Friday, September 21, 2012

Chicken Processors Preferred to Teachers

Why would the state of Louisiana spend millions of taxpayer dollars to keep a chicken processing plant in North Louisiana from closing, yet next year the state will allow local school systems to lose teaching jobs to out of state providers? The reason the Governor and his staff gave for awarding a chicken processing plant a large subsidy a couple of years ago was to protect local jobs from being sent out of state because of the closing of a Louisiana facility. The jobs to be saved by subsidizing the chicken plant were by all accounts low paying minimal skills jobs. In the case of the Course Choice program which allows Louisiana teachers to be laid off so that students can get almost unlimited classes from out of state instructors, tax monies will be used to send college trained jobs out of state!

In many of our rural parishes, education is one of the biggest industries. Governor Jindal has often pointed out that his administration works hard to attract and retain jobs that require college trained workers. Why would Louisiana want to ship college educated jobs out of state particularly in rural parishes where education workers help to boost the local economy because of the economic impact of their spending on local goods and services? When our local tax monies are sent out of state the local economy suffers.

Will Louisiana children get a higher level of education by having them sit in front of computer monitors and watch lectures by out of state teachers? Will students scores on LEAP and end of course tests improve? Will students be better motivated by these long distance instructors? Will these remote control teachers be able to reach out and get to know our students better so that instruction can be individualized to the unique learning styles of each student? The LAE reported recently that the new Louisiana virtual for profit charter schools run by K12 and Connections Academy were producing below average results on state testing. There is no evidence whatsoever that virtual teaching is in any way better than on site instruction. In fact the news media has uncovered that in Colorado and Iowa, the results for virtual instruction were significantly poorer than for on site instruction. In fact the reporters found that many students quit their online instruction early in the school year and returned to their local schools even though the local funding had already been committed to the for-profit virtual providers.

In Louisiana these long distance teachers will not be evaluated by the value added system that is supposed to relate evaluations to the progress of the students. K12 and other online for-profit providers have been severely criticized for producing inferior instructional results in several states. See the linked article. In Florida, there is a story about a pupil teacher ratio in some online k12 classes of as many as 275 students to one teacher. There are other investigations of alleged wrongdoing by K12 in Florida. Some of these for profit online schools will do just about anything to maximize profits.

So in the Louisiana Course Choice plan, out of state providers will certainly be held accountable for poor results. Right? Wrong! According to the Choice Course law in Act 2 of 2012, the local home school will be held responsible for the accountability testing results of students taking courses from Course Choice providers. Even in cases where local school authorities believe that students have not learned the material provided by a Choice Course, the local school will be prohibited from questioning the credits awarded by an online school. (See my post of Sept. 16) Also according to state law, local school officials are prohibited from discouraging students from taking Course Choice Courses by BESE approved providers, yet for the first 3 years of the program all the accountability for successful results falls on the shoulders of the local school. After 3 years the outside providers will be evaluated and may be denied further participation in the Choice Course program.

By the way, I wonder if that chicken processing plant in North Louisiana is still in business? Just wondering.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Fight Back Against Phony Destructive Reforms

A couple of months ago I requested that educators, particularly those that had signed up for our “Defenders of Public Education” data base make it a point to meet with the legislators in their home districts to point out why Governor Jindal's reform legislation which was so hastily rammed through the legislature was already revealing its obvious flaws. Our concern was that many of the legislators who voted for this package may not have been fully aware (although they should have) about how subversive and damaging this legislation was at the time they voted for it. Many educators had warned that some of the new vouchers may go to schools run by persons who had selfish motives and would subject our students an inferior level of education compared to what they would have received in the public schools. At the same time this system results in crippling raids on MFP funding that is vital to our public schools. Since then we have seen the approval of a voucher school run by a guy who calls himself the “prophet”, other schools that do not have the bare minimum of classrooms and instructional materials and many who will teach various forms of creationism instead of Science. Some of our “Defenders” sent me emails describing the meetings with their legislators and giving me vital feedback which I intend to share with lobbyists for the Coalition for Public Education so they can be better prepared for the next legislative session.

Probably the most revealing insight on legislators' thinking when they voted for this garbage reform package came from one legislator who said he voted for the legislation because at least it was an attempt to do something about our failing education system. He claims he voted for the Governor's proposals because the teacher unions and the school boards had not offered any significant alternatives for reform. I would like to discuss with you why I think this reasoning is not only a weak cop-out for voting for the ALEC inspired destruction of education package, but mainly because it is totally wrong in its assumptions and remedies.

Point # 1: Those who claim that public education in Louisiana is broken or failing are dead wrong. Last year I linked two spreadsheets with data from the Louisiana Department of Education to produce a comparison of our almost 1300 Louisiana public schools that were assigned letter grades with the level of poverty of the students attending each school. You can access the resulting spreadsheet by clicking on this link. You will find as I did that schools with low poverty (10% to 20% of students on free or reduced lunch) all received an “A” rating from the state, except for one charter school. The next group (20% to 30% free or reduced lunch) had a grade point average of 3.5 on a 4 point scale. As you look at schools in higher poverty communities, the grade average goes down steadily until we get to schools with 90% or more free and reduced lunch who got a grade point average of .9 Poverty was such a powerful factor that 5 times as many schools in the 90-100% free or reduced lunch category got F as did the schools in the 80-90% free or reduced lunch category. From this analysis I determined that our education system is far from broken when it deals with kids who do not come from a high poverty background. They are all rated as A or B. Our only real problem is in properly educating the students who come from a very high poverty community. Yet the Governor and his big business supporters have condemned the entire public education system. But when the state allowed some high poverty students in New Orleans to attend private (voucher) schools they performed on average lower than the New Orleans Recovery District which was the second lowest performing school system in the state. So allowing high poverty kids to get vouchers was certainly not the answer to producing better achievement. The point is nobody has come up with a school reform solution that magically boosts the achievement of all high poverty students.

Point # 2: Our new State Superintendent and other reformers have concluded that the reason some of our students perform poorly must be because we have a large number of ineffective or incompetent or just plain lazy teachers. All we have to do according to the reformers is to fire and replace the bottom performing teachers and we will soon have all of our students doing just great! Again their assumptions and conclusions are completely wrong. There was an easy way the reformers could have checked out the theory that poor student performance was directly related to poor teaching. They could have taken the teachers in one of our highest rated schools (an A school) and switched them with the teachers in one of our lowest rated schools (an F school) and monitored the results for a couple or three years to see how performance would change. I believe there would be very little change in the performance of students at the two test schools because the controlling factor was not poor teaching or excellent teaching but instead was the socioeconomic level of the children. Good teaching always makes a positive difference but it is not enough to overcome the negative influence of poverty. To add insult to injury for teachers, the new evaluation system in the Governor's plan is set up to find at least 10% of Louisiana teachers to be ineffective based on value added formulas. I must point out that this 10% is not a scientific finding. It is a preset requirement before a single teacher is evaluated. Analysis of the data coming from a similar system in New York (see Gary Rubinstein's blog) found that the ineffective rating is so extremely volatile from year to year as to be useless. Also in the Louisiana plan it is not true that the value added score only counts for 50% of a teacher's evaluation as was promised in the legislation. In our system the state has put a provision in the plan that if a teacher falls in the bottom 10% of value added, that score totally overrules the principal's evaluation and the teacher must be rated ineffective.

Point # 3: Louisiana school boards and local administrators and teachers were already making significant improvements in student performance in our lowest performing schools before these “reforms” were enacted. In fact since the Legislature created the so called Recovery District, a much larger percentage of low performing schools managed by local school boards have moved up to better ratings than have those managed by the Recovery District. In fact all of the schools that were taken over by the Recovery District outside of New Orleans are now performing more poorly than before they were taken over! And the ones taken over in New Orleans are still the second lowest performers in the state. The reformers at the State Department have failed miserably compared to the efforts of local school systems. So why is the State Department of Education still in charge of the current reforms? In answer to my questions in my previous post, the State Department has proposed basically no accountability for the new choice courses. We have already seen what a fiasco they have made of the voucher school approval process.

Point #4: I have found that in some local school systems the State Department micromanagement of local disciplinary policies has become a major obstacle to improving the school environment. In East Baton Rouge, the State Department has appointed a special master that can overrule local administrators in the application of discipline. The special master often ignores or overrules teacher disciplinary rights specified in state law. One principal told me recently that often the school is not allowed to discipline students who routinely start fights and who threaten the safety of other students. This is one of the main reasons some parents are afraid to enroll their students in some public schools. On the other hand, charter schools in some parts of the state are allowed to routinely remove or counsel out students who are guilty of relatively minor discipline infractions especially if they are expected to be low performers on the state tests.

This is what I have to say to that legislator who felt he had to vote for something. First of all you should not have voted for laws that you did not have evidence would make any improvement. Second, you had no business blaming teachers for the effects of poverty on student performance. Our students who come to public school ready to learn are learning and teachers are already working as hard as possible to help bring up those who come to us with disadvantages. Finally, why don't you act to get the State Department to stop interfering with sound educational practices in locally run schools?

I would recommend that the legislature put a moratorium on adding any new voucher schools until we have time to assess the effectiveness of the ones already operating. The LEAP scores for every student participating in the voucher program this year should be aggregated and a letter grade assigned to the whole program using the same factors now being used to grade public schools. If the average is below the average for public schools there should be no new vouchers approved.

Also, the only choice courses that should be allowed are special vocational and career courses that are not now available because of lack of facilities or certified trainers in the public schools. Minimum hours of attendance for all choice courses should be required and the program regularly evaluated by evaluators outside the State Dept. of Education.

Finally, the first two years of the new value added teacher evaluation system should not count against any teacher. Outside experts should be asked to evaluate the consistency and validity of the new teacher evaluation system and after the second year of results, a complete review of the program should be made based on this independent evaluation.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Follow Up on Choice Course Program

Note to readers: the following is a second letter to BESE in response to an email by the Executive Director of BESE explaining the policy of the Board for the implementation of Choice Courses for the 2013-14 school year. The email from the Executive Director is reprinted below my letter. Ms Dastuge has recently informed me that the email was actually prepared by the DOE team that is charged with implementing the Course Choice Program. 
Dear Ms Dastugue and BESE Members:
I have received the responses to my questions to BESE about choice course regulations. It is my understanding that President Dastugue directed Ms Pozniak (BESE Executive Director) to answer my questions according to BESE policy as it will be applied to choice courses for the 2013-14 school year.

I was disappointed by the lack of substance and accountability of BESE policy on choice courses as interpreted by Ms Pozniak in her answers to the questions. My major concern is that the application of BESE policy described does not seem to require students to attend a minimum number of hours of instruction in order to receive credit for a choice course. While Ms Pozniak states at the beginning of her response that the choice courses will emphasize achievement over attendance, her answers reveal that students may get full credit and the provider may get full payment for a choice course even if there is no evidence presented at the end of a choice course that adequate learning has taken place.

At the beginning of her response to my questions Ms Pozniak characterizes seat time or class time as archaic. I do not believe Ms Pozniak is qualified to dismiss school seat time as “archaic”. She states that choice courses will emphasize learning outcomes over length of instruction. If seat time were archaic, we would not need the mandatory school attendance law. If seat time were archaic BESE would not have a policy that denies course credit to students who have more than the minimum number of allowed unexcused absences. If seat time were archaic, our district attorneys and judges could call off all efforts to require parents to send students to school on a regular basis. The fact is that the lack of accountability by some parents and poor student attendance is one of the greatest root causes of under-performance by many of our students. There is a direct relationship between students who miss many days of school and the low performance of such students. In addition, Act 2 specifies that quality course providers in their application to BESE must specify the length of each course. That implies that students are expected to attend or participate for a particular number of hours specified for a course.

I believe the interpretation of BESE policy relative to choice courses by Ms Pozniak if implemented in the way she described will result in a lowering of standards and a decline in student performance by many students who participate in such courses. I believe such a policy will encourage fraud and abuse in the use of MFP funds by some of the choice course providers. Such abuse could dwarf the abuses seen recently in the chaotically implemented voucher program this school year. I respectfully request that BESE carefully consider the issues raised in my questions on choice courses and adopt policies that will insure safeguards of taxpayer dollars and insure that students receive adequate instruction from each choice course.

In her response Ms Pozniak seems to assume that BESE will not require minimal instructional time for any of the choice courses. Apparently BESE will simply take the provider's word that students have completed their assignments for the course as adequate evidence to award credit for a course. Since the law allows course providers to receive the remaining 50% of their funding based on students completing a course on time, taxpayers can expect that many students may not be held to minimal standards for completion. If regular attendance or participation for a certain number of hours will not be required, who in the Department of Education will check to see if a student who has sporadically participated in a choice course has actually completed the required assignments of a choice course?

Ms Pozniak's responses verify my fears that the course provider can stipulate that a student has completed a course and receive full payment even if the student cannot demonstrate reasonable knowledge of the course or even if the student fails to pass the end of course exam. How would such a system reward achievement over attendance? In such a case, how can BESE justify full payment for the course? How does this system emphasize learning outcomes over length of instruction?

In addition, Ms Pozniak's responses gives no assurance that any part of the 50% initial course payment will be refunded to the state and the local school system even if the student drops out or is expelled soon after enrollment in a choice course. This creates an incentive for choice course providers to use aggressive promotions to get students to register for such courses even if the student may drop out with minimal participation in the course.

Ms Pozniak indicates that if a student takes a choice course for which end of course testing is required by BESE and then fails the end of course test, the state will still make full payment to the provider based upon the provider's claim that the student has completed the course. Does this system reward achievement? BESE should not waive minimum course attendance and also waive minimal performance.

I must recommend that BESE, consider adopting a strict policy relative to choice courses that require the standard number of hours of instruction in order for the student to receive course credit and for the provider to receive full payment for a choice course. This rule is particularly important if the student does not pass the end of course test required by BESE. Otherwise there is insufficient accountability for use of our taxes.

Ms Pozniak dismisses the question about choice course providers being required to document attendance or participation of students by simply stating that choice courses comply with the objectives of the compulsory attendance law. I believe this is an incorrect interpretation of the law and is not acceptable to me as a taxpayer. Since Act 2 stipulates that each choice course must have a length, BESE should have a firm policy that requires choice course providers to actually document the number of hours of student attendance or participation for each choice course whether it be an on-site course or a virtual course. I believe that even in the case of a virtual course delivered over the Internet, it is possible for the provider to monitor the participation time of students.

Ms Pozniak also states that when a student takes a credit recovery course from a choice provider and that provider reports to the student's home school that he/she has passed the course, the home school must grant the student credit even if the student does not pass the end of course test for that course. This is not acceptable. What is the point of taking a credit recovery course if the student still does not have satisfactory knowledge? How does this reward learning outcomes? BESE should not award full payment to a choice course provider for a credit recovery course if the student cannot pass an approved end of course test.

I believe that any lesser requirements by BESE will result in the raiding of critical MFP funds allocated to local school districts and will make a mockery of accountability. I will be happy to appear before BESE and further clarify my concerns and recommendations on the issue of choice course regulations.

Michael Deshotels
Zachary, Louisiana

The response to my questions from Ms Pozniak are reprinted below.
Mr. Deshotels,

I am sending this response on behalf of Penny Dastugue.


Catherine Pozniak
Executive Director
Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Course Choice will provide families with unprecedented choices – down to the
course – to prepare students to succeed in college and careers. Courses will be
aligned to the expectations of post-secondary education and the jobs that await
students after high school. Under the program, the measure of quality will be
student achievement, not just attendance.

* Will choice course providers be required to deliver a certain number of
clock hours of instruction in order for a student to receive one Carnegie unit
of credit and for the provider to receive the agreed upon tuition for one
Carnegie unit?
* Could choice course providers offer courses that require different amounts
of instruction time for different courses that earn one Carnegie unit of credit?
* Will there be a certain number of hours the student in a virtual class
must participate in order to receive credit for the course?
* Could a virtual choice course provider substitute an end of course test as
validation that a student has completed a virtual choice course instead of
requiring the student to “attend” or participate in a certain number of hours of
Course Choice uses a performance-based funding model and providers have the
option to implement a competency-based model to award credit. Course Choice
moves beyond the archaic “seat-time” model, which rewards attendance over
achievement, to a new model which emphasizes learning outcomes over length of
instruction. School districts also have the opportunity to waive
“seat-time/clock hours” (Bulletin 741--Louisiana Handbook for School
Administrators with the exception of §907, Secondary--Class Times and Carnegie

To earn credit, students must demonstrate mastery of the grade-level
expectations, just like traditional schools. Also like traditional schools,
students can demonstrate mastery by earning a passing score on a standardized
statewide assessment or end-of-course exam, providing a portfolio of work or
completing the required assignments of the course.

Students who are behind in credits can accelerate their progress toward
graduation by completing blended courses, which combine online and face-to-face
instruction. Students will be able to progress through a course at their own
pace, moving through the content as they master standards grouped into modules,
clusters, or units. Providers can use multiple conventional methods, including
assessments, research projects, and presentations, to demonstrate mastery of
course standards or competencies to earn credit toward graduation,

Unlike traditional schools, providers are only paid when a student completes a
course. Providers are paid 50% upon enrollment of the student and 50% upon
completion of the course by the student.

* Could a choice course provider be approved for accelerated choice courses
where students who can demonstrate mastery of a course by taking a test would be
allowed to complete the course in a shorter period of time than what is normally
required for a Carnegie unit of instruction? If the answer to this question is
“yes”, would the Choice course provider still receive the same tuition as if the
course required a standard number of hours of instruction.
The same funding model applies to Course Choice providers and school districts.
Both Course Choice providers and school districts earn funding when a student
demonstrates mastery in an accelerated course.

* Suppose a student taking a choice course drops out soon after starting the
course and no longer participates in a choice course. Will the choice course
provider be required to reimburse the state for any of the initial funding?
* Suppose a choice provider expels or otherwise terminates a student enrolled
in a choice course soon after the course begins, will there be provision for
return of any portion of the tuition?
Under the law, Course Choice providers will receive 50% of funding for the
course upon successful enrollment and 50% of funding upon successful, on-time
completion of the course. Course Choice providers are penalized 10% if a
student completes the course late, receiving just 40% of the second installment.

Course Choice policy will allow an introductory period which allows students to
register for the class, review course materials and start initial coursework.

* Suppose a student takes and completes the required number of hours of
participation in a choice course and receives a failing grade from the choice
provider, will there be any provision for refund of any of the tuition?
* Suppose a student takes and receives a passing grade for a choice course
for which the state requires end of course testing and the student fails to
receive a passing score on the state test. Will there be any provision for any
refund of tuition?
The same policy applies to Course Choice providers and school districts. Like
school districts, Course Choice providers receive funding when a student
completes a course. Also like school districts, students do not have to earn a
passing score on a standardized end-of-course exam to receive full funding for
the course.

* Suppose a student takes and passes a credit recovery course from a choice
provider, and the student is tested on the course by his home school following
the completion of the course and fails to make a score that is acceptable to his
local school system for receiving credit for this course. Is the student's local
school system still required to give the student credit for such a course? Will
the choice course provider be allowed to keep the tuition?
Under state law, school districts must award credit for courses completed by
students through Course Choice and those credits must count toward the
requirements of a diploma.

* Will choice course providers be required to take attendance roll for
students attending choice courses, particularly when the student is attending a
course provided at a site provided by the course provider? If roll is taken and
the student is found to be absent without excuse for more than the minimum
number of days required by BESE for public school attendance, will the student
still be allowed to receive a passing grade on the choice course?
* In the case where a choice course provider is providing a virtual or
internet delivered course so that the student participates in a choice course
from his/her home, will the choice provider be required to take a participation
roll each day the student is supposed to be receiving instruction?
Course Choice complies with the objectives of Louisiana’s compulsory attendance

* What action would the DOE take in a case where there is no evidence
provided by the virtual provider that the student actually participated in a
minimum number of hours of instruction in a virtual course?

Under state law, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will conduct a
thorough review of the Course Choice providers after one year in the program.
If the academic performance of students enrolled in a provider’s course does not
meet rigorous standards, the provider will face consequences, including
probation and/or removal from the program.

* Are choice course providers allowed to refuse admission of any students to
a choice course when the enrollment limit has not been reached who have been
classified by their local school system as eligible to take the choice course in
Course Choice providers must accept students who meet the pre-requisites for the
course (such as, Latin I before Latin II). Providers cannot refuse eligible
students if space is available in the course.

* Would a choice course provider be allowed to test a student wanting to
enroll in a choice course and by that means find that the student is not
qualified for or prepared to take the choice course in question and thereby deny
the student admission even if the student has met all other prerequisites for
admission to a course?
Course Choice providers must accept students who meet the pre-requisites for the
course (such as, Latin I before Latin II).

September 4, 2012
Questions about new choice courses: