Sunday, April 3, 2011

Education in Louisiana: A High Stakes Game For Adults

It's not about the children anymore. It's about the adults who want to gain fame and high salaries by gaining control of public education. What we have done in Louisiana by introducing high stakes testing, school takeovers, privatization, and competition between schools is a game for adults that victimizes the very children it was supposed to save.

Much of the education reform in Louisiana was designed by people with no experience in education (with the exception of the late Cecil Picard) who gained control of state education policy making. They designed education reform based on the assumption that low student performance was mainly caused by lazy or incompetent teachers and administrators. As announced by reformer and charter advocate Leslie Jacobs, "We can no longer blame abysmal performance on issues external to the schoolhouse such as poverty and demographics.”

Round one of the game of education reform included the testing of students every year on basic skills such as English language arts and math, publishing the scores by school and producing a rating system for schools based primarily on student scores, student attendance and dropouts. The State Department of Education would classify some low-performing schools (based on student scores) as failing schools and threaten those schools with state takeover if the scores did not improve according to state demands. This should improve the schools by embarrassing educators into doing their job.

That was Round One of the reform plan. How did it work? Soon local school administrators realized that the game was to raise student test scores at all costs, and state test scores (LEAP) started going up. State education leaders hailed the score increases as a sign that Louisiana education was improving. Maybe this would be a win-win in the game of education reform. Some schools, however, serving underprivileged students turned in shockingly low scores and ended up being classified as failing schools. Then it was found that on national tests such as the NAEP, which measured the same things as the state LEAP test, overall student performance had barely improved over a period of 8 years and sat near the bottom of state rankings. Many students were losing in the game of Education Reform!

Round two of the game began as some schools still failed to produce better test scores and the state actually had to make good on its takeover threat. Also, other school test scores did not continue to improve dramatically as had been expected. Apparently the education establishment was so rotten it could not be reformed. The theory now changed to: “Lets let private business do the job. Free enterprise and competition should be able to solve any problem in education!” The new State Superintendent seized the opportunity in New Orleans presented by the devastation of Katrina to convert many of the takeover schools to privately operated charter schools. Most were non-profit, but operated by high salaried administrators paid with taxpayer dollars. The game now got really serious with reputations and high income on the line.

Some claim that the conversions to charter schools have resulted in dramatic improvement. The truth is, a few of the charter schools in New Orleans have produced good student performance and other schools have shown some gains in student test scores. But in recent years most public schools have started teaching to the test, so all scores across the state have improved.  Also it was found that if you taught basic test taking skills to children, even the lowest performers could improve their scores. Some charter schools found they could use tax money to hire a test prep company that would pretest all students and then instruct teachers about how to teach each student to improve his/her scores. That might have been OK if it would have resulted in real learning as measured by the NAEP. It did not. The emphasis on only two basic subjects also resulted in the neglect of other subjects such as science and social studies. School became a game and a competition for adults rather than an education for children.

Observers recently pointed out that the special law for takeover of schools in New Orleans had allowed the takeover of many schools that were not failing at the time of takeover. So the new charter schools that were able to attract the most motivated students from those schools had an advantage in getting good scores. Also the latest census shows that fewer of the most at-risk families returned to New Orleans after Katrina. Those charter schools that showed impressive gains, got much of it by carefully screening applicants and pushing out students who did not perform according to expectations. (One of the most successful nationwide charter school organizations also operating in New Orleans has a black male dropout rate of over 40% in grades 6-8). In addition, many under-performing students are counseled into transferring to other public schools that become dumping grounds. (Just part of the strategy in the adult game of school competition) Supporters of charters did a great national public relations job of highlighting only the winning schools in New Orleans and hiding the losers.

Then State education leaders got a little over confident and assumed that any low-performing school could be taken over by any charter organization and produce great results. This euphoria led to aggressive state takeover and conversion to charters in other parts of the state by various groups who wanted to play the game of education reform. In the Baton Rouge area, nine schools were taken over by the state and all converted to charters. But a strategic mistake was made. These schools were taken over with the same student body that was under-performing without seeking out only the best and most motivated students. They tried to play fair! The result has been a serious setback for the charter players. All of the takeover schools in the Baton Rouge area have had major declines in student performance. (see our post on Feb 19). Some of these new charter operators had never run a school before and didn't have a clue! So again the children lost out in the game of education reform.

Round 3: Now we are moving to round 3 of the game. The legislature and BESE have passed three major rule changes in the game that are designed to favor the reformers and school takeover advocates. The first is to increase the minimum scores the state uses to determine failing schools. This will tighten the screws on schools where lazy or incompetent educators have not shown enough progress. If necessary, those schools can also be turned over to charter operators. Or maybe there could be an expansion of the voucher program started in New Orleans that let students in failing schools escape to private schools. That voucher program has been severely criticized by the charter advocates in New Orleans because of a study that showed the voucher recipients' performance had not improved by transferring to private schools. The second rule change was to rate all public schools using letter grades “A" through “F”. The new rating system adopted by overriding the recommendations of educators and citizens, will assign a grade of “D” or “F” to approximately 46% of all public schools this fall. The following year the number of “F” grades will increase when the minimum score for a passing school goes up in 2012. According to the law, parents will receive a report on their child's school's grade each school year. The third change in rules of the game will rate all teachers using a value added model of student achievement. Those teachers and administrators who do not raise student scores by the mandated amounts will be subject to dismissal.

So how will Round 3 of the education reform game turn out? The following are my best guesses based on what I know about Louisiana schools: Parents will get their new school report cards probably in the fall of this year. What do you think will be the level of support and cooperation from parents who see that their child's school has been rated as a “D” or an “F” by state authorities. Poor student performance may become a self-fulfilling prophesy based on deteriorating parental support for public schools. What do you think will happen to property values near the schools with “D” and “F” grades. This new grading system is extremely destructive! It practically guarantees that all inner city non-magnet schools will receive an "F" while magnet schools and other selective schools will get an "A". This has nothing to do with the actual performance of the teachers and administrators. It is simply a direct result of sorting students by motivation and potential for success.

Also, in anticipation of the damaging effects of the new value added evaluation, experienced teachers who are now teaching in low performing schools will start insisting on transfers to the more successful schools. This will result in a talent and experience drain from the very schools that most need solid teachers. The addition of more charters will continue to produce poor results with fragmentation of support for public schools. Vouchers will be tried to send kids to private schools with public money, but the private schools will try to take only the best and most motivated students, leaving the public schools an even more difficult problem. This time everybody loses - - students, parents, teachers and the taxpayers of Louisiana.

If you care about stopping this damaging game being played with public education in Louisiana, please talk to your legislators and ask that we instead give educators the support they need to really improve our schools. Join with the new coalition that has been formed to support our public schools. A program of legislative priorities is now in the process of being developed (More about this next week). The struggling schools and struggling students need help, not criticism! The school reform insanity, if not stopped will drive away our best and most experienced teachers and administrators who cannot easily be replaced. Those who think that private takeover of schools is the answer will be sadly disappointed. But by then it will be too late to fix our schools. Those who say we should not waste more resources on the uderprivileged should also know one thing: It is much more expensive per pupil to house young people in the state prisons than to give them a good education ($80,000 compared to $10,000 per year).