Friday, February 22, 2013

Two Flaws in Accountability

I served on a panel in Lafayette Thursday for a discussion of the status of education in Louisiana sponsored by the Louisiana Association of Educators. As part of the panel presentation I pointed out two serious flaws in the Louisiana school accountability system. After the forum, a couple of teachers asked me to write a post on those two issues so that the teachers and other educators who were not able to attend the forum could also utilize this information in discussions with their legislators. Here they are:

Some legislators may wonder why so many teachers are frustrated and even angry about the education reforms passed recently by the legislature. I would like to just point out two major accountability issues that teachers believe are extremely unfair to students, schools and teachers.

The first is the letter grade labeling of all our public schools. We need to point out that no such labeling of private schools exists even though the legislature has approved vouchers for our tax dollars to fund such schools.

It was assumed by the legislature that the school letter grade system which was left up to the State Superintendent to implement would be accurate and fair. It is neither.

The letter grade system imposed by the State Superintendent totally ignores the percentage of high poverty students in a school. Many experts believe that the level of poverty in a school can account for as much as 80% of student performance. But the Louisiana school grading system ignores this important factor. My research has shown that a low poverty school (such as a school with only 45% of its students on free or reduced lunch) will almost always score at a “B” or “A” level in Louisiana. A school with twice the poverty or 90% free or reduced lunch will generally score at a “D” level even if all the other factors at the two schools are equal. This means that you could actually switch the teaching faculties and administrators of those two schools and the letter grades would remain generally the same.

So what the DOE pretends is a level playing field condemns high poverty schools, their students, and their teachers with a label of failure. Such a system may easily destroy parental support for our struggling schools just at the time when we most need positive parental involvement. Imagine what it does to the morale of the dedicated teachers and administrators who have chosen to take on the incredible challenge of giving the best education possible to high poverty students. This letter grading system tells us very little about the relative efforts and expertize of the educators in wealthy compared to high poverty schools.

Another reason the school grading system is unfair is that it uses exactly the same factors to compare magnet or accelerated schools which select the best performing students, to schools such as our alternative schools whose enrollments generally include the least motivated and lowest performing students. Is it any wonder that all true academic magnet schools are rated “A” while all alternative schools are rated “F”? This rating system tells us absolutely nothing about the caliber of teaching going on in either type of school.

The other big issue with teachers is the unfairness and inaccuracy of the new Act 54 teacher evaluation system. I will just give one example of the many flaws teachers have seen in this program: The State Superintendent has decreed that the bottom 10% of teachers rated by the Value Added Model will be designated as “ineffective”, will immediately lose their tenure, and will be placed on a path to dismissal if their scores do not improve. Such a system may not be so objectionable if the VAM system were fair and accurate. It is neither.

The data collected by the DOE itself on the stability or reliability of VAM proves that it is unreliable and erratic. For example, over a two year period, only about 25% of teachers rated the first year as ineffective would be rated again as ineffective the second year even if they did not change their teaching methods or effort in any way for the second year. That means that the VAM evaluation system has a 75% probability of incorrectly labeling teachers as ineffective in the first place. But when this happens, the teacher immediately loses her/his tenure without right of appeal. That is because the ALEC model legislation adopted by our legislature states that the evaluation itself is the only proof needed to condemn a teacher as ineffective. And to further insult professional educators, this flawed VAM system overrules the Principal's evaluation of the teacher even though the law stated that the two portions of the evaluation were supposed to be weighted equally.

Members of the panel pointed out many other flaws in the evaluation system related to special education teachers, librarians and others We also explained that the only teachers that have now been granted a waiver of the vicissitudes of VAM are teachers of high performing students who because of an amendment by Superintendent White will not be required to show the academic gains originally demanded by the VAM formula. How does White explain that to all the other teachers in the bulls eye of VAM?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Why the Common Core will be a Disaster for Louisiana Public Schools

I attended a public education forum this week sponsored by the LAE. Parents and teachers were encouraged to ask questions about current education issues to a panel representing BESE, Superintendents, and teacher leaders. One question by a young teacher really got me thinking about where Louisiana public education is headed. One of the panelists had made the point that many of our students are handicapped by poverty and the various issues that arise from such an environment. The young teacher who teaches in a very low performing school that was taken over by the state and converted into a charter school asked a question that highlights the major problems caused in Louisiana by our Jindal reform movement.

He asked: “Do you think it is wrong to have the same high expectations of our students who come from high poverty that we have for our students who come from wealthier backgrounds?”

Of course we all know what the politically correct answer is. But being an experienced educator I have a different answer. My answer is: “I have different expectations for each student without regard to socioeconomic background. I think it is just as wrong to expect a wealthy student to demonstrate high performance using narrow academic standards as it is to expect a poor student to perform poorly using the same narrow academic requirements.”

You see, the young teacher's question illustrates the trap that educators and students all over the country have been forced into by the no child left behind law. That same trap will only be greatly intensified by the common core standards. The main concept behind both no child left behind and common core is that every child should be able to perform on grade level in subjects that are generally known as the basic skills. (reading writing and arithmetic) Some researchers have called this the Lake Wobegon effect. That is the expectation that every child can and should perform at an average level or above. This is a statistical impossibility! Not even the highest performing states are coming anywhere near accomplishing this by the deadline of the year 2014 set in the NCLB law. That's why the NCLB waiver process was adopted by the Obama administration. But the common core curriculum, instead of providing for the diversity of our students, kicks it up a notch to say that we should prepare all students for college. The reformers ask: “What can be wrong with these high aspirations for our students considering the increasingly global competition for jobs?”

My answer is: “God (or nature) does not produce identical kids like a factory puts out widgets. Thank goodness! Some children are born with academic abilities and some have great artistic abilities and some can be trained to do skilled jobs. So why do our education deformers insist on educating them exactly the same using only a purely academic standard?”

What an unfair burden has been placed on the shoulders of that young teacher! Even though the state took over his school 4 years ago, not a bit of progress has been made in raising academic performance of those predominately high poverty students. The state is asking him to take the full responsibility for preparing all his students for college, without consideration of their abilities, gifts, handicaps or socioeconomic advantages or disadvantages. For 4 years, the Recovery District has failed to raise the SPS for that school and those students, yet he is supposed to change all that. No wonder most of these teachers only last a year or two trying to live up to that type of ridiculous standard. And when he quits in disgust for the lack of success, his indoctrination from the RSD reformers will likely convince him that it was all the fault of the other teachers that had his students before him who just did not have high expectations for their students.

Why do I think the common core standards will be a disaster for Louisiana public schools? First of all, it is impossible and impractical to prepare all students for college. Only about a third of students in any country (even the highest performing countries like Finland or South Korea) can and should be prepared for 4 year colleges. Not only that, the great majority of jobs as far as the eye can see in Louisiana will be either jobs that require skills and technical training (two year training) or service jobs that mainly require students to be trained to be reliable in performing basic services. Ironically many of the academic jobs requiring 4 year degrees can easily be outsourced to countries like India where college graduates are willing to work for a lot less. But it is impossible to outsource construction jobs and oil field jobs or practical nursing jobs. Those are the jobs that are growing in Louisiana. The common core curriculum will do a very poor job of training the great majority of students for the jobs that will be available in Louisiana in the next 20 years.

The common core will punish thousands of students who will flunk out or quit high school in frustration because the courses they will be taking are not practical. At the same time, requiring the common core PARCC tests and tests like the ACT of all students will make our public schools look bad for failing to do what was not practical in the first place. The PARCC tests for the common core will not be state controlled as our LEAP tests were, but will pit our high poverty students' scores against other states where students will outperform our kids on these purely academic skills. Meanwhile none of the private schools in Louisiana will be forced to adopt this curriculum, making them even more attractive to the voucher supporters.

Common core and the PARCC tests will totally change our school performance scores so that schools will seem to have declined when the letter grades are adapted to these unrealistic common core specifications. By that time Jindal and White will have moved on to other careers.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

10 Education Forum Questions for Legislators

The 10 questions below reveal serious problems with our education system that should be discussed at the upcoming education forums. These problems are the responsibility of our state legislators to correct. If they are not corrected, thousands of children will continue to receive a substandard education at the hands of incompetent amateur educators at our State Department of Education and in the Recovery School District. Also, if they fail to correct the  problems created by the new unreliable and erratic teacher evaluation system, they will be responsible for the continued loss of many of our excellent teachers to early retirement or to other states.

10 Education Forum Questions for Legislators

1. The State Dept. of Education has been allowed to take over low performing schools from local school boards for more than 6 years. Out of 73 schools now run by the DOE for which we have data, 45 or 62% are rated as “F” and another 18 or 25% are rated as “D”. All of the State run schools in the Baton Rouge area, Pointe Coupee, St Helena and Caddo are rated as “F”. All of the charter schools authorized by the State in these areas are complete failures. Why does the legislature continue to allow the LA State Dept. of Education to take over more schools from local school boards or to force local schools to be converted to independently run charter schools when their track record is so appalling? Why can't failing schools be taken over from the State DOE?

2. There is a state law allowing petitions to be run in local school districts that allows a local school to be taken over from the local school board and given to the DOE. Why is there no provision in this law to allow a failing school run by DOE to be taken over by the local school board?

3. Why is the State Superintendent allowed to hide or refuse to report the scores of some state run schools that are low performers? Why is the State Superintendent not held accountable for the schools under his management?

4. Why is the State Superintendent allowed to close schools in poor neighborhoods causing much disruption in the education of at-risk students without input from the parents?  How does this practice enhance parental choice?

5. Why is the State Superintendent allowed to target for firing 10% of math, English, social studies, and science teachers in the state each year with no end in sight? How was it decided that 10% of the basic skills teachers each year should be declared ineffective without regard to improvements in student performance state-wide? How will this policy encourage good reliable teachers to teach basic skills courses in our public schools?
6. Why did the state legislature remove the requirement that teachers in tax supported charter schools be certified?
7. Why is the legislature allowing teaching jobs to be outsourced to out-of-state providers using untestested virtual courses that are paid for with our tax dollars? Didn't Governor Jindal say that he wanted to bring college level jobs to Louisiana. . . not outsource such jobs? Will the legislature, facing a one billion dollar deficit, use our tax dollars to fund the Course Choice program for next school year even though it sends college level jobs to other states?
8. Why is the Legislature funding vouchers using our tax dollars to private schools that have minimal facilities, uncertified teachers, no accountability, and a substandard curriculum? Why does the legislature allow a double standard of extreme accountability for public schools and almost no accountability for voucher schools and charter schools?
9. Why are parish schools that are good performers being allowed to be taken over by charter schools over the objection of locally elected school boards? Why is the authority of local school boards being usurped by BESE in approving such schools?
10. Why are some charter school operators being allowed to make a profit with our tax dollars? Why can they use our tax dollars to run advertising campaigns for their schools? Why can they pay their administrators exorbitant salaries with our tax dollars when their results are so abysmal?