Friday, July 2, 2010

Setting Louisiana Students Up for Failure

Recent LEAP testing results seemed somewhat disappointing to State Superintendent Pastorek as judged by the tone of the press release announcing the 2010 LEAP results. 2010 scores at some grades and in some subject areas such as 4th grade English Language Arts showed a decline from the results for 2009. This prompted Pastorek to vow to redouble efforts to intensify instruction in these key areas. But for thousands of Louisiana students, their personal results particularly for high stakes LEAP are downright disastrous. The students who have not met promotional standards at 4th, or 8th grade or on the high school Graduation Exit Exam are heading into a blind alley with little chance of escape from failure and poverty. That's because there is no viable alternative for students who fail LEAP. Its do or die, yet for many students who are far too immature to understand the devastating consequences of high stakes testing on the rest of their lives, failure becomes part of their destiny.

The Department of Education press release pointed to some minor improvements in some grades as bright spots but it was obvious that no amount of “spin” could cover up the fact that LEAP scores are not improving at the rate needed to improve the graduation rate and certainly not the level demanded by the Superintendent to create a “World Class Education System”. After all, his national reputation as a “school turnaround” leader is at stake. That's why we can expect more and more “spin” on the student testing data as time goes on without real progress.

For example, the official graduation rate calculated by the State Department for Louisiana students differs significantly from the Louisiana graduation rate calculated by Education Week magazine. (The Education Week calculation shows a much lower graduation rate) The Department press release on this issue goes to great lengths to explain that the Department method (the cohort method) is the official method approved by the National Governor's Association and therefore should be more credible. The only problem is that the cohort method has several opportunities for excluding students from the calculation that could artificially inflate the graduation rate. Without an independent evaluation of the parameters and algorithms used in the official calculation there is no way to know how much is spin and how much is fact.

The Department press release also “spins” the small percentage increase in high school students passing the Graduation exit exam in 2010, and credits the efforts of the High School Redesign Commission with this supposedly improved result. It is quite possible however that this slight improvement could be due to students dropping out before taking these tests. For example in the New Orleans Recovery District, Dr. Barbara Ferguson,(click on this link to view the full study) an independent researcher for Research on, has found that a decreasing percentage of Orleans students are actually taking the 10th grade GEE compared to 5 years ago. Even so, in that school district, the GEE unsatisfactory rate is 38% and 44% for English/Language arts and Math respectively and equally poor for Science and Social Studies. (these unsatisfactory results combine to prevent graduation). But in addition to these extremely poor results, Dr Ferguson points out it is obvious that many students who started the school year never stayed to take the GEE. An alternative way of calculating the graduation rate is to take the average enrollment for the lower grades (in the N. O. Recovery District this was about 1745 students per grade in 2008) and compare that to the number actually graduating (728) to get an effective graduation rate of only 42%. This means that approximately 58% of the New Orleans Recovery District students are ending up on the streets with no diploma. As I have pointed out in previous blogs, this is the system I call College Prep or Jail prep.

At one time Pastorek speeches contained statements such as the following: “We believe that if we raise the bar our students will meet the challenge and perform better.” Also: “We want to insure that a high school diploma means something in Louisiana.” Those are the kind of statements that always got applause from the Chamber of Commerce or the Rotary Club crowd. Its very popular to “spin” education efforts in this way but it does absolutely nothing to help the kids that are doomed to failure by our one size fits all educational system.

Consider the following:
At one time Pastorek and his followers thought that the threat of failure at the 4th and 8th grade levels would force students to meet standards with a resulting improvement in their educational attainment. Even though thousands of students have been held back as a result of this policy and there has been some improvement in LEAP scores, the NAEP test which measures the same knowledge shows almost no change. Yet we have failed thousands of students to implement this flawed theory. In recent years, the Department has quietly encouraged BESE to modify the high stakes policy to allow students to move on past 4th and 8th grade without meeting the LEAP minimums. Yet the press releases still pretend that Louisiana has high stakes standards for promotion.

Now the problem has shifted over to the high schools. High school principals are complaining that the relaxation of the state promotion policy means that they are now receiving thousands of unprepared students at the high school level and are being forced to provide more and more remedial classes. The problem is the remedial classes make little difference. Over aged and discouraged students are dropping out in droves. Also some of the supervisors of child welfare are reporting that many parents of failing high school students are signing them up for home schooling to escape the mandatory attendance laws. It is assumed that almost none of these students are attaining a diploma or GED. But because the State Department does not follow these students, their graduation results are not available and they are not recorded as drop outs.

Meanwhile the State Department is in the process of phasing out the GED Options program, and continues to discourage the use of the Career Diploma as a means of addressing the needs of non-college bound students. Teachers complain that forcing all students to take college prep courses is resulting in a general watering down of the content of those courses. As far as I know, there is no evidence that High School Redesign is resulting in improved success for our students attending four year colleges.

This insanity in the governance of elementary/secondary education in Louisiana reminds me of the chaos that mortgage brokers and investment bankers created in recent years in the U. S. by developing the sub-prime mortgage system and the related deceptive financial instruments. It all looked good on the surface until the house of cards collapsed.

The question for Louisiana is how long can we continue to tolerate a 40 percent non-graduation rate and the accompanying affect on poverty and crime? Its like the BP oil spill. We are all paying for this one way or the other.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Decline of Creative Teaching

A feature article in this week's Time Magazine titled Thomas Edison; Why He's Relevant Today bemoans the decline of scientific innovation and careers among the American students of today. The article points out that the U.S. now ranks near the bottom in the proportion of college degrees awarded in science and engineering compared to other industrialized nations. Also of doctorate degrees granted by U.S. universities in science and engineering in 2007, more than half went to foreign nationals. During the time of Thomas Edison, and for one hundred years thereafter the U.S. led the world in scientific discoveries and inventions. The authors point out that when one considers the need for new and cleaner forms of energy and other technology challenges of today there is a critical need to encourage American students to follow in the footsteps of Thomas Edison. Yet compared to the push by the National Science Foundation in the 1960's and 70's to advance science and math education partly because of the US/Russia space race, today there seems little effort to promote science and math related careers in our schools.

I was a young high school science teacher in the 60's and 70's and I remember with great fondness the push led by the National Science Foundation to encourage innovative and exciting techniques by science and math teachers. The idea was to demonstrate to students the excitement of scientific discovery by teaching science using a laboratory approach. Before the teacher described a basic law or theory of science, the teacher led student inquiry efforts in the laboratory so students could arrive at an appropriate explanation for a phenomenon of nature the same way real scientists have always done it. It worked! You could feel the excitement in the laboratory as first one or two then the majority of students experienced the thrill of scientific discovery. Those lessons I believe stuck with many of our students throughout their lives. Most of my science students developed a true appreciation of science and the scientific method. Many went on to become engineers, doctors, and even science teachers.

In contrast to today's heavy handed directives for improving instruction by both the Federal and State authorities, the NSF initiative for improving Science and Math instruction involved no intimidation of teachers. There was no quota set for numbers of students who were to attain proficiency, no threat of firing teachers who did not produce a certain passing rate. There was not even a standardized test score required of all students and there were no grade level expectations (GLEs). Surely without state or federal imposed standards and achievement expectations there could be no expectations of success!

Yet the Science and Math push of the 60's and 70's was considered a resounding success. Many more of our students than before went on to achieve college degrees in math and science and there was a general surge of scientific achievement in the U.S. that still has lasting effects today. How could such a program have succeeded without the enforcement of accountability measures?

The National Science Foundation initiative for promoting math and science in the 60's and 70's was based almost totally on the use of incentives to teachers and their schools. Math and Science teachers were offered 8 to 10 weeks courses at key universities where the new laboratory approaches were taught by professors who were considered leaders in their field. The teachers selected for these projects were paid a generous stipend and were provided room and board for these summer institutes. In addition, their school was awarded an equipment and supply allocation so that the new textbooks, lab equipment and supplies could be purchased. All that was required of the teachers and their schools was that the new curriculum in science and math be added in at least one section, and that the teachers trained become mentors for other teachers who may also adopt the new teaching methods. The teachers participating in these institutes were expected to be creative in the teaching of math and science using the new laboratory techniques. In short, teachers were treated as professionals, not as mindless tools of the education policy makers! The idea was not to teach a certain number of GLEs, but to use creativity to instill a love of science and math in middle through high school students. Considering that this program was funded by the NSF for only a few years, its impact on the teaching of science and math was enormous. If such a program existed today, I believe there would be no crisis in the promotion of math and science careers.

I have great concern that the current trend stressing the teaching of a set quantity of math, and science concepts or GLEs instead of emphasizing in-depth understanding of how such concepts apply in real life and how scientists and mathematicians work and appreciate their careers will have the effect of discouraging rather than promoting math and science careers. In addition, I expect much less enthusiasm and creativity from the teachers who are now forced to produce test results rather than the joy of learning! I am waiting impatiently for the true educators out there to stand up to education decision makers who often have never set foot in a classroom and set our public schools on a truly effective course.