Tuesday, November 5, 2013

White Gets an Earful

I attended a 4 hour hearing on the Common Core State Standards Monday at the Capitol. (See also the Advocate article on this) For this hearing, members of the public and teachers were not allowed to testify, but I believe that most of the many legislators in attendance who had actually been hearing complaints from parents and teachers did a pretty good job of relaying the tremendous frustration about the implementation of CCSS to Chas Roemer (BESE President) and John White.

Representative Cameron Henry who has already announced that he will propose legislation to eliminate Common Core in Louisiana led off with a barrage of questions where he demanded to see the evidence used by BESE in making the decision to adopt the Common Core. When asked to present any data or studies that showed how Common Core would be good for our students, Roemer was caught off guard and could only say that tougher standards were good for students. (That's been the selling point: increased rigor will make our students better) White told the legislators that the Common Core standards were written by experts who studied the standards that have been used by other leading countries for years that helped their students perform much better than ours. (Diane Ravitch in her new book seriously disputes this conclusion with real statistics) No one could say however, that the CCSS had actually been tested and proven to be effective before being mandated in Louisiana. I happened to be in attendance when BESE adopted the CCSS (sight unseen) before they were actually written and I know that the actual standards were never reviewed by real educators in Louisiana. The main reason given for their adoption at the time was that Louisiana was in a competition for billions in Race to the Top money and adoption of the CCSS was part of the requirement. That's also why we adopted the VAM evaluation for teachers, even though Louisiana never won any significant Race to the Top money.

I have to complement the teachers out there who have been doing a good job of talking to their legislators about their frustration with the sloppy implementation of both teacher evaluation and Common Core. In addition there is a rapidly growing organization of parents who are very unhappy about some of the poorly thought out standards in the Common Core and federal interference in our schools. Parents are objecting to the seemingly nonsensical math methods that many parents do not understand. One legislator said that one of his children had gone from a “B” in math to a “D” and was traumatized by the change. Other parents and teachers have pointed out that many of the standards for younger children are not age appropriate.

Some legislators wanted to know if Louisiana would lose federal money if we decided not to implement Common Core or the PARCC testing. White said that the only thing the US DOE was requiring was that Louisiana adopt rigorous academic standards. Many were still skeptical about the ability of Louisiana to resist the power of the Federal government to force Louisiana to implement the CCSS since Louisiana is so dependent on federal funding of our schools.

One legislator said he had visited almost every school in his district and had listened to teachers concerns. He said the most common statement he heard from teachers is that they would leave teaching today if they did not have to worry about the need to support their families! He said that these comments were coming from teachers who were considered the best in their school system.

Representative John Bel Edwards asked if the DOE did not agree that many of the requirements for implementation of Common Core amounted to an unfunded mandate because of the need for infrastructure and computers. White and Roemer said they did not consider it an unfunded mandate.

My Representative, Kenny Havard said that one of his parishes had been laying off teachers so that they could meet the infrastructure requirements. He said “I guess you can say its not an unfunded mandate as long as a parish still has teachers they can lay off to pay for computers.”

Another important question asked by Edwards was, “If Common Core is so great, why are we letting some of our students transfer to voucher schools that have not adopted Common Core?” Answer: “Well they still have to take the same tests that we give in public schools. And we do not allow scholarship schools to accept more students if they do poorly on the state tests.”

Edwards: “But you do let them keep the students they have even if they fail the test.”

Most of the legislators complained that their parishes did not seem to be ready to implement the new standards. White stated that readiness for CCSS all depended on the quality of local leadership since all local school systems have had 3½ years to prepare out of a 5 year phase in. He said the DOE would help those parishes that were behind in implementation.

When questioned by several legislators about the training of teachers for CCSS, White gave a glowing report about the DOE training of 2,000 teacher leaders from all schools and that they in turn had trained another 10,000 teachers. He said, the state will double the teacher leaders to be trained this year. I happened to interview a few of the teachers who attended this leader training and their comment was that anyone can take the Common Core Standards from the DOE website and make a power point presentation with them and discuss it with teachers but that does not translate into teaching methods. The teachers I talked to were not impressed with their “training”.

White also indicated that BESE will be asked to adopt flexibility for school systems that are not yet prepared for the new testing. White also said that he would not adopt the same rating scale for proficiency that had been adopted by New York that resulted in over 70% of their students being rated non-proficient. The initial Louisiana scale for proficiency will be a 3 on the 5 point scale rather than the 4 that was used in New York. He also said that the DOE will tweak the formula for school letter grades to make sure that schools do not drop more than one letter grade based on PARCC testing. Here's my problem with that tinkering: PARCC testing is designed (by the admission of White and Roemer) to compare our student performance with the performance of students in other states. So it does not matter how many points we use for proficiency, our raw score averages will still be compared to other states. All the statistics I have seen and the results from NAEP will rank Louisiana near the bottom of the states because of our student poverty levels and the fact that so many of our more advantaged students attend private/parochial schools. I can assure you that Roemer will be the first to complain to all the newspapers about the terrible performance of our students compared to other states. White has been blathering about how “Louisiana students are just as smart as the students in other states” so he can pretend to be shocked when our results do not meet his expectations. Guess who will be blamed?

Throughout the hearing, Roemer said that most of the teachers he talked to said they liked the new approach of the common core. He said that the many teachers who have bought into Common Core would be disappointed if the state drops it now. I don't think Roemer's opinions would qualify as a scientific study. Everyone agreed that it was great to have high standards. The main complaint according to Roemer and White was that we needed to train teachers better and somehow convince teachers not to be so stressed about both the CCSS and the new evaluation system. I guess we can “trust” White to take care of teachers even though he is the one who dictated that the new VAM system must find at least 10% of VAM rated teachers ineffective each year no matter how our students perform.

One legislator said that teachers in his district were working until 10 PM each night and on weekends to develop curriculum for Common Core which he felt should have been supplied by the state. “If the state mandates something they should provide the funding and the teaching materials!”

White: “We wanted to let the teachers do what they think works instead of telling them what to do as has been done in the past with the GLEs.” You know, this is old teacher empowerment fib.

I guess I'm just out of synch with the trend when I keep believing that CCSS is not appropriate for all students. I guess I'm just for low standards when I worry that Louisiana has just about killed off most of our career and technical programs in favor of college prep for all which is not producing the promised results. I suppose it just doesn't matter that almost none of our students are being prepared for the thousands of voc-tech jobs that will be opening up in our state within the next few years. The Workforce Commission predicts a huge boom in new chemical plants along the Mississippi river and in Lake Charles. Most of these jobs will require either construction skills or high tech skills requireing  2 year Associate degrees or less. I can assure you that our community and voc-tech colleges do not use the Common Core. They concentrate on concrete skills.  Yet Roemer told the legislators that Common Core is exactly what our students need to prepare for those new jobs. I just don't know where he gets this!

Here is an amazing statistic from the mouth of John White: “Even though 77% of our students are now graduating with a Core 4 diploma, the ACT shows that only 23% are really prepared to do college work! This explains why only 19% are graduating from college.” My question is, “What evidence do we have that implementing Common Core will change that statistic? Why do we insist on going from one college prep for all system to another? When are we going to start preparing our students for the real jobs out there?” Einstein said “The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

My best advice to educators and parents is this: Keep talking to your legislators about the problems with both the teacher evaluation system and with CCSS. They are our only hope, and the good news is that they are listening! Every legislator I spoke to said that this hearing was only the first round of many in questioning the entire education reform package and in finally holding our State Superintendent accountable for his bad policies!

If you have not already done so, please sign up for our Defenders of Public Education email system. All you have to do is send me an email to louisianaeducator@gmail.com and give me your name, your preferred email and your zip code. I need your home zip code so I can place you in the correct legislative districts. You will then receive timely emails about legislation that affects your profession and your students. You can then do your part by contacting your legislators with your opinion and recommendations on these issues. Now is the time! They are starting to listen!