Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What International Student Assessments Really Tell Us.

The recent interview with Bill Gates and Randi Wiengarten in Newsweek seemed to assume that public schools in the U.S. are greatly inferior to other industrialized nations and that the main problem in our schools is under-performing teachers. It was also assumed in this interview that the curriculum in our schools is somehow weaker than that in other countries. The Newsweek story would lead us to believe that if we would just beef up and standardize the elementary/high school curriculum in all states and then find ways to retrain or replace teachers with better ones that all of our student performance problems would be solved. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here's why:
Various studies demonstrate that teacher quality is far from being the most important factor in student success. A much more important factor turns out to be the level of academic motivation of the student as influenced by his/her parents, his/her peers, and the community environment.  Now there is a recent analysis of international rankings of our students that point to factors other than poor teacher quality and a weak curriculum as the major challenges.

A more intensive look at statistics from the recent PISA assessment comparing student achievement of 65 industrialized countries gives us a good indication of where the problem is. This analysis of the PISA assessment was done for the combined reading skills portion of the test by the National Center for Education statistics (NCES). NCES found that while the U.S. Students as a whole rank about 17th compared to students from the 65 other countries tested, there are big differences in the performance of different ethnic groups within the U.S.. For example, Shanghai China whose students are obviously all Asian, scored 1st among all nations. When you break out the Asian origin students in the sample of American students tested, NCES found that their average score ranked 2nd in the world, right behind Shanghai. That's pretty good. Also when you break out the Caucasian students in the U.S. sample, their results were 6th in the world. That's not tops but its still pretty good. Its ahead of all other predominately Caucasian nations except Finland. So apparently the quality of U.S. teachers and the school curriculum are working just fine for ethnic Asian and Caucasian students in this country.

In addition, it was found by analyzing the results on the PISA assessment for free and reduced lunch students in the U.S. that the level of poverty in a school has the strongest correlation with that school's average scores on overall Language arts achievement. For example, a school with a free or reduced price lunch student population (an accepted measure of poverty) of between 50 and 75% ranks 39th compared to average scores of other industrialized nations. In contrast, a school with less than 10% free or reduced price lunch students would rank second among all tested nations.

After reviewing this data, if we still believe that the quality of teachers is the main cause of student performance we would arrive at the ridiculous conclusion that our teachers are good at teaching Asian and Caucasian students but terrible at teaching high poverty minority students!

Consider a specific example of student performance observed within the East Baton Rouge school system. Following the end of the Vietnam war, a large number of Vietnamese refuges were admitted into this country. Some settled in the Baton Rouge area. They were known as the Boat people and were escaping repression by the Communist government. Most of these immigrants were impoverished and they spoke little English. The Vietnamese who settled in Baton Rouge sent their children to public schools. There was no second language program at that time in Baton Rouge for Vietnamese, so the children had to learn English from scratch. These immigrants though poor had a strong work ethic and tight knit family units which insisted on high academic achievement. Within a few years the Vietnamese children in the public school system were excelling in all subjects. When awards were given for the very top students in the school system among 60,000 students, a disproportionate number of Vietnamese students were recognized as winners in English, Math and Science. These students excelled using the same teachers and curriculum that was available to all other students.

The differences in the performance of different ethnic groups and poverty levels in the U.S. has been well known for some time. One of the major failures of the No Child Left Behind federal law was the failure to close the achievement gap between high poverty and more privileged students.

So why does the Newsweek article dwell almost completely on teacher quality and curriculum enhancement as the favored approachs to improving our schools? This is the second major story Newsweek has produced in the past few months which assumes that most of the problems of American education are caused by incompetent teachers.  It is clear that Newsweek is pursuing an agenda on education that is not based on fact. What do we gain by making teachers the scapegoats for some of the deep seated problems in our society over which they have no control? Apparently some non-educators would rather pretend that the problems in American education have simple solutions. Unfortunately, both Bill Gates and AFT president Randi Weingarten seemed to buy into this bogus premise.

As I have pointed out in earlier posts on this blog, I believe you could switch the teachers from our highest performing schools with those in our lowest performing schools and you would notice little effect on the performance of the students in either school. The same is true of the expectation that introduction of a tougher curriculum would produce better achievement.

Some of our philanthropist reformers who have never once worked as teachers in high poverty schools have proposed that teachers of high poverty students simply have low expectations of these students. They suggest that if teachers would instead hold these students to higher expectations and higher standards, the students would perform up to the increased expectations. This assumption has no basis in fact. Instead many of our young teachers in high poverty schools have repeatedly had their hopes and expectations for their students crushed by continuing poor performance. Approximately 50% of new teachers leave the profession by the end of their 5th year teaching. The fact that many students fail to meet reasonable expectations of achievement and classroom behavior is a major reason for the high attrition rate of new teachers.

I believe that this obsession today's education reformers have with toughening the curriculum for all students and purging the teaching profession of thousands of imaginary bad teachers will divert attention, and funding from the real problems of public education in the U.S. Rather than spend millions on new punitive evaluation systems for teachers, we should be using that money to make sure that all students are in school every day ready to learn. Extra effort must be made to involve parents in the educational process. In addition we need to provide struggling students with more intensive learning activities focused on their specific needs. That may mean a longer school day and a longer school year with special concentration on Reading and Math skills. And finally, we in Louisiana especially need to change from a system that fails and pushes out students who do not meet our system of college prep standards for all. Instead we should provide education suitable to the needs and career aspirations of each student.

In Finland, one of the top performing countries in elementary/secondary education, students are not considered failures if they do not pass a college prep curriculum. The school system instead is flexible and provides a good education to all students whether college bound or bound for skilled and technical careers. Our present system in Louisiana stigmatizes and flunks out many non-college bound students while unnecessarily watering down classroom instruction in academic courses to accommodate non-academic students. Why not instead have a first rate college prep program in every school system with strong emphasis on modern STEM courses while at the same time provide a first rate Career Prep program in cooperation with our Community and Technical college systems?

The true experts in education who are working hard every day in our public schools must take it upon themselves to speak out against education reforms based on faulty assumptions. Otherwise the silence of educators will be seen as support for these misguided schemes. As we have learned in the years of No Child Left Behind, only educators will be blamed for the failure of poorly designed education reforms forced upon them by ill informed reformers and politicians.
Happy New Year!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Shanghai China Schools Number One, U.S. Falls

The public schools of Shanghai, China have scored first place among the industrialized nations of the world in all categories of academic achievement as measured by the 2009 PISA assessment, a test administered every 3 years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The test is given to a sampling of 15 year old students in the subjects of Reading, Math and Science. The United States has shown declines in all areas and now ranks 30th out of the 64 nations tested in Math.

Yes, we should be very much concerned about these results because academic achievement of our students could be indicators of where our country is headed in the worldwide competition for economic progress. Click on this link to view a short video on the educational system in Shanghai as well as other leading countries on this important assessment.

A book I read recently on the tremendous educational potential of all students (discussed in my post dated Dec. 3) convinces me that our country could do much better in educating its future citizens and leaders. We would do well to carefully study the educational systems in China, Finland and neighboring Canada to gain insight as to what educational strategies may improve our system of education. But some of our problems in U.S. education are unique to our society and will require reforms that reach beyond the schools. Amazingly, as you can see in the recent post by Diane Ravitch (see the Dec. 14 post), our education reformers in the U.S. seem to be totally ignoring the main features of truly successful school systems as we rush headlong into a Stalinist-like purge of our educational institutions and practitioners. While other successful countries seem to revere their teachers and value experienced professional educators, our reformers want to install non-educators in administrative positions and remove any consideration of experience and even higher levels of training in determining teacher salaries and layoff procedures.

Yes, there is something seriously wrong with education in the U.S. and in Louisiana, but its not caused by lazy, incompetent teachers. Some of our teachers certainly are burning out because of the overwhelming challenges they face, but that's a symptom not a cause. Our teachers need support from education leaders and especially from parents to engage and motivate our students to achieve their potential in school, not mindless reprisals against teachers and principals.

Lets face it, many of our students don't know and don't seem to care why they are in school. These kids don't have a single book of any kind in their homes, they spend countless hours watching TV and playing video games, or hanging out with friends til all hours of the night. Teachers in some schools are reluctant to assign homework that requires the use of the student's textbook because so many students lose their book when they take it off campus. These kids don't have a quiet place to study, they are often kept awake till late at night by loud music, and no one sees to it that they get to school on time. Often when the school secretary calls home to check on an absent student, no one knows where he/she is. Compare that to the video you can watch on the educational climate in Shanghai or Finland. Now tell me honestly, are we going to fix this problem by firing the bottom 5% of teachers based on student test scores? There seems to be no relation between the fixes that are proposed by reformers like Bill Gates and Arne Duncan and the reality on the ground.

Note: My interview with Jonathan Plucker, an educational psychologist from the University of Indiana who recently visited the schools in Shanghai has been delayed because of a minor illness. I hope to conduct the interview early next week. Please check back for some enlightening insights on how the educational climate differs in the U.S. compared to China.

Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Virtual Charter Could Have Major Impact

A new virtual charter school approved this month by BESE has the potential to have a huge impact on public education in Louisiana! (click here to view the Advocate article) The Connections Academy virtual charter school will be based in Baton Rouge and will provide on-line instruction to students who are accepted from throughout the state. This new charter school will not have physical classrooms and will have little direct contact with students but will receive 90% of state and local per pupil funding according to the plan approved by BESE. Proponents claim that most of the per pupil funding is needed to pay for the high cost of technology instead of providing physical classrooms. Students will be expected to communicate with the school mostly by computer and by telephone. Its not clear from the packet provided to BESE what the pupil-teacher ratio will be, but the Connections Academy web site claims that teachers are required to conference with each student at least once every two weeks. This could be very minimal contact indeed! The material provided to BESE states that the Connections Academy will target a population of “high needs” students and has a plan for providing services to such students as well as for students with disabilities and to gifted students.

The service provider for this new charter is a national group that claims to service schools in 22 states. Click on this link to access the information on their web site. A similar virtual charter was also approved for the New Orleans area and is expected to serve 1100 students.

The Baton Rouge Connections Academy plans to start with 500 K-12 students beginning with the 2011-2012 school year and increase to 1750 students by the fifth year. Even though the president of the board for the type 2 charter school stated that such a school could be especially helpful to students who may be in danger of dropping out from a traditional school, there is no way to tell at this early date what type of students will be attracted and actually enrolled.

My best guess is that the school may attract a significant number of students away from private and parochial schools. Parents who had fled what they considered to be undesirable public schools may jump at the chance to save thousands of dollars in tuition by transferring their child back to a publicly funded virtual school. Also, many parents who have attempted home schooling may wish to utilize the services of this virtual school because they may feel that it takes some of the financial and time commitment burdens off of the parent to provide instruction to their child. According to the Connections website however, parents are still expected to serve as “learning coaches” directing the daily activities of their child in the virtual school. Finally, some public school parents whose children have been assigned to low performing public schools may find the virtual school to be a way to escape what they may believe to be an undesirable school environment. The virtual school may even attract students from low performing charter schools. This type of school could be a real competitor for all schools, public and private, where parents want to save money and keep their child in a controlled home environment.

It is not clear from the information provided in the BESE packet whether the Baton Rouge based virtual charter school will be a “for profit” or “non-profit” or if the school itself will be non-profit while the national service provider will be allowed to pocket a profit from the operation. This is a very critical question since once you add the profit motive, it can compete with the best interests of the customers (children). I hope to get an answer to this from the State Dept. Charter School office and post it to the blog in the near future.

As the new BESE approved school rating system goes into effect and parents begin receiving letter grades of “D” and “F” for their child's school, the virtual charter school may become even more attractive, especially if the student selection process for the virtual charter results in a more highly motivated student body. As we have explained in other posts of this blog, the most important factor in producing a high performing school is the practice of enrolling high performing students! If this first school succeeds, we can look for many imitators and for a major expansion of the Connections Academy.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Bullying Educators and Students

State Superintendent Paul Pastorek, a person who has no experience administering a real school system and who has no actual teaching experience continues his arrogant bullying of experienced and dedicated educators. The proposal before BESE for implementing legislation to convert the school rating system to a letter grade system is the occasion for this latest snub of the recommendations of knowledgeable educators. (click on this link to the Advocate article)

This update is added to give you the result of the BESE action on the new school grading system voted on 12/9/10. Click here to see the Advocate article. Ignoring the wishes of the Accountability Commission, BESE adopted a motion by Chas Roemer that is even more punitive to struggling schools than that proposed by Superintendent Pastorek. The Roemer plan will penalize schools that have any decline in their SPS by assigning a minus to their letter grade. In addition, schools will get a plus added to their grade only if they meet the State Dept. growth target. The problem with this as I pointed out to Mr Roemer in an email, is that as we approach the year 2014 the growth goal for the low performing schools will become prohibitively high because the scoring system attempts to raise the SPS of all schools to 120 by 2014. The Roemer plan will be very discouraging to the hard working staffs of many schools serving high poverty communities.
Roemer has also been a major advocate of charter schools. I wonder what Roemer will propose to do about the Charter schools in his district that continue to perform at the bottom of the scale. At the same meeting BESE approved the Pastorek plan that will allow “successful” charter schools to indefinitely remain independent of their local school boards, contrary to the stated intent of the original Recovery School District legislation.

Many local Superintendents and other educators on the state Accountability Commission had recommended a system that would allow credit on the grading scale to be given to schools that had exceeded the average performance of schools in their general performance category. The idea was to allow a one letter grade bonus for schools that were showing the most improvement. This system would have allowed schools serving low income communities a chance to get recognition on the grading scale for showing good relative progress.

Superintendent Pastorek has asked BESE to overrule the Accountability Commission which is composed of educators and representatives of the general public, and instead adopt a grading scale that would make it more and more difficult for schools serving poor communities to get a bonus for improvement. His plan would only allow a letter grade increase if the school met the state accountability growth target. Such an improved grade would be listed as a minus grade to show that it was not on the same par as others. Such growth targets are very rapidly becoming more difficult for schools to achieve because they are calculated based on all schools reaching the same arbitrary SPS target of 120 by the year 2014. This means that as we get closer to 2014 the schools serving poorer communities will have very little chance of earning a bonus for improvement because the target SPS will be getting much higher. No matter that the arbitrary goal of 120 is inherently unfair to high poverty schools, Pastorek the politician (not educator) feels he can make more points with the uninformed public by bashing public education. The result of such a policy would be to continue to perpetrate the unfair criticism of teachers and administrators who are dedicated to working in our most challenging schools. How can the parents in these struggling communities who may be working with administrators and teachers to boost the performance of area students feel pride in their school if the goal is unrealistic?

BESE is scheduled to make a decision on which plan to approve at their meeing on Thursday, December 9. Please make your concerns known to your BESE member on this issue.

We cannot improve education in Louisiana by continuing to trash dedicated educators and the students they serve. Our students should not be used as political footballs to help politicians score points with those who would destroy public education.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Most Important Factor In School Success

A new book by Matthew Syed, a columnist for the Times of London and former 3-time table tennis British Commonwealth National champion titled Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham and the Science of Success, has reminded me once again of the importance of motivation in the education of young people. (Click on this link to read its Amazon book reviews) This book is intended to show the importance of purposeful, intensive practice in the training of world class athletes and leaders in all fields of human endeavor. But to me, it demonstrates the overwhelming importance of motivation in the education of children in our public school systems. The author explains, with reference to recent scientific studies and specific case histories, the power of the brain to learn and direct the human body to master difficult concepts or skills and to constantly improve performance. He explains how dedication and training has transformed ordinary people into stars in every field of human endeavor.

Every educator could benefit from a better understanding of the almost unlimited potential possessed by all students as described in this interesting book. The many successful case studies provided by Bounce should give us real hope that students, if properly motivated could achieve much more academically. The capacity of the human brain to be trained to learn and hone skills critical to success in life has great implications for education. If educators could harness the tremendous power of motivation that goes into the training of star athletes, or chess-masters, or superb musicians, there are almost no limits to improvements that could be made in the academic achievements of our students!

This book demonstrates that the missing ingredient preventing many students from excelling in educational achievement is proper motivation. Many of our students today are greatly handicapped because their life experiences lack positive role models and adults who can serve as mentors to provide the motivation to excel in school and to prepare for rewarding careers. Many of our students never get to experience the spark that ignites their motivation to excel either in sports, art, or in successful careers.

So who is responsible for the proper motivation of students? When I started teaching over 40 years ago teachers thought their primary responsibility was to present the curriculum material in an appropriate manner. After the concepts or grade level expectations (GLEs) were presented and students given an opportunity to practice and absorb the material, the teacher would test the class and assign grades to each student. It was the student's responsibility to master the required concepts in a particular course to the satisfaction of the teacher. The grade achieved in a particular course and even passing or failing was the student's responsibility, not the teacher's.

Today the responsibility for student achievement is shifting more to the teacher. The state no longer trusts the teacher to set the standards for passing a class or for promotion to the next grade. Also, politicians and some new leaders in education are taking the position that if teachers are paid to teach, then they should be also responsible for the achievement of students. No matter that in the educational process “it takes two to tango”. That is, if a student is not motivated to learn the required curriculum content, no amount of teaching pedagogy or work by the teacher will result in the intended learning by the student! Nevertheless, in today's political environment, it seems that teachers alone are being held responsible for educational results.

Fortunately, there is scientific evidence, also recently documented by learning research, that curiosity about our surroundings is one of our basic human drives. Some scientists believe that all children are born with an internal motivation to learn about the world around them. Unfortunately this does not automatically mean that students are motivated to learn that which the curriculum guide dictates must be learned by all students. If educators cannot make school work relevant in the minds of students, the motivation necessary for success in school will not happen. The students' drive to learn may focus instead on computer games or social media, on cell phone texting, or on other ways of achieving status in the peer group. Often just at the time when engagement of students in school is most critical, (around the middle school level) parents and teachers seem to lose any meaningful influence on the aspirations of many of our students. All students may be ready and able to learn, but not always what educators wish to teach!

The author of Bounce also cites studies by Dweck conducted in 1978 that demonstrate how parents and some educators have unknowingly used counterproductive motivational techniques. The most glaring example of bad motivation is the improper use of praise. These studies show how well meaning parents and teachers in an effort to boost self esteem in children have sometimes resorted to using every opportunity for complimenting children on their superior abilities. The idea is that students confident in their abilities will accomplish more in school. Instead, Dweck's studies show that children who regularly received this kind of unearned praise often became fearful of failure, and as a result applied themselves less and avoided challenging subject matter that could have helped them excel! On the other hand, students who were praised for actual effort and hard work developed a healthy work ethic and performed better over the long run in school and in life.

Experienced educators know that a school's educational climate or culture can have a huge impact on student motivation and performance. I once taught at a high school that was in the process of being converted from a pure magnet school to a combination community school and magnet school. The new plan adopted by the school board allowed any area student to enroll in the school while the school continued to maintain its magnet component. The school had never had to contend with motivation problems and with discipline issues because most students meeting the magnet entrance requirements were properly motivated to succeed and were not interested in disruptive behavior. Unfortunately the school administration and teachers were not prepared to deal with the flood of poorly motivated and often disruptive students that now poured in from the inner city local community. Very quickly the entire atmosphere at the school changed from one with a positive learning environment to one dominated by classroom disruptions, fights and disrespectful behavior toward teachers followed by deteriorating academic performance. It has now been 12 years since the change and the school has lost most of its magnet students and academic performance is now consistently mediocre. In this case, the school board and the administration of the school system have never taken the firm steps necessary to reclaim a positive learning environment at the school, and cannot blame the parents for pulling their students out.

Examples like this all over the state show that if a school is to improve its effectiveness, a large emphasis must be placed on positive discipline and proper student motivation. Educators must connect with parents and students to insure that excellence in academics is the prevailing attitude in the school. We must make certain that all students see school work as extremely relevant in their lives and future success. All schools must build in a program of constant reinforcement of academic goals and of connection of school to life and careers. The school must use goal setting to encourage attainment of important steps toward success in school and in life, and excitement about the achievement of educational goals. Most schools can do a pretty good job of staging pep rallies around sporting events, but how many can create an enthusiastic pep rally promoting academic achievement?

It can be done. But educators need the help of the entire community. Responsibility for student achievement must be shared by everyone in the community including the parents and students themselves. Judges and law enforcement officials must assist in enforcing the mandatory attendance laws. We must provide our students with proper role models, mentors, tutoring and job shadowing. Some schools in Louisiana have created successful school campaigns to accomplish higher scores on the LEAP test, or to improve the ranking of their school on the state school performance scores. One idea that can be borrowed from some of the more successful charter schools is a daily or weekly motivational assembly to emphasize good attendance, good behavior and the attainment of academic goals. There is no reason why the natural enthusiasm and energy of young people cannot be channeled to focus on success in school.

I believe that school motivational efforts are so critical that many of our under-performing schools can never become successful without a major push to change the climate of the school to one that is truly motivating for success. I call on the readers of this blog to send me examples of successful school transformations and motivational campaigns in their local schools so these can be publicized and shared with others. Just send your email comments and suggestions to

Friday, November 19, 2010

Education Funding Battles

It is absolutely critical that educators in large numbers make contact with the Governor, state legislators and members of Congress in an effort to maintain adequate funding for public education. Funding for education is an investment in the future of our state and its citizens, especially its young people. If we allow education funding such as the recent edu-Jobs fund to be transferred to other purposes in the state budget, our children and grandchildren will suffer.
The article in The Advocate points out that Senator Landreu has sent a letter to Governor Jindal requesting that the Edu-Jobs fund be used only for the education purposes described in the legislation. The idea is that present funds going to the MFP should not be removed and supplanted by this new money. That defeats the purpose of the legislation. We applaud Senator Landreu for making this effort. Also, if necessary, local school systems should consider legal action to stop this misappropriation of federal money.

Unfortunately there will be many more battles in the months and years to come to defend the funding of public education, and it is up to those of us who have dedicated our careers to the education of children to fight this battle at every opportunity. Because of the budget and political climate we face, these battles will be especially difficult.

A large part of the problem we face was caused by the partial repeal of the Stelly Plan a couple of years ago by legislators who acted for political reasons rather than for the good of the state. The Stelly Plan passed in the first part of this decade was designed to restructure Louisiana's taxes removing some of the sales tax burden on citizens for purchase of food and medicine and replacing these revenues with a slightly higher income tax. The plan was originally revenue neutral but by its nature was designed to be more of a growth tax to allow Louisiana tax revenues to keep up with inflation pressure on the cost of state services. One example is the increased cost of school employee and teacher retirement, which has been an increasing burden on local school systems. By repealing the growth part of the Stelly Plan, the legislature guaranteed that the state will not be able to properly fund local school systems in the coming years. Thank you to Senator Nevers for suggesting that the Stelly plan tax revenues should be restored to their original level for at least the next few years.

In addition to normal growth of costs, the legislature every year adds unfunded mandates such as the recent law requiring formal evaluations of all teachers each year with the inclusion of student testing results as 50% of the evaluation. Mark my word, this will end up being a totally unnecessary financial burden on all local school systems in Louisiana. This plan will do nothing at all to improve education, and can actually be counterproductive, because it is not based on solid principles of good teaching. With the renewed emphasis by voters to get big government out of our lives, it does not make sense for the State to dictate how teachers should be evaluated by local school boards.

Please for the sake of the children we teach, all educators must maintain constant contact with our governor, legislators, and members of congress to insure adequate funding of education and to prevent the addition of unfunded mandates that do not advance education.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Stealing Education Jobs Money

Educators! Wake up!

This link to the Advocate article describing how the Jindal administration plans to take the Federal Education Jobs money (Called the EduJobs Fund) and use it to patch up other holes in the state budget is a wake up call! This action is WRONG! WRONG! WRONG! And must be protested vigorously by all educators and their organizations. If we do not take strong action on this, local school systems had better be prepared to be r**** repeatedly by the governor as the the state budget crises worsens.

This appropriation was clearly designated by the Congress to prevent educator job losses by local school systems and should not be used for other purposes or supplanted in such a way that local school systems do not end up getting the federal money. Those so called education leaders who talk about creating a “world class” education system in Louisiana but who do not so much as raise the slightest objection to this theft of school money are just cheap politicians and are not by any stretch of the imagination “education leaders”.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Myths Driving Education Reform

There are so many myths and misconceptions driving education reform in the US today, it makes my head spin. My training in science with emphasis on use of the scientific method for solving problems leaves me perplexed and frustrated by education reform based on false assumptions. Our state and nation seem to be on a wild goose chase of education reform schemes that are not supported by legitimate education research. This is happening at the same time that a newly elected, fiscally conservative Congress wants to cut spending. It looks like public schools will be asked to produce higher student achievement in narrow tested areas with less money at the same time that privatization of schools is being pushed by powerful business interests. Here are some of the crazy reform mandates educators in Louisiana will be dealing with in the near future:

Under the latest wave of education reform, the perceived under performance of our public schools is to be solved by closing schools, firing principals and a certain percentage of teachers, and allowing untested, mostly unsupervised private groups to take over public schools. The idea that public schools funded by tax dollars should be managed by democratically elected school boards seems no longer important to the reformers.

Recent studies have revealed that when under-performing schools in Chicago were closed by Arne Duncan, the students continued to perform just as poorly in their newly assigned schools. But never mind that fact, he now intends to apply the same false solution to many other schools throughout the nation. The proposed re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act by the Obama administration calls for a complete restructuring of the lowest performing public schools using either charter schools, school closings, or mass administrator and teacher firings.

In another reform effort, big chunks of federal grants are going to school systems that will implement teacher merit pay systems. This comes just after a major study was released by Vanderbilt University which shows that a teacher merit pay system made little or no difference in student achievement. According to the article in Education Week, this was the most rigorous study of performance based teacher compensation in the US. How can our government continue to defy logic and science and expect education to improve?

Lets look at the predicament educators face here in Louisiana. Several years ago, BESE and the Board of Regents decided that public elementary and secondary schools should prepare students better for college. It was determined (without consultation with the educators in the field) that the best approach would be to require a strong college prep curriculum of all students as a requirement for high school graduation. The business community loved the idea. It would mean that all students would leave high school proficient in English, math and science and could therefore be prepared for the high tech jobs of the future whether they attended college or not.

Its a little early to tell for sure, but my assessment is that this scheme will be a total failure. Here's why: Public schools in Louisiana regularly lose most of the top 20% of its academically inclined students to one of the strongest private school system in the nation. Statistics tell us that only the top 30% of academic performers will succeed in four year colleges. So even if we wanted to be ambitious in preparing more of our public school students for 4 year colleges, we can expect no more than 30 to 40 percent of our public school students to make it to a 4 year degree. These students need the best college prep curriculum we can provide them in middle through high school. But the system we have in place in most public schools provides our true college prep students with much less of a rigorous education than they need. Why? Because in attempting to provide a college prep curriculum to all students we force our teachers to water down the critical courses in math, English and science to accommodate the large number of students who are not college material. In designing our education system as one size fits all, we end up shortchanging most of our students. We have weakened our college prep curriculum and at the same time, set up many of our other students for failure and denial of a high school diploma. This plan while well intentioned was stupid, and ignored the facts on the ground in our pubic school system. It guarantees that a huge percentage of our students will not get the education they really need in preparing for critically needed skills and service jobs which are the only ones growing in Louisiana's economy. It guarantees that a large percentage of our unemployable young people will be added to the welfare roles or to our huge prison population. It also guarantees that many of our schools will continue to look like failures because they are not producing larger numbers of college prepared students.

What are the college performance results of the new policy? ACT scores which are the best predictor of college performance are the same as they were 4 years ago, and I read recently that Louisiana now has the second lowest college graduation rate in the nation. The present structure of our public high schools as mandated by BESE and the Board of Regents insures that we will stay at that level.

Late addition: Click on this link to read the story in The Advocate about the low ranking of Louisiana in offering advanced placement courses. Why don't we use more of our scarce resourses to offer more advanced placement courses to the students who really need them? The Zachary school system is somehow getting this done. Thanks on behalf of my grandchildren!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

2010 Election, Push for Jobs, Education

Recent federal election results could have a major impact on education policies in the near future. For example the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and other education policies could be affected by the shift of power in the US House to Republicans. The following is an excerpt from an Education Week article written on the eve of the recent mid term elections:

“If the GOP does take the House, Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, would likely become chairman of the panel.

Rep. Kline has expressed skepticism about core elements of President Barack Obama’s education agenda. For instance, he said in an interview this fall that he wouldn’t favor extending for an additional year the $4 billion Race to the Top competition, which rewards states for making progress on education redesign goals.

And he said that he wants to make sure that a portion of the stimulus-funded Race to the Top program that provided $350 million to 44 states to create more uniform, richer academic assessments doesn’t lead to a “national test.”

But Mr. Kline also said he and the administration see eye to eye on important issues, including the need to encourage the proliferation of high-quality charter schools and identify ways to reward effective teachers, and remove those that are ineffective.”

We now know that Republicans have won a majority in the House of Representatives and that they will have a major impact on federal education policy. Its ironic that current education fads such as adding more charter schools and firing a certain percentage of teachers are the few areas where there is agreement between liberals and conservatives. Educators should brace for more disruptive reforms that have little or no basis in education research but are knee jerk reactions to our poor ratings on international measures of educational attainment and the recent so called “education documentaries”.

The other development that really should have a major affect on education is the increased emphasis by voters, news commentators, and elected officials on the need to restructure our economy and education system to provide more jobs for unemployed adults and for young people entering the labor force.

Fareed Zakaria, a highly regarded news commentator, hosted a one hour program recently on CNN titled “Restoring the American Dream” where successful CEOs of Coca-Cola Google, Alcoa, and IBM gave their advice on revitalizing the US economy.

Their strongest recommendation was that our young people and our displaced workers need a continuing reeducation program that prepares and retrains them for the changing job needs of the new economy. This continuing education program should focus on career training and essential skills. More emphasis is needed on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) training as well as training for the growing service industries.

It was pointed out that the recent recession has had minimal unemployment impact on Germany for example, because that country has a sophisticated education and retraining program that continually prepares its workers for new jobs. It was clear to me that the growth in education these leaders were recommending is in the area of Community and Technical Colleges, not in the traditional 4 year institutions. Most workers they said, need at most 18 month training programs. Governor Jindal and the director of the Louisiana Workforce authority made the same point recently when recommending more efficient use of our higher education system. A good example are the courses recently offered in the Louisiana Community College system for installing home solar electrical systems and for converting autos and trucks to compressed natural gas systems. These are some of the jobs in demand in the next few years that do not require 4 year college training. And they have the added advantage that they cannot be farmed out to other cheap labor countries. The same cannot be said of some software engineering and other high status jobs that may require a college degree.

I believe that Louisiana would do well to break with the current elitist system pushed by the State Department of Education and higher education officials and concentrate on high tech and practical skills that will make our young people more employable and at the same time revive our Louisiana economy.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ravitch Forum in New Orleans

I attended a forum last night (Oct. 27) at Dillard University in New Orleans that featured Diane Ravitch speaking and answering questions on education reform. Dr Ravitch is one of the few voices today who speaks the truth about public education and the current reform movement in this country. Here are some of the most critical issues I believe that were addressed in this forum.

  • The charter school movement in this country was originally started by educators who wanted to use them as a laboratory for positive changes in education. Unfortunately the movement has been hijacked by tycoons of wall street and the business world who are creating private schools with public money. By creating the illusion that charter schools will finally provide poor children with a superior education that will result in a college education for all who attend, charter organizers have succeeded in getting support from both liberal and conservative lawmakers.
  • Huge salaries are being paid to the “entrepreneurs” who manage these charters while cheap short term teachers are used to do the work.
  • Recent studies show that only a small percentage of charter schools outperform regular public schools while a larger percentage under-perform compared to traditional schools. We see many examples of this in Louisiana schools. It is interesting that some of the most successful charter schools were set up by local school boards, very much like the successful magnet schools that are run by local boards.
  • Unfortunately many charter schools (just like magnet schools) perform better by attracting the better, more motivated students leaving the remaining students in under-performing schools.
  • Once charter schools are formed and thereby create a special interest group of parents and school operators, most politicians are reluctant to convert their schools back to publicly operated schools. This point was made by a New Orleans school board member who attended the forum. He said that even though the New Orleans school board now has the third highest performing school system in the state and excellent audit reports, the political forces in the state are working to keep Recovery District charters independent of the elected school board. The law setting up the Recovery District envisioned a possible return of schools to the local board after 5 years.
Another alarming trend discussed in the New Orleans forum is the current movement in the U.S. to reduce rather than to improve the professional status of educators. This is exemplified by the efforts of big foundations (such as the Broad Foundation) to transplant people from private business or other backgrounds into positions as school superintendents and principals. These new education leaders are expected to improve schools by firing anyone who does not improve test scores. Apparently they don't have to know anything about education, just how to demand results. The question posed is: “How can experienced teachers be expected to have respect for principals and superintendents who have never worked in the classroom?” Dr Ravitch pointed out the folly of these national trends. “As we run off and fire current teachers there are not nearly enough “teach for America” kids to take their places.” As baby boomer teachers retire, our country should be preparing many thousands of young professionals in the field of education.

One of the most interesting points made by Ravitch and participants of the New Orleans forum is that a person cannot perform effectively as an education leader by bashing and attacking the very people he/she is attempting to lead. This point is being demonstrated today at the very top of Louisiana's education establishment.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

School Performance Scores in Proper Perspective

School performance scores (SPS) are now available for review at the LA Dept. Of Education web site. The state average SPS has grown to 92.5 which is an increase of 1.5 from the 2009 average. Even though most public school systems in the state have implemented major campaigns aimed at raising test scores at each school, it is becoming increasingly difficult to show dramatic gains. Most of the obvious strategies for increasing LEAP scores which make up the greatest part of the SPS have already been implemented in most schools. The one remaining strategy is one that few local education leaders are willing or should be willing to employ. That would be essentially converting the entire school year to test rehearsal.

The state goal of an SPS of 120 for all schools by 2014 is looking more and more unattainable for all but a few select schools. A total of 75 out of 1282 public schools have already reached this goal to date, but if the tests retain their present rigor, it will be difficult for a significant percentage of the remaining schools to reach 120 by any deadline.

I believe that the accountability program in Louisiana has basically succeeded in focusing the attention of local school officials on academic achievement. There is no question in my mind that we have long needed a major push for improved academic performance. Thanks to good local leadership, most of this improvement in emphasis has been accomplished without abandoning solid principles of good education. Even so, the continued pressure by state and federal officials to simply improve test scores threatens to convert most public schools into creativity killing "test prep factories". Some schools are already using public funds to hire test prep companies who begin the testing and diagnosis process early each school year. Such schools focus most of the rest of the year on boosting test performance. Many highly respected master teachers believe that such strategies result in less emphasis on critical learning and thinking skills in favor of rote learning. (Not to mention the fact that it is sure to drive the best teachers out of the profession)

In addition, most of the emphasis of the “no child left behind” mandate has placed the full responsibility of school performance on the school administration and teachers without adequate consideration of negative or positive community factors. That incorrect assumption is made evident by the setting of an identical goal of school performance for all schools by 2014. As 2014 approaches it will become increasingly evident that such a goal was impractical and unfair to many schools and their students and staffs.

Another Critical Analysis of “Waiting For Superman

Click on the following link to Diane Ravitch's analysis of the documentary movie “Waiting for Superman” which was published in the New York Review of Books. Educators may also be interested in reading her latest post in her blog titled “Bridging Differences”, in which she examines a recent “Manifesto” on education by 16 large city Superintendents. She points out the apparent hypocrisy of superintendents calling for reforms to systems which they now have the authority to implement themselves. Where will these superintendents point the finger of blame when it becomes clear that just firing a certain percentage of teachers makes no significant change in student performance? My comment on this issue, is simple: Take the top performing teachers in one of our high performing magnet schools and place them in one of our low performing poverty schools and you will see a dramatic change in their student's test score results. Or do the converse by sending teachers from low performing schools to high performing schools and see the dramatic improvement in their performance.

Special late addition:
I just got an interesting email from Lance Hill at Tulane, who sent me a chart on the SEED school in Washington DC that claims in "Superman" that they now have a 100% graduation rate. The only problem is (and the chart shows) that in 7th grade they had approximately 145 students enrolled while in 12th grade there were only 13 students left. The school apparently has a practice of weeding out low performing students before they get counted in the graduation rate. That's also why I believe it is more accurate and honest to calculate our graduation rate by following a cohort starting at 7th grade even if we give them a couple of extra years to graduate. It has also been brought to my attention that some of the charter schools that claim to have 100% of their students attending college have not been in business long enough to see the results of those college enrollments! Here in Louisiana, many folks are proud to send their children to LSU but what really counts is graduation from that special 4 year institution. LSU has less than a 20% graduation rate.

Continuing to blame teachers for all the ills of education is preventing us from attacking the real causes of under-performance in our schools. I've discussed this before so I will just summarize the critical issues with just a few words: Firm school discipline, parental responsibility, and strong principals who work with teachers to create a positive learning environment. We don't need charter schools to implement these principles. Finally, our school curriculum must be made more relevant to the world of work. Students must see the connection between success in school and future rewarding careers. It is absolute folly (and destructive to many students) to call for college prep as the only worthwhile goal for all children.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Big Bucks for Under-performing Charters

Some Louisiana charter schools seem to be enjoying favored treatment by both state and federal education authorities even if their performance using accountability measures is very poor. A recent federal grant to some charter schools in the Baton Rouge area is especially notable. The State Department of Education announced this week that the five charter schools managed by the Advance Baton Rouge organization have been approved for a 13.3 million dollar federal grant to be distributed over a 5 year period. The announced purpose of the grant is to implement the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP). This program rewards some teachers with higher status positions and salary increases based on student gains in basic skills. The press release from the Department of Education announced that several school systems in Louisiana are to be awarded a total of 73 million dollars in federal grants for implementation of the TAP program. The money is to come from a 1.2 billion dollar federal grant designed to attract teachers to hard-to-staff schools. Apparently all of the federal money for this project in Louisiana will be funneled through the Milken Foundation's National Institute for Excellence in Teaching which is a private non-profit organization that sponsors the TAP program in many school systems across the nation. This program seems to fit neatly into the U.S. Education Department's push for teacher merit pay based on student achievement.

I have two major concerns about the part of the grant that was approved for the Advance Baton Rouge organization:

  1. By all accountability measures Advance Baton Rouge's performance in managing these five schools has been a complete disaster. The performance of these schools has regressed significantly since the takeover by the charter school group. Only one of the 5 schools has shown a slight improvement in student high stakes scores. The composite scores of the 5 schools has changed as follows since the takeover: English/Language Arts performance has dropped from 33% basic or above before the takeover to only 23% basic or above in Spring 2010. Math has dropped from 29% basic or above to only 24% in 2010 and Science has dropped from 17% basic or above to only 12%. In comparison the state average for each of these three subject areas are ELA: 66% basic or above, Math: 65% basic or above and Science: 59% basic or above. How can such a huge commitment of our tax dollars be made to an organization that has shown no competence in running the schools entrusted to it?
  2. The size of the grant to this group is totally out of proportion to other school systems receiving similar grants. For example, one school system serving over 4,000 students will be getting a grant of 7.2 million to implement the same TAP program while the Advance Baton Rouge group will receive 13.3 million dollars to serve only 1,600 students. This amounts to over $8,000 per student. It is over 4 times as much per student as the regular school system will receive.
When the charter school program was approved in Louisiana, citizens and taxpayers were assured that all charter schools would be held to strict accountability for performance. Superintendent Pastorek has repeatedly pledged that failing charter schools would be either closed down or taken over by new management. It seems to me that some charters in Louisiana are favored and provided with massive funding whether they perform or not.

Monday, September 27, 2010

An Opportunity to Really Improve Public Education

The new documentary movie on public education in the U.S., Waiting For Superman, is seen by many educators as inaccurate in many of its assumptions about the problems and possible solutions for education. (See the article in the Washington Post pointing out  inaccuracies in Superman)The biggest legitimate criticism of the documentary is that it incorrectly seems to offer charter schools as a magic solution to all the ills of public education. I believe that if we allow politicians and education policy makers to swallow this blatant misconception whole, public education could suffer irreparable harm. In addition, the recent "discovery" by the media that approximately one third of all U.S. students do not graduate from high school and that a relatively small percentage of our students pursue higher education, have combined with the hype over the Superman documentary to make education reform a bigger issue than ever before. The NBC networks are devoting this entire week to special news programs titled Education Nation promoting various ideas about improving our schools. With all this attention, education reform is going to happen for better or for worse whether educators are involved or not.

Both the federal government and state legislatures seem ready to adopt massive reforms which include major expansions of charter school programs whether proven or untested, a major overhaul to firing procedures for teachers and principals, and changes that put even more emphasis on student test scores.

Almost everything about public education is under attack. Some believe our colleges of education have been made irrelevant by the introduction of Teach for America wiz kids from Harvard and other high status universities who are moving into teaching positions with barely 6 weeks of education training and who quickly move on to manage charter schools. (The truth is that most of these young people quit teaching before their 2 year commitment expires) Others advocate for the abolition of all teacher tenure, with establishment of instant firing power in the hands of school principals who themselves would be subject to dismissal based on student scores. In addition, our State Department of Education is pushing for site based budgeting on the theory that if principals get more flexibility in budgeting they can produce better results in student test scores.

While we all can agree that there are many pitfalls to this latest education reform movement, educators would be well advised to try to chanel this increased public awareness to make real improvements in public education. First of all we need to make sure that the truth about public education is told and acted upon rationally. For example, it needs to be pointed out that the biggest advances in school performance in the past several years in Louisiana have occurred in traditional public schools (see my analyisis and letter to BESE comparing regular public schools to the Recovery District) run under the direction of experienced superintendents and governed by local school boards. It has also been shown that in almost all public schools, students who are serious about and engaged in their education are succeeding no matter what public school they attend. The top U.S. students are quite competitive with the top students from other industrialized countries. Teachers who seem to be failures when they teach in high poverty schools somehow miraculously become great teachers when they move to schools serving more advantaged students.

The truth is that the main reason for failing schools is that we have failing communities both urban and rural where children are not prepared for school with the proper guidance and motivation from a healthy home environment. I have yet to see convincing evidence that schools can compensate for lack of positive parental support. Many of the schools serving impoverished or crime and drug affected communities also experience problems with class disruptions caused by unruly students. School principals and even classroom teachers must be given the authority to remove disruptive students from the regular classroom when they are interfering with the educational process. Like it or not, we must invest the necessary resources to prevent a few students from denying a good educational environment to the students who want to learn.

In summary, we can beat up on teachers and principals who are assigned to struggling schools until they are convinced to change to another profession or we can give them the support and even financial rewards for the extra work that is needed in difficult schools. If we really care about improving student performance we need longer school days and a longer school year. But most of all, we need to have parents become more accountable for the positive educational involvement of their children. No teacher can effectively teach students who skip school or who show up without sufficient sleep or who never read a book or who never do homework. It is up to the true practitioners of education to set the record straight and demand that everyone be accountable for education. Educators must utilize the increased awareness of education issues in our country to inform the public about what reforms would really make a positive difference in our schools. We must then take the lead with concrete proposals to make those necessary reforms.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Sham: The Proposed Rules for Return of Takeover Schools

According to a recent news story in, the State Department of Education has prepared a set of recommendations to BESE on the disposition of takeover schools once the 5 year takeover term mandated by state law is completed. The basic recommendation is that those schools that have achieved a school performance score of at least 75 may be turned back to the local school system after two addional years while those scoring below the new state minimum SPS would stay under the control of the State Department of Education Recovery District. But there would also be a stipulation that would allow charter schools to remain independent if their private (non-elected) boards choose to keep them that way. It is pretty clear then that charter schools could remain independent and basically free of public oversight forever under this arrangement. Taxpayer money would continue to be handed over to a private organization without local public oversight. The administrators of these schools could pay themselves whatever salaries they choose (sort of like the city managers in the town of Bell, California) with our tax money. Also, this scheme would apply a different standard of accountability for state-operated takeover schools than was applied to local school systems who were required to surrender those schools to the state in the first place. If a school continued to perform under a score of 75 the state would keep control of it as long as it chose to. Its as though the State Superintendent and his staff are immune to accountability. And as usual, Charter schools seem to always be placed in a favored status whether they are performing well or not. Let's face it: the State Department of Education prefers almost any system to Parish run schools overseen by elected school board members.

On the other hand, if I were a local school board member, I would not be thrilled to get back a school that is still considered failing after 7 years of State Dept. tinkering. Here's why I would be leery of trying to recapture any state takeover schools in the New Orleans area. Local parents and education activists in New Orleans have noticed that a student sorting process occurs between charter schools and those that are directly run by the Recovery District. It seems that some of the charter schools such as the KIPP schools make it very clear to parents and students that they are primarily interested in recruiting highly motivated students that have a strong support system in the home. That's exactly what private and parochial schools have been doing successfully in Louisiana for many years. Its probably the most effective way to create a good school. Recruit good students and you have an advantage in creating a good school. Meanwhile all the leftover students are forced to attend schools with a much less motivated student body. Lance Hill, Executive Director of The Southern Institute for Education and Research who has studied the Recovery District in New Orleans, points out that some relatively good schools in the Recovery District have been created by also creating relatively poor schools alongside those. He has hypothesized that the few acceptable takeover schools can only exist if there are poor schools that serve as a dumping ground for the unmotivated, disengaged and even the special needs students. Statistics show that most charter schools in the New Orleans Recovery district have a significantly smaller percentage of students with disabilities that do non-charters. The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a complaint to BESE about this possible violation of Special Education laws in the New Orleans area.

Charter school advocates have pronounced the New Orleans charters a major success even though it is clear they are playing by different rules than those required of regular public schools. As a nod to the above complaint, the new State Dept. rules would require them to increase their special needs students to at least 75% of the local average percentage.

With this posting I am warning taxpayers and educators of what I believe are improper changes to our system of public education:

  • The turnover of total control of some public schools to private organizations (charters) who can use our tax monies as their personal piggy banks that they can raid at will should not be allowed. Where are the “Tea Party” activists when we need them? No private organization should ever be granted the authority to run a public school without the oversight of locally elected school representatives.
  • The State Department of Education should not be allowed to get a free pass from the accountability system. Their so called failing schools should be subject to the same takeover rules as local school board operated schools. Many local school boards have shown that they are better at turning around low performing schools than the State Department of Education. They should be given another chance at taking back some low performing schools from the State Department if they choose to do so.
We can be sure that any rules that are being applied to the New Orleans Recovery District will eventually affect all public schools in the state.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Student Based Budgeting: Another Wave of Reform

A BESE task force studying the possibility of implementing student-based budgeting is again diverting attention from the important issues in Louisiana education. The idea being sold to BESE by a libertarian group, The Reason Foundation of Los Angeles, is really designed to shift the funding for elementary and secondary schools directly to the school principals rather than to the central office bureaucracy. (Click here to see the Advocate story on this) The theory seems to be that if full authority for running education including setting budget priorities is given to each principal and if the principal is then held accountable for producing education results (such as higher test scores) our educational system will finally be successful! This is just the latest example of wave after wave of reforms in education that ignore the real problems in our schools. The following is a list of the latest reforms that are being implemented in Louisiana education, with very little scientific basis for improving education.

Charter schools to replace low performing schools. There are many more failures than successes among these, yet any charter school is apparently preferable to our State Dept. of Education to a school board run school.

College prep for all. This elitist theory of education reform is based on the idea that a more classical education with higher math, English, and foreign language courses will better prepare all students for 21st century jobs even if they do not attend 4 year colleges. The flaw in this theory is that students are different, and many are turned off by a college prep curriculum. Those are the very students who may have been more motivated by a curriculum that prepared them for high tech skills jobs. By the way, workforce authorities tell us that these skills jobs are more in demand than 4 year degree jobs and have less chance of being farmed out overseas.

Teacher and principal evaluations based on student performance. Cash strapped Louisiana is getting set to spend millions on a new bureaucracy based at the State Dept. that will attempt to link educator evaluations to student performance. Eventually the state will find out what local educators already know: Teachers and principals in low performing schools have the least control over the factors affecting student learning. This means that educators who are going to be trashed by this system are often the ones who needed the most support and incentives to work in difficult conditions.

The proposed student based funding is just another ill conceived fad in education reform. Experienced educators are already pointing out to the Commission, that principals are not trained and cannot afford to devote the staff and time it takes to develop site based budgeting. Just at a time when principals will be mandated to fully evaluate all teachers every year, they would be expected to take on a monumental restructuring of their budgeting system all without extra funding!

The primary goal of this new site based budgeting, to raise student test scores, can be addressed more directly by allowing central office based budgeting to target funding to the schools where students need extra help. Actually this is already being done. The one great benefit of our accountability system is that it is putting a bright spotlight on poor performing schools. You'd better believe it that local superintendents are already focusing major efforts on providing extra help to those schools if only to avoid the embarrassment of having a school labeled unacceptable. That's why a greater percentage of schools run by local school boards have improved their accountability status than have the state run Recovery District schools. By the way, many of these Recovery District schools are using a form of student-based budgeting and many administrators in those systems are complaining about the need for central purchasing and control!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ed-Jobs, Race To The Top Issues

Ed-Jobs Flexibility
One of the major concerns of superintendents and school boards about the use of the 10 billion dollar federal supplement designed to preserve education jobs, is the lack of repeat funding. Suppose a local school system uses the extra funding to hire additional teachers or to avoid layoffs, what will happen next school year when state funding possibly remains frozen, and costs continue to rise and the federal funing is not renewed? Will such school systems be forced to make even more drastic cuts to staff and education programs?
According to a recent story in Education Week, there may be a way to spread the impact of the supplement over a two year period to prevent both over staffing and more drastic layoffs. Apparently the US Dept. of Education will allow school systems to use the federal supplement over a two year period with the final deadline for use of the funds set at September, 2012. For example, if a school sytem estimated that their share of funding would allow the funding and therefore retention of 50 positions for one year, the decision may be to fund 25 positions over a two year period instead. This allows more time for tax revenues to improve or to plan better the ultimate cuts that may be necessary.
Race to the Top Problem:
Its ironic that the very centerpiece of Louisiana's Race to the Top application which was designed to portray the LA Deparment of Education as the most aggressive education reformer in the country probably resulted in failure to win the prize. According to a story in The Advocate, panel members ranking Louisiana's proposal cited a lack of detailed planning for Louisiana's new "value added" teacher and principal evaluation program as a major reason for point deductions in Louisiana's overall score. The judges felt there were not enough  specifics in the rating system as applied to school principals.
My most serious criticism of the new law is that it could wrongly penalize the educators who by their assignments to underperforming schools require the most support from their school systems. Even though the new evaluation law pushed by State Superintendent Pastorek states that certain other factors will be considered along with student scores in evaluating teachers and principals, I believe there is no way to implement the law fairly. That is because schools serving poverty areas are faced with other major impediments to student success than the actual performance of teachers and principals. Often these schools must deal with high student absenteeism, class disruption by uncooperative students, uncooperative or absent parents, drug and crime influences, lack of proper rest and safety of students etc. As I have stated before, such an over-emphasis on student test scores will result in other negative consequences such as teaching the test, or outright cheating. Some students may figure out that teachers can be coerced into easing up on class discipline by threatening to do poorly on the all important tests. (If you don't think kids are capable of this, think again!)
Now that there will be no federal funding for the new evaluation system, critical resources that could be used to address the school problems listed above will instead be used to develop this overly complex system and for extra staff to monitor and link evaluations to student performance.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Questions and Answers About the Ed Jobs Fund

Deputy Superintendent Beth Scioneaux has provided our website with a link to the US Department of Education site which describes the recently approved Education Jobs Fund Program. This is the 10 billion dollar supplement that is being distributed to all local school systems to help preserve teaching and education support jobs. In Louisiana, the extra funding will be allocated to local school systems using the Title I formula. The following is an excerpt from the initial guidance to the states on the proper use of the Ed Jobs Funds program.

D-1. For what purposes may an LEA use its Ed Jobs funds?

An LEA must use its funds only for compensation and benefits and other expenses, such as support services, necessary to retain existing employees, to recall or rehire former employees, and to hire new employees, in order to provide early childhood, elementary, or secondary educational and related services.

D-2. What categories of expenses may an LEA support with Ed Jobs funds?

For purposes of this program, the phrase “compensation and benefits and other expenses, such as support services” includes, among other things, salaries, performance bonuses, health insurance, retirement benefits, incentives for early retirement, pension fund contributions, tuition reimbursement, student loan repayment assistance, transportation subsidies, and reimbursement for childcare expenses.

D-3. Which employees may an LEA support with Ed Jobs funds?

An LEA may use the funds to pay the salaries of teachers and other employees who provide school-level educational and related services. In addition to teachers, employees supported with program funds may include, among others, principals, assistant principals, academic coaches, in-service teacher trainers, classroom aides, counselors, librarians, secretaries, social workers, psychologists, interpreters, physical therapists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, information technology personnel, nurses, athletic coaches, security officers, custodians, maintenance workers, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers.

D-4. What are the statutory prohibitions on an LEA’s use of Ed Jobs funds?

The statute prohibits LEAs from using Ed Jobs funds for general administrative expenses as that term is defined by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in its Common Core of Data. These prohibited expenses are administrative expenditures related to the operation of the superintendent’s office or the LEA’s board of education, including the salaries and benefits of LEA-level administrative employees.

The statute also prohibits LEAs from using Ed Jobs funds for other LEA-level support services expenditures as that term is defined in the Common Core of Data. These prohibited activities include the payment of expenditures for fiscal services, LEA program planners and researchers, and human resource services.

D-5. May an LEA use Ed Jobs funds to pay the salaries and benefits of an LEA-level administrative official who also teaches or has other school-level responsibilities?

For an individual with both LEA-level and school-level responsibilities, an LEA may use Ed Jobs funds to pay only that portion of the employee’s salary and benefits associated with the time spent on allowable (i.e., school-level) activities. The LEA must maintain documentation substantiating that amount of time.

D-6. May an LEA use Ed Jobs funds to change previously established employee salary schedules or to reduce the number of furlough days?

Yes. An LEA may use Ed Jobs funds, for example, to restore reductions in salaries and benefits and to implement salary increases for the 2010-2011 school year. In addition, an LEA may use the funds for any additional salary and benefits costs associated with the elimination of furlough days that had been scheduled for the 2010-2011 school year.

An LEA may not use Ed Jobs funds to compensate employees for any period prior to
August 10, 2010, the date of enactment of the Act.

D-7. May an LEA use Ed Jobs funds to pay the compensation and benefits of individuals who provide school-level services but are not employees of an LEA?

No. An LEA may not use the funds to pay for contractual school-level services by individuals who are not employees of an LEA (e.g., janitors employed by an outside firm). However, an LEA that contracts with another LEA to provide educational and related services may use Ed Jobs funds to pay that portion of the contract associated with the salaries and benefits of the employees of the LEA providing the services.

D-8. May an LEA use Ed Jobs funds to meet previously unmet pension fund liabilities?

No. An LEA may not use Ed Jobs funds to meet pension obligations incurred in prior school years. However, an LEA may use its funds for pension obligations accruing on the basis of services that an employee performs during the 2010-2011 school year.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Congress Approves Education Jobs Funding

President O'Bama signed legislation Wednesday containing Senate Amendment 4575 to HR 1586  that should go a long way in helping to prevent teacher and school employee layoffs caused by the freezing of the MFP by the Legislature. According to Senator Landreu's website, the extra funding for Louisiana Schools will amount to 147 million dollars.

The legislation specifies that the extra funding must be used to pay for employee job related costs. It cannot be used to increase the surplus funds of the local school system or for costs of materials, utilities, equipment, transportation and supplies. My interpretation is that the funding could be used to pay for both salaries of education employes and the increased cost of retirement for all school employees because this is an employee related cost.

The amendment also specifies that the funding will be distributed by the state through the State Distribution formula on a per student basis. Education Secretary, Arne Duncan said the money should be going to local school systems within a matter of weeks. The object was to prevent possible teacher layoffs at the beginning of the school year.

If any Governor refuses to file the necessary application as specified by the law, the federal Department of Education may make the distribution directly to local school systems.

All of the above leads me to believe that each Louisiana local school system will receive a fair share of the 147 million dollars regardless of any political maneuvering by the Governor.
Important Note: For more details about the legislation and what it means for Louisiana simply click on each of the highlighted sections above to see the actual provisions of the legislation.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Unintended Consequences of Education Reform

Two new laws added in the 2010 session of the Legislature have provided State Superintendent Pastorek with new tools for tightening the screws on local educators in an effort to produce higher state test scores. Act 54 (see my blog dated 5/16) will make a large part of teacher and principal evaluations dependent on improved student scores (increases in the value added LEAP or course scores). Another law, Act 749, (see blog dated 4/25) will supposedly relieve some under performing schools of burdensome mandates and exempt such schools from state takeover if the local superintendent agrees to a plan for improving student performance. The law provides that if such a plan does not succeed, the school may be converted to a charter school. At the same time State Department officials have great expectations of receiving a generous federal grant from the Race to the Top program to finance such reforms. Everything seems to be falling neatly into place for a scheme that will spotlight Louisiana and its State Superintendent as leaders in the latest wave of education reform. All this effort and expenditure of millions of tax dollars is based on an assumption that if administrators push teachers harder and as a result teachers teach harder, the students will produce higher test scores, justifying this great expense in money and pressure on teachers.

Recent news stories however about possible unintended consequences of such reform efforts should serve as a warning to education policy makers that Education reform is not always synonymous with educational progress. A recent article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution reveals that 109 teachers and school administrators from 58 schools in the Atlanta school system are being investigated for possible cheating (erasing and changing answers) on the Georgia State Assessment. Such revelations are becoming more common as educators' destinies are more closely tied to student test scores. Also an article this week by Diane Ravitch reveals that the entire New York City school system was recognized for major improvements in student performance based on a modified and easier testing instrument. It turns out that most of the claimed student gains were inflated or non-existent. Finally, in the New Orleans school system, the Southern Law Poverty Center is challenging the alleged practice of public charter schools of avoiding the enrollment of students with disabilities (special education) students. Such students cost more to educate and usually have a negative effect on state test results for the schools where they are assigned. All of these are unintended consequences of the current push to reward and punish schools and teachers based on the test performance of students. And now the new Legislation will intensify the consequences to teachers and schools for student performance.  Never before has such an extensive experiment been proposed with so many students' and teachers' lives without evidence of effectiveness of the plan.
These news reports demonstrate unintended consequences we can expect from the misuse of student test scores for the evaluations of teachers and schools. Correctly designed and administered tests are an effective measure of what students have learned, but do not necessarily measure the quality of the teacher or the school. By putting all our reform efforts and money into punishing teachers and school administrators working in difficult circumstances, we may be missing a great opportunity to make changes in schools that would actually improve the delivery of critical skills and knowledge to our students. Every year we waste on unproven accountability schemes that put the entire burden for student achievement on frustrated and overworked teachers is a year that we may be losing the opportunity to educate thousands of students who are disengaging from our impractical education system. Education in Louisiana will not be improved by the hiring of dozens more bureaucrats and number crunchers at the Department of Education to implement the hiring and firing of teachers based on student scores.

How is all this reform likely to affect our students? Each year many students are voting with their feet by leaving public schools starting in middle school and increasing to thousands of dropouts in the 9th and 10th grades. Some are even getting their parents to sign worthless home schooling forms so they can evade the compulsory attendance laws. For approximately 40% of our students our public school system is failing to provide a relevant education that these students are willing to participate in. If we truly wanted to use a market approach to education, we would be putting more effort into making our schools more attractive to our customers, the students.

So what types of reforms in Louisiana education would really make a positive difference for our students? Over a year ago, Governor Jindal revealed that workforce studies in our state indicated that the majority of high school graduates should be steered to training programs in the Community and Technical College system rather than to the four year college system. The most recent Workforce statistics tell us that there are many more job opportunities for Associate degrees and for Industry Based Certifications than for 4 year degrees. So why does our State Department of Education continue to pound away at college prep for all? I suppose it just sounds a lot better at the Rotary Club or Chamber of Commerce meeting for the State Superintendent to pledge that our high school diploma has been redesigned to insure college readiness for every student. Of course the truth is only a small percentage of Louisiana students who register at 4 year colleges actually graduate.

If we studied the needs of our potential dropouts more carefully and treated them as valued customers, we would by adding practical career orientation courses as early as middle school. Also many high schools would utilize career coaches to assist students in designing and pursuing a high school career diploma that would prepare them for a solid and rewarding career. All high schools would offer both College Prep and Career Prep courses. Students would have a curriculum tailored to their unique interests and abilities rather than be subjected to automatic efforts to prepare them for college. High schools would have cooperative agreements with Community and Technical Colleges to allow dual enrollment. Every student would be allowed to modify his/her graduation plan at the beginning of the school year based on changing needs and aspirations.

My question continues to be:  how long will our students have to wait for reform that really focuses on their needs rather than on the needs of state and national education leaders?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Every Teacher Can Improve

I believe that highly effective teachers are persons who are able use their inate abilities and learned techniques to impart knowledge to children. Some of the skills of a great teacher may be inborn, but I believe most of the methods of teaching can be learned and perfected through years of practice. That's why I've always looked for better ideas about good teaching. We can all learn to improve our profession and our skills as teachers. Scientists have made great strides in recent years in the study of the brain and particularly about how humans learn those concepts and skills that make them successful in life. One recent book by a cognitive scientist deserves to be read and utilized by teachers who want to improve their instructional techniques. The book is titled Why Don't Students Like School? By Daniel Willingham. This book is designed to inform teachers about some of the latest discoveries about learning theory and how teachers may apply these principles in their classrooms.

The book is very readable. It does not have technical jargon we usually see in scholarly works but attempts to describe good teaching techniques in everyday language. Here is a brief summary of some of the concepts about learning and teaching that are described.

  • The author points out that people are naturally curious but the mind is not designed for thinking. When confronted with a situation that requires analysis and thought most people rely on past knowledge instead of trying new ideas. Teachers must apply techniques that stimulate the learning of new skills and knowledge.
  • Knowledge and facts accumulated through reading and stimulating experiences are vital to thinking and learning. Some students are handicapped because of minimal reading and limited life experiences.
  • Teaching lessons must be planned in such a way as to utilize those brain characteristics that encourage learning and remembering.
  • Why is it so difficult for students to understand abstract ideas? Is it always necessary to relate school lessons to everyday life?
  • One chapter has a very interesting discussion about recent findings about the misuse and over use of praise for school work. It turns out that one type of praise is helpful while another type of praise is actually counterproductive.
  • Is drilling worth it?
  • What is the secret to getting students to think like real scientists and other experts?
  • How should I adjust my teaching for different types of learners?
  • How can I help slow learners?
  • How does the teacher's mind figure into the teaching and learning process?
Many of these topics have been addressed in teaching methods classes or in inservice  workshops for teachers. But the difference here is that these topics include the latest research about the mind and about learning theory. The author includes numerous real life examples that make his points applicable to actual teaching situations. This stuff is really state of the art learning theory.

If you believe that teaching is a profession and a craft that requires constant honing of skills and the use of the latest science based strategies, you will find this book quite useful.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Education vs Incarceration

Recently a committe of the Legislature was informed that the cost to taxpayers of each young person confined in a juvenile institution amounts to approximately $115,000 per year of incarceration. It also turns out that about 90% of the young people who commit crimes requiring sentencing to juvenile institutions are school dropouts. There is obviously a strong connection between crime and failure in school. The cost to taxpayers for students who drop out or flunk out of school and then turn to crime is at least ten times the cost per pupil for students who remain in school. There is also a major cost to taxpayers for those dropouts or flunk outs who somehow resist the temptation to do crime. Most of these young people have no job skills and end up on the welfare rolls where they are supported by the taxpayers instead of becoming productive citizens. It turns out therefore that Louisiana taxpayers have a major stake in keeping more students in school and insuring that they are prepared with marketable work skills.
This problem belongs to all of us whether we want to face it or not. We must either find a way to educate all children or be prepared to support them in prison or on the welfare roles. Its pay now or pay later.

So why do we continue to allow fully 40% of our children to leave school without an education? The cost to our state of such a tragedy makes the cost of the gulf oil spill look like peanuts. The failure of our education system of almost half of our students is the elephant in the room dragging down the economy of our state, yet it is barely noticed by our policy makers.

Newspaper accounts of higher salaries this year for new positions in our Department of Education while most local school systems are reducing teacher ranks and increasing class size are amazing! It reminds me of the bonuses paid to Wall Street bankers after their extremely poor job performance bankrupted their companies and forced a bailout by taxpayers. Louisiana taxpayers are also funding a public school “Recovery District” which pays generous salaries to top administrators while hiring inexpensive two-year “teach for America” instructors. This state takeover school system continues to produce the lowest graduation rate in the state.

Unfortunately Louisiana's next round of “reform” which consists of implementing the new National Curriculum Standards will likely result in more dropouts. That's because all the emphasis is being placed on implementation of a college prep curriculum for all. No one has figured out how to convince the thousands of students who are disengaging from our education system as they reach middle school and high school to actually buy into these new and improved standards. One of the most ridiculous statements I saw coming from the Obama administration recently was a comment that “many students are doing poorly in school in our country because the curriculum is not challenging enough!" I don't know about the other states, but in Louisiana, the issue with our students is not whether the curriculum is challenging, but much more whether it is relevant to their lives. A subject is not challenging to a student if he has no interest or motivation to learn the material. The problem is that few of our education policy makers or highly paid Education Department heads have made the effort to make school relevant to our huge underclass of "at risk" students. The educational system cannot succeed by attempting to apply middle class values and goals to students who come from a different world.

The so called high stakes testing system is a failure. High standards and high minded rhetoric does not educate students if there is no practical plan for getting students to buy into the system. Our educational system must connect with these students where they are, not where we think they should be. We need to find ways for these students to succeed, instead of adding to the barriers to their success. Programs that have been shown to connect with at risk students such as Jobs for America's Graduates and career development programs, which include job shadowing and mentoring beginning at the middle school level must be implemented on a statewide basis if we are to see results. The cost of career coaches in critical schools would be more than paid for by savings from Louisiana's Corrections budget. Every student has strengths that the school system should constantly strive to identify and nurture rather than focus only on his/her failures.

 Maybe if tackling Louisiana's continuing dropout problem were viewed purely as a way of saving taxpayer dollars, we would have a better chance of getting action on a crisis much bigger than the BP oil spill.