Tuesday, August 9, 2022

 Defeating the Purpose of Education

Updated: May 2024
Most people would agree that the primary purpose of education is to prepare children for a good and productive life. Having been involved in education for over 50 years I would describe the proper education of children as preparing them to earn a good living doing work that pays well and is fulfilling, learning to live in harmony with others and in compliance with society's laws, to understand and enjoy science, the beauty of nature, enjoy and produce art, literature, and to generally find happiness in life. The U.S. Declaration of Independence emphasizes "the pursuit of happiness".

In the past few months I have reviewed the results of education reform in Louisiana to see if it was accomplishing these important goals for our precious children. I have come to the conclusion that almost everything teachers are required by their bosses (the legislature, BESE and the DOE) to do in Louisiana education is defeating the purpose of education. 

One of the highest priorities of education should be to prepare students for the world of work. There are common skills we need to instill in students for any career whether it be academic or physical labor. Our students need to learn a set of values and habits that can be referred to  good work ethics. That means that you show up for work on time every day, that you do your job right, and are generally dependable. We should be teaching that attending and doing well in school is the same as a job. Students need to be taught  good work ethics in their school performance. We are now teaching the exact opposite in our schools today. Students don't have to show up consistently at school, they can skip a lot of school (see this article on truancy), they can be disrespectful to their teachers, disrupt classroom activities without real consequences, they can refuse to do homework or prepare for tests and they can fail all their tests and they are still promoted to the next grade and are seldom disciplined. (see my study on state test results and automatic promotion) also this more recent study on accountability. Just look at the statistics: 40% of students are classified as truant every year, they  seldom make up the days they missed without an excuse, 35% fail two or more of their LEAP tests and they still get promoted to the next grade. School authorities regularly violate state law on compulsory attendance and testing and promotion laws with the tacit approval of the Department of Education. The school's performance score would go down if they enforced these laws. Our schools are teaching almost zero responsibility and a terrible work ethic. This defeats the purpose of education.

Don't expect BESE to approve real accountability for students and parents. Don't expect BESE to insist on schools enforcing the mandatory attendance law, and don't expect BESE to enforce the laws requiring denial of promotion to students who repeatedly miss more than 10 days of school and fail all their state tests.

BESE instead will continue making teachers and administrators the scapegoats for the lack of courage in enforcing mandatory standards that are clearly described in state law. 

I just don't want to hear any more education officials or politicians talk about "raising the bar".

Sunday, August 7, 2022

 The Inconvenient Truths About Education Reform

During the last 16 years, the agencies in charge of public education in Louisiana, namely the Louisiana Legislature and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) have tried out almost every major education reform attempted by any state. It would be correct to conclude that Louisiana is now the most educationally reformed state in the nation.

 Most of the education reform efforts have been either initiated or promoted by the Louisiana Association Business and Industry (LABI) using lobbying and political action. Over the last 10 years, LABI has helped finance and elect almost all BESE members that hold elected positions. It would be fair to say that for the last 16 years LABI has pretty much controlled education reform in Louisiana. This post is a report card on LABI's education reform record.

The following are the education reform initiatives promoted and controlled by LABI over the last 16 years: 

1.   Many public schools with student state test scores below the state average have been taken over by the State Recovery District and converted to charter schools that are privately managed. Such schools are exempted from many school regulations in exchange for producing better student performance, mostly on state tests.

2.   The state legislature has also allowed children attending failing schools (as determined by average state test scores) to transfer to private or religious schools with state funding following the students. This voucher system has been in effect for over ten years now and is heavily promoted by the big business lobby.

3.   BESE has required that all public schools since 2012 teach students according to the new Common Core Standards, particularly in math and English courses. The Common Core standards  are considered college prep standards.

4.   Since 2012, the Legislature and BESE have required that teachers be evaluated with half of their evaluation based on the progress or educational gains of their students. Teachers can be fired and lose certification based on these evaluations. 

5.   Schools and parish school systems are rated and compared with each other by an accountability system based primarily on state test results and preparation of students for college.


One would assume therefore that because of the reforms pushed by the big business lobbyists, public schools would now be providing school children with the most cutting-edge educational training in the country. Inconveniently however, data shows that the exact opposite has happened. Here are the major results of education reform in Louisiana:


#1. New Orleans public schools, before schools were taken over and converted to charter schools on average were performing in the bottom one-fifth compared to all other public schools in the state. Now these schools, which have recently been returned to the New Orleans school board, are performing in the bottom one-fifth compared to all other public schools. There is no perceptible change in the performance of their students, and very few students from RSD takeover schools are prepared for college. Those that have attempted college have mostly dropped out in less than a year, many burdened with debt for money borrowed to attend college. 


Other schools in the state Recovery School District included students from public schools in EBR, St. Helena, Pointe Coupee, and Caddo. The state has since given back the schools in St. Helena, and Pointe Coupee after disastrous results with some schools approaching collapse. Most of the schools taken over in Caddo and East Baton Rouge still in the Recovery District continue to be failing schools by all major measures.

 #2. For the students attending various religious and private schools by use of “opportunity scholarships”,  studies conducted by the University of Arkansas and Tulane show mostly a decline in performance of Louisiana voucher students compared to similar students that did not transfer from public to private schools. The latest average test scores of these students as reported by the Department of Education are far below the state average. The 8th grade math test scores released last week reveal that less than 12% of voucher students scored proficient in math. Even so, LABI and its allies are demanding more "school choice". 

 #3. The new testing of students based upon the Common Core standards had two primary goals: (a) To close the achievement gap between underprivileged (low-income students) and students from homes with higher income (b) Greatly boost the preparation of all students for college attendance. Graduates were expected to produce higher ACT scores, and many more students were expected to attain college diplomas. All of these efforts have been dismal failures. ACT scores have declined steadily and the gap between privileged and underprivileged students has grown wider. 

The Board of Regents recently predicted that for every 100 students entering high school today, only 18% will gain a college degree of any kind. That would be the lower college performance than before the reforms.


The average scores of students taking the new state tests are extremely low. The real achievement on the new state tests is so low that the State routinely keeps the real achievement secret by only publishing the so called “scale scores”. Citizens can only see the real raw scores by filing public records requests. The raw scores for passing are set so low that some students pass some of the high school tests by random guessing. Students are routinely promoted from one grade to another even if they fail to score satisfactory on any of their state tests. Many students graduate as functional illiterates because the state has removed almost all real standards for a diploma. This link is to a study I conducted using the actual data behind the deceptive scores and promotions of students today. 


#4. The reforms have mandated that teachers be evaluated partially based on the test results of their students. In the original evaluation plan designed by the LABI endorsed State Superintendent John White, the bottom 10% of teachers evaluated by their student’s test results were destined for eventual dismissal and decertification if they did not improve their student test scores sufficiently. The problem with this new system of evaluating teachers, was that there were serious defects in the scoring system that gave incorrect evaluations particularly to teachers of both high performing and low performing students. Teachers of some high performing magnet school students were getting ridiculously low evaluations. By the time flaws became evident, the university professor who had devised the test-based scheme had left the state leaving the system unfixable. This entire fiasco that played out over several years seriously damaged teacher morale and resulted in many highly respected teachers leaving or retiring early. 

In addition to disrespect of teachers by big business lobbyists, recent emphasis on reducing student suspensions by the State Department of Education has resulted in many teachers having their hands tied in enforcing classroom discipline in violation of the state law called the Teacher Bill of Rights. Many teachers are experiencing extreme disrespect and even threats by students who experience almost no consequences for serious disciplinary infractions. Teachers are simply advised to "de-escalate" when students blatantly defy their teachers.  

In recent years many teachers started retiring early and discouraged their children and relatives from seeking education degrees. Now Louisiana is experiencing a serious teacher shortage causing a major lowering of the standards for entry into teaching in Louisiana. Almost any college graduate can now get a teaching certificate with no training in teaching.

 #5. The entire scheme of rating and ranking schools by student performance has basically produced exactly the opposite result from what was promised. Now instead of preparing more students for college, the school scoring system encourages promotion and graduation of students without regard to real achievement.  In recent years, it became evident that the system was neglecting to prepare the great majority of students who would not or could not attend college. The new State Superintendent, Cade Brumley, has recently made major efforts to beef up vocational/technical training, however, many students who would benefit more from vocational or skills training stayed in the college prep track while still performing below standard. When efforts were made to add courses in pre-nursing, business management, training in carpentry, electrician, plumbing, air conditioning and refrigeration, etc. it was found that relatively few students were willing to sign up for such careers. Local superintendents are finding that, in addition to Louisiana having placed a stigma on vocational training, the watering down of standards in the college prep courses meant that most students were not worried about failing such courses. But the vocational courses require real work and meeting proficiency standards. Now it’s hard to fill up classes in some excellent vocational courses. Many kids would rather get an automatic diploma by staying in the college prep track. Many underprivileged students that graduate now are scoring too low on the ACT to qualify for TOPS scholarships. It they do attend college after graduation, they often take out loans that become a burden when most of them drop out of college. 


Now after 16 years of reform, fewer students are truly qualified for college, few are preparing for careers, and Louisiana students are performing academically worse than before the reforms. These are the inconvenient truths about education reform.



Thursday, June 16, 2022

 Converting Public Schools into Charters

Is the privatized “business” approach producing better results?

School reform supporters for years have promoted the conversion of public schools into charter schools as a way of improving efficiency and installing more businesslike management of public schools. Legislatures in most states have been pressured to authorize more and more charter schools as the way of producing better academic results for children. Sixteen years ago there seemed to be no better place to experiment with charter schools as the ultimate school reform model than the New Orleans public school system.  That school system was thought to be failing in providing students with the kind of education they needed to prepare for college and careers. 


In 2005, as hurricane Katrina physically destroyed much of the Orleans public school system, the Louisiana legislature passed a law allowing the State Department of Education to take over approximately three-fourths of New Orleans public schools. According to the new state law, school takeover (only in New Orleans) became automatic for any school producing less than the state average score on state tests. Any such school was arbitrarily declared to be a failing school in need of takeover. The Department of Education was authorized to turn such schools over to charter school management organizations in an agreement that removed many state requirements and standards in exchange for greatly improved academic results. Over the term of the charter, if the schools improved average test performance significantly, the managers could continue running the school. But if they failed to produce academic results, their charters would be revoked.


The majority of charter management organizations came into the Orleans system starting with the 2006-07 school year. State officials had fired almost 7,000 experienced teachers and staff as a way of cleaning house and allowing the new managers a fresh start, unhampered by previous teacher contracts. Most charter groups began by hiring new, mostly younger teachers with no education credentials. Most new teachers were provided by Teach for America. Also, many of the charter school managers had no education credentials. The New Orleans business community and the state authorities believed that a strictly business approach focused primarily on academic results was the medicine that the New Orleans public schools needed. Now, over the last 16 years almost all public schools in New Orleans have been converted into charter schools. It is now basically the only all-charter school system in the United States.


This recently released report by the Louisiana Pelican Policy Institute, a business funded “good government” group has produced a dashboard that compares the most recent data on all public-school systems in Louisiana. It provides a way for us to compare expenditures and results in public schools.  We can now get a good idea about whether the school reforms in New Orleans have lived up to their promises.


It is important to note that not all public schools in New Orleans at the time of takeover had been deemed to be failures. Even though the Orleans public school system, as a whole, fell into the bottom quartile of public school systems in the state based on academic achievement, there was a group of public schools in New Orleans that were performing well, even before 2006. Several highly selective schools had been producing high academic achievement and great college prep results. So approximately one-fourth of the Orleans schools were left intact because of acceptable results. Those schools, even though now converted into charters, continue to be selective in the students they serve and continue to produce exemplary results. But there is still a major problem with the state test scores of the other three-fourths - the reformed takeover schools.


The recent study shows that taken as a whole, the New Orleans all charter system is still ranking in the bottom quartile of all public-school systems in the state. This is in a state that performs near the bottom of all states on national testing and college preparedness. For example, the new dashboard reveals that for the four academic subjects of math, reading, science and social studies, only 18% of all New Orleans public school students are now rated proficient or better. (I averaged the results of the 4 academic subjects) 

 In the key subjects of math and reading, Orleans performs at the 24th percentile compared to all other state school systems. This is approximately the same as the Orleans school system performed before Katrina!   


What about efficiency in the use of per pupil dollars? Has the new business-oriented model resulted in more efficient use of tax and grant dollars?


One thing that the all-charter system has been successful in doing is attracting a generous flow of charitable foundation money to these new experimental schools. A sizable portion of per pupil dollars in the reformed Orleans public system come from charitable and foundation grants. So the reformed all charter school system is certainly well funded. 


The Pelican Policy Institute study has provided a rough measure of how the school money in Orleans is now allocated. Total per pupil funding of the New Orleans system now adds up to $24,434 per student. For Louisiana, this is lavish funding by any measure. The state average per pupil funding is now $11,755, less than half the per pupil amount for New Orleans. How do the New Orleans schools allocate their per pupil funding compared to all other public schools? According to the Pelican Policy dashboard, New Orleans now spends 23% of all its funding on administration and 36% on classroom instruction. (Salaries of the Charter managers are not published as far as I know) The state average for other systems in Louisiana is 8% for administration and 56% for the classrooms. (All non-charter public-school administrators and teacher salary schedules are public records) 


Did the increased funding allow the reformed Orleans school system to hire a better quality of teachers? The state auditor recently found that more than half of the Orleans teachers are not certified as teachers. In addition, most of the teachers now employed in Orleans are Caucasian while 90% of the students are African American. This ignores studies that show that children learn better from real role models of their own ethnic type. So much for the new business approach. 


Finally, on average, the other school systems in the state have 31% of students achieving proficiency in the 4 basic subjects tested. This compares to 18% achieving proficiency in the new reformed Orleans system. 


The standard for school failure and state takeover in Louisiana has changed drastically in the last 16 years since the great charter school experiment was launched in New Orleans. Now there are practically no schools being taken over by the state based on academic performance. Now, few charters are revoked even when they continue to produce extremely low performance, but there is still a major movement to add even more charters statewide. Charter organizations have found it to be more advantageous to start new charters where the managers can attempt to attract mostly higher performing students instead of being expected to actually improve the performance of low achievers. My question: Is this happening because charters are deemed to be more efficient in producing better results, or is it because charter school operators see to it that generous contributions go to state politicians?

Comment: The statistics cited above, I believe, make a very convincing case that the school takeovers and conversion to mostly unregulated charters have not improved the overall academic performance of New Orleans students. In addition, there have been many cases of fraud and abuse by some unsupervised managers. There have been numerous cases of data manipulation, and corruption to ensure that charter managers could keep their jobs where they often determined their own high salaries. The very young, inexperienced TFA corps members were not in a position to blow the whistle on abuses because they needed positive recommendations as they went on to pursue their real careers outside the teaching profession. 


Unfortunately, I believe there has been serious damage done to the futures of many New Orleans children. Students have often lost their neighborhood schools and been forced to bus to unfamiliar environments. The scramble for higher test scores among charter managers has often caused the loss of resources and neglect of students with disabilities who could not be used to improve test scores. Also, the push to teach only college prep subject matter to all students has resulted in the neglect of vital vocational and technical training that could have prepared many students for productive and rewarding careers that do not require college training. True college prep students have received less rigorous college prep because teachers were also trying to tend to the needs of lower performing students. 


Finally, the greatest loss to New Orleans students, in my opinion, was the removal of thousands of excellent role models when experienced African American teachers were fired and often forced to leave the communities at the beginning of the reform effort. It is my belief that fewer students in the Orleans system are now inspired to attain college degrees than before the reforms because students have lost many role models in their communities of their own ethnic group who were college graduates and wonderful teachers.