Monday, December 21, 2020

Science vs Superstition and Stupid Politics

More than 40 years ago the brilliant musician Stevie Wonder released an interesting and highly relevant song called: "Superstition". Part of the lyrics to the song are as follows: 

When you believe in things
That you don't understand,
Then you suffer,
Superstition ain't the way
Stevie Wonder's song is amazingly relevant today when people refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing because they believe that the whole Covid-19 pandemic is not real. They have chosen to believe crazy political conspiracy theories that the virus is not really dangerous as thousands of people die in overwhelmed ICU wards. Some of the victims of Covid-19, just a few days before they die of the disease continue to spout denial that the disease that has caused them to be hospitalized is not real. So they are actually dying of this crazy political superstition. Note: I wrote this post in early April about the dangers of this disease that so many still refuse to recognize.
Millions of Americans today actively seek out biased "news" sources that somehow claim that the whole pandemic situation we are in today is really not a dangerous disease but a plot by political enemies of the president to help steal the presidential election. This is political superstition that is being maliciously spread by irresponsible individuals who have figured out that many Americans rather believe crazy conspiracy theories instead of the solid advice coming from infectious disease scientists like Dr Fauci, about the dangers of this disease. "When you believe in things that you don't understand, Then you suffer".
Superstitious political beliefs is why more Americans die in one day than the total number of people in Vietnam, Korea, or New Zealand  that have died in the entire 10 months of the Covid-19 pandemic. The government in those countries took important science based steps early in the pandemic that has protected their populations and maintained the strength of their economies while the U.S. succumbed to the destruction of the disease.  
Some of the same people who don't trust scientific advice about Covid-19 don't believe in the scientific principles in the theory of evolution. They lobby hard at our state government to prevent the teaching of evolution in our schools. But evolution is happening right now. Just a few days ago the Coronavirus that causes Covid-19 mutated in Great Briton to become about 70% more highly communicable. This is just another example of evolution. Such mutations are the way that some life forms on earth adapt and become more successful. The Coronavirus is not consciously trying to become more communicable, but the principles of evolution allow more successful mutations to reproduce in greater numbers. But if you don't believe in science, then you don't take necessary steps to protect yourself from the more dangerous mutations of diseases. As Stevie Wonder predicted: "Then you suffer." 

Monday, November 30, 2020

Why Distance Learning Will Always be Just a Supplement to Classroom Learning

The Covid-19 pandemic shutdowns have destroyed a major myth upon which some of the recent attempted reforms to public education are based. The myth is that classroom teachers can be replaced with remote/distance learning. One of the leading promoters of this myth is former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Bush has proposed that computers and distance learning could somehow take the place of in-person classroom teaching by real live teachers. Many of our current education reformers have longed for a way to replace classroom teachers with much cheaper forms of instruction using technology and automated teaching. Jeb Bush and others have invested heavily in teacher replacement technology, even starting technology companies that supposedly could greatly cut education costs and possibly make a lot of money for the companies providing automated teaching systems. 

 These education entrepreneurs were convinced that children could get though K-12 schooling without the need to attend a physical school. These for-profit non-educator executives have welded much political power in convincing state legislatures to allow the creation of a type of charter schools that could supposedly provide a much more efficient means of educating children by piping in instruction directly to children in their homes using computers and various distance strategies. These charter management companies are now profiting greatly by being granted most of the per pupil tax support going to traditional brick and mortar schools for their much cheaper methods of teaching. 


The Federal Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, had been aggressively pushing for the replacement of traditional public schools with on-line distance learning private schools. School privatization advocates such as DeVos, without evidence, had proposed that such “choice” schools could provide superior education by giving parents the freedom to escape supposedly “failing” public schools. The concept expressed often in testimony to state legislatures was that "parents know best what type of schooling would be most effective for their child" and the parent should be granted the power to place their children in schools of their choice bringing with them their allocation of education tax funding.  None of this type of education reform had ever been field tested to see if it was an effective replacement for traditional classroom based public education. 


Education researchers who have studied this trend to privatization and distance learning have demonstrated for several years that the actual results of distance/computer based learning as measured by standardized test scores are generally much inferior to traditional classroom instruction. Probably because of the powerful political influence of the privatizer advocates, most of the data demonstrating the inferiority of distance learning has been ignored.


But now with the Covid-19 shifting of instruction of many public school students to at-home remote learning, parents have been able to see for themselves how little their children are progressing in their remote learning studies. Many parents have been shocked at how difficult it seems to be to keep their children on task with computer learning even if the teachers are providing assignments and tutorials for children to view online. Education does not seem to work as well when the teacher is not working directly with children in a real classroom situation. 


I am writing this post to highlight some of the most recent research about learning which demonstrates very clearly why remote/distance learning does not work as well as in-classroom learning.


It is a coincidence that I was in the middle of reviewing some of the most recent research on cultural evolution and cultural learning when the pandemic hit, forcing this recent shift to remote learning. Cultural evolution is a relatively new science that is contributing greatly to modern learning theory. It is now believed that the great advances of mankind in just the last 10,000 years have occurred because of a rapid process called cultural evolution. That is, instead of relying on the extremely slow process of genetic evolution to help our species cope with changes and challenges in our environment, mankind has been able to rely on our highly developed brains to help figure out how to survive and to pass this knowledge on to our children. 


This process of cultural evolution happens, according to cultural scientist Joseph Henrich, with the invention or adaptation of various tools and procedures that allow humans to deal effectively with often lethal changes such as harsher climates, food shortages,  deadly competitors, overpopulation and many other challenges to survival. In his recent book: The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Henrich  uses extensive studies of various primitive cultures to show how humans adapt to survive by passing on highly complex learning of skills, tool making, and survival techniques to their young during the long period from childhood to adulthood.


In other words, humans teach their children what they need to know in order to survive and thrive in their environment. These are skills that are learned, not inborn, compared to skills exhibited by many other animals, which are inherited genetically. For example, it is known that bees inherit the ability to direct other bees to a particularly rich patch of flowers from which other bees can harvest honey. They inherit the ability to do a sort of dance that gives other bees the direction and distance to the honey source. Humans on the other hand, would use language they had learned from parents and others that allow them to give much more explicit directions to a food source they have discovered.  This ability to use and pass on learning has given humans a huge advantage over most other forms of life on earth. 


So even though our present system of public schooling funded by taxpayers for all children is fairly new, the process of passing on vital knowledge from adults to offspring has been going on for many thousands, maybe millions of years.  The use of various forms of schooling of children is what allows humans to adapt very rapidly to changing conditions and to pass on knowledge that will allow their offspring to survive. Schooling is actually the process of cultural evolution that has made mankind the ruler of the earth over all other living species. 


This is how an understanding of cultural evolution can be essential to understanding how schooling can be made most effective: It turns out that human beings in addition to being smart, are also social creatures. That is we depend greatly on our close connections with other humans for knowledge about obtaining food, shelter, mental support, security,  and feelings of wellbeing. We naturally cooperate with other humans to provide for the wellbeing of the whole society. Children depend on close connections and communication with adults they trust to teach them what they will need to know to get along in life. Books, video, audio, and other teaching aides are useful tools in the learning process, but the human connection is the most important ingredient in learning survival skills.  A kid can learn a lot from a two-dimensional TV or computer screen, but he trusts much more what he/she learns from a real live human being whom he has accepted is a mentor. In-person adult mentors (teachers) are most effective in passing on the complex culture of human beings. 

Experienced teachers know how to use the social dynamics of the classroom to produce cooperation, healthy competition in learning, encouragement and motivation for each child. That is the secret to effective schooling. Mercedes Schnider makes important points about the social nature of learning in her recent post here. There needs to be a human-to-human connection. That’s what happens in most classrooms in our public education systems that makes learning most effective and efficient. The promoters of distance learning are wrong about this impersonal process as a substitute for the human-to-human connection. 


Friday, July 31, 2020

Warning! Sending Our Children to School This Fall May be Deadly!

Researchers Find That Children May Carry High Coronavirus Loads in Their Nasal Cavities.

Many Louisiana public school parents are in the process of deciding on options for their children's school setting this fall. Based on guidelines adopted by BESE, many school systems in Louisiana are providing options that include some level of actual on-site attendance by children in school this fall. These decisions should be made with consideration of the latest scientific findings about the affect of the disease on children and their immediate families, especially since Louisiana is again one of the hot spots for spread of the disease. Parents may not yet have been alerted to the latest findings about the possibility of children as carriers of the Coronavirus because new findings are occurring almost daily. This post is an effort to alert parents to the latest research findings on children and COVID-19.

Sending our children to school this fall may be hazardous to our health. For elderly or certain susceptible individuals who come into contact with children who have been exposed to the Coronavirus, such contact may be deadly! Just yesterday, the New York Times reported on a study finding that children may carry large quantities of Coronavirus in their nasal cavities. Even though the article cautions that the study does not prove that infected children transmit the disease, the research indicates that small children may carry up to 100 times more virus in their noses than do older children or adults! In my opinion, any sneeze or cough could spread millions of possibly deadly virus containing droplets to anyone nearby, especially in a closed building. This new information may overshadow some findings that younger children seem to have lower risk of serious damage from the disease. It is now well known that many people who are asymptomatic may still be just as dangerous as all other victims in transmitting the disease.  

I am issuing this warning to my readers because parents need to act on the best information possible in choosing to possibly send their children to school in just a few days. Parents, keep your options open, especially if someone in your family has preconditions that may make them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. This includes persons who have certain chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, or who are cancer survivors. Persons who are over age 65 also have much greater chances of serious symptoms or even death if they contract COVID-19.

Please, if you care about your family trust the experts!

As you can see from my previous post on this blog, I believe that Dr Fauci is our supreme expert on this disease and its spread. Fauci in an interview just yesterday called attention to this important study on the possibility of children as carriers of COVID-19. I suggest that we all continue to monitor the real experts and the latest scientific findings as a guide to making decisions about sending our children into gatherings of any kind.

Economist Paul Krugman provides this chart showing what happened to Israel when they opened up schools.



Saturday, April 11, 2020

America Needs More Science and Less Stupid Politics

Note to readers of this blog: Most of my readers know that I started my career in education as a science teacher at the high school level. I still consider myself primarily a science teacher. That’s why I feel compelled to examine our country’s reaction to the current Covid-19 pandemic from the point of view of the relevant science. In addition, I believe there are critical lessons to be learned as we fight though this dangerous challenge. These lessons should be anchored in a reliance on science instead of knee jerk reactions of some of our inept and unethical politicians.

Someone recently sent me a slick public relations video of the city of Wuhan China. This is the city of 11 million people where the Corona virus got its start. The video showed an aerial view of a fabulous city featuring beautiful architecture and amazing infrastructure including complex highway systems, attractive high-rises, and even beautiful public art works in the center of the city. 

I was skeptical of such an obvious propaganda video, so I went to the Internet and did a little research. I found that Wuhan does have some amazing architecture and much of the infrastructure represented on the PR video. I concluded that Wuhan was quite an impressive city, regardless of the problems that we know would carefully be excluded from a PR video. I am not including a link to the PR video here because I don’t want to be part of any propaganda effort by the Chinese government.

But none of this keeps me from concluding that any society or country that could build such a fabulous city must have more going for it than just one-sided-trade policies. (Some popular media sources have been blaming China for many of our country’s failings in dealing with Covid-19 by pointing to what they claim to be one-sided trade agreements. Speaking of propaganda, these sources very seldom feel the need to explain or document their claim of one-sided trade agreements).  

My reaction to all this finger pointing is that the Covid-19 pandemic is far too serious for our country to continue dwelling on Bogymen. We in America can’t continue to just blame the Chinese for some of the obvious shortcomings of our own government and our inability to deal with serious health dangers to our country. 

It is believed by epidemiologists that Covid-19 started as a crossover disease caused by a virus infecting bats that mutated to the point that it could thrive in other mammals, including humans. It probably started in Wuhan, China when probably just one human came into contact with infected mammals that were being sold as food. Unfortunately, it was highly communicable. This caused the first cases of Covid-19. From then on it spread like wildfire for the many reasons that we find it hard to stop the spread today. 

Of course many Americans are disgusted by the thought of strange food practices in some countries, along with the fact that the early cases of Covid-19 were kept secret as the Chinese struggled unsuccessfully to stamp out the epidemic. So some TV talking heads apparently now believe that punishing the Chinese government would be in order. That may be true, but it does not at all address the fact that such a pandemic could probably start almost anywhere in the world. Even with complete transparency by the country of origin, there is no guarantee that the world could be warned in time to stop the development of a pandemic. Trump’s so called Chinese travel ban certainly did not stop the spread of Covid-19 to America.  There are no nations that succeeded in stopping its spread to their populations.

Without going into the scientific details, it occurred to me that it would have been just as easy for a bunch of Cajuns in Louisiana to set off a similar pandemic of a crossover disease, such as mad cow disease, by their habit of eating squirrel brains. (Fortunately for my Cajun buddies and relatives that claim turned out to be groundless).  Or maybe some high status Midwesterner could contract a new flu virus from coming into contact with infected pork, like the American woman in the movie Contagion. (Louisiana’s own Steven Soderbergh made that extremely well researched movie.) Often our health authorities can’t know if meat is infected with a novel virus because there can be no test for it. A contagion or a pandemic could start for completely innocent reasons anywhere in the world. You can’t pass a law banning pandemics. 

It makes no sense therefore, to label a particular country or society as evil just because a deadly disease started on their shores. Nor is any big company in this country prepared to stop trading with or manufacturing products in China simply because their government leaders cheat and lie. (Think about that one for a minute.) Not only that; my God, we’d be shutting down Walmart and all the Dollar Stores!  

Crossover diseases have caused serious epidemics such as AIDS, the recent H1N1 flu, and even the Bubonic Plaque. The present conditions in the modern world, because of our dense populations and the explosion of business and tourism travel are now more dangerous than ever for the proliferation of numerous horrendous pandemics that could sweep across the entire earth in the coming decades. Some of our most brilliant biological scientists have been trying to sound the alarm about the need to prepare defenses against infectious disease pandemics for the last 20 years. Because of recent discoveries in the field of genetics, there are now effective ways of battling even novel infectious diseases if we have the will and intelligence as a nation set up defensive systems. But those warnings by our scientists have been almost totally ignored by several of our recent federal administrations. The last administration had at least created a branch of our public health system devoted to pandemic response, which was promptly dismantled by the Trump administration for no announced reason, just in time for this recent outbreak.

My point in bringing up this issue it that we Americans simply need to wake up and renew our efforts to advance science, rebuild our health infrastructure, and rely more on our most competent scientists and engineers to protect and renew our own country, instead of blaming everyone else for our lack of vision and planning. 
Dr Fauci can be depended on to give us the facts

What good will it do us if we succeed in proving that China didn’t tell us soon enough about the danger of the Corona virus? South Korea got their first Covid-19 case on the same day the U.S. did and got the same information on the genetics of the disease, and somehow they were able to produce enough tests and launch an initiative to greatly reduce the spread of the disease while we let it run out of control in our country. Was that the fault of the Chinese? 

We can deal effectively with this problem if we forget about these unproductive excuses and get to work. Did anyone make excuses for possible failure in 1960 when our nation chose to launch a project to land Americans on the moon in less than a decade? That moonshot resulted in technological advances for America over other countries that we still enjoy today, but that advantage is rapidly evaporating. We could still be producing great leaps forward in all the areas of science and commerce if we made science and technology a national priority. Let’s stop pointing fingers and feeling paralyzed by numerous outside enemies, and instead start taking care of our own business. I can’t help but feel that our dysfunctional government, where ignorant politicians claim to know more than the scientists, is the beginning of our downfall as a nation. 

In just a few short years we have dismantled some of the most effective departments of our Federal government because a few political hacks said that we needed to shrink down the size of our federal government down to where it could be drowned in a bathtub. (Look up lobbyist Grover Norquist) But remember that our successful moonshot happened because of a big government creation called NASA. Our entire economy benefited when we utilized all the amazing technologies developed by and for the moonshot and NASA. 

Now government deregulation, not trade policies, has allowed our big corporations to build vital products in China instead of in America. (Our big 3-M company makes their surgical facemasks in China). When congress passed the massive tax cut last year that benefited our big corporations most, there were no amendments made by Democrats or Republicans to require that our corporations bring vital manufacturing back to the US as a condition of those tax cuts. Lack of action by our dysfunctional federal government refused to put price controls on drugs (like most other countries do) that could have saved thousands of lives over the years. All because we were told that our big companies and free enterprise would solve all of our problems more efficiently if  “big government” would step out of the way. So now we have every state competing for vital testing kits, medical equipment and supplies that our free enterprise system allowed our companies to make in China. This happened as a result of deregulation, and control of our government by greedy American tycoons. Not because of bad trade policy. 

Our own major corporations did this to us because we trusted them instead of our government to take care of us. There has to be a balance of power with government protecting the general welfare of its people against the false promise by the rich to give us trickle down prosperity. Our big corporations are screwing us, not because our federal government is too big and is regulating too much. The big corporations are screwing us because their lobbyists have bought out our incompetent and unethical politicians of both parties to make their executives obscenely rich at the expense of the middle class workers of our country. Don’t blame our unions who now represent only a tiny percentage of workers. Their influence on government has been reduced to no more than a minor nuisance compared to big business. Big business PACs whose donors are secret, spend a hundred times more than unions in buying politicians.

The advantage of a Federal government, run correctly, is that it can mobilize all the enormous resources of the nation to address a problem like a pandemic (or a moon shot) that does not recognize state borders. The Chinese government did not depend on the governor of Wuhan province to suppress their epidemic. They understood that it could soon spread to the entire population of 1.4 billion people if the central government did not take control. Covid-19 doesn’t care about political parties or how it will affect the next election. It just multiplies as fast as we will let it because of our refusal to follow the advice of our health scientists. We suffer in direct proportion to the incompetence of the politicians who insist on making political decisions on medical strategy instead of letting our health scientists run the show. 

We will not gain one life saved now by blaming China for this. We just need to get our act together just like we did when our government helped us recover from the great depression, and when we “nationally” mobilized our industries to build thousands of B-17s to defeat Germany in World War II. Surely we can mobilize our industries to build sufficient ventilators and millions of 60-cent facemasks to protect our doctors and nurses and even average people who want to buy groceries during this lockdown. 

I have a personal problem with this pandemic and the fact that our country cannot make enough ventilators for very sick Covid-19 patients.  I am 75 years old and if I get a bad case of Covid-19 I may have to be denied a ventilator so that a younger person could have access to that last ventilator available at my local hospital.  I wouldn’t be dying for any worthwhile cause.  I’d be dying because of our incompetent and unethical politicians! Surely we can mobilize our industries to build sufficient ventilators and millions of 60-cent facemasks to protect our doctors and nurses and even average people who want to buy groceries during this lockdown. Surely our government could order enough antibody tests to find out who is now immune to Covid-19 and therefore could go back to work without fear. Listen to our health care scientists: We need testing, testing, testing! This can only happen at the direction of a competent federal government. No private companies will organize such an effort and the states could not coordinate it. It has to be done by “big government”. You know, the government that Grover Norquist wanted to drown in a bathtub. 

Our misfortune in being number 1 in the world in Covid-19 cases is not because of all the other countries conspiring against us, or bad trade deals, even though I’m sure that our trade deals could be improved in the way I have suggested here. Maybe our failure to meet this challenge is because we have an incompetent government totally controlled by big business leaders who don’t realize that they are hurting themselves as well as our general population with this stranglehold they have on our government.   Maybe we should get to work fixing our real problems by throwing out all the unethical and corrupt politicians financed by the Koch brothers and other big business PACs, and instead insist on competence and ethical behavior at all levels of our government. Wuhan, China did not get where it is by doing away with big government. I am certainly not endorsing the dictatorial government of China. Democracy, done right, by and for the people is much better. But that’s not what we have in America today.  

Mike Deshotels, retired science teacher 

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Why Education Reform is Failing

Education reform is based on wishful thinking, not science
Starting with the No Child Left Behind Law in 2002 and then proceeding to The Race to the Top, and now to The Every Student Succeeds Act, every reform of public education in the last 18 years has failed. In Louisiana, even though our Department of Education regularly reports imaginary success, like the phony improvement in 8th grade math scores, most of the data collected is indicating total failure of the reforms. The latest average raw scores in math and English on our state tests is only 40% for all children tested in 2019. The reforms have failed to improve student achievement!

How could it be that no improvement is occurring when the entire purpose of education reform was to produce better test scores, and more students succeeding in college? We are producing more high school graduates, but that is because we are now graduating almost any kid with a pulse. There are essentially no standards for graduation in Louisiana. We claim to be preparing students for college, but the latest reports from our Board of Regents for Higher Education indicate that only 18% of our students go on to get any type of higher education degree. This is failure, not reform! 

We should look to science for the answers
Let’s review the basics of learning. Scientists working with rats, pigeons, monkeys, and other lab animals have found that learning primarily occurs because of motivation. Motivation is simply the rewards or punishments that causes learning to happen. Motivation can be either positive or negative. 

Here’s an example: Lab rats can be taught to push a “white” lever if they get a reward of food when they push the correct lever. Rats can also be taught by getting negative feedback (a slight electric shock) when they push the wrong (“black”) lever. That’s how learning happens, whether it is in a highly controlled lab or in the rat’s natural environment. Learning works the same way with children.

Human children are like supercharged learning machines
Learning scientists have come to believe that humans as a species have an extra powerful natural instinct for learning. Just observe little children who naturally investigate their surroundings without prompting of any kind by adults. Teachers in Finland regularly let children run around freely outdoors because they learn a lot through natural play activities. Humans have an accelerated ability to learn language at an early age. Many toddlers start automatically picking up and repeating words. By age six, most children are learning 6 to 8 new words every day! So human children have a natural super-charged desire and ability to learn. That should make schooling a cinch! It actually takes a lot of negative motivation to stop children from learning! But our modern education reform efforts have succeeded in killing much of the drive for school learning in millions of children each year.

Motivation is essential to learning
Let’s go back to the lab rat experiment. Motivation for learning can be either a reward or a punishment. Reward for learning is what educators seek to do. Teachers often report observing a positive reinforcement when children get an intrinsic reward for learning a concept they have worked to achieve. Teachers often say, “I saw a child’s face light up when he finally solved the problem, or understood the concept. Or a teacher calls on a student who answers a question correctly and the teacher says “very good” so that the whole class hears it. The positive rewards for children can be that simple. It’s the pleasure sensation they get from learning or being praised for learning. It’s what locks in the learning and inspires children to seek more learning. But somehow education reform has managed to convert much of our school activities into more punishment rather than reward.

Education reform mandates mostly produce negative feedback
The common core state standards that are the basis of our curriculum now require children to learn rather obscure, complex, and often highly abstract tasks that seldom relate to real life. Then children have to demonstrate their learning by taking standardized tests where often the questions are tricky and are expressed in words and phrases that many students don’t recognize. Many children are getting immediate negative feedback as they take these tests, because they just don’t know the right answers. Many parents report that some little children come home from their testing days crying. 

To make things worse, there is no immediate reporting of results of the testing. The results from the spring testing of our students don’t come back until the Fall. By this time the student has a different teacher. So the students and the teachers don’t get to see their results in a time frame where action can be taken to teach kids to solve he problems or questions they missed. Also, because of test security rules, teachers and students never get to see the actual questions the students got right or wrong. So the constant testing is traumatic to children instead of a reward. It would be like the lab rat getting a whole bunch of shocks by pushing a lot of wrong levers. A huge percentage of our children are missing most of the questions on their spring tests. So putting all this together, it amounts to kids receiving a lot of negative motivation relative to their schoolwork. Kids are getting the message: “Don’t bother trying to learn. Schoolwork is unpleasant and is to be avoided. (Just like the lab rat avoids the black lever.)

Most of the feedback kids get teaches them that school instruction is irrelevant
But here’s the kicker that turns motivation on its head with our crazy education reform system. Eventually the children find out that it makes no difference whether they learn or fail to learn the lessons taught in school. Their parents are often never told how poorly they are doing and they automatically get promoted to the next grade. In Louisiana, automatic promotion happens all the way to graduation.  So for almost half the kids, formal instruction in the classroom becomes irrelevant. Many of those kids begin getting a perverse reward by disrupting the class to get the attention they crave that they are not getting from the boring stuff the teacher is forced to present every day. In many classrooms today, misbehaving children do not experience any penalty for misbehaving because the schools have been forced to prohibit almost all forms of punishment.  (There is a bill in the legislature right now that will make discipline problems even worse. See HB 663) It seems that punishment is thought of as unacceptable no matter the student’s infraction. So many of the kids that consistently fail their state tests are learning! But its not what teachers are trying to teach.

Just like we can’t make the corona virus go away by holding back on testing for it; we can’t make our students learn more by rigging the state test scores to make it look like learning is happening. Science does not respond to wishful thinking or cheating.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Almost Everything Recently Done in the Name of Education Reform Has Backfired

Here is an article informing us that the reduction of recess time so that children could spend more time being drilled for the almighty standardized tests has actually resulted in lower test performance! How can that be? Why isn't constant drilling on test taking skills at the expense of recess, PE, art, music, vocational education, and other "less important" instruction producing higher test scores? Maybe because the current trend to ignore fundamental child development principle's is harmful in every way, including killing the joy of schooling for both children and teachers! Teachers in Finland, whose students perform at the top of the rankings on international achievement tests, routinely take young children outdoors where they can play, investigate nature and develop normally as they are programmed by their genes to do. Why do American reformers insist on counteracting nature and instead have transformed our education system to motivation killing test drudgery?

Here is another new article challenging the removal of teachers from the decision making process of what kids really need in school. This outrageous trampling on the rights and critical input of the teaching profession in education decisions has actually resulted in the opposite of what our non-educator reformers said they wanted to do. Do you think our government can stop the Corona virus by ignoring the recommendations of the highly trained experts in disease prevention? The same is true of refusing to listen to real teachers about education reform. Do you believe, as the reformers would have you believe, that education reform in Louisiana is really working in preparing students for college and careers? Are you willing to ignore the most recent devastating revelation by our own Board of Regents that after all the reforms imposed on K-12 education in Louisiana, only 18 out of one hundred of our students will attain a college degree of any kind. Not even a two year associate's degree! These are the worst results I have ever seen! Don't blame the teachers. Teachers attended the legislative committee proposing these changes by the thousands to protest these untested ideas, only to be scolded for having the nerve to come to Baton Rouge on a school day (but that was the only time the Education committee was meeting!). Now the chickens are coming home to roost and thousands of our most dedicated teachers have left the profession.

The stranglehold over control of public education by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry promises even more failure with the upcoming appointment of John White's replacement.
Make no mistake about it, LABI has had almost total control over K-12 education for over 4 years since they used Michael Bloomburg's  and Walton family contributions to totally purchase all the BESE elected positions. They have made nothing but bad decisions with all this power. The school privatization they pushed has been almost a total failure with data showing that students who stay in their public schools do significantly better than they do when they move to a voucher or charter school.

Now LABI intends to hand pick John White's replacement.  If they select Jessica Baghian as the next Superintendent, Lousiana education will continue to be crippled by uninformed and ineffective leadership. Bagahian has been the right hand assistant to White in putting over the hoax of progress of our current reforms.

Let's look at some of the real results of LABI supported reforms. On their web site, LABI claims that Louisiana is closing the achievement gap between privileged and underprivileged students.  Data demonstrates instead that the exact opposite is true. They are also dead wrong claiming that ACT scores are improving. LABI is now down to apparently basing its education policies on wishful thinking rather than evidence.

The same is true of teacher evaluations based on student test scores using our defective state tests. LABI  has insisted that Louisiana evaluate its teachers partially on student test scores. But all the data proves that the VAM system used is unstable and inaccurate. So a couple of years ago I got thrown off of a state committee studying changes to VAM because I had the nerve to state on my blog that LABI was like the dog that caught the truck with this whole VAM fiasco. They don't have any idea what to do with VAM but they will never admit they were wrong. Meanwhile some very competent and dedicated teachers have had their careers ruined by VAM and thousands of great teachers have left the profession.

My most recent public records requests for actual data are showing a totally different picture from the propaganda-type announcements of great strides in producing better results for our students. Here are just a few revelations that have so far been kept hidden from the voters and parents of our students.
  • Louisiana's ranking in comparison to all other states has only gotten worse for both ACT performance and NAEP averages if you compare the results for 2019 to our results in 2011 (Before John White took over). The recent blip highlighted here by White's spin-masters indicating improvement in 8th grade math is extremely misleading. There was actually a decline in 8th grade math over the term of office of John White. My most recent research  reveals that about 50% of our students on free lunch which make up almost 70% of our students, flunked the 8th grade NAEP test in 2019! The parents of our students deserve to get the facts, not propaganda!
  • The achievement gap between economically underprivileged and other students has widened on every NAEP test given. We are definitely not closing the achievement gap. In fact my public records findings indicate that free lunch students are mostly failing all their state tests in math and ELA year after year and BESE policy is now allowing the promotion and graduation of students who are functional illiterates.
  • Analysis of our state LEAP tests reveal that the secret lowering of cut scores have made it appear that our students are achieving a much higher proficiency than that indicated by NAEP. This artificial inflation of our proficiency rate is in violation of state law.
  • My most recent public records requests reveal that some of our End-of-Course tests have had cut scores secretly manipulated by the LDOE and the testing companies to allow many students to get a passing score by just making random guesses on multiple choice questions instead of demonstrating any knowledge whatsoever!
  • It is clear that the boring test and retest culture forced on our schools by the LDOE has caused a huge proportion of our students to simply turn off to what they are being forced to do in our reformed classrooms and are not learning any academic material at all. I mean zero learning! That's what the raw data is showing. Don't believe anything you see relative to so called "scale scores". My public records findings show that the reported scores for our students are pure propaganda, not fact.
  • Teachers who have really studied the results of our state tests will tell you that the state LEAP tests and the standards upon which they are based are not age appropriate, are discriminatory against underprivileged students because they assume a vocabulary and academic sophistication totally unfamiliar to many of our students. Our state tests demonstrate the epitome of socio-economic bias! We have kids who miss many of the math questions simply because the questions are poorly designed.
  • Because of the VAM component of teacher evaluation, some teachers are losing their tenure and even the latest pay raise passed last year based upon invalid tests. This is an atrocity!
Look, I've been studying K-12 education in Louisiana for my entire professional career, and my best judgement tells me that the methods teachers are being forced to use with our children are just about the worst approach I could have ever have imagined. Our kids could learn so much more if teachers would be freed of mandated test prep and allowed to use their creativity to inspire children to love reading, to love science, to look forward to going to school every day. Most teachers instinctively know what works in the classroom and it's not what they are being forced to do. We need to have the courage to take back our schools for the sake of our children and for the future of our state.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Some of Our Graduates Don't Even Know How to Tighten a Nut

Are schools neglecting practical knowledge and skills?
Many of our students are graduating from high school with extremely limited practical knowledge essential to success in most jobs and everyday life. A good example is demonstrated by one large Louisiana company, which asks the following question to its job applicants: "In what direction would you turn an ordinary screw or nut to tighten it (clockwise or counterclockwise)?" Amazingly, a rather large proportion of applicants don't know that the correct answer is "clockwise". This begs the question: With all our emphasis on college prep for all students, are we neglecting practical knowledge needed for students to function effectively in all careers and in everyday life?

Before the shift to college prep for all, students in Louisiana in grades as early as 7 and 8 were required to take courses often labeled as "industrial arts" and "home economics". Such courses provided introduction to basic tools used in homes and work, budgeting, cooking, and introduction to various crafts and trades. All students, whether destined for college or careers were taught practical life skills. Our education reformers seem to have forgotten that young adults need practical knowledge as well as preparation for college.

Vocational/technical training along with practical math skills could really help to close the wealth gap.
We are now trying to teach students the solution of quadratic equations that most of them will never use, not even once in their lifetimes. The new college prep curriculum requires a technique called  "close reading" of various texts without reference to background knowledge. Many experts in reading question this requirement for elementary students.  But we are not teaching students how to avoid the entrapment of payday loan sharks that are now gobbling up much of the income of many young workers. Almost none of our students today are taught the power of compound interest for example, in utilizing a Roth IRA for retirement planning.  Such practical knowledge for all students could help close the wealth gap.

Reformist minded charitable foundation managers who contribute millions to the current school reforms have pushed college prep for all as the way to close the achievement gap.  But it's not working!  Nationwide, indications are that fewer students are now prepared for college, nor can they afford college. The most recent statistics from our Board of Regents show that Louisiana is leading the downward spiral. Less than 40% of our students who start college actually get a degree of any kind. Our Department of Education keeps pumping out propaganda about improvements in our high school graduation rate and the higher number of students registering for college. But the Board of Regents report shows that the key factor should be the percentage who actually get a college degree. Another major problem in pushing college for all is that students who drop out still have to pay off their college loans, often putting a debt burden on them for several decades.

The education reformers would have done better by supporting a broad modern curriculum that could actually teach kids how to overcome the wealth gap using practical knowledge and training for a variety of careers. We wonder why the curriculum in our schools today, despite the valiant efforts of our teachers, does not motivate most of our students to learn more and improve their state test scores. The answer is simple: there is very little in our current curriculum that will be useful to the majority of our students' lives and careers, and they have figured this out!

Some academic skills requiring college are a cheap commodity.
Here's the core of my argument: The assumption that training most of our students for academic jobs requiring college degrees is highly questionable. For example, it is extremely likely that the jobs of writing code and software for U. S. companies and providing technical support will more often be farmed out to cheap workers in India than to our college graduates. Just call up tech support for one of your electronic gadgets and see who answers the phone.

A critical job that cannot be farmed out is under our feet. 
So let's look at just one of the many  real jobs of the future. The job of a skilled plumber will require workers who must be here, not in India, to do this vital job.  The plumbing infrastructure of most of our cities is extremely old and deteriorating. Fresh water, sewerage, and natural gas are now leaking out of city utilities in intolerable quantities. The rebuilding of our municipal  infrastructure for the entire nation is an urgent need,  particularly in the area of replacing worn out plumbing. Modern plumbing work is highly sophisticated work requiring extensive training, mostly using apprenticeship methods, which don't leave a young worker with debt. That one job will employ thousands of well paid workers for many years to come. A job that must be done on the ground or more specifically "in the ground" here in America cannot be farmed out to low wage foreign workers. As a bonus, the new cadre of young plumbers who do that work could be taught in our schools to achieve early retirement with the wise investment of their earnings. Very little of this is being taught in our schools today!

What would Einstein say about our school reforms?
State law requires that our students be exposed to career exploration starting in middle school. But this requirement has been neglected as our education leaders have pushed teachers to do mostly preparation for the Common Core tests. Even though the career diploma law has been in effect since 2009, our LDOE forces students to remain in a college prep mode until their junior year. The problem is that our highly touted Core 4 college prep curriculum is simply not working! In Einstein's famous words: "The definition of insanity is to continue doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result".

Standards are not high if someone secretly lowers cut scores
The lack of success of the new so called "higher standards" has been purposely covered up by secretly setting the cut scores for a passing grade on the tests to extremely low levels.
 For several mandatory high school courses, the cut scores on the end-of-course tests have been set so low that a third grader could possibly pass the EOC test by just random guessing at the multiple choice questions. So now all students get much less preparation for college than when the standards for those courses were reasonable.  We are not preparing students for college and we are not preparing them for careers. That's why we need to reintroduce modern, relevant, vocational courses early, beginning with career exploration starting in middle school and not make students wait until their junior year to start career courses.

The way Core 4 was sold to BESE was by insisting that all students, even those not choosing college, would greatly benefit from the more rigorous courses. That has not happened. The so called rigorous courses have been watered down so education reformers can falsely claim success. We could make a much better case that a modern, well designed home economics course would be more valuable to all our students than advanced math.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Louisiana's K-12 curriculum is not preparing students for college or for life!

Part I of a two part examination of our failing graduation standards

The Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education announced recently that only 18% of our students are succeeding in college.
At the joint meeting of BESE and the Board of Regents in December 2019, the Commissioner of Higher Education, Kim Hunter Reed, reported on studies that reveal that:
 of 100 ninth-graders, only 45 enter college and 18 will earn a two- or four-year degree.
This is a tacit admission that the big push for college prep by BESE and the Department of Education for the last 20 years has been a dismal failure. But the Advocate report of the joint meeting quotes the education leaders promising to double down on college prep for all by offering more dual enrollment courses. The only positive result of this version of college for all is that now, vo-tech courses will be added to the menu.

During the school years spanning from 2000 to 2015, our state education officials had abandoned almost all support for career and vocational education in our K-12 schools. BESE had shifted to pushing virtually all students to take a college prep curriculum without regard to student aptitude or preferences. At the urging of education reformers, BESE had adopted the Core 4 curriculum for high school graduation which was designed to prepare all students for college. The education reformers and business leaders breathed a sigh of relief that soon almost all students in Louisiana would be prepared for college. The assumption was that even students who chose to seek technical careers that did not require college would benefit from this superior, more rigorous education. But those of us who study the dismal performance of many of our graduates in the classrooms and on state tests know that most students have not benefited from the new standards which are really far from rigorous. This blog has revealed that students can pass some of the supposedly rigorous college prep courses by knowing as little as 10 to 20 percent of the tested material. If the college prep courses of today had the same rigor as 30 to 40 years ago, more than half of our students would not graduate. Here is a link to a blog post I wrote in January of 2010 titled The Wrong Future,  predicting that the Core 4 curriculum would produce the opposite of what was intended. My only mistake was that I thought that the Core 4 courses would maintain a reasonable level of difficulty.

As a result of the heavy emphasis on enrolling almost all students in the Core 4 curriculum, the Vo-Tech departments of most high schools were decimated and hundreds of highly experienced vo-tech teachers were laid off. By focusing on college prep for all the education reformers had just about strangled vo-tech out of existence.

But starting about 2015, Superintendent John White and his staff realized that a large number of students were falling though the cracks created by Core 4. Someone pointed out to Superintendent White that there was a provision in state law called the Career Diploma that was designed to provide a good alternative to students that could not, or would not attend college. The only problem is that the Career Diploma had been denounced by reformers as a watering down of standards. White realized that if he somehow renamed or rebranded the program as part of his school reform campaign, maybe by calling it something new like "Jump Start program", it may become acceptable to his puppet masters at LABI and across the reform community.

 So the Career diploma was rebranded as the Jump Start initiative. The career diploma law had been passed by the legislature at the request of many local superintendents in the 2009 legislative session. Unfortunately the career diploma had been sabotaged by the previous State Superintendent, Paul Pastorek, who wanted to promote only college prep . But even White's recent efforts have fallen far short of what was contemplated by the authors of the career diploma law. The Jump Start courses are designed only for high school juniors and seniors, severely restricting vo-tech courses in earlier grades. Under John White, the career diploma is intentionally regarded as a second class diploma, which does not bring schools the recognition or credit they get from offering college prep courses such as AP. White's administration has refused to provide the  career exploration activities for middle school students that have been in state law since before 1998. As teachers spent more and more time in the school year drilling students for the college prep Common Core based state tests, there was no time in middle school to implement any vo-tech exploration courses.

In addition to the short changing and stigmatizing of vo-tech training,  instruction in the arts, physical education, health, social studies, and civics, have all been neglected so that students could be drilled incessantly in preparation for state tests that were expected to insure success in college. The most useful education to most students for future careers was all but abandoned and sacrificed in the push to prepare all students for college. Unfortunately this sacrifice was in vain, as is demonstrated by Louisiana being ranked second to last among the states in ACT performance and by having only 18 percent of students succeeding in college.

Note: Soon after I posted this blog, one of my readers texted me asking for an explanation of the poor college performance of our students after a much larger number started taking the college prep curriculum. Here is my best guess:

Soon after the adoption of the Core 4 curriculum for high school, several other changes were made. (1) The state started awarding high schools credit on the school grading system for a better graduation rate. Pressure increased on principals and teachers to pass almost all students even in the so called college prep courses. (2) The state stopped requiring that students pass their 8th grade LEAP tests in order to enter high school and BESE stopped requiring most remediation for students who failed. (3) Louisiana shifted to the Common Core standards (4) The cut scores for passing the high school end-of-course tests were lowered to extremely low levels. All of these factors resulted in more students graduating high school (some of them as functional illiterates). That's why so many students can't handle college. Its all about the law of unintended consequences. Unfortunately, our education leaders don't have a clue about the real results of their "reforms". Even with the new changes proposed by BESE and the Board of Regents to add more dual enrollment, we can expect further declines in college success because the full effects of the decrease in standards have yet to be observed.

Vocational and technical education is a most vital need that has been neglected nationwide
This excellent article in Forbes magazine makes the case for bringing back modern vocational training to our K-12  curriculum. I strongly recommend that all persons interested in improving our school curriculum read the entire article.

The Forbes article points out the following "Yet despite the growing evidence that four-year college programs serve fewer and fewer of our students, states continue to cut vocational programs." 

I would add that pressuring virtually all of our students to take a college prep curriculum in K-12 education, leaves literally no time for teaching modern vocational skills or even vital life skills including proper nutrition,  physical education, and money management. Medical researchers know that many of our graduates will live a life shortened drastically by the onset of diabetes and heart disease directly caused by a cheap fast food diet. Louisiana has one of the highest obesity rates in the nation (35%) but our schools have no time to educate children about healthy diets, nor is anyone teaching them how to cook! (remember home economics?)  These critical needs of our students are being neglected so that our education reformers can continue to chase the illusive "college for all" dream. 

Watch for Part II of this post titled:
Some of our graduates don't even know how to tighten a nut!

Thursday, January 9, 2020

The Legacy of Superintendent John White

John White has submitted his letter of resignation from the position of Louisiana State Superintendent of education.

In his resignation letter White claims the following:
"Louisiana is better educated today than any point in its history," 

BESE Vice-President Holly Boffy, said the state made "great strides" during White's time.

This post examines the key measures that John White himself set as standards for determining success and therefore the legacy of his superintendency.

John White was appointed State Superintendent of Education for Louisiana in January 2012 for the purpose of raising achievement standards, closing the achievement gap between rich and poor students and to insure that our high school diplomas indicated real achievement and eliminated diploma mills. White was appointed at a time when Louisiana’s education performance was considered to be embarrassingly low compared to all the other states. It was expected that White would get Louisiana off the bottom of the state rankings and also take steps to close the gap between high poverty students and more privileged students. In addition, White and his TFA staff members at the LDOE set a goal of preparing all high school graduates for college or 2 year Associate degrees.

White has claimed repeatedly that Louisiana’s students were just as smart as kids in other states and  that there was no excuse for our low ranking among the states. White had never been trained as a real teacher but instead was one of those "no excuses" TFA trained reformers.

White embraced the theory that teachers were to blame for low student performance
White immediately teamed up with the big business lobbying group, The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, with the goal of totally reforming our K-12 educational system. LABI had just succeeded in electing almost all of the BESE members just as White came on, and Governor Jindal was passing legislation that blamed the teaching profession for all imagined failings of education. White eagerly implemented those reforms including placing 10% of teachers on a path to dismissal each year based on student performance on state tests. White also implemented a new, untested teacher evaluation system that was so poorly designed that principals did not have enough hours in the school year to evaluate teachers, even if they neglected all their other duties. That evaluation system had been written by an LDOE staff member who had never taught a day in her life.

The White teacher evaluation system began imploding after only one year, with some of the most highly respected teachers getting failing evaluations. The combination of the draconian evaluation system along with the shift to requiring teachers to spend most of their teaching day rehearsing students for state tests drove thousands of the best teachers to quit or retire early. The original legislative author of the requirement that teacher evaluations be based on student test scores wanted to repeal his own legislation, but White and LABI would have none of it.  They succeeded in retaining a large part of the defective evaluation including the link to student test scores. But then, because of a growing teacher shortage, White had to push BESE to allow the permanent employment of alternatively certified persons as teachers. White thought that was OK because new teachers needed only to be trained to teach to the state tests. Teaching and learning was steadily converted to a boring process, with little teacher creativity allowed.

The new Common Core standards have proved to be a failure
White promised that he would raise education standards in Louisiana and insure that our students would achieve those higher standards. He often expressed the ideology that Louisiana students would respond favorably to higher academic expectations.  The new Common Core standards had just been approved when White began his term. White embraced the new standards even though parents revolted against Common Core and Jindal changed his position to opposition of the standards. LABI and White fiercely defended the untested standards. The legislature ordered a revision of the education standards, but White rigged the revision process to allow only minor revisions of the Common Core standards. The new standards have been in effect for seven years, and student performance is now so poor now that White has had to secretly lower the passing scores on state tests to an average of 30% correct answers for a rating of "basic". White's stated goal of "mastery" requires only about 45% correct answers, but the majority of students have failed to get to that level. Over 20% of Louisiana students regularly fail both math and ELA state tests but are promoted to the next grade anyway. The new standards have resulted in a widening of the achievement gap between white and black students and between rich and poor students.

White is now completing his 8th year as the top education leader in Louisiana. He is the longest serving state superintendent in the nation. He has had more time than any other education reformer to improve student performance. So using the criteria described by White himself, what exactly is the measure of success of the John White era?

Louisiana is now at its lowest ranking ever on standardized tests
Louisiana is now 49th out of the 50 states in average ACT scores, 47th out of 50 states in NAEP scores, and the gap between rich and poor students in Louisiana is now the widest ever in recent history. The takeover charters that White authorized are still some of the lowest performing schools in the state. The standards for student promotion from one grade to the next have been dropped altogether by BESE at the urging of White. The cut scores for end-of-course graduation tests have been set so low that an average third grader could pass some of the high school tests  just using random guessing. These lowered standards easily account for White's highly touted improved graduation rate.

The Louisiana Recovery District is still on life support
Early in his term, White eagerly took over low performing schools and turned them over to charter groups for the purpose of raising their performance. The  local and national news media have been fed propaganda about how the Louisiana Recovery District, which White originally oversaw in New Orleans deserves to be seen as a model for the country to imitate. But despite the huge infusion of extra state and federal funding and lavish support for Teach for America, and the multimillion dollar grants by charitable foundations, the Orleans school system is now performing at the bottom 20 percentile compared to all public school systems in the state. That is extremely low level performance in a state that ranks very close to last in the entire country! The RSD schools outside of New Orleans are doing even worse. Toward the end of his tenure White has avoided school takeovers by the state.  Now his charter managers are going after high performing students, leaving the low performers to be educated by the real public schools. Not a great model for other states to imitate.

Some shocking statistics have been carefully hidden until now
A critical study by the LA Board of Regents was revealed at a recent joint meeting of BESE and Regents. Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed reported the shocking statistic that out of every 100 students entering 9th grade today, only 18% will actually achieve either a 2 or 4 year college degree. This reveals that one of the highest priorities of White's administration has been a disaster. The propaganda coming out of the LDOE about college preparation of our students focuses on FAFSA applications completed and on how many of our students are accepted for college. High school ratings depend in part on guidance counselors getting students to fill out applications for college. There are some so called "colleges" that would accept a ham sandwich if the application is filled out correctly. So sure enough, a higher percentage of graduates are now being accepted by college admissions. But that does not mean that students actually attend college or that those who start college actually get a degree.  The LDOE, up until now, had not reported this vital statistic about White's effectiveness in preparing students for college.
Another sad example of the hyped up phony success of charter schools is this article in The Nation where the reporter actually followed up on the college experiences of graduates from the highly touted Sci Academy charter school in New Orleans. A tiny percentage actually succeeded in college.

The teaching profession in Louisiana has been severely damaged
In his first few months as Superintendent, White testified before the legislature that a teacher's experience did not matter, that seniority should not be considered, and that teacher tenure should be made almost impossible to achieve. White and LABI decreed that Louisiana would transition to a merit system for teachers where the best teachers could command higher salaries. This new system would revolutionize teaching to transform it to a much more desirable profession.

White's reforms of the teaching profession have been a disaster. The dream of high salaries for excellent teachers never materialized. Teacher salaries in Louisiana had stagnated severely until Governor Edwards passed a $1,000 across the board raise effective this school year.  Today almost no practicing teachers are encouraging their own children and nieces and nephews to go into the teaching profession. Teachers today are sick of doing almost nothing but rehearsing kids for state tests. One major legacy White has produced is fewer qualified, experienced teachers, lower teacher morale, and a growing teacher shortage in Louisiana. Not exactly a model for other states to imitate!

Reformist propaganda does not educate children. The true John White legacy is that he has let down our students and failed on all the measures he, himself, had established for success.