Friday, June 28, 2013

Is It Time for Positive Education Reforms That Work?

Many of the readers of this blog know by now that I and other educators are highly critical of most of the current education reforms that have been sweeping the nation and our state for several years now. Some may be inclined to ask: Do such critics believe that all reform is bad? Do critics just want to go back to the old status quo in education? Are there changes that could be proposed that critics of the current reforms want in place of the current reforms? My answers to these questions are: Not all current reform is bad. I do not believe in going back to the old system, but there are some traditional practices that need to be brought back and there are great new ideas and technologies that could make our schools much better. So lets consider adopting reforms that work instead of the current system of test obsession, teacher bashing and standardization of curriculum. I believe it is time for the new generation of education reform to start taking root.

I believe that most of the major assumptions upon which current reforms are based are totally incorrect. We have discussed these before on this blog. In this post I want to discuss the results of these assumptions and policies and suggest we replace them with what I believe are more appropriate reforms.

The Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg education reform movement has been in effect now long enough for us to assess the results. While improperly  blaming and demoralizing the teaching profession and destroying hundreds of community schools, needlessly moving or displacing thousands of children and replacing real teaching with test teaching, the movement has accomplished almost no educational improvement. That is the conclusion reached by a comprehensive study focusing on the three large cities that have seen some of the most intensive reform efforts by current reformers. Those cities: Washington DC, New York, and Chicago had the results of their students' achievement for white and black and non-poor and poor students compared to other large cities and were found to have produced no improvement whatsoever over traditional methods. In most cases the areas of most intense reforms did worse than comparable school systems using traditional methods. The study found that the rhetoric of the reformers is in no way matched by their results. The Washington Post column, Answer Sheet also did an analysis of this study and arrived at the same conclusions.

Breaking News: A report just released by NAEP finds no change in student performance nationwide in the past 4 years even after all the emphasis on high stakes testing and Race to the Top "Innovations".

See the report on Diane Ravitch's blog.

Another report by the Bill Moyers news organization found pretty much the same negative results of all the major reform movements nationwide. This story concluded that major education reforms that have been sweeping the nation have actually been counterproductive. Most educators believe that all the money spent on reforms could have benefited children much more if it had been spent on basic classroom instruction and materials instead of being spent on more testing, more charters, more vouchers, teacher merit pay, and expensive systems designed to evaluate and fire teachers based on student test scores.

Amazingly Michael Bloomberg, Arne Duncan, Jeb Bush and others don't seem to have noticed that their major initiatives have failed. Instead they continue just pushing for more of the same. Their reforms have now become the status quo in education and continue to expand creating havoc in education. I think it is time we propose real positive reforms that are instead based on sound educational principles. I would like to list those principles and reforms that would naturally flow from them.
  1. Children are all different. They come to schools with greatly varying talents, interests and backgrounds. The most viewed TED talk ever was by Sr Ken Robinson, a noted British educator. In his talk he makes the point that current education reform approaches are repressing and stifling student creativity. While reading, language skills and basic math are very important for the education of all students, we should not expect all students to reach the same attainment levels in these basic skills. Reading is the most fundamental basic skill and every child should be encouraged and instructed in every way possible to develop their reading abilities to the maximum extent possible. Yet we cannot and should not try to force all children to learn the exact same curriculum at the same rate without regard to their unique talents and interests. Our major emphasis in education, according to Robinson, should be seek to identify each child's talents and interests and to encourage and develop the creativity and diversity of our students instead of trying to force them all to develop in the exact same way with the same skills. The children would benefit greatly from such an approach and so would our economy which needs a vast variety of human talent and skills. It is ironic that countries such as China are trying to imitate the US development of creativity just at the time we are switching to their old education style of drill for high stakes testing.
  2. Poverty, background and environment make a huge difference in children's performance in school and should not be ignored nor should schools and educators serving such children be penalized and stigmatized. If schools are to be rated at all, the ratings should take into account poverty as well as the positive programs at each school designed to provide stability, discipline and a nurturing environment for all children attending. Instead of closing schools that have a large number of low performing students we need to provide such schools with the most effective teachers and administrators and give them the time and resources they need to produce a good learning environment. We should never expect however, that a good learning environment will automatically produce excellent performance by all students. The fact is that in a positive learning environment some children will excel, some will achieve average results and some will under-perform. But all children should be valued and efforts made to help them achieve their potential and learn skills that will help them succeed in life. All student talents, skills and interests should be valued and all potential careers based on these talents, skills and interests should be valued. Superintendent White is correct in seeking to promote the career diploma or career pathways within one diploma system. Much greater flexibility must be provided to students starting at age 15 to choose and pursue a curriculum that will lead to a great career in line with his/her unique talents and interests. No particular pathway should be stigmatized if it properly serves the needs and interests of our students.
  3. All of our public schools should offer a rich curriculum that includes balanced emphasis for music, the arts, physical education and vocational skills as well as basic academic skills. Recent studies have shown that most students perform better on standardized tests of basic skills if their schools offer a varied curriculum that stresses music, art, and healthy physical activities. The current narrowing of the curriculum caused by high stakes testing is starving the needs of our students for a varied curriculum and turning schools into dreary uninspiring places.
  4. New technologies such as virtual instruction, Internet resources, and  interactive learning software should be implemented in all schools. But the school should remain the base of operations for such innovative programs to insure that students receive guidance and assistance from highly qualified educators and counselors. Children need the mentoring, social interaction and guidance of real live teachers even when they are receiving part of their instruction via distance technologies. The brains of children are hard wired to learn by imitating trusted adults and learn more effectively with the assistance of caring adults with whom they can interact closely.
So what I am proposing is that the best of both traditional methods and new technologies be incorporated into the next generation of education reform. And that reform should start now before more damage is done.

Well trained and qualified teachers should be sought and retained by attractive salaries and benefits. Teachers should be evaluated rigorously and either improved or dismissed if they do not perform well. Teachers who have demonstrated effectiveness over a period of years should be given proper due process rights in the event they are recommended for dismissal.

Regular student testing in basic skills should be utilized at a level that does not seriously restrict or dominate instruction time. Test results should be used for guidance and diagnostic purposes but not for failure of students.

The use of value added data should no longer be used as part of the teacher evaluation process because it is unreliable and results in destructive unintended consequences.

Common standards for all students should apply only to the end of the 8th grade or by the time the student reaches the age of 15. No students should be failed based on non-attainment of standards. When students do not achieve proficiency in one area, school personnel should seek to better focus on the student's talents and interests and to help the student find productive areas where he/she may succeed.

Students, parents and guidance personnel should work together to create individualized career pathways for each student at the high school level. Maximum flexibility should be provided to all students to switch pathways at any point based on the student's interests and abilities.

Graduation from high school should be based upon the attainment of career goals or the completion of a solid college prep curriculum. Students who do not complete college prep requirements should complete industry based certification or a minimum of approved courses leading to such certifications soon after graduation. The rating system for high schools should be revised to reflect the achievement of these varied goals by students. Schools that do a good job of teaching vocational skills should be rated on an even par with schools that produce college prep graduates.

We need to stop the non-productive, destructive, dehumanizing education reforms that have never been based upon sound educational principles. In their place we should adopt positive, productive educational practices that recognize the dignity and value of all students and teachers. Schools should become places where students and teachers express and develop creativity as well as develop the basic skills needed by all students. The goal should be the maximum development of the potential and talents of each child rather than to expect the same standards of achievement for all children.

No plan is perfect. I invite all interested parties to make comments and suggestions for the next generation of education reform.
Michael Deshotels

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Common Core Is So Wrong for Louisiana

In February I wrote a post for this blog predicting that the common core would be a disaster for Louisiana. This opinion piece in the New York Times confirms my conclusion that this standard is wrong for most of our public schools and particularly wrong for Louisiana. This untested elitist curriculum is sure to make our students and teachers look like failures when really it is the standard that is wrong.

The reformers love to say that if we just "raise the bar" our students will rise to the challenge and learn much more.  They confidently state that the only reason many of our students perform poorly on national tests is that we, the educators, are guilty of "the soft bigotry of low expectations".  John White purposely boxed the entire Louisiana education system into a corner recently by making the politically correct statement that "our Louisiana children are just as smart as the students in other states." (and therefore by implication deserve the same high standards). My opinion is that John White knows very little about Louisiana children and is not qualified to make this or any other judgement about our students.

I think the adoption of the common core is like the case of a 10th grade PE class where the instructor is told by the high command in the central office that he must raise the bar for the high jump and expect all students to clear it by the end of the year. A typical 10th grade class is comprised of students whose height varies from as short as 5 ft 0 inches  to as tall as 6 ft 4 in. The body mass index of the class members will also vary greatly from students who are lean and fit to students who are seriously overweight.

To expect all of these students to clear the same high jump bar is ridiculous. In looking over this typical class we have no trouble understanding why we should not expect all to perform the same. If the bar is set at a height of 5ft 8inches for all and a student who weighs 220 pounds and is 5ft 2 inches tall would simply be crushed if told that he much jump over a bar that is set 6 inches over his head. No amount of training and practice will ever get him over that bar and it would be cruel to tell the teacher and the student that their futures depend on the student clearing that bar. There is no expert in physical education that would recommend such a stupid standard. Yet this is what is being done for academic subjects with the common core standard.

The developers of the common core have determined that all students whether they are college bound for a 4 year degree or career bound with training as a welder, mechanic or practical nurse, need exactly the same math standards. It is just as ridiculous to say that all of our students need to master quadratic equations as it is to say that the short overweight kid must jump over the same bar as the tall physically fit kid. Yet Arne Duncan and John White think this is a perfectly reasonable requirement.  This is what I call educational malpractice.

The New York Times editorial is just barely touching on the absurdity of these standards. The authors of the piece have just a small glimmer of understanding of how inappropriate these standards are for many of our students and they cannot imagine the damage this will do to our education system as students fail to meet this ill conceived standard. They did note however that the many elite private schools such as the one attended by Bill Gates and his children have no intention of adopting the common core.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Moyers and Company Exposes ALEC

Louisiana Public Broadcasting this weekend featured a Moyers and Company expose' on ALEC. (Just click in the link to get to the program) Bill Moyers, a highly respected reporter, hosted this excellent program unveiling the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council in creating and promoting model legislation passed for the benefit of some of the largest US corporations. The program is titled The United States of ALEC - A Follow-up. This program includes a great explanation about how the privatization of schools in Louisiana and other states was planned and implemented by ALEC and its friendly member legislators and governors. The program explains how this high pressure lobbying organization also gets around most state laws on reporting of lobbying activities and retains a tax exempt status.

If you care about public education, please consider viewing this hour long program. If your time is limited, the section that describes the privatization of education begins at about 24 minutes into the program and runs about 7 minutes. But the whole thing is well worth your time.

The list of model laws promoted by ALEC included much of the privatization laws passed recently in Louisiana.

Of special interest to Louisiana taxpayers is the lavish funding of virtual, for-profit private schools such as K12 and Connections Academy. Even though it costs only a fraction of the MFP per pupil allocation to provide courses by computer to Louisiana public school children, ALEC lobbyists made sure that private online courses got 90% of the MFP funding that is given to public brick and mortar schools. BESE member Chas Roemer made the motion to pay these two private companies 90% of the MFP allocation without research or competitive bidding to determine the true cost.

ALEC was able to get around the voucher funding issue, which has been ruled unconstitutional in Louisiana, by designating the two virtual schools in Louisiana as state approved charter schools.  The Moyers program points out that all the model ALEC legislation promoting the funding of virtual for-profit schools was developed by representatives of K12 and Connections Academy, the very companies that are benefiting from no-bid contracts to provide such services in Louisiana!

BESE has never attempted to insure proper pupil-teacher ratios for virtual courses. It was discovered recently in Florida that students taking private Internet courses supplied by k12 often had a pupil teacher ratio of as much as 250 students to each teacher. Some of their staffing practices in Florida were recently still under investigation.

Most of the data we have seen from other states indicates that most students get a very poor education from these virtual charters. There is usually a huge amount of churn in their enrollment. This means that many students neglect to sign in for much of the class time required, do not complete assignments and often end up dropping out and sometimes returning to public schools after the private company has received much of the public school funding for the student. This happened in alarming numbers in Colorado.

What's really scary is that many students may not formally drop out of a virtual school, but remain on the rolls of the virtual academy even if they are not regularly signing in. In public schools we enforce the mandatory attendance laws. Roll is taken every day, and if a student misses several days in a row he/she is tracked down by the school or by visiting teachers to make sure he/she attends school or gets instruction at home if he/she is ill. But in a virtual school roll is not taken. Some of these students may be roaming the streets and getting in trouble instead of sitting at their computer as expected. Mandatory attendance does not apply to virtual schools and we have heard of no plans by the DOE to monitor attendance in either the virtual academies or the course choice programs that are scheduled to start this year.

Here in Louisiana, the virtual school performance as measured by LEAP testing has been far below the average for all other public schools. Wayne Free of the LAE has asked several questions of the DOE about attendance, average student counts per teacher and teacher qualifications and certifications at the two virtual for-profit charter schools  and the answers he got were "No responsive documents or data available." It is really amazing that with all the money being spent by our DOE on public information officers, that basic information critical to all Louisiana taxpayers is just not available.

Meanwhile if you want to know who is really calling the shots on much of the school privatization issues, just view the Moyers and Company video. It should be required viewing for all the taxpayers of Louisiana.