Sunday, June 24, 2018

A Special Invitation

I just got an invitation to attend the 50th class reunion of the 1968 Zachary High school graduating class. I taught these students Chemistry in the 11th grade and Physics in the 12th. The 1968 class was actually my second year of teaching at Zachary high school. I started teaching at the age of 21 after getting my degree in Science Education from Louisiana State University. I believe LSU and the science eduction department had prepared me superbly for my teaching career.

In my email answer to the invitation, I informed the class secretary that I could still visualize her face and that of her high school sweetheart (now her husband) just as they looked in 1968. Only teachers can have the amazing pleasure of reviewing their life's work in this way. What a terrific reward for participating in the education of young minds!

Stimulated by this invitation, I have been reviewing my teaching career and its many wonderful experiences. Teaching was just part of my career because I went on to work as a staff member representing teachers with the Louisiana Association of Educators for quite a few years. I am saddened by the thought that I could never have enjoyed my teaching career if I were teaching in today's Louisiana public schools. I want to describe for my readers just one little incident that made my teaching career so rewarding:

Somewhere around my third year of teaching, I had an idea for improving the instruction of my General Science classes. Zachary was a fairly small high school, so I taught two classes of General Science mostly to 9th graders in addition to the Chemistry and Physics classes.

These students had been counseled into taking General Science by our counselor mostly because their junior high school science grades were below average and she wanted to improve their chances for graduation with at least one science requirement, since she doubted they could pass either Chemistry or Physics. I generally agreed with her judgement on this. In those days, teachers graded rather strictly and a significant number of high school students failed Chemistry and Physics and English IV. You see, in those days the schools were not rated based on their graduation rate. The teachers' decision on grades was seldom questioned.

I came to realize early in the school year that the curriculum in my General Science text books was not really relevant to most of my students. The General Science curriculum was mostly just watered down Chemistry and Physics. Even though the textbook tried to reduce and simplify the math needed for this course, I knew that most of my students could not really handle the math and some of the abstract concepts in the text. So I spent a good bit of time developing an outline of what I considered a practical general science course for non-college bound students. My goal was to teach the science as it applied to everyday life. For example, I created a unit on the internal combustion automobile and the science that makes it run. I developed a unit in household electricity and the wiring of a home with dos and don't of working with electricity. I developed units on air conditioning and heating, and many other everyday science applications. I took this outline to my principal and explained what I wanted to do to give my students a more practical science experience. He particularly liked my idea of bringing in guest instructors like auto mechanics, AC specialists etc. He agreed to the idea, and from then on I taught practical general science instead of watered down Chemistry and Physics. I believe my students enjoyed and benefited from this change. Those that did well and were motivated could still take the Chemistry and/or Physics, and some did.

If you are a teacher today, do you think you could get away with such a switch? I don't think so. Instead many teachers who email me tell me that they are required to teach the standards just as they are in the LDOE guide and they had better not vary one bit. In addition, teachers are expected to give their students some type of phony make-up or extra credit work so they can pass and get a diploma no matter what.

All I know is that if I had to teach in today's "reform" environment, I would have left teaching early in my career and would not have the wonderful memories I have today.

Gates Sponsored Teacher Evaluation Reform Discredited by Rand Study

Education Week reports here on a new Rand Corp. study concluding that half a billion dollars spent by the Gates foundation on three large school systems to totally revamp teacher evaluation produced no real improvement in student performance. Unfortunately, the Obama education department had convinced most of the country to implement the same defective evaluation system at the same time before we could see the results of the study. So just like implementation of Common Core, which was also pushed upon school systems by the Gates Foundation,  an expensive and time consuming teacher evaluation system was implemented without knowing if it would work. All that money and effort just drove a lot of good teachers out of the profession without improving student learning.

The new teacher evaluation system sponsored by the Gates Foundation and the Obama Race to the Top grants included basing teacher evaluations on student test scores and intensive observation of teachers using a strict rubric for teaching methods. The end result would supposedly identify the highly effective teachers as well as the ineffective ones. Then, teachers could be fired or awarded merit pay based upon their ranking in the evaluation system. Some reformers had theorized that such a system would dramatically improve student academic performance. There was even a theory that low performing students could be brought up to grade level performance by being exposed to highly effective teachers for only three successive years. It was believed that socioeconomic factors affecting student performance could be ignored by just fixing the teachers. These theories have now been proven wrong. Scapegoating teachers for problems of society just does not work, but it does drive good teachers out of the profession, and discourages bright young persons from entering the profession. Result: a serious teacher shortage.

When education reform is found to be ineffective, why are schools still required to continue doing it?

Louisiana went whole hog on VAM (basing teacher evaluations on student test scores) and highly structured teacher observation because we were told that there were findings that proved that any student could be converted into a high academic achiever after only three years of instruction by highly effective teachers. This theory developed by Hanushek and others unfortunately was not scaleable (didn't work) even though now our entire teacher evaluation system has been revised to supposedly identify highly effective as well as ineffective teachers. Louisiana law now bases teacher job security and even merit pay on highly dubious student performance measures. It turns out that VAM scores for each teacher are extremely unstable (and dangerously irrelevant) from year to year. It turns out that very little of a teacher's VAM score depends on her/his performance in the classroom. Socioeconomic factors and noise in the highly imprecise VAM formulas routinely outweigh the actual performance of the teacher. In addition, teachers teaching untested subjects have a major advantage over teachers of tested subjects in winning merit pay and job security.

Here is an interesting fact about Louisiana teacher evaluation reform: Did you know that the new teacher evaluation rubric was actually designed by a person (Rayne Martin) who had never taught or evaluated teachers. Before coming to the Louisiana Education Department, Martin had worked for the Housing Authority in Chicago. She had never received teacher training or evaluation training. This is typical of most of the education "deform" we have been subjected to in the last 13 years. Unfortunately, here in Louisiana, we are still stuck with VAM and the new observation matrix for the evaluation of teachers that was developed by a non-teacher who has long left Louisiana.

So what did the Rand study find in its nationwide evaluation of VAM and the accompanying high stakes evaluation of teachers? Basically it has made no difference whatsoever in student performance nationwide. Zero results! After all that money and after the gnashing of teeth by so many thousands of teachers. We have produced however a growing teacher shortage, probably because all those potentially "highly effective" teachers found that they could make more money in jobs that did not use a form of torture to rate their performance.