, just in time for this recent outbreak.

My point in bringing up this issue it that we Americans simply need to wake up and renew our efforts to advance science, rebuild our health infrastructure, and rely more on our most competent scientists and engineers to protect and renew our own country, instead of blaming everyone else for our lack of vision and planning. 
Dr Fauci can be depended on to give us the facts


What good will it do us if we succeed in proving that China didn’t tell us soon enough about the danger of the Corona virus? South Korea got their first Covid-19 case on the same day the U.S. did and got the same information on the genetics of the disease, and somehow they were able to produce enough tests and launch an initiative to greatly reduce the spread of the disease while we let it run out of control in our country. Was that the fault of the Chinese? 

We can deal effectively with this problem if we forget about these unproductive excuses and get to work. Did anyone make excuses for possible failure in 1960 when our nation chose to launch a project to land Americans on the moon in less than a decade? That moonshot resulted in technological advances for America over other countries that we still enjoy today, but that advantage is rapidly evaporating. We could still be producing great leaps forward in all the areas of science and commerce if we made science and technology a national priority. Let’s stop pointing fingers and feeling paralyzed by numerous outside enemies, and instead start taking care of our own business. I can’t help but feel that our dysfunctional government, where ignorant politicians claim to know more than the scientists, is the beginning of our downfall as a nation. 

In just a few short years we have dismantled some of the most effective departments of our Federal government because a few political hacks said that we needed to shrink down the size of our federal government down to where it could be drowned in a bathtub. (Look up lobbyist Grover Norquist) But remember that our successful moonshot happened because of a big government creation called NASA. Our entire economy benefited when we utilized all the amazing technologies developed by and for the moonshot and NASA. 

Now government deregulation, not trade policies, has allowed our big corporations to build vital products in China instead of in America. (Our big 3-M company makes their surgical facemasks in China). When congress passed the massive tax cut last year that benefited our big corporations most, there were no amendments made by Democrats or Republicans to require that our corporations bring vital manufacturing back to the US as a condition of those tax cuts. Lack of action by our dysfunctional federal government refused to put price controls on drugs (like most other countries do) that could have saved thousands of lives over the years. All because we were told that our big companies and free enterprise would solve all of our problems more efficiently if  “big government” would step out of the way. So now we have every state competing for vital testing kits, medical equipment and supplies that our free enterprise system allowed our companies to make in China. This happened as a result of deregulation, and control of our government by greedy American tycoons. Not because of bad trade policy. 

Our own major corporations did this to us because we trusted them instead of our government to take care of us. There has to be a balance of power with government protecting the general welfare of its people against the false promise by the rich to give us trickle down prosperity. Our big corporations are screwing us, not because our federal government is too big and is regulating too much. The big corporations are screwing us because their lobbyists have bought out our incompetent and unethical politicians of both parties to make their executives obscenely rich at the expense of the middle class workers of our country. Don’t blame our unions who now represent only a tiny percentage of workers. Their influence on government has been reduced to no more than a minor nuisance compared to big business. Big business PACs whose donors are secret, spend a hundred times more than unions in buying politicians.

The advantage of a Federal government, run correctly, is that it can mobilize all the enormous resources of the nation to address a problem like a pandemic (or a moon shot) that does not recognize state borders. The Chinese government did not depend on the governor of Wuhan province to suppress their epidemic. They understood that it could soon spread to the entire population of 1.4 billion people if the central government did not take control. Covid-19 doesn’t care about political parties or how it will affect the next election. It just multiplies as fast as we will let it because of our refusal to follow the advice of our health scientists. We suffer in direct proportion to the incompetence of the politicians who insist on making political decisions on medical strategy instead of letting our health scientists run the show. 

We will not gain one life saved now by blaming China for this. We just need to get our act together just like we did when our government helped us recover from the great depression, and when we “nationally” mobilized our industries to build thousands of B-17s to defeat Germany in World War II. Surely we can mobilize our industries to build sufficient ventilators and millions of 60-cent facemasks to protect our doctors and nurses and even average people who want to buy groceries during this lockdown. 

I have a personal problem with this pandemic and the fact that our country cannot make enough ventilators for very sick Covid-19 patients.  I am 75 years old and if I get a bad case of Covid-19 I may have to be denied a ventilator so that a younger person could have access to that last ventilator available at my local hospital.  I wouldn’t be dying for any worthwhile cause.  I’d be dying because of our incompetent and unethical politicians! Surely we can mobilize our industries to build sufficient ventilators and millions of 60-cent facemasks to protect our doctors and nurses and even average people who want to buy groceries during this lockdown. Surely our government could order enough antibody tests to find out who is now immune to Covid-19 and therefore could go back to work without fear. Listen to our health care scientists: We need testing, testing, testing! This can only happen at the direction of a competent federal government. No private companies will organize such an effort and the states could not coordinate it. It has to be done by “big government”. You know, the government that Grover Norquist wanted to drown in a bathtub. 

Our misfortune in being number 1 in the world in Covid-19 cases is not because of all the other countries conspiring against us, or bad trade deals, even though I’m sure that our trade deals could be improved in the way I have suggested here. Maybe our failure to meet this challenge is because we have an incompetent government totally controlled by big business leaders who don’t realize that they are hurting themselves as well as our general population with this stranglehold they have on our government.   Maybe we should get to work fixing our real problems by throwing out all the unethical and corrupt politicians financed by the Koch brothers and other big business PACs, and instead insist on competence and ethical behavior at all levels of our government. Wuhan, China did not get where it is by doing away with big government. I am certainly not endorsing the dictatorial government of China. Democracy, done right, by and for the people is much better. But that’s not what we have in America today.  

Mike Deshotels, retired science teacher 

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.