Friday, December 23, 2011

Flawed Plan Could Continue School System Decline

The following is an analysis of the recently proposed EBR School System Strategic Plan. Thanks to Noel Hammatt for providing me with a paper pointing out some of his and other researchers major concerns with this plan. The link below connects you to the actual plan now awaiting school board approval.

A special citizens and school board committee has just submitted the final draft of a proposed strategic plan for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system. This plan is a  poorly thought out attempt to have EBR participate in some of the latest education reform fads without regard to what really works. It contains several major proposals that I believe are contrary to sound educational practices. These tactics could harm rather than improve this struggling school system.

The EBR school board members that took office in 2011 decided that a citizen's committee should be appointed for the purpose of revising the district's strategic plan. This new plan was intended to be a reform plan aimed at boosting student performance and the school system's ranking among public school systems in the state. The final result is a highly impractical plan that mostly ignores the real issues in the school system while scapegoating and needlessly punishing many of the professional educators of the system.

During the past 25 years the EBR system, once a leader in the state, has declined significantly mostly because a self perpetuating flight of upper and middle class students from the system and a corresponding erosion of public support.  Now that many parents have pulled their children out of the school system, it is becoming more difficult to maintain citizen involvement and continued funding for the school system. Even so, the school system has managed to produce academic results in some areas that are commendable. Most observers agree on the success of the gifted and talented and magnet school programs.

The school system however, is now comprised of over 82% students classified as high poverty. If you have regularly read this blog you know that many education researchers find that such a student composition produces huge challenges to any school system. We would expect that any strategic plan would have as a main focus the goal of attracting back the thousands of students who have fled to private schools, and some of the families that have moved to neighboring parishes to escape the school system.

The fact is Baton Rouge, like many other high poverty urban school districts, is plagued by many incidents of disruptive behavior and disrespect for authority by some students at many of its schools. Many parents are reluctant to send their children to the public school in their community because they fear for the safety of their child and because fights, bullying, truancy, poor discipline, and classroom disruptions make it difficult for students to receive a good education. Many parents feel that teachers and administrators lack the authority to impose discipline, order, and a healthy learning environment in their public schools. If a child cannot qualify for one of the magnet schools or gifted programs, his/her parents have little hope that regular schools can provide a good education. Those are the issues members of the public expect the school board to deal with effectively. Those are the critical issues that should be addressed in any strategic plan for the school system.

Instead, the proposed strategic plan presented to the EBR Board last week contains one major goal with few practical strategies for accomplishing this goal. The primary "bold goal" proposed is to upgrade the EBR system performance so that it moves up to the top ten of the rankings of public school systems in Louisiana by the year 2020. The bold goal also promises to implement school choice for all families.

The plan authors expect to accomplish this "bold goal" partly by implementing the new state value-added teacher evaluation plan and by firing the lowest rated 25% of the school system's teachers and rewarding the top 25%. The plan makes it clear that teachers and principals will be retained primarily on the basis of their student performance statistics. Such a plan apparently assumes that the low performance of many EBR students has occurred mostly because of  lazy or incompetent teachers and principals rather than the negative impact of an extremely high poverty rate of the students enrolled in the system. This is like a hospital deciding to fire the doctors who work in the intensive care unit because many of the patients there are seriously ill. It is like blaming the Louisiana health care system because so many of our citizens lead unhealthy lifestyles. The major flaw in this plan is that there is absolutely no evidence that firing and replacing a certain percentage of teachers improves student performance! Take a look at the latest results on "miracle" schools by Gary Rubinstein.

Many of the teachers in EBR already feel like they are under siege by state and federal school authorities who blame them for not being able to use their classrooms to correct some of the major problems of our society. They are sick of being forced to teach to the state tests in a way that inhibits the creativity of teachers and destroys much of the joy of learning for students. Many teachers feel that they are not properly supported in maintaining discipline and that some students who behave very poorly in school are coddled and allowed chance after chance to disrupt the education of other students. Teachers will surely see this evaluation and dismissal system based upon factors over which they have no control as an attack on educators by their own school board. This ensuing destruction of teacher morale will only cause further decline of the school system. Did the committee consider the impracticality of firing and replacing 877 teachers?  (That's the 25% mandated in the plan. Will the school system go back to hiring ill suited Phillipino teachers?)  What if after damaging the careers of all those teachers, the school system finds that the replacements do not produce any better results?

The proposed plan also recommends the implementation of site based budgeting which could be just an unnecessary headache for principals. When you add this extra duty to the huge burden of the new teacher evaluation system, (now every teacher will have to be completely reevaluated each year using a complex new system) principals may end up neglecting important duties such as campus organization, discipline strategies, critical parent involvement projects, and faculty team building strategies.

One weird component of the strategic plan would tie priorities for school physical plant improvements to a "school climate scorecard" (this is really just an opinion survey of teachers about the effectiveness of the school staff). What possible connection could there between staff effectiveness and the school physical plant? Apparently the committee believed that the school climate referred to air conditioning and heating.

The part of the proposed plan that would provide incentives for effective teachers to teach in high need, low performing schools is commendable, but will possibly be nullified by the requirement that teachers are to be dismissed based on the performance of students. There is no indication at this time that the state value added teacher evaluation will make fair allowances in its rating system for teachers who teach in low performing schools.

My opinion as an observer and retired educator who once taught in EBR is that the most important action that could restore faith in the EBR school system is for the school board to initiate a program aimed at restoring order, student safety, and respect for teachers, principals, and students in all schools. The present system makes it almost impossible for school authorities to deal effectively with a serious incidence of disruptive and violent behavior in schools which is a spillover of an increasingly violent and lawless community (Check the youth murder statistics in Baton Rouge). The proposed plan gives lip service to safety and order but offers no practical solutions.

The strategy #5 to: "Create in each school a safe and supportive environment that promotes academic excellence, healthy choices, and personal character and responsibility" will not occur unless teachers and principals are given full authority to maintain proper discipline in each school with a minimum of bureaucratic obstacles. Many middle and high school teachers believe the PBIS system is ineffective and needlessly bureaucratic for those age levels.  Often by the time the system allows real action to be taken to correct a seriously disruptive student, major damage has been done to the classroom environment and valuable instruction time has been lost.  I am not suggesting that only high poverty students be held accountable for proper behavior. It should be understood that all students, rich and poor are expected to behave properly in school.

New principals should be provided intensive training in building a positive school climate in part by implementing effective discipline techniques and by establishing effective communication systems with parents. All administrators need to know how to abide by state and federal rules while still effectively maintaining order and and a productive atmosphere in their schools.

Every effort should be made to encourage positive parental involvement in schools. At the same time, support of law enforcement and the courts should continue to be sought to enforce school attendance and truancy reduction.  There have been commendable efforts in this area by the present superintendent and the local DA. These should be continued and reinforced. I guess one of my major concerns with this new plan is that it gives no credit to local administrators and teachers for the many successful programs now in place.

Support of the business community should be sought for developing programs of mentors for at risk students combined with a program that shows the connection between success in school and a good job in the future. The school system needs to develop more good career training programs that are connected with productive careers that require various levels of  training instead of focusing mostly on college prep training. (Presently only a small fraction of school system graduates, as indicated by ACT scores, have any chance of succeeding in 4 year colleges).

A plan such as the one used in Iberville Parish for the establishment of special high-expectation math-science and art academies should be considered. Enrollment would be available to all students who meet rigorous requirements of academic performance and discipline. The difference between such schools and magnet schools is that they are basically open enrollment (school choice). Students who do not meet the strict discipline and performance requirements within a specified time period however, lose their right to remain enrolled. This program in Iberville has been shown to attract many students who had previously moved to private schools. The school board should also investigate the possibility of establishing it's own virtual charter school aimed at attracting students whose parents want to guide their children's education from a home environment.

I believe that if the above elements of a strategic plan were written in plain language, adopted, and properly implemented, the school board could count on enthusiastic support from employees and the community for revitalizing the Baton Rouge public school system. I am very much concerned that the new proposed strategic plan will only result in further deterioration of the school system.