Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Purpose of State School Takeover

Several newspaper stories have been written in recent days about the Red Tape Reduction Act for public schools. Click here to see the latest one. All of the news stories miss the real point of the legislation. The full title of this legislation was The Red Tape Reduction and Local Empowerment Waiver Program. This title was intentionally misleading. The law does not reduce red tape for local school systems. Instead it requires local schools that apply for the waiver to follow a complex set of directives and rules issued by the State Department of Education. A review of the details of the new law reveals that it only empowers the State Department of Education, not local school systems!

This law was intended primarily as a way of allowing local school systems to avoid state takeover of low performing schools. It turns out that the highly paid staff of the State Department of Education have no clue about what to do with low performing schools. Of the nine schools taken over and converted into charter schools in the Baton Rouge area in recent years, all now have lower average LEAP high stakes test scores than before takeover. Some have seen drastic declines in test scores. (Click here to see the Advocate story on this issue) I believe the State Superintendent does not want to take over more schools but he still wants to be able to dictate all sorts of “reforms” to local school systems. His reputation as a reform superintendent depends on constantly shifting the blame for low performance to local school officials.

It is obvious that the only purpose of the threat of state takeover of schools is to embarrass local school superintendents and school boards that happen to have schools serving high poverty communities. The theory is that the fear of public exposure of low performance will embarrass local school officials and light a fire under lazy teachers and administrators who have allowed this low performance.

How has this system worked for Louisiana? Overall there has been some improvement of test scores in many takeover schools. But since almost all public schools started implementing intense test preparation programs, scores on the LEAP have gone up in most schools, traditional and takeover. Does the improvement in LEAP scores mean that our students are better educated? Not according to Education Week Magazine which recently awarded Louisiana an “F” for student achievement as measured by the NAEP test. Some might say, "that's not fair, our students are being prepared for the LEAP not the NAEP!" Others would say that the NAEP measures the same learning. The point is the NAEP is the only way we have of comparing our students' achievement with that of other states. It also shows the pitfalls of teaching to the test.

Personally, I don't think that the editors of Education Week Magazine are such experts at grading the educational systems of the different states. A couple of years ago one of their statements on the issue of state ratings proposed that the optimum state graduation standards would require that all students be prepared for college as a requirement for graduation. That's what Louisiana has done. As a result Louisiana got high marks from Education Week for accountability and standards. Unfortunately there seemed to be no plan for the students who fail the college prep standards and usually end up dropping out.

The main thrust of accountability in Louisiana has been to increase the pressure on the teachers and administrators of low performing schools. At the end of this school year the State Superintendent and BESE will ratchet up the pressure on educators by implementation of the letter grade system for all schools. Any school with a school performance score of less than 65 will get an "F". BESE member and charter school advocate Chas Roemer who proposed this plan may not have realized that his grading system would result in most state takeover charter schools receiving a "D" or an "F".

The only important question is: Are our students better off after all this emphasis on LEAP testing? A quick look at the NAEP scores from 2003 to 2009 reveal almost no progress on the same subject matter tested by the LEAP. ACT scores are also stagnant. The dropout rate at our colleges is one of the worst in the nation. It does not look like college prep for all is doing the trick.

Its ironic that just as China is revamping its elementary-secondary school system to emulate the creativity and problem solving approach once used by U.S. schools, we are now changing schools to emulate their outdated system of testing and rote learning. That's the conclusion by Jonathan Plucker, an educational psychologist who recently returned from studying the educational system in Shanghai. Dr. Plucker is concerned that the current reforms of U.S. education are stifling the very creativity in teaching and learning that has made our educational system great.