Thursday, June 3, 2010

National School Rules Will Not Upgrade Louisiana Education

There are two national initiatives that are set to be implemented in Louisiana. One federally promoted initiative links teacher evaluations to student performance. The other initiative proposed by the National Governor's Association will set up a national standard curriculum for all elementary and secondary schools. Louisiana is already well on its way to adopting both programs. Proponents believe that these initiatives will finally result in a world class education for Louisiana students. Sadly we have demonstrated in Louisiana in the last ten years of Accountability and No Child Left Behind efforts, that approving goals and standards for student learning and micromanaging teaching practices do not necessarily equate to desired student achievement.

Both of these initiatives are based on flawed assumptions and because of these flaws will again result in a disappointing outcome for Louisiana students and educators. These latest “reforms” will only continue the endless cycle of public school bashing and lead to more calls for privatization of public schools. Einstein said the definition of insanity is to continue pursuing the same incorrect theories and expecting different results. That's what we continue doing in Louisiana; and it is damaging, not improving, our educational system.

Governor Jindal recently signed into law HB 1033 which will require that 50% of a teacher's evaluation will be determined by the educational progress of students. The assumption seems to be that the classroom techniques of the teacher are the primary factors determining the educational attainment of the students assigned to that teacher for that one academic year. The teacher will then either be retained, retrained or ultimately dismissed based on the “effectiveness” of the teacher in producing academic results. The State Department of Education will set the minimum “effectiveness” criteria based on various socioeconomic factors of the group of students assigned to the teacher. These factors are supposed to level the playing field in the evaluation of teachers. But there is an inherent contradiction. The state and federal authorities now totally controlling education are demanding a narrowing of the achievement gap between socioeconomic groups of students. The only way that can happen is if teachers are expected to “produce” at least one year of academic growth in student performance in each school year, particularly for disadvantaged students. Everything we have learned in the last ten years of accountability in Louisiana tells me there will be an inevitable clash and failure of these incompatible theories. The result will be that teachers will scramble to escape the schools serving disadvantaged students. Instead of providing an incentive for effective teachers who want to work with challenging students to stay with these students, teachers who want to preserve their careers will be forced to seek transfers to the more advantaged schools. I fear some teachers will be driven out of the profession. To see the most recent study on linking teacher evaluation and pay to student performance simply click on this link on Performance Pay models. This study of Chicago schools transformed by U.S. Education secretary Arne Duncan leads me to question why such an unproven model would be promoted by our federal government?

I have already addressed the other initiative to upgrade and standardize the curriculum in previous posts on this blog. I would summarize my opinion of this effort by saying it is absolute folly to standardize the curriculum thereby making it essentially a college prep curriculum when no student comes with a standard brain or a standard home environment. As I have said a hundred times before, not all students can or should be trained for college. Our work force needs for at least the next 20 years in Louisiana indicate that less than 50% of good jobs require 4 year college training. There is a desperate need for skilled workers whose education can be completed in two years or less beyond high school. The present push of college prep for all has seriously degraded the career and technical offerings of our high schools. At the same time, by placing students who are not academically inclined in our college prep courses, we have watered down the instruction in these courses. Teachers are forced by practical considerations to teach basically to the median aptitude of the class resulting in lower standards. By continuing to push college prep for all we demean jobs and careers that are vital to our economy and to many of our students. By basically communicating to children that anything less than a college education is considered a failure, we place many of them in a “no win” situation.

Having said all this, I believe there is value in establishing a set of critical concepts and skills to be taught in a logical progression by all schools in the areas of English, Math, Science and Social Studies. Good reading skills are fundamental to other content areas and to almost all career choices. It is absolutely critical that our educational system prepare all students to their greatest potential in all of these basic areas. What our present educational plan naively fails to recognize however, is that students cannot all be educated to the same level of proficiency and at the same rate of instruction for all subjects. We have absolutely no "plan B” and we have no effective safety net for students who do not fit into our standardized system of education. Until we design an educational system that addresses differences among our students, we will continue to practice the “insanity” Einstein warned against.