Friday, October 30, 2009

Will there be winners in Race to the Top?

A lot of education money will be flowing to the states when the federal Race to the Top program kicks in later this year. As Times Picayune reporter Sarah Carr notes here, and Advocate reporter Will Sentell notes here, Louisiana stands to win a big share of the fund.

Conventional wisdom says that you should never turn down money for education. But we need to understand how the money will be used and determine if those uses are in the best interests of our schools and our children.

EdLog has covered the Race to the Top since it was first announced last summer. Click here to see the whole string of RTTT entries.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

USA Today slams Filipino teacher recruiter and local school officials

USA Today reporter Greg Toppo and Shreveport Times reporter Icess Fernandez collaborate in this story to bring readers the most complete account to date of the ordeal faced by Filipino teachers in thrall to an unscrupulous recruiter.

They are among the first reporters to get an interview with one of the teachers, who have been reticent because they fear retribution from Lourdes Navarro, the notoriously litigious recruiter at the heart of the scandal.

Navarro declined to be interviewed for this story, as she has for all the others that appeared after LFT filed complaints with the Louisiana Attorney General and Workforce Commission.

Aside from the personal interest angle documenting the trauma experienced by the Filipino teachers, Toppo and Fernandez explore the possibility that some Louisiana school officials were complicit in Navarro's scheme:

If they violated state or federal labor laws, the districts could face
substantial penalties: Federal law says they could be on the hook for millions
in fees. Already, the Caddo Parish school district in northwestern Louisiana has
agreed to pay $1,660 to each of the district's 43 teachers recruited by
Universal — and has reserved $400,000 for "reimbursement for any potential
claims sustained" by teachers.

Clearly, this will not be the last story about the unfolding scandal.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Bad data interpretations make bad policy

A bad interpretation of an LSU study makes for a poor conclusion in this article by Times-Picayune reporter Sarah Carr.

Most of the article is about U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's unabashed praise for Louisiana's "value added" analysis of student achievement. The model, according to the article, "links the success of educators in the classroom to their teacher preparation program."

There are arguments to be made for and against the value-added model, but that's grist for another mill (although it's a shame that the article uncritically accepts Duncan's premise). Where this article really fails is in its assertion that "novice Louisiana teachers trained through an alternative program called The New Teacher Project on average outperformed experienced teachers in helping their students progress in math, reading and language arts."

If true, that bolsters arguments that teachers don't really need the specialized training provided in schools of education, and that it is not educationally sound to reward teachers for earning advanced degrees.

But the data reported in the article don't really support that conclusion.

The comment is based on a study that LSU did on graduates of The New Teacher Project, which puts prospective teachers on a fast track to certification. Most of Louisiana's Teach for America participants have been certified through a TNTP-like program called the Louisiana Practitioner Teacher Program.

But the problem, as this AFT critique of the study shows, is that the TNTP teachers surveyed in the study were not novices at all, but were in fact veterans of at least two years in the classroom:

This is a critical detail. This means that the TNTP teachers who were labeled
new teachers” were usually third- and fourth-year teachers. They should not
have been considered “new” because they already had been working in the
classroom for roughly two years while they were completing their 18-month
certification program. For this reason, comparisons to other new teachers in
Louisiana are not valid.

The point is that TNTP teachers are not necessarily more effective because of their training, but because of their classroom experience. It's simply wrong to draw conclusions about the relative worth of experience or degrees from this LSU study.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Charter schools = unfunded mandates?

The Louisiana Legislature seems to have no problem holding two contradictory positions at the same time.

On one hand, lawmakers recently condemned "unfunded mandates" - requirements that local governments pick up the tab for programs required by the state.

But on the other hand, the legislature adopted a law that forces local school boards to pay for charter schools approved by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education once the local denies the charter application.

School superintendents are launching a campaign against this particular unfunded mandate, as Advocate reporter Charles Lussiere writes here.

It's going to be a hot issue, especially now that statewide "virtual" charter schools loom on the horizon.

The Race to the Top, Microsoft connection

Does Microsoft founder Bill Gates exercise too much influence over U.S. education policy simply because of the millions he is able to spread around? And does that influence fly in the face of what experts know to be the right path to education reform?

This article by Associated Press reporters Libby Quaid and Donna Blankinship raises those questions, saying that Gates' foundation "is taking unprecedented steps to influence education policy, spending millions to influence how the federal government distributes $5 billion in grants to overhaul public schools."

If teachers wonder why the federal Race to the Top program is heavily slanted toward charter schools and teacher evaluations based on student test scores, they need look no farther than Gates. Two of his former employees are inner circle advisers to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and have received special ethics waivers so they may continue their close association with Gates' foundation.

LFT is asking for teachers' opinions of the Race to the Top program. Please click here to answer a short survey about the issues.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Next shoe drops in Filipino teacher scandal

Adding to the troubles faced by Filipino teacher recruiter Lourdes "Lulu" Navarro, the American Federation of Teachers has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor. The complaint alleges that Navarro's company, Universal Placement International, violated federal laws when it exploited, intimidated and threatened the teachers.

The federal complaint follows closely on the heels of charges filed with the Louisiana Workforce Commission and Attorney General, alleging that Navarro violated state laws when she recruited over 200 Filipino teachers to work in school districts across the state.

The AFT complaint, at 141 pages long, includes allegations that some Louisiana school districts "submitted false statements to exceed the cap for work visas," according to this article by Shreveport Times reporter Icess Fernandez.

AFT President Randi Weingarten pledged the union's support for the aggrieved Filipino teachers, saying "The allegations, backed by the facts, show these teachers to be victims of worker abuses like the ones in our students' history books: indentured servitude, debt bondage and labor contracts signed under duress. at makes these allegations especially heinous is that the victims are good teachers, that school districts and tax dollars are involved, and that all this is taking place in 21st-century America."

To read more, please click here.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Times-Picayune: Let retirees eat cake

It's two months until; Christmas, but the Grinch is already at work at the Times-Picayune. In this editorial, the state's largest newspaper fulminates against public employee retirement pensions as "reckless and unsustainable."

They are not reckless, but come from a carefully devised formula based on an employee's earnings and years of service. And they have been sustainable for generations, surviving even the most recent stock market crash without plunging Louisiana into the bankruptcy predicted by critics.

True, the state is obligated to pony up if there is a shortfall, but that is what any decent employer ought to do in defense of those who spent their working lives on its behalf.

But in siding with Speaker of the House Jim Tucker, the TP is adopting a "let them eat cake" attitude befitting its Brahman heritage.

LFT President Steve Monaghan has responded to the editorial with this letter:

Dear Editor:

The Times-Picayune and Rep. Jim Tucker couldn't have picked a worse time to endorse a scheme that would subject retired state employees, including teachers, to the not-so-tender mercies of the marketplace.

While millions of Americans saw their retirement hopes shrivel along with their 401(k), individuals fortunate enough to have a defined benefit plan – a genuine pension – were spared financial devastation. Rep. Tucker’s plan would eliminate retirement security for future teachers and other public employees and make them targets for the next Ponzi scheme.

The Times-Picayune acknowledges the sad fact that far too many Louisiana workers have little or have no retirement plan. But rather than demanding fair pensions for all workers, the newspaper supports the Tucker proposal.

Here is the flawed logic implicit in the first sentence of your October 20 editorial: If many Louisianans do not have sustainable pensions, then none should. The Times-Picayune and the Speaker of the House are endorsing a great race to the bottom, and seem to be comfortable with a world in which only the privileged few can expect a sustainable post-employment future.

On behalf of the teachers and school employees we represent, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers rejects that vision of the future. We believe that after a lifetime of work, all employees deserve the security of a fair, guaranteed pension. No American's retirement security should be subject to the vagaries of the stock market or the manipulations of a few unscrupulous insiders.

We hope that Speaker Tucker and the Times Picayune rethink their position, and join in a greater struggle for fair, decent retirement security for all workers.

Sincerely yours,
Steve Monaghan, President
Louisiana Federation of Teachers

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"The Pauls" blasted over slow RSD achievement growth

Orleans Parish School Board member Thomas Robichaux levels some pretty damning accusations at the state Recovery School District in this blog post. And he has some evidence to back it all up.

Robichaux begins by pointing out that the much-touted RSD is improving schools at a slower clip than the much-maligned Orleans Parish School Board. Even though the RSD spends nearly twice as much per student as the parish school board, it "is achieving one-fourth the result."

The school board member lists three reasons why RSD achievement is disappointing: RSD's "shell game" opens, closes and shuffles schools around too much; the masterminds behind RSD are too intent on taking over schools and changing the state's "governance paradigm in education," and not concerned enough with real, meaningful reform; and there is in RSD "a disregard for experienced educators, favoring less expensive, and less experienced, younger teachers."

The devastating conclusion reached by Robichaux is this:

While the Pauls (LA Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek and RSD
Superintendent Paul Vallas) are busy letting out hundreds of millions of dollars
in contracts and giving power and authority to their friends and political
allies, they have not come up with a comprehensive plan to break the cycle of
bad education that we have had in this state and city for 50 years. In
short, the Pauls are doing just like so many other politicians have before them:
working to consolidate their own power (or that of their friends) and ignoring
the real problem of education.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Experts say retirement changes would cost the state

If Speaker of the House Jim Tucker was expecting overwhelming support for his scheme to put public employee retirement at the mercy of the marketplace, he might have been disappointed by the result of the first hearing on the subject.

The emerging consensus seems to be that changing state retirement systems to a defined contribution plan would cost more than the current defined benefit plan, according to experts cited in this story by Advocate reporter Sarah Chacko.

Opinions vary on why Tucker is so bent on taking away one of the good things about public service in Louisiana - the promise of a retirement plan that is not subject to the whims of the stock market.

Whether his zeal is out of disdain for the people who work in public positions - including teachers and school support staff - or it is out of allegiance to the private fund managers who stand to be the real winners in a defined contribution plan, or even out of a misguided belief that his idea would truly be good for the state, one thing is certain. His plan would not be in the best interest of the people who've made public service their life's work.

Is Race to the Top a bum's rush with no basis in research?

Before U.S. Secretary if Education Arne Duncan and our own Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek wax too enthusiastic about the charter schools and merit pay that comprise too much of the federal Race to the Top plan, they should read this article in Education Week (free registration required).

The main thrust of the article is that, for leaders who pride themselves on basing programs on facts and research, Race to the Top comes up short on both counts:

“What is extraordinary about these regulations is that they have no credible
basis in research. They just happen to be the programs and approaches favored by
the people in power,” writes Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New
York University, in her blog, Bridging
, which is hosted by

Ravitch and several other experts quoted in the article all agree that "two priorities at the heart of the program...lack research evidence: evaluating teachers based on students’ standardized test scores and promoting the growth of charter schools."

Before Louisiana's schools get hustled into yet another bureaucratic bum's rush, shouldn't we ask the intelligent questions, and then base policy on real research and data?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Committees study retirement "reform"

If you like the way the stock market tanked in the past couple of years, you'll love Speaker of the House Jim Tucker's ideas about changing the state's public employee retirement systems.

During the last legislative session, Tucker passed a resolution calling for a study of defined contribution retirement systems versus the defined benefit systems now enjoyed by state employees, including teachers and school support staff.

Under the current system, retirees get a pension based on their income and years of service. A defined contribution plan would put retirement income at the mercy of the stock market. Purveyors of 401k and other retirement plans strongly support the defined contribution option.

As this article by Advocate reporter Sarah Chacko notes, Tucker's plan would go into effect next year, and would affect newly hired teachers and other public employees.

Today, a joint meeting of the House and Senate Retirement Committees began the study required by Tucker's resolution.

Contented Disheartened Idealists

American teachers can be divided into groups broadly defined as Disheartened, Contented and Idealists, according to a new survey conducted by Public Agenda and Learning Point Associates.

This EdWeek article by reporter Andrew L. Yarrow describes the study as "a comprehensive and nuanced look at how teachers differ in their perspectives on their profession, why they entered teaching, the atmosphere and leadership in their schools, the problems they face, their students and student outcomes, and ideas for reform."

The study, called "Teaching for a Living: How Teachers See the Profession Today," is based on interviews with nearly 900 teachers, who were asked about 100 questions.

The plurality of teachers described as disheartened characterize their jobs as “so demanding, it’s a wonder that more people don’t burn out.”

Those identified as contented say that “teaching is exactly what I wanted to do.” The study says they are most likely to be veterans who believe they have adequate time to prepare lesson plans, and teach in middle-income or affluent schools.

The study reports that idealists have "the strongest sense of mission about teaching." They believe that, given good teachers, all students can learn. A majority think that all their students "given the right support, can go to college."

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Pastorek and Union Parish head to court October 29

A court date has been set to determine whether or not Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek and his Department of Education can hand over some of Union Parish's education funds to a charter school.

The federal suit was born last summer, when Pastorek admitted that he goofed in not informing Union Parish officials that the D'Arbonne Woods Charter School would be on a meeting agenda, and that the result could be the taking of parish money to fund the school.

If Pastorek prevails on October 29 and the district must hand over some $500,00 to the charter school, the Union Parish School Board will have to consider shutting down some programs or closing schools, according to this article by Monroe News-Star reporter Barbara Leader.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Most school districts show improvements in state scores

The Department of Education today released state, district and school performance scores for 2009. Statewide school improvement scores are somewhat short of the goal set 10 years ago, but still show marked improvement over past years.

In 1999, the arbitrary goal set by education leaders for this year was 100; this year's composite score came in at 91. In the first year that scores were kept, the state goal reached just 69.4. Last year's score was 86.3, so there has been an upward trend since the beginning.

The top five districts were the Zachary Community School District (116.8), West Feliciana Parish (110.9), St. Tammany Parish (109.6), Ascension Parish (105.9) and Central Community Schools (105.8).

Coming in dead last was the State Recovery School District, with a District Performance Score of 54. At that, the RSD showed a 2.4 point growth over the previous year.

All but three districts showed improvement this year; in 2008, 13 districts did not improve over the year before.

For a complete rundown of district and school performance sores, please click here.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Some teachers in state not certified

Houma Courier reporter Daniel McBride schools readers on teacher certification in Terrebonne Parish for this article. Statewide, he writes, about seven percent of teachers are not properly certified; in Terrebonne, that figure rises to 10 percent.

Friday, October 9, 2009

EdWeek: Experts worry about Race to Top

The U.S. Department of Education should tread lightly in the way it connects test scores, teacher evaluations and compensation to the $4 billion Race to the Top initiative. That's the opinion of the Board on Teaching and Assessment, which is part of the National Research Council.

As Education Week reporter Lesli Maxwell puts it in this article, the testing experts believe the Department of Education should examine "multiple indicators of what students know and can do" instead of focusing narrowly on a single high-stakes test.

LFT has already sent its concerns to the Department of Education about the $4 billion Race to the Top program, and has notified members about the problems we see. We'd like to know what you think - click here to take a short survey about the Race to the Top program.

Pastorek: I know noth-eeeng...

State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek does his best Sgt. Schultz impression for this story, telling Shreveport Times reporter Icess Fernandez that he didn't know his office had cancelled a contract with a recruiter of Filipino teachers.

Also in The Times - which has covered the Filipino story better than any other news outlet in the state - is an editorial reminding us that the Filipino teachers are victims, and that their qualoifications and abilities should not be tainetd by the scandal.

Many of the Filipino teachers are members of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. We filed the complaints on their behalf because that is what we do. It is who we are. We exist to represent teachers and school employees, and we do it better than anyone else.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Louisiana is the least brain-healthy state

This could explain a lot. U.S. News and World Report writer Zach Miners has a report on a new study that ranks Louisiana dead last in an Index of Brain Health.

Caddo looks at foreign teacher policy - what about the others?

The Caddo Parish School Board is working on a policy to control the district's relations with third-party recruiters such as Universal Placement International, the source of an ongoing scandal involving Filipino teachers.

As Shreveport Times reporter Icess Fernandez writes here, the Caddo board already has a first draft of a policy that "would require that administrators submit documents to support their recommendation of a particular recruiter or recruiting company."

When will other school boards involved in the scandal - East Baton Rouge, Jefferson, the State Recovery School District and others - take action to avoid future problems?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Watch the LFT's Filipino teacher press conference

There is now a video online to view the LFT's press conference about Universal Placement International and the plight of Filipino teachers who were recruited by the company.

Please click here to watch the video.

Editorials condemn Filipino recruiter, demand action

Demand is mounting for full-scale investigations of the abuses perpetrated by Filipino teacher recruiter Lourdes Navarro and her company, Universal Placement International.

From the Shreveport Times:

Solving our teacher shortages is critical if we are to ensure the best education
for our children. But what was once viewed as a resourceful answer to filling
these gaps has now become a huge embarrassment. It deserves now a full
investigation. And wherever fault lies, let's hope hard lessons have been

From the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

The Filipino workers have helped fill a shortage of teachers after Hurricane
Katrina, and the exploitation they allege should be intolerable. If the
accusations are true, officials need to stop this abuse before more foreign
workers are victims of it.

This is a story that won't be disappearing from the news any time soon.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Vallas: Filipino recruiter should be prosecuted

The superintendent of the state Recovery School District says the RSD has severed its connection with the company that recruited Filipino teachers to work in Louisiana.

Paul Vallas told WWL-TV reporter Paul Murphy for this story that Universal Placement International and its owner, Lourdes Navarro, were awarded a $47,500 contract to recruit Filipino teachers for hard-to-staff positions in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

"We weren't comfortable using a for profit company to help us recruit teachers," Vallas told the reporter. "So, after that summer, we had no further use for them."

Vallas told Murphy that he believes the Filipino teachers should sue the recruiter to recover their losses, and that criminal charges should be filed against Navarro.

Board member's shocking, cruel reaction

"If they've got buyer's remorse and don't like what they have, then they can go back."
-Caddo Parish School Board member Barry Rachal

So here we have a what seems to be a clear-cut case of illegal activity: an unlicensed recruiter scams hundreds of Filipino teachers out of thousands of dollars, and keeps those teachers in what amounts to servitude.

And what does Caddo Parish School Board member Barry Rachal have to say about the victims?

"They signed an agreement, a contract," he told Shreveport Times reporter Icess Fernandez for this article, "and they were all thrilled to death to have a job in America and now they want to gripe about it. If they've got buyer's remorse and don't like what they have, then they can go back."

Except some of them can't go back, even for the Christmas holidays, because the recruiter is holding their work visas until the teachers cough up the vigorish they owe.

Rachal's comment might sound shocking and cruel, but it is also a symptom of what's wrong with American capitalism these days. If it's in the contract, it's OK. Whether or not the contract is with a corporation that operates legally, whether or not it violates principles of human dignity, whether or not any public agency has properly investigated the contract.

Get out of the way of business, and let business do what it wants. If people get hurt, so what. As Rachal puts it, "...sounds like they (the teachers) are not honoring their agreement."

That is the common thread running through the health care industry and the securities market that nearly brought us to financial collapse and the human trafficking at the core of our so-called immigration problem. Without regulation, oversight and prosecution of abuses, an unfettered "free market" can be very wicked indeed.

As any sports fan can tell you, all games need rules, referees and penalties. Otherwise chaos reigns. That's what happening in the case of these Filipino teachers. Politicians who can't see that are likely part of the problem.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Outrageous, offensive abuse of Filipino teachers

(From left, AFT Attorney Daniel McNeil, LFT President Steve Monaghan and East Baton Rouge Federation President Carnell Washington discuss allegations against foreign teacher recruiter Universal Placement International)

"Disgusting and an affront to basic American values." That's how LFT President Steve Monaghan characterizes the treatment of Filipino nationals teaching in Louisiana. The villain in this case is the recruiting agency that extracts huge fees from teachers in The Philippines, and continues to drain their paychecks after they are hired by Louisiana school systems.

(Jefferson Federation of Teachers President Meladie Munch, left, and United Teachers of New Orleans President Larry Carter explain how Filipino teachers recruited by Universal Placement International are faring in their local school systems.)
The charges involve multiple violations of state and federal laws. Attorneys for AFT and LFT said the union is asking that the teachers’ contracts with the California-based recruiter be voided, and that the recruiter be criminally prosecuted under state law.
Lourdes “Lulu” Navarro, the president of recruiting firm Universal Placement International, is a convicted felon who has served jail time in California and was also convicted of crimes in New Jersey. After treating some Louisiana school officials to Philippine Island junkets, she was allowed to recruit more than 200 teachers for Louisiana schools.
Each teacher recruited to work in Louisiana was charged about $15,000 by Navarro to obtain a job, and was then required to sign over 10 percent of the monthly salary to UPI for two years. The total amounted to some 37% of the teachers’ salary.

Teachers who could not afford to pay the fees up front were directed to loan companies by Navarro, and were charged exorbitant interest rates.
The story, revealed by LFT at press conferences in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, is available on the Federation Web site.
LFT's revelations were widely reported by the news media, including this story by Advocate reporter Will Sentell; this one by New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Sarah Carr; and this story by Shreveport Times reporter Icess Fernandez.
Video reports are available here from WAFB in Baton Rouge; here on WBRZ-TV in Baton Rouge;
here on WDSU-TV in New Orleans.