Monday, July 12, 2010

Education Department Reorganization

I know I'm repeating myself, but someone needs to constantly remind educators and the general public in Louisiana that education in our state is headed in the wrong direction. Recently, BESE approved a reorganization plan proposed by Superintendent Pastorek that continues to ignore the real problems in Louisiana elementary and secondary schools. Pastorek was quoted as saying the new Department “will be the envy of the country” (which shows that he continues to have delusions of grandeur) The new plan continues the trend of hiring highly paid department heads that seem to have little experience in Louisiana elementary/secondary education with the notable exception of St Tammany Supt. Gayle Sloan.  The plan continues to require all school systems in the state to offer a “one size fits all” plan of education to an extremely diverse population of students. I just can't help but cringe when I see statements in the reorganization plan like “ all students will perform at or above grade level in English and Math by grade 8”. To a naive non-educator such a statement may sound good, but it is an unrealistic goal that can only lead to greater frustration with public education.
It is completely appropriate to place maximum emphasis in our elementary/secondary school system on basic skills such as reading, language arts and math. What is wrong about the Department plan and extremely frustrating to experienced educators is to expect all students to perform at the same levels in these critical subjects. To expect all students to perform at or above grade level is something called the “Lake Wobegon effect”. (Lake Wobegon is a mythical community created by radio celebrity Garrison Keeler who describes his imagined home town as a place where "all women are strong, all men are good looking, and all children are above average". Its a joke!) This is a cute idea for a radio skit but why would our Education Department decide to actually adopt it as a goal for all schools in our state?

Grade level achievement has its origin in the results of standardized testing (not criterion referenced testing), where the test results of a national representative sample of students are distributed along a bell curve, and analysts carve out a swath of scores on both sides of the median score and decree this group as achieving at grade level. The students testing below and above this section of the bell curve are deemed to be performing below and above grade level. There is nothing educationally significant about grade level achievement except that is is near the average for our national student population. Different populations of students depending mostly on their socioeconomic background will produce results skewed somewhat below or above the national results. Our goal in Louisiana education should be to constantly improve our student's performance in the basic skills, not to have them achieve an unrealistic goal of being “average or above” like the kids from Lake Wobegon. That's why a value added approach makes much more sense than such an unrealistic goal as a measure of educational progress. Yet our state department continues to hold up totally arbitrary and unrealistic goals as measures that the public will eventually expect our schools to achieve. Goals like "by the year 2015, all schools will achieve a school performance score of 120"!

Something else is wrong with our one size fits all education plan. When all students are expected to achieve at or above grade level in certain subjects, the system misses the opportunity to focus on the strengths of individual students. For example, by 8th grade, a particular student may be found to be two grade levels behind in reading. This is a perfectly natural result based on the wide variation in student aptitude and home environments. It does not mean that the student is defective, or that his/her teachers were negligent or incompetent. Yet our system is now set up to penalize both the student and the teacher for this perfectly natural result. This same student may possess several exceptional talents in other areas such as artistic ability, mechanical dexterity, or social abilities that would qualify the student for a valuable career. Unfortunately our system of education makes no effort to identify and capitalize on individual students strengths and interests. Many students would love to have career training starting as early as middle school. If the school system were oriented to the interests, needs and abilities of the student, much could be done to develop a plan of education for each student that would truly engage the student in preparing for his career.

Our Education Department just doesn't get it. We keep trying to force feed the same diet to all students when all have different nutritional needs. We have raised the mandatory attendance age to 18, the legislature has set a goal of 80% graduation rate, yet students and their parents continue to evade the system. Fully 40% of our students avoid public education like a toxic oil spill. Now kids are registering for home schooling in large numbers to escape mandatory attendance, and in urban areas like East Baton Rouge and New Orleans, students are simply transferring from school to the streets in such large numbers that they cannot possibly be rounded up by authorities. In a country that claims to have invented the free market system, where customers can choose from an infinite variety of products, our public school students are treated like the citizens of communist era Russia. The present system, even as reorganized will continue to lose support among all stakeholders.