Monday, June 13, 2016

What is the research basis of school policies? Hint: Anything goes!

This recent post on the Living in Dialogue blog asks the Question: Who uses educational research and how? One the groups that apparently does not need education research are education reformers. Often, new education policies are based on extrapolation of research findings but most reforms are totally untested. This ends up suggesting quick fix fads in education that do not work in reality. That's why we ended up with VAM as a magic bullet for identifying teacher effectiveness which was rushed into full implementation for most states with funding from the Gates Foundation and mandates from the U. S. Department of Education. VAM (the Value Added Model) was based on studies conducted by Edward Hanushek, Thomas Kane, and William Sanders that produced a false extrapolation that students who were performing as much as 3 grade levels behind their peers could be brought up to speed in just 3 years by having 3 straight years of highly effective teachers. The assumption here was that many students are being held back by ineffective teachers. Just replace the bad teachers with great teachers and all students would succeed in school. Unfortunately none of the applications of VAM have proved to be reliable for improving the teaching profession or improving student performance!

Here's a recent example of how education standards are added without the slightest bit of research: In this most recent legislative session, our lawmakers mandated the teaching of cursive writing to all students. There was no assessment of how much time it takes to teach cursive and what other standards may have to be pushed aside so that the cursive requirement can be met. This action was more of a knee jerk reaction to a feeling that our students may be losing a skill that was taught to previous generations of students. Using that logic, maybe the legislature should mandate the teaching of Latin or French, or memorization of the Declaration of Independence or memorization of the 64 parishes in Louisiana, or memorization of all the capitols of all the states as was done in the past. (The legislature almost passed a bill to require the recitation of part of the Declaration of Independence at the beginning of each school day)

Another non-research based reform relied on the assumption that privatization of schools,  was the magic formula that would convert so called "failing schools" into great schools. So far, we have seen no real improvements in educating students but we have seen numerous schemes where greedy con artists are using privatization to bilk taxpayers for their own financial benefit.

Another current fad in education reform assumes that if students are challenged with higher academic standards that they will rise to the challenge and magically start performing at a much higher level. Then all students will succeed in college. That was part of the rationale for the Common Core. The reformers apparently believed that all they had to do was to order teachers to teach more and teach tougher standards to make students successful. Using that logic, we could teach calculus in the third grade and students could take all their college work instead at the high school level. None of the Common Core Standards were field tested. Maybe that's why the first year of testing of Common Core in Louisiana resulted in a statewide average of 38% on the PARCC tests. There is no evidence that this scheme will succeed.

None of these seemingly revolutionary solutions have worked in even the slightest degree, mostly because they were not based on real scientific principles. They are simply a form of wishful thinking based on junk science. Meanwhile educators and students have been forced to endure and suffer through this barrage of endless education reforms, based on "miracle cures" for whatever is supposed to be wrong with our educational system. In most cases the "cure" did more damage then good.

For example, the VAM method for creating a force of highly effective teachers has incorrectly identified large numbers of really good teachers as ineffective,  causing the early exodus of many teachers and a severe decline in the number of bright young people entering into colleges of education. The entire VAM theory has been discredited by a finding of the American Statistical Association that the effectiveness of teachers accounts for only between 1 and 14% of student achievement. But since reform enthusiasts continue to want to blame teachers for what probably amounts to lack of good parenting and the crippling influences of poverty, still insist that we continue to use VAM as a major part of teacher evaluation. No one has ever been able to demonstrate the 3 year "catch up" of low performing students based on teacher effectiveness. Meanwhile, Teach for America is still getting government and private grants to send clueless temp teachers to schools in our neediest neighborhoods. The New Orleans reformers fired all the experienced teachers of color who once lived in the community and served as true positive role models and replaced them with temporary white teachers who would not be there when students needed them. The kids lost their real life role models while the charter operators made a nice profit by hiring cheap workers. Almost none of the promised gains in student achievement materialized.

Charter schools and voucher schools, while still a wildly popular with politicians who get major contributions from the profit motivated charter and voucher school managers have generally performed more poorly than the so called "failing schools" they were attempting to replace. The virtual for-profit schools which have the highest profit margin (because they operate without buildings and support services) have been identified by researchers as providing the poorest education of all the various types of schools. So now the reformists are putting their emphasis on the fantasy that parental choice somehow ensures that students using our tax dollars to attend the substandard private schools are somehow getting something better than they would get in the real public schools.

Louisiana and many other states never seem to get tired of putting our full faith in the latest untested school reforms. Now our Louisiana version of the Common Core standards are supposed to magically inspire all of our students to start performing at above average levels and prepare all of them to succeed in college. This latest fad is reenforced by our unqualified superintendent announcing every few weeks that he believes that our Louisiana students are just as smart as kids in any other state. Such a seemingly positive statement is based on zero evidence, but has 100% political correctness. It instantly shifts all responsibility for eliminating low student performance to our schools.. The beauty of that assumption for policy bosses is that it allows educators to be blamed for any failure of our students to perform at the prescribed levels. It absolves politicians of any responsibility to deal with poverty and child neglect. Of course politicians are seldom willing to assign responsibility to parents.

Charter advocates have embraced the Common Core standards primarily because one of their key beliefs is that students should be challenged with high expectations in order to be prepared for college. One of the KIPP charter school founders, Dave Levin has for years made college prep the absolute goal for all students attending his charters. At KIPP schools, at-risk students from impoverished backgrounds are literally indoctrinated with a college prep philosophy. They are incessantly prepared to score well on standardized tests that are considered predictors of college success. Most of KIPP students perform well beyond their high poverty peers on such tests. Part of that increase happens because students who are not motivated to work hard go somewhere else, resulting in a creaming of the best and most motivated students attending KIPP schools. But when one of the first groups of KIPP students who scored very well on all their tests, were followed beyond KIPP to evaluate their college success, it was found that most dropped out without completing college. Dave Levin started trying to find ways of better motivating KIPP students to succeed even after they left the highly regimented KIPP environment. This has led to one of the initiatives that seem to be next big fad of what I consider to be an endless cycle of school reform.

I have just finished reading a highly acclaimed book on school reform called How Children Succeed. The author, Paul Tough, is a non-educator, non-scientist, journalist who has also become an education reform advocate. He makes the case that the next wave of reform for our schools should be to have schools teach a form of character education to our at-risk students and to even our more privileged students.  Such training, according to its proponents such as KIPP founder, David Levin, would enable students to succeed in college even when standardized tests tell us they are not prepared for college.

The most obvious flaw I detect in this theory is that the writer assumes that all students come to school with approximately the same potential for academic success. He believes that some students just have not been taught the emotional traits they need to develop the academic potential that he believes exists in all students. Therefore, it should be just a matter of retraining these student's  minds to instill healthy habits that place emphasis on building up conscientiousness, tenacity, and a newly identified ability to overcome failure, which has been given the interesting label "grit". Tough, who himself is a college dropout, from a privileged background with no training in research or education has interviewed some of the leading reformers in the U.S. including the founders of the KIPP charter schools, and research psychologist Angela Duckworth to help him formulate this latest fad in education reform.

Actually I can see some value in Tough's findings, but I can't quite believe that schools can  re-program the minds of at-risk students (human minds are not like computers that can be reprogrammed at-will) to make a significant difference in overcoming the many handicaps both inborn and environment related, that slow the academic achievement of such a large number of our high poverty students. To mostly ignore the huge differences in students' intellectual capacity, talents, and interests and to try to require schools to erase years of physical and emotional neglect would seem to me to be setting up education reform for another big disappointment.

Partially because I come from a science background, I cannot ignore the huge influences that heredity,  and early development have in determining a student's potential. I also know that it makes no sense at all to try to force all students to pursue an academic career. Just like I believe it is wrong to track students into low pay, dead-end careers, it is just as wrong to stigmatize students who don't fit into the college prep for all track. Society still needs large numbers of persons who want to pursue  careers in the arts, crafts or various forms of skilled labor.

Even though I am not convinced that our schools can have a major impact on improving character, the importance of character, motivation, determination, perseverance and grit has real, convincing research backing it. Real research findings by Angela Duckworth and Carol Dwick demonstrate how important such qualities are for success in school and in life. But I am not sure that schools can instill these qualities in all students. Let me give you just 4 examples of students from 2 families with which I am intimately familiar .

First of all, let me explain that over the years I have come to believe that there are many different opportunities for success and happiness for our young people. I have observed a teenager with Down's syndrome who worked at clearing tables at a McDonalds who seemed to be a happy and productive worker. At the same time I am convinced that some of the most highly paid Wall Street brokers and bankers are some of the least productive workers. I am not convinced that making millions by bilking the real workers in our society of their savings can possibly make these privileged people happy.

To demonstrate my point that children are very different, even when we try to rear them in the same way, I want to describe 4 real students who demonstrate very different levels of academic ability and personalities. I am sure most of my readers have observed the same variations among students. Which of these students do you think are most successful?

Student # 1 is a young man who made good grades in high school and who scored a 32 on his ACT. His sister, student #2,  had a slightly above average academic record but scored only 18 on her ACT.  Two other siblings from a different family, are students #3 and #4.  #3 was a model student who took numerous AP courses, was a co-validictorian and scored 35 on his ACT.  #4 was a very poor student who wasted a brilliant mind playing hours of video games and who barely graduated form high school, but also scored a 35 on his ACT!

Following high school graduation, student #1 started LSU but did not like it and dropped out at the end of the first semester. He moved to Colorado, got married, and started working as a stocker at Walmart. Now, after only 3 years, he is working in a successful IT position for a financial services company. He and his wife are now the proud parents of one of the happiest, most well adjusted babies I have ever seen. They have many friends and seem to be blissfully happy with their average lives.

Student #2 who is #1's sister, wanted to attend LSU, but after consulting with family members decided she was not really prepared for LSU (she scored only 18 on the ACT) and instead enrolled in the Baton Rouge Community College. After a year and a half of straight A's at BRCC, she transferred to LSU and is now in her third year of a very demanding chemical engineering major with a 3.0 average. I am astounded that a student who scored 18 on the ACT could make such progress in academics.

#3, a student from a different family,  graduated high school with honors and enrolled at LSU in pre-med. He has now switched to biomedical engineering, He is in his junior year with a 3.4 average. This student has the ability and personality that I consider to be perfect for an academic career who will probably excel in any profession.

#4, his brother ,who was reared in the same manner,  barely graduated this May from high school after being allowed to take at least two credit recovery courses. He is now working 25 hours a week as a bus-boy in a local restaurant. Surprisingly, he is a very dependable worker, never misses a day of work, and is never late to work for this seemingly dead end job. But this is the first time he has been dependable at any task since the 5th grade when he won the school award for most books read over the summer. He refuses to register for college this fall. This kid is a huge frustration for his family, but I consider him work in progress. It is hoped that he will enroll in college sometime in the next year or so.

All of these children came from good homes with supportive parents who always kept close tabs on them and encouraged academic effort and performance. But look at how different they performed in their academic pursuits! Based on these 4 case studies, which do you think is more important; academic ability or the character traits of motivation, dependability, conscientiousness, and grit? Why did they all turn out so different? Could the schools they attended  have done a better job of steering each of these students to success?

Now imagine a similar study of 4 students who come from the most challenging low income backgrounds. Do you think that our schools which are already attempting to implement an extremely detailed curriculum will somehow have time to teach character education to supplement what at-risk students have not received at home?

Paul Tough believes he sees evidence that some students who come from at-risk backgrounds can be re-programmed to develop positive character traits that can result in academic success. What do you think? Should the reformers now launch a major campaign requiring public schools to teach positive character traits? That's what the KIPP administrators are now implementing with their students. Many KIPP schools enjoy lavish grants by charitable foundations to implement anything they choose.

It is still too early to judge this project, but that has not stopped the education reformers in the past few years from implementing the current fads of reform. What will the reformers do when it becomes obvious that the common core standards do not magically prepare all students for college? When will the reformers learn that not all students come to school with standard issue brains and personalities? When will the reformers learn that humans can be happy and successful working in a variety of careers, some of which do not depend on Batchelor degrees. Someone commented on one of the articles about Common Core with the question: Don't these people know that we still need auto mechanics, nurses, plumbers, electricians and construction workers. Those jobs cannot be farmed out to Internet workers in India because they actually have to be done on site.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

We need to support practical solutions to the state budget

Lake Charles American Press editor Jim Beam has published an excellent editorial here, describing the damaging tactics of what I hope is a minority of the legislature in blocking tax revenue measures and budget reforms proposed by Governor Edwards. There is an equally good editorial here in the Lafayette Advertizer. These tactics remind me of the kind of partisan insanity practiced in recent years by U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell and others in blocking even the most practical proposals by President Obama for getting our U.S. economy back on track. Surely our state legislators will not continue to use partisan tactics that end up harming all the citizens of our state just to frustrate all of the efforts of  a Governor who happens to come from a different political party!

One good test of these obstructionist legislators is a check of their voting records in relation to the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI). Generally any legislator who has an excellent voting record on the LABI rating scale, puts big business first and the citizens of Louisiana last. The huge tax breaks and outright giveaways to big business don't help save jobs as we have seen in the most recent statistics. They just send much of our hard earned tax dollars out-of-state to the billionaires of the oil and gas industry and many other businesses that would be here anyway because of Louisiana's natural resources, and hard working people. But because LABI can use some of those tax breaks to help finance numerous political campaigns, the average citizens and less fortunate families have to suffer.

I was working as a lobbyist for public education  years ago when the legislature passed the generally revenue neutral Stelly tax reform plan. The plan was a fair deal designed to take the pressure off the working poor by exempting some sales taxes for food and medicine and at the same time making up the difference by slightly enhanced income taxes. The plan was working well until a group of legislators with the help of Governor Jindal, did away with the income tax part of the compromise and ended up creating a totally unnecessary budget crisis. The other part of the crisis resulted from overly generous tax breaks for the fracking industry. Now that the oil industry has suffered a price decline for oil and gas, Louisiana is hit doubly hard. So why do we want to punish our college students and reduce medical services to the poor and handicapped just so that certain legislators can maintain their pristine voting record with LABI? This is insanity, and will not help business or the citizens of our state.

Please do your part in asking your legislators to support a fair compromise on the budget producing added revenue that will allow our state to continue providing vital services and continued support for education.