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?