Saturday, June 27, 2015

LDOE Wants to Punish Our Way to High Expectations

The inexperienced "one trick ponies" that run our Louisiana Department of Education still think that they can set learning goals for our Louisiana students and order the real educators to push students to perform at whatever level they set. They believe that if they set "high expectations" and then reward or punish schools based on the results, this system will somehow automatically cause students to achieve more. But that tactic has already been tried nation-wide and it has failed!

The latest effort by our LDOE to boost student achievement is to make it harder for a school to earn an "A" rating. The requirements for school ratings for "D" or "C" would presumedly also be raised proportionately. The idea is to link the very positive concept of "high student expectations" with punitive measures against teachers and schools that serve the most at-risk students.  The simple-minded assumption of our amateur education leaders is that when some students fail to reach the arbitrary standards set by state administrators, then it must be the fault of the real educators who apparently did not really have high enough expectations. This is a perfect example of taking a promising concept in education (high expectations) to a punitive and ultimately unproductive extreme.

John White and his staff at the LDOE have apparently forgotten that the only reason state test results have gone up in recent years in Louisiana is because the LDOE has lowered the raw cut scores to make it possible to score basic and even mastery partially by guessing or randomly picking answers to the questions. How much value can we put on school grades that depend on bogus and inflated test results?

A seventh grader in Louisiana in 2014 could score a rating of "basic" in math by just getting 38% of the answers right on the math iLEAP test. The minimum percentage of correct answers for that rating used to be 47% which was already extremely low for a passing grade. A student in the 8th grade could pass his/her math test with only 41% of the answers right. What teacher could get away with giving a passing grade to students who scored 38% or 41% on the final test?

Here is how it works: John White is now in the second phase of his tenure as Louisiana State Superintendent. This is the stage where he is supposed to demonstrate that all the recent reforms such as stripping teachers of due process rights and giving grades to schools mostly based on the poverty level of students and letting charter and voucher schools run amok with our tax dollars has actually resulted in a better education for our students.

The pressure on principals and teachers to do almost nothing but teach the state tests has gotten overwhelming. This has made a mockery of our educational system. It has killed the joy of teaching and learning and has driven many of our best teachers to early retirement. Yet White and his TFA minions still think that they can milk higher test scores out of the teachers and students. As you are reading this post, the staff of the testing company and certain LDOE staff who have never set foot in a K-12 classroom are deciding on the new raw cut scores for basic and mastery on the PARCC-like test given this Spring. These discussions are top secret and the public is never told what the real cut scores are from year to year. The only data released to the public are the scale scores which are  usually reported to be the same as the previous year even though the underlying raw scores have been drastically changed. The setting of these cut scores is what really determines the grades that will be awarded to schools.

Even with the fight over the Common Core and the drive to have high standards and high expectations, the LDOE and BESE have quietly removed all state standards for student promotions at the 4th and 8th grades. Those grades used to have minimum standards for promotion to the next grade.  But that part of high expectations and accountability has been suspended by White and BESE. That's why we have students entering high school that are 3 or 4 years below grade level in actual performance. Somehow the teachers in high school are supposed to take these students who may never have cracked a book in their lives and infuse them with "high expectations".  But high expectations only work if the learner adopts these expectations as part of his/her education goals. Many of our most at risk students are so overwhelmed by their day-to-day life challenges such as lack of proper nutrition and health care, lack of proper housing, and dysfunctional or absentee parenting that they have a tough time internalizing high academic expectations. Does it make sense to punish the dedicated educators who serve such students for factors over which they have no control?

Fifteen years ago, even before No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core, Louisiana announced that we would guarantee the employers of Louisiana that the high school diploma would start meaning something. We would push more and more students to take the college prep Core 4 curriculum so that almost all of our students would be prepared for college. Now after 15 years of "high expectations" our kids are doing no better in college completion than they did in the year 2000. Our college presidents are shocked, shocked I tell you, to find that our students are no better prepared than they were before we made the high school diploma stand for something.

But the reason for this is simple. When you tell the teachers who used to teach real college prep courses to the 30 percent of students who actually wanted to go to college that now they will have to teach those courses to all the students and to be sure they don't let most of them fail, we end up with watered down college prep courses. So now all students get short changed and none get real college prep in many schools. There are exceptions! The top ten school systems in the state led by the Zachery school system operate in an environment that includes a partnership with parents and community where high expectations and college prep for a high percentage of students works. But even the Zachary Community School System has a solid career prep program because the professional educators there know that many students need challenging career alternatives to college. Statewide, too many of our high schools have just watered down their college prep courses because they cannot afford to fail students who do not meet the college prep standards. Now, for students who make no effort at all to get educated, we provide easy courses, easy state tests, and we even give them bogus credit recovery courses if they still can't pass.

Yes, many more students could perform much better in school, but there will always be at least half of the students that are not 4 year college material. All students have talents and interests that schools should be identifying and developing. We mostly don't do that because the federal and state mandates tell us (even though we know it's ridiculous) that we must prepare all students for 4 year colleges. No matter what they say now, the original intent of the developers of the Common Core Standards was to somehow prepare all students for college, without regard to their abilities and interests that could have steered them to other more productive avenues for success in life. The Common Core developers believed that they could just require teachers to teach their own favorite academic priorities and even their quirky teaching methods for math and English to all our students.

If you want proof that high expectations without student and parent accountability does not work, just look at the nationwide No Child Left Behind record. That high expectations law mandated that by the end of the 2013-2014 school year every student would be proficient in English and Math or the teachers and the school would have hell to pay. Guess what? Toward the end of that mandated time period, almost no schools in America were meeting their mandated Adequate Yearly Progress goals.

The goal of college prep for all was one of the primary goals of Louisiana's highly touted Recovery School District. The new charter operators believed that the concept of "high expectations" was so powerful that even students from the most at-risk population could be indoctrinated to aspire to and prepare for an Ivy League education.  All 7,000 of the experienced teachers and other staff in the takeover schools were fired because it was assumed that they would not truly believe in and accept the high expectations challenge. In their place the new charter operators brought in young non-education graduates from Ivy League schools that they thought could be easily molded into proponents of high expectations. After 10 years we have the results of this effort. My post of May 21, compares the performance of the New Orleans RSD with the rest of the state public schools and demonstrate that the takeover charters are performing in the bottom quartile just as they were doing before the state takeover. In addition, a Cowen Institute report found that even when comparing the at-risk (high poverty) students in the RSD with similar students in the rest of the state, those students still performed slightly below the same type of students taught by traditional schools.  So was it really a good idea to fire the 7,000 experienced teachers?

Soon after the establishment of the New Orleans RSD, the LDOE also took over 7 schools in EBR, two middle schools in Caddo, a high school in Pointe Coupee, and a middle school in St. Helena. The Department tried to apply the same formula there that they thought was working in New Orleans. They failed miserably. The takeover schools in Pointe Coupee, and St Helena have now been returned to their original school boards after test scores and even attendance fell to the lowest levels in the state. All the original charters in Baton Rouge except for one have been terminated for lack of improvement, and new managers are being appointed. The charters in Caddo are still failing. In addition,  the School for the Deaf and the School for the Visually Impaired which have always been run by the "high expectations" State Department of Education are still rated "F". The Advocate reported in this story that the voucher schools across the state have produced dismal results for their choice students.

Yet after all that failure of No Child Left Behind and the Race to the Top programs, recently U. S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan proposed that students with disabilities of various kinds would learn more if we subjected them to the same tests and high expectations that we require of regular students. In other words, Duncan believes we can even cure learning disabilities with high expectations. Just what is the scientific basis of this theory? Certainly human beings are capable of amazing feats of learning. But there is one missing element in the high expectations theory as it is being applied in Louisiana. That is the fact that humans do not learn anything unless they are motivated to do so. You can't force your higher expectations on another person who has other priorities such as day to day survival. That's where the theory breaks down.

So now Jessica Baghian, a two year TFA teacher from a low performing school in New Orleans who has been elevated to a position of authority over experienced teachers and principals has addressed the Louisiana Accountability Commission and announced to them that "high expectations" and more punishment of our educators is the solution to the problems of Louisiana schools.