Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Why Are We Being Forced to Teach This C_ _ _?

The highly acclaimed school standards called Common Core are becoming so unpopular that they may soon be politically untouchable. The critics are piling on from Glenn Beck to the Wall Street Journal, with senior academics and activist parents in between.
The latest is a detailed criticism of the mathematics standards by a prize-winning math professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Marina Ratner. It is refreshing that her criticisms are very specific and include examples of assignments that parents can see are ridiculous.
Professor Ratner was alerted to the stupidity of Common Core by looking at the homework assigned to her grandson in 6th grade Berkeley middle school. Fractions are taught by having the kids draw pictures of everything such as 6 divided by 8, and 4 divided by 2/7, and also by creating fictional stories for such things as 2/3 divided by 3/4. A student who gives the correct answer right away and doesn't draw a picture or make up a story loses points.
Ms. Ratner concluded that Common Core is making simple math concepts "artificially intricate and complex with the pretense of being deeper, while the actual content taught was primitive." The bottom line is that Common Core is inferior to the current good California standards, and the $15.8 billion spent nationally to develop and adopt Common Core was a gigantic waste.
College ready? That's another deceit. Math experts are saying that Common Core standards are not preparing students for colleges to which most parents aspire to send their children.
This is what I think: Common Core is not a carefully planned conspiracy to turn our children into democracy haters or business designed human robots. It is just a stupid impractical way of teaching math and English to our children.
It is stupid because it was designed by a bunch of intellectual elites who believe that children should all be taught the way they as college educated elites think is cool. These developers of CCSS may be smart but they know almost nothing about teaching children. The problem is that many children don't need to understand the underlying basis of most math operations and most kids don't need to develop the techniques of "close reading" mandated by Common Core to be properly educated.
Common Core is also stupid because it is being sold as a silver bullet for improving education that will make our students smarter, close the achievement gap, and prepare all students for college. Nothing could be further from the truth. The early results in states like New York is that the achievement gap is being widened and that many students are being turned off by some of the reading and math assignments required by CCSS. By placing all our emphasis on what I consider an education fad that will have little or no impact on student achievement, we will be neglecting the really big problems that are holding some of our students back. 
Poverty and the many disadvantages and handicaps that students who come from poverty backgrounds bring to school are so devastating that they need to be tackled more directly with the huge resources that are being wasted on Common Core and standardized testing. Major emphasis needs to be put on early childhood education, proper nutrition and medical care, the development of safe and nurturing living and learning environments and improving stability in the lives of thousands of children who are now being neglected. Focusing so much emphasis and resources on Common Core is preventing us from working on the real problems.

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Sunday, August 10, 2014

How Are Our Education Reforms Working?

Reform itself has become the new status quo in American education.

Radical education reform continues to be pushed by some of the richest and most powerful political forces in the country despite the lack of evidence that these reforms actually work. The proponents of radical corporate reform, are continuing to push for more privatization of schools, more standardized testing, and further degrading of the teaching profession. The shaming and blaming of teachers for all the problems in education is continuing to intensify with attacks now focusing on experienced teachers. My post of Aug 5 describes a nationwide attack on teacher tenure.

With major reforms such as the grading of schools and teachers based on student test scores and extensive school privatization in effect in many systems now for several years, it makes sense to evaluate the results of these changes. Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post reports here on the results of the reforms of the Washington DC system by Michelle Rhee and her successor.

It turns out that the schools in DC have shown absolutely no academic progress by students after some of the most radical reforms have been in effect for years. Here is the conclusion of the Strauss article:

"The latest results of the DC-CAS, the District of Columbia’s high-stakes standardized test, show that the percentage of public school students judged “proficient” or better in reading has declined over the past five years in every significant subcategory except “white.”

"This is important, and not just for Washington, D.C. It is an indictment of the whole corporatized education movement. During these five years, first Michelle Rhee and then her assistant/successor Kaya Henderson controlled DCPS and they did everything that the so-called “reformers” recommend: relying on standardized tests to rate schools, principals and teachers; closing dozens of schools; firing hundreds of teachers and principals; encouraging the unchecked growth of charters; replacing fully-qualified teachers with Teach For America and other non-professionals; adopting teach-to-the-test curricula; introducing computer-assisted “blended learning”; increasing the length of the school day; requiring an hour of tutoring before after-school activities; increasing hours spent on tested subjects and decreasing the availability of subjects that aren’t tested. Based on the city’s own system of evaluation, none of it has worked."

 Here in Louisiana, the legislature passed a law in 2003 which mandated the takeover of individual schools by the State Department of Education when student performance remained below certain levels over a period of four years. The schools taken over by the state were placed in what is called the Louisiana Recovery District or RSD. The legislation required that such schools taken over by the state were to be reorganized so that after a few years of intensive assistance they would become successful schools with students performing at acceptable levels. How have these so called "reforms" worked?

In Louisiana, after 10 years, the Louisiana Recovery District is still the lowest performing large district in the state.  The legislation creating the Recovery District contemplated that it would take about 5 years to convert schools into successful schools after which they could be returned to their original school boards. None of that has happened. In fact, the first school taken over in 2004 in New Orleans, Pierre Capdeau school is still rated as an F school and is experiencing losses of enrollment and financial troubles. For a full report on the New Orleans RSD, see this recent report on the NO-RSD by Research on Reforms. This report shows that on average, students in the New Orleans Recovery District are still performing in the bottom quartile of all school systems of the state. The rest of the RSD schools are performing at an even lower level.

Louisiana has been one of the states leading the reform effort and implementing most of the major changes pushed by reformers like Arne Duncan, Jeb Bush, the Gates Foundation and the super conservative ALEC lobby. As a result, Louisiana now has one of the most radical teacher evaluation systems in the nation, basing 50% of a teacher's evaluation on student test scores, student retention based on test scores, school grades based on student test scores, school closings and takeovers based on test scores, unlimited expansion of charter and voucher schools and a destruction of teacher seniority and job protections. The reformers with the help of Governor Jindal have pretty much had their way with Louisiana. How has the performance of our students been improved by Louisiana being a shining star of education reform? has just produced a comprehensive study of public school performance , which ranks all states by various education categories and also calculates an overall ranking for each state. Overall, Louisiana ranked 48th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. It is interesting that the DC schools which reformers had also touted as one of the most progressive reform systems in the country is now ranked dead last in actual performance. So why are the reformers still pushing the same failed reforms onto every other state?  Notice that the reformers never personally take the blame for the failure of their big ideas. According to the reformers it's always the fault of the teachers and their unions when their hair-brained schemes for school reform fail. It is clear though that in Louisiana and in DC, they can't blame anyone but themselves since the reformers have been in total control.

In addition to blaming the practitioners of public education, the reformers have another secret weapon. Every few years the reformers start promoting another new and more drastic reform that (they claim) will finally be the magic bullet that will cure all the perceived ills of education once and for all. That way they can always be seen as the big innovators of education. The latest scheme is of course the Common Core. As I have pointed out in this blog, the CCSS were developed by non-classroom teachers and were never field tested and are riddled with obvious deep flaws. Don't expect dramatic results from the CCSS other than more teachers retiring early or transferring to private schools.

One could ask though, "What is the harm in trying various new ideas aimed at improving our schools. Surely we don't have much to lose since our schools are such failures anyway". I believe the assumption underlying this question is completely wrong. The assumption that our public schools are so bad that we should be willing to try almost any new idea is a fabrication of the radical reformers designed to convince us to be willing to accept their nasty tasting medicines for education. You see there is plenty of evidence that our schools have been working very well for the students of the middle class who come to school with the proper supports from home and motivation to succeed. When our schools are compared using the same relative proportions of poverty, American schools compare very favorably with the best school systems in the world. But when schools serve students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds without proper support from home and motivation, student performance is low no matter the dedication and expertize of the teachers. These students do not do well in any school environment. This has been demonstrated when low performing students are forced to transfer to schools that are supposed to be much better than their old schools. The low performers perform poorly no matter what school they attend. So to blame the schools and bash the teachers is unfair and unproductive and delays efforts to work on the real problem, which is poverty and the problems poverty causes.

Another consequence of the education reform movement in Louisiana has been a systematic degrading of our teaching profession. The increased stress and demoralization of teachers as a result of the reforms and the shaming and blaming of teachers has caused thousands of highly qualified Louisiana teachers to retire or resign from teaching early. At the same time we are hearing reports that fewer and fewer young people are enrolling in our colleges of education. Several school systems are having trouble finding qualified teachers for the core subjects. With the recent lowering of standards for teacher certification, colleges of education may soon become obsolete. These trends will surely deprive our students of high quality teaching for years to come, and can seriously lower the performance of our students.

State Superintendent White however, keeps repeating over and over that he knows that Louisiana students are just as smart as the kids in other states and that if we would just raise our expectations for their performance that they could compete with the best in the nation. This is pretty slick psychology. It suggests that if our students don't succeed with Common Core (and all the other reform schemes) then its the fault of the educators who did not have enough faith in our students and did not work hard enough to help them to reach their potential.

I have just one remaining question: When are the educators and citizens of Louisiana going to wise up and stop giving control of our schools to these con artists?