Saturday, July 28, 2012

How to Create Failing Schools and Privatize Education

Our Governor and the news media have done a great job of creating “the failing schools of Louisiana”. This creation was a brilliant plan for the privatization of our k-12 school system. Once the government and the media announced that approximately 40% of our children in Louisiana are attending failing schools, it was an easy step to convince the public that something must be done! Any reform is good because at least it is not the status quo. Anyone who is against reform must be for keeping kids in failing schools and a defender of the status quo. In this environment almost anything the governor wants to do to education is considered good, even if it is not supported by research of any kind.

Why do I say that the Governor and the news media have created the failing schools of Louisiana? That's because the term “failing school” is a purely arbitrary designation. It is not necessarily valid, but once the government announces it has identified hundreds of failing schools, most people believe that such a designation must be based on fact.

To demonstrate how arbitrary the definition of a failing school is, let's conduct a thought experiment. Let's pretend that Louisiana had a great educational system, and that every single teacher was doing the best job possible in educating children. Let's assume that in this perfect school system there was not one bad teacher in our public schools! Let's assume that every teacher had complete knowledge of his/her subject matter and followed the state curriculum guide perfectly, used the best teaching techniques and worked with each student providing individualized instruction etc, etc.

But at the same time let's stipulate that those teachers and that the public education system would still be educating our current Louisiana students where about 60% qualify for free lunch because of the high poverty in our state, a large percentage of our students come from single parent homes, many do not have good nutrition, many do not have a quiet place in the home to study, many are not required by their parents to attend school regularly, and many have learning disabilities. But they would all be taught by perfect teachers, go to schools with great facilities, and have the best opportunities possible.

Let's also require in this system that at the end of the year the state would test all of these students in the basic skills to see how much each had learned. What do you predict would be the scores produced by our students in this ideal school environment? Would all students make the same scores as their classmates at their grade level in all schools in the state? Would the scores for each school across the state; some serving wealthy communities, some middle class communities, and the majority serving high poverty communities be pretty much the same? Would all the schools produce high student scores?

Common sense tells us that even if all the teachers are perfect and all the schools have good facilities and good administrators, there will still be major differences in student performance across the state caused by the many other factors that affect the academic performance of students. We can also reasonably conclude that the students from the wealthiest communities would do the best in school and those from the poorest communities would do the worst. (The statistics on this are irrefutable)

So now suppose we assigned each school a performance score that was based on the average performance of all students attending that school. The schools with high student scores would get a high performance score and the schools with low student scores would get a low performance score. Now suppose we came up with a letter grading scale so that the schools with the highest performance scores would be assigned an “A” and the schools with the lowest performance scores will get an “F”. Then suppose we allowed a committee of citizens to set the lowest score for a “D” at a level where approximately 10% of the schools will fall below the D level and establish a scale so that all the other schools are distributed between D and A. Then we would publish the results for all schools and announce that we have identified the "failing schools" of our state and that we are very disappointed in those schools and also in the schools that have been rated “D” and “C”. In addition, we are concerned that many thousands of students are “trapped” in these failing schools and that parents need other options for their children other than being forced to attend “C” through “F” public schools. Those options, we would decree, must be private schools where the students have never been tested by the standardized tests we have given to the public schools students. Some of those schools teach Creationism instead of Science, and we really have no idea what their curriculum looks like. But the one thing we know is that many of their teachers are not certified and many are not teaching in their field. By this system we would have “created” a huge number of failing schools and we could propose to fire the ineffective teachers in those failing schools. But wait, how would that make sense if all the teachers in all the schools were perfect to begin with. Also, how would it make sense to allow some students to transfer to schools with questionable curricula and untrained teachers?

The above thought experiment demonstrates how our state could create failing schools even if all of the children had been given the greatest opportunity possible. That's because anytime you test students from different backgrounds you will get a huge range of scores. All the testing experts know that student scores vary greatly no matter what school they attend and that students from poor neighborhoods score worse than those from wealthy neighborhoods. Of course not all teachers are effective in the real schools of Louisiana, but the point is we have no way of knowing how much of the low performance of our students is caused by poor teaching.

Then there is the issue of grade level performance. Here is an important revelation. It is mainly statisticians that have created the concept of grade level performance using the natural distribution of achievement scores produced by a representative group of test takers from across the nation or across the state. The statisticians look at the distribution of all scores and slice off a section around the median of all scores and that becomes the grade level range. Any tester who scores above that arbitrary range is considered “above grade level” and all those scoring below that arbitrary range are considered to be performing “below grade level”. Here's the important point We will always have a significant number of students scoring below grade level because the statisticians have designed the system that way, and because students always perform at different levels no matter how effective the teachers are. Guess what! Even where you have mediocre teachers, some students will still perform above grade level! That's because the students, and their aptitude and motivation have a lot to do with achievement in school, maybe even more than the effectiveness of the teacher. Thomas Jefferson was considered one of the best educated persons of his time even though he had almost no formal education. He apparently had a tremendous thirst for knowledge.

I have written all of the above to point out that the so called “failing schools of Louisiana” were created by the Governor, Superintendent White and the News media. There is absolutely no basis for assuming that the teachers in a “D” or “F” school are not doing their job as well as is humanly possible, just like it is wrong to assume that the teachers in an “A” school are all great teachers. Yet this is what the public has been led to believe and why this system is so unfair to educators and students. I believe that if you switched the teachers of the top performing school in a parish with the teachers in the lowest performing school in a parish, you would still get basically the same student scores as before the switch!

One more thing: There is no evidence that transferring students from low performing schools to other schools makes any difference in the performance of those students. This was done in Chicago under Arne Duncan, and studies have shown that the transferred students have not done any better than before their transfer. Milwaukee has had a system of Voucher schools for years and the results for students in those schools is no better than for their cohorts in regular public schools. Finally, in the case where vouchers have been tried in Louisiana in the New Orleans area, the voucher students have produced lower average scores than those attending the Recovery District schools which have the second lowest scores in the state!

I believe that what Jindal has done in Louisiana by creating this misleading grading system for schools is designed to privatize our schools and to allow his friends in the business community and for those in the far right religious factions to profit from children no matter how damaging it may be to the future of these children. This system and the privatization of schools is a giant step backward, and will be damaging to students and will eventually cripple our public school system. We must do every thing we can to stop it!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Legal Challenge

The Baton Rouge Advocate today carries a story about letters sent to voucher schools by the LAE attorney Brian Blackwell warning them that they may be subject to lawsuits from the LAE for participating in the voucher program.  Some see this as an unfair scare tactic, and some believe the LAE is using strong arm "Union" tactics. I disagree. And I know who really used strong arm tactics to pass this privatization scheme with the use of our tax dollars. That "scholarship" money is money we all contributed for public education, not for the enrichment of a few greedy preachers and for the large corporations who are pushing to enlarge their virtual schools in Louisiana.

The following is the comment I submitted to the Advocate in response to this article:

I am a member of LAE and I know Brian Blackwell the LAE attorney. He is an excellent lawyer and he just doing his job as dictated by normal legal practice. He is simply covering all the bases by notifying the voucher schools that by accepting vouchers they may be participating in an activity prohibited by the Louisiana constitution. This is not a scare tactic, it is a legal tactic if your position is that our tax dollars cannot be legally used to support private schools. The governor on the other hand has played real hardball by allowing the firing of state employees and the punishing of legislators that have the nerve to disagree with his policies. For example we have seen the firing of an education official who had the nerve to report possible illegal activities of one of the Governor's favored charter schools. Later on the school was closed when the evidence could not be ignored by BESE.  

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

BESE Approves Whitewash on Voucher Accountability

Yesterday BESE approved the so called “accountability” rules developed by Superintendent White for private schools accepting public school voucher students under the Act 2 legislation. This was just a formality since White had been given sole authority by the legislature to make the rules. As I have pointed out before, BESE has become irrelevant since it has become clear that all but two of the members are firmly under the direction of Jindal and his hand picked superintendent. But the meeting was valuable in that it allowed members of the public and representatives of education organizations to point out the many flaws and areas of non-accountability in the rules. Click here to see the Reuters new story on this issue and compare it to the Advocte support for the Whitewash.

One of the most important criticisms of the accountability rules for voucher schools pointed out by several speakers is that they are not truly rules since the policy allows the state superintendent to waive them or make exceptions to the rules. The only real potential for the accountability rules is that they provide for the continued testing of voucher students and the reporting of results to the state (but that was already in state law). In addition, for some voucher schools, the state will calculate a Scholarship Cohort Index (SCI) which will be similar to the School Performance Score (SPS) which is now published for all pubic schools. Voucher schools with an SCI below 50 would not be allowed to accept new voucher students in succeeding years. Unfortunately, many of the schools will not have SCI scores and no public reports because they enroll fewer than 10 voucher students in a grade or fewer than 40 voucher students overall. Others will not have scores at all because they will enroll most of their voucher students in grades K-2 initially.

Here are some of the important issues pointed out to BESE by various individuals and groups:

BESE members Carolyn Hill and Lottie Beebie pointed out that BESE may not have followed their own rules for adoption of new policy in setting up the meeting on Tuesday. Adequate notice was not given of the new rules and publication rules for the new policy may not have been followed. Ms Hill and Ms Beebie should be commended for standing up to extreme pressure from the Governor and his allies and voting their conscience by voting “no” on White's voucher rules. They both pointed out that White's Rules did not amount to real accountability for the voucher schools.

It was also pointed out by members of the audience that some groups who were voucher supporters apparently got to review the rules before the public or even BESE did because they were quoted in the original press release from the Department announcing the new rules. Parent advocate from New Orleans Karan Harper Royal half jokingly said that in the future she wanted to be put on the list of persons who get “pre” notifications of new policies.

LAE Associate Executive Director, Wayne Free pointed out that there were no assurances to the public that voucher schools came anywhere near meeting state curriculum standards. He questioned the rule that allows the state superintendent to make changes in the rules pretty much at will and the fact that already one of the private-for-profit virtual charter schools was allowed to increase their enrollment by almost double even though student performance on state tests are far below state acceptable standards. The young science advocate Zack Kopplin pointed out that the religious voucher schools he checked into would be teaching all kinds of non-standard science curricula and various forms of creationism.

Scott Richard of the Louisiana School Boards Association pointed out that letter grades should also be assigned to voucher schools based on the performance of voucher students so that parents could have a measure similar to that used for public schools. He also informed the Board that many of the new voucher schools have not been approved by federal authorities as meeting Brumfield-Dodd standards for non-discrimination in enrollment of students. This would be a violation of federal desegregation rules that must now be followed by all public schools.

Donald Songy representing the Superintendent's Association said that since three fourths of the voucher schools will have no reports made to the public about their student performance (because they have been exempted by the White rules), at least the state could publish an aggregate SCI score for all voucher students so that the public could get an idea of the success of the program.

All of the valid recommendations above were ignored by BESE in accepting the Whitewash.

Just for Fun if you want to see how some teachers view the new trend of teaching the test go to: I think this youtube video/audio will become the official theme song for this blog.

Here's a button one of my readers sent me. Pleas use it any way you like: