Saturday, November 29, 2014

Myths, Lies, and the Endless Cycle of Education Reform

An unrelenting attack on the status quo is the major characteristic of current education reform. Reformers know that as one ill conceived radical reform after another fails, the best way to remain in control is to institute successive reforms, often as radical as the ones before. They always insist on: “Anything but the status quo”. Unfortunately the latest iterations of education reform of our public elementary and secondary schools are based mostly on non-scientific myths and wishful thinking. The recurring problem for reformers is that any reform initiative built upon myths rather than on solid scientific theory is bound to collapse eventually. We have seen an example of this with the 10-year No Child Left Behind experiment. This reform became unsustainable when thousands of schools nationwide failed to achieve the goal of 100% proficiency for all children. But unfortunately the myths and lies upon which it was based still persist.

Myth #1: Every Child Can and Should Perform at an Above Average level
During the George W. Bush administration, No Child Left Behind promoters in the Congress and in our US Department of Education believed that if the Federal government threatened all school systems with various remedial and punitive measures, all schools could be forced to produce grade level proficiency by all students within a ten year period. 

It was assumed that relatively low academic performance by some children was due primarily to lazy, inadequate or incompetent instruction by teachers and administrators. All that was needed therefore was to threaten severe punishment of schools that failed to produce above average results in all students, and to mandate remedial after school programs often provided by outside contractors. If those measures did not work, the federal and state governments would mandate school reorganizations, closures or conversion to charter schools. 

The theory was that such no-nonsense measures would within the ten-year time limit produce grade level or better performance by all students even including students with disabilities and students with little or no school support system in their homes and communities. Many skeptical educators sometimes referred to this as the Lake Wobegon Effect. This analogy was based on a fictional Minnesota town named Lake Wobegon, "Where all women are strong, all men are good looking, and all children are above average." The No Child Left Behind law assumed that all children could perform at average or above levels, and if that did not happen within the ten year time limit, the educators would have hell to pay and may even have to forfeit their schools and allow someone else to take over! 

It turned out that either the theory was wrong or maybe the punishment of educators was just not severe enough to produce the mandated results. Almost none of the thousands of schools nationwide were able to reach the student proficiency levels mandated within the ten year period ending in 2014. Unable or unwilling to repeal the law,  the Obama administration decided to replace No Child Left Behind with their own punitive system called Race to the Top. This plan featured more testing and the added component that teachers would be evaluated based on the results of student testing. The Obama administration also allowed a waiver of No Child Left Behind in exchange for a whole new regime of reforms. 

This time, in addition to closing or taking over schools, the reforms would focus on implementing teacher and administrator evaluation systems based on student test scores. These new measures would result in the retraining or firing of teachers and administrators who failed or at least ranked lowest on an arbitrary performance ranking system. The way this theory was applied in Louisiana is that the state education bureaucracy would each year designate the bottom 10% of teachers as "ineffective" based on student value added (VAM) scores and immediately begin efforts to retrain or remove any such teachers. Administrators in low performing schools would also be punished or removed. 

The theory was that at some point such a system would purge enough of the bad teachers and administrators that student performance would magically rise to the Lake Wobegon standards. So the Obama solution was based on the same myth as the George W. Bush solution! As soon as it began, this new reform started to fail, because it became apparent immediately that the system often identified the wrong teachers as “ineffective” and many of the most respected teachers and administrators chose to retire early to avoid the humiliation of the VAM (Value Added Model) and the COMPASS evaluation system. Fortunately for the reformers, they had already put into motion a whole new miracle plan for finally producing above average achievement by all students.

Myth #2: The Quality of the Teacher is the Primary Determinant of a Child's Academic Success
The American Statistical Association has determined that the typical teacher has an influence of between 1 and 14% of a student's academic success. Innate abilities, parental support, health, nutrition, and many other factors are much more influential on a child's success in school than the quality of the teacher. Certainly we want all children to have the benefit of the best, most dedicated teachers possible, but it is foolish to expect teachers to overcome all of the handicaps of children in our neglectful society today.

Myth #3: The Common Core Will Prepare All Children for College
The standards myth developed by elitists David Coleman, Bill Gates, Arne Duncan and most of the Governors was that the main thing wrong with our schools was that our standards are not high enough. Peter Greene describes the big picture of Common Core and education reform here. Greene believes that the Common Core and the related reforms create an unholy marriage between the worst aspects of Socialism and Capitalism. The Common Core myth suggests that if we simply mandate college prep standards for all, and insist that student performance in the basic skills are taught earlier and better, soon all students should graduate ready for college. This myth was predicated on a combination of the “all children can be above average” and now the “Raising the Bar Myth”.

Myth #4: The Common Core Standards Are Separate From the Curriculum
Common Core advocates tell us that the Common Core State Standards are not the same as a curriculum and do not dictate what curriculum teachers should use in their day-to-day teaching.  Many legal experts believe that this claim was made mainly to avoid the charge that the federal government is dictating curriculum. Louisiana teachers teaching the basic skills subjects of English-language arts or math, have no doubt however, that the Common Core aligned tests are the curriculum!

Myth #5: All Students Can Be Induced to Perform to Higher Standards by Simply Raising the Standards Bar.
The analogy here is a comparison to high jumping. The theory is that just as student athletes train for the high jump, a steady raising of the bar along with intensive guided practice results in athletes jumping higher. Likewise students can be expected to reach higher levels academically, primarily because of the higher expectations.  The ultimate goal for all students in this analogy is to reach the level that equates to college prep. Again it is assumed that if the teachers do their jobs in the classroom and insist on high expectations, all students will eventually meet those higher expectations. This just in: Readers you have got to read this article in the Huffington Post about how Arne Duncan believes higher expectations cures disabilities.     

Apparently this myth developed as some of the education reformers observed that in most cases our schools were able to produce improved scores on state approved standardized tests over a period of several years. Apparently when state officials raised their expectations for student performance and demanded more focused instruction on the basic skills as measured by annual standardized tests, student achievement on state tests improved. So all that was necessary was for state officials to raise the expected level of achievement and fix that level with a cut score on the state tests. Teachers and students would then produce the desired results. Such commanding from on high brings to mind the Mel Brooks quote, "It’s great to be the king!" This blog has demonstrated that these “gains” were mostly illusionary and were based on teaching to the test.

Other sources of this raising the bar myth were the “no excuses charter schools that have sprung up as replacements for so called failed public schools. Such charter schools are usually staffed with high percentages of Teach For America corps members, whose mantra always includes high expectations for kids that supposedly in the past have been victims of low expectations. Superintendent John White, a TFA corps member himself, loves to say, “Our children deserve higher expectations”. Some of the new charter schools proudly point to high or even 100% college acceptance rates for their graduates. After a few years however, it is becoming apparent that few actually attend and almost none of these students actually graduate from college.

In accordance with the Raising the Bar myth, the new Common Core State Standards are based on raising the bar for high school graduation to insure that all graduates are prepared for entering college without the need to take remedial courses. Students that are rated proficient on the new CCSS aligned tests are predicted to be ready for both college and careers, even though no one has ever defined what was meant by the career prep half of the myth. I believe the only prep ever really considered was college prep.

There is one major problem with the college prep for all Common Core Standards. They are really based on the same myth that No Child Left Behind was based upon. That’s the myth that all children can somehow be educated to perform at above average levels. That’s statistically impossible. It is just as impossible to get all or even most students to score proficient on the Common Core tests as it would be to get all students to jump the high bar at a level equal to well conditioned athletes.  We don’t expect all students taking physical education courses in high school to perform at elite athletic levels in the high jump, so why would we expect all students to perform at elite academic levels on their other course work? It is easy to see visually that many students do not have the body type, are not equally physically fit, many are greatly overweight, and cannot be expected to jump the same level of the high bar, yet this myth expects students with just as much variation academically as students exhibit physically to meet the same academic standard. 

The Texas state education department has been “raising the bar” for a little longer than Louisiana, and recent results seem to indicate that their students are “hitting the wall” on academic performance. More and more leaders in Texas are beginning to call for a pull back of the test based standards. Students in New York State have started their Common Core testing two years ahead of Louisiana and have experienced a 70% failure rate. Education officials there are still predicting that soon many more students will start clearing the higher bar. 

There is a huge variation in the natural physical ability of students and this variation is greatly exaggerated by the neglect our society allows in the physical development of our children.
This problem is mirrored academically by the neglect that many of our high poverty students experience in their environment. The neglect for academics includes not only poor nutrition, but also poor health care and a shockingly low vocabulary for many of these children at the time they enter school. It is further aggravated by the distractions of violence, homelessness, and often-chaotic home life that distracts greatly from their school work. But in addition, many children from all socio-economic backgrounds are born with physical and cognitive handicaps that make it impossible for them to achieve college prep level academic performance even with special education or remedial services.

To put it in the blunt terms expressed by Mark Twain: “Tis sad but true that half the American people are below average”. Four year colleges are not inclined to accept and cope with students who perform below the academic average. We may not like it, but that’s a fact of human nature. Fortunately, our students are blessed with many other natural skills, interests, and talents that could allow them to succeed and be fulfilled by many careers that do not require 4 year degrees. Unfortunately, our insane quest to standardize children into academic elites has resulted in neglect in preparing students for the arts, the skilled trades and high level service occupations that benefit greatly from these other less appreciated talents and interests of our children.

And to make matters worse, Louisiana educators are forced to contend with the demagoguery and patronizing rhetoric coming from our so-called education leaders. I cringe every time I read the statement often repeated by our State Superintendent that: “Our students in Louisiana are just as smart as as any kids in this country”.  Where does this guy freshly arrived from New York get off telling us how smart our kids are? How does he know? What authority is he citing to tell us how smart our kids are? Educators are not impressed or charmed by this tactic because they know the real reason for that statement is to set us up for the next phase of reform by placing the blame again squarely on the shoulders of the teachers and administrators of Louisiana schools when students don’t perform at the arbitrary levels set by elitists far from Louisiana who know and care little about our people.    

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

I want my readers to know that I am very thankful for having had such a rewarding career in the field of education. It is wonderful to meet some of my former students in stores, on the street or in church and to have them tell me that they enjoyed my classes and that they feel they feel fortunate to have taken science courses under my direction. I must say to all of them, that it is I who is honored to have been part of their lives.

To the many good friends I made while working in service of teachers as a staff member of the Louisiana Association of Educators, I can only say thank you for helping to make my career such a rewarding one!

Now that I am retired, I hope that by writing this blog I can keep educators and parents better informed and can help spread the word that education is a wonderful, noble profession that serves our children in a unique and extremely important way. Educators, you deserve to be very proud of what you do!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

How Charter School Operators Bilk Taxpayers and Shortchange Students

Predatory charters are being allowed to circumvent or ignore state laws and BESE policies to accomplish their goals of culling and selecting students for the purpose of artificially rigging the performance of charter schools. In other cases charter operators are given specific exemptions from laws that allow them to pocket huge profits. There is actually very little concern by those for-profit charter managers for students that are cast aside. I call these schools predatory because they are preying on our tax dollars, using our children as feedstock for their profit schemes and draining funds and higher performing students from the true public schools.

The Bounty System
How does the predatory scam work? Crazy Crawfish has reported and documented bounty flyers designed to pay parents and friends for getting citizens to fill out applications to send children to charter schools. A greater quantity of feedstock allows more selection and more units of desirable achievers. Since the main source of revenue for the charter operators is our per student MFP allocation, it is clear that some of our tax dollars are being diverted from education to bribe people to get them to apply to send their children to certain charter schools. Why does our legislature allow our tax money to be used for profit and to draw students away from the real public schools? Do you think maybe there is money diverted to their campaign contributions? As Noel Hammatt loves to say: "Follow the Money."

Forced Parent Work Policies
BESE Bulletin 126 which defines charter school guidelines apparently prohibits forced parent work contributions but in the same sentence allows waivers. Read this charter policy now in effect in several Louisiana charter schools managed by out-of-state for-profit management companies. Such a policy allows a way for charter managers to dump students whose parents are not willing to cooperate with the rules requiring this type of parent involvement. Here is the contract parents are required to sign as a prerequisite to their child's acceptance to the charter school.

Lets be clear. Positive parent involvement with their child’s school is a very good thing and may be critical to a child’s success in school. In fact there is a state law that encourages public schools to ask parents to sign contracts with the schools similar to those signed by charter school parents to get a commitment from parents to attend parent conferences, respond to homework assignments etc. The only problem is that the real public schools have no enforcement mechanism for parents who refuse to cooperate. The charters on the other hand can literally throw the student out of school or prohibit him/her from enrolling for the next school year.  The low performers whose parents refuse to cooperate with the forced work requirement will find themselves being sent back to the real public schools. Of course those that are doing well academically and helping to boost the charter’s performance score will never have to worry about being kicked out.

Rejection for Discipline Infractions
The real public schools are severely limited in their right to suspend or expel disruptive and uncooperative students. In fact some school systems have been subjected to mandatory regulation of their suspension practices by outside masters appointed by the LDOE.  State law requires public school systems to continue to provide full educational services even to students expelled for major discipline infractions and for dangerous behavior. The charters however are routinely allowed to dump their disruptive and uncooperative students right back to the real public schools. Most of these extremely disruptive students are the lowest performers on the state accountability tests, so this process allows the predatory charters to shift some of their lowest performers to the real public schools.

Culling Out Students with Severe Academic Disabilities
Many charters don’t bother to hire special education teachers who are qualified to work with severely handicapped children who often have disabilities that greatly lower academic performance as measured by accountability tests.  That way they can counsel parents of severely disabled students to send them somewhere else. Just a two or three percent restriction or exclusion of special education students will have a huge positive impact on charter school performance scores.  This gimmick has not worked so well for the charter schools of the New Orleans Recovery District because there are no longer real public schools in which to dump their rejects. This story in demonstrates how splitting up the New Orleans school system into independent charters has destroyed the economies of scale that would have allowed a larger system to better serve students with disabilities.

Legislative Exemptions Allow Charter Operators to Pocket MFP Dollars
This blog has already described how predatory charters have been allowed by law to avoid participating in the teacher and school employee retirement systems.  This exemption allows predatory charters to save a huge chunk of payroll related costs that are being assessed to the real public schools to pay for the unfunded liability of the retirement systems that were created by bad legislative policies.  Some charters save lots of money by not providing bus service to school. This also helps to cull more undesirable students whose parents cannot afford transportation to school. These huge savings allow the charter managers to convert millions of MFP dollars into rental charges, management fees, and sheer excessive profit to the out of state profiteers. Yet statistics consistently show that students in those charters enjoy no improvement of services or performance compared to the real public schools.

Another huge money saver goes to the two state approved virtual charter schools that are allowed to recruit students statewide. Chas Roemer, the BESE president whose sister runs the Louisiana Charter Association, made the motion that allocates 90% of the regular MFP dollars per student to these charters that avoid transportation costs, building costs, food service costs, library costs, janitorial services etc. and can pocket the huge savings.  Also the students are exempted from the mandatory attendance laws, so no one can monitor how many of the students actually attend classes every day, even though the schools receive funding as though all students are attending.

All of these tactics and special exemptions make running charter schools in Louisiana a highly profitable business..