Thursday, April 14, 2011

Limiting Opportunities For Graduation

The governors and leaders in big business from the Achieve group have decided once again what is important for all students in our public schools to learn, and you the educator will soon receive your marching orders to implement it! According to a recent article by Peter Whoriskey in the Washington Post, the Achieve group, an influential education reform organization formed by business leaders and governors that focuses on high school graduation requirements is pushing for the requirement of Algebra II for high school graduation. According to the story, 20 states have already adopted this requirement.

Achieve is touting a study they commissioned that shows a strong correlation between Algebra II takers in high school and success in graduation from college. From this study they have concluded that if all high school students were required to take Algebra II they would have a much better chance of graduating from college and in getting a great jobs, and from that we can assume that our country would guarantee its position as the leader of the world in business and technology. Never mind what the teachers say about trying to force this medicine down the throats of every grumbling kid; the business leaders know best. These are the same business leaders by the way, who created sub-prime mortgages, mortgage backed securities, derivatives, credit default swaps etc. that ended in a meltdown of our financial system. Its ironic that the bankers and Wall Street firms were using the services of young math whizzes who were hired to create these complex scams for the enrichment of the few, who in turn were bailed out by the hard working people of this country who never use Algebra II in their daily lives!

If you read all of the Washington post article however, you find that the chief researcher, Anthony Carnevale, who produced this study for the Achieve group is highly skeptical that a causal relationship really exists between Algebra II and college success. He points out that it may simply be that smart, hard working students who are willing to tackle Algebra II are also smart and determined enough to succeed in college. . . . . Yet the so called business leaders who have never set foot in a classroom have decided that every student should be forced to take and pass this if they are to be granted a high school diploma. Soon I predict that Bill Gates and Arne Duncan then President Obama will insist that Algebra II be required in all states. You can be sure that our State Superintendent is already planning to add this requirement in Louisiana. Never mind that the graduates we are starting to produce have no clue how to build anything, how to hang a picture straight, how to use a square or a level, how to use power tools, or how to do basic math (because we are moving them on to Algebra) or how their bank plans to rip them off with excessive overdraft fees and traps in the credit card fine print.

These so called education reform leaders are still using the old discredited theory that requiring difficult subjects in school “trains the mind” to think better and solve many other problems in unrelated fields. It used to be that Latin and French was required of all educated people, but more recently it's difficult math courses that are never used again by the average person. Cognitive learning studies over the last 100 years have demonstrated that such “train the mind” theories are invalid. Training the mind to do Algebra II or Chess, or puzzles only trains the mind to do those very things. It does not transfer to other useful skills in life. That's why there are bums in Central Park in New York  who are experts at Chess but who have never held a productive job. I have a grandson who is a genius at playing video games on the internet but who dropped out of LSU because college was too boring and stressful. He had made an “A” in Algebra II and a 32 on his ACT, but never learned to work.

Arkansas was one of the first states to adopt the Algebra II “for all” requirement. Recently their students were tested after taking the Algebra II course and it was found that only 13 percent of the students had achieved any sort of proficiency in the subject. But instead of reassessing the wisdom of forcing all students to take this course, the state education officials said the teachers are just going to have to work harder to make the course work. What do the teachers think? According to the Washington Post article, some of them are worried about students dropping out without a high school diploma because of this requirement.

The personnel director at Northrup Grummond shipbuilding in New Orleans complained to the High School Redesign Commission that local kids were not prepared in high school to go to work at his facility because they did not know enough math. Yet when you check Northrup Grummond's employment of entry level workers, you would find that the company has a preference for hiring Hispanic/Mexican origin workers with no high school education at all and limited English skills. Why the discrepancy in their talk and their hiring practices? It turns out that Mexican origin workers have a habit of showing up for work on time every day and are willing to learn and do anything the foreman requires while many of the of the local origin kids are just plain unreliable no matter what their education. Its a sad fact that our young people failed on work ethics more than on math background. Do you think this could be fixed by requiring Algebra II?

Look, I was a Physics and Chemistry teacher. I love math and science. But I also know that every kid is different in his/her aptitudes and interests. Our country needs good plumbers, electricians, medical technicians, truck drivers, office workers, musicians and teachers just as much as it needs mathematicians. (Do you think our Superintendent or BESE members would pass an Algebra II test?) If we followed the example of Finland and tried to identify a student's aptitudes and interests and focused on developing the skills related to those interests instead of demanding the same of every student, our educational system may be more successful. It would also help if we did more to connect what we do in school to potential careers in many varied fields. Will it help our students and our state instead to flunk kids out of high school just because they have trouble with logarithms and quadratic equations?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Coalition For Louisiana Public Education

Click here to see the full press release announcing the formation and priorities of the Coalition For Louisiana Public Education. This coalition now includes many of the major organizations involved with public education in Louisiana. The coalition intends to advocate for positive changes in education that will preserve and enhance traditional public education in Louisiana. The group has adopted seven priorities including proper education funding by the Legislature, the ending of unfunded mandates, and a halt to the takeover and privatization of public schools. This group is encouraging all educators to speak with a unified voice to legislators and BESE members. This blog will inform educators each week on actions by the Coalition, and encourage contacts with legislators on specific issues.

Appointment of Recovery District Superintendent Ignores the need for Professional Qualifications
State Superintendent Pastorek's appointment of John White, a charter school and Teach For America advocate with minimal education qualifications as Superintendent of the Recovery District continues the trend of lowering professional standards in the hiring of administrators by our Department of Eduction. Mr White had just left the collapsing administration of New York Chancellor Cathleen Black, another non-educator. Ms Black served as chief administrator for the nation's largest school system for only three months before finding she could not cope with the job. See the article about this fiasco at this link. Dianne Ravitch has pointed out the serious flaws in the so called education reforms recently inflicted on New York and Chicago. These are the two systems where White got his administrative experience. White has a BA degree in English, three years as a Teach For America teacher, and a couple of years practice as a vice Chancellor in charge of dismantling and converting public schools to charters in New York. The salary has not yet been determined for this new appointee, but apparently BESE has given Pastorek carte blanche on the salary issue. This appointment continues the attack on the teaching profession in Louisiana.

Reform based on myths
Ben Wildavsky writes in Foreign Policy Magazine that much of the criticism of U. S. public schools is unfounded. He points out as I did in an earlier blog that our schools are working just fine for Asian origin and Caucasian kids. The problem we have is in closing the achievement gap for high poverty Hispanic and Black students. I emphasize high poverty here because there are plenty of more advantaged minority kids who are doing just fine in our public schools. This article shows that it makes no sense to label a school as “failing” just because it happens to be serving the most difficult population to educate. I believe you will find Wildavsky's article very much on target.

My concern is that some of the reforms being implemented in Louisiana to deal with so called “failing schools” that somehow just happen to be serving high poverty minority students, is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing. Grading the schools using primarily student scores will automatically stigmatize and demoralize the educators serving high needs students while ignoring real progress made by these educators in reaching the most challenging students. The introduction of value-added teacher and administrator evaluations will also do the opposite of what is desired by driving the strongest teachers away from the most challenging schools. We should be providing real incentives (financial and otherwise) for solid experienced teachers to do the extra work needed for moving these students up instead of running the teachers out! Finally, the continued threat of school takeover or the new waiver options that may require the principal and at least half the faculty to be fired from a school sends the message that members of the teaching profession are expendable as experimental schemes are tested on children.