Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A wrong turn down the road to merit pay

Now that the U.S. Department of Education has announced that eight Louisiana school districts will split $36.5 million to experiment with merit pay for teachers, does that mean it's already too late to talk about whether or not merit pay really makes a difference in the classroom?

Hopefully, not. Because the data, while not yet conclusive, tends to show that there is little if any connection between performance-based pay and student achievement.

As Sarah Sparks writes here, the Department of Education is spending money before there is evidence that it is well spent. Says Sparks, "More than ever, the department needs a large, rigorous, comprehensive evaluation to dig into the details of whether and how performance-pay programs work."

Within a week of the Department's announcement of the grants, she notes, two different studies in Chicago and Nashville "have found few benefits for student achievement in merit-pay programs."

Despite a lack of evidence that these incentives accomplish their goal, the U.S. Department, as well as state and local education agencies around the country, are bound and determined to ram them down the throats of classroom teachers.


Education curmudgeon Diane Ravitch hits on an answer to that question in this article.

The problem is that merit pay has been touted loudly and long, albeit without evidence, by conservative advocates. After some 30 years, it is taken as an article of faith that it must work.

Ravitch says that the almost religious belief in merit pay is based on a business model: "They believe in competition, and they believe that financial rewards can be used to incentivize better performance, so it seems natural for them to conclude that merit pay or performance pay would incentivize teachers to produce better results."

While that may seem a rational conclusion, it is not empirical - the data just don't back it up.

So the conservatives rely on another article of faith, based on their generally low opinion of people in general. As Savitch puts it,

(T)hey assume that most people—in this case, teachers—are lazy and need a
promise of dollars to be incentivized to get higher scores for their students.
It never seems to occur to them that many people are doing their best (think
people who play sports, always striving to do their best without any expectation
of payment) and continue to do so because of intrinsic rewards or because of an
innate desire to serve others. Teachers should certainly be well compensated,
but not many enter the classroom with money as their primary motivation.

Her conclusion? "Ideology trumps evidence. The enduring puzzle is why the Obama administration clings so fiercely to the GOP philosophy of incentives and sanctions as the levers for change, despite lack of evidence for their efficacy."

Monday, September 27, 2010

Help the Demons win the Hawaii Five-O band contest!

Which college band performs the best rendition of the Hawaii Five-O theme? If the answer is Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, the school will win $25,000 and have a video of the band performing the piece on the CBS network this fall.

All that NSU has to do to win is get more votes than the other 17 colleges in the competition. That's where you come in.

Click on this link, and vote for the Spirit of Northwestern band. You're allowed to vote once each day until the CBS Hawaii Five-O Marching Band Mania competition is settled on October 4. Go Demons!

Friday, September 24, 2010

"Merit pay" may not raise student achievement

Giving teachers incentive pay for raising student test scores does not result in student achievement, according to a new study from Vanderbilt University's Peabody School of Education.

The study, authored by the National Center on Performance Initiatives, was conducted in partnership with the prestigious RAND Corporation. It followed 296 Tennessee middle-school math teachers as they prepared students for the state's high-stakes exam.

Half of the teachers were in control groups, and half were eligible for bonuses if their students scored higher than expected on the test.

The study found that students whose teachers were eligible for the bonuses "progressed no faster than those in classes taught by the 146 other teachers."

Here is a story about the study by reporter Christopher Connello in Politics Daily.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Inconvenient facts mar "Superman"

The education community is abuzz about the new documentary from the makers of Al Gore's "Inconvenient Truth." Called "Waiting for Superman," the movie has a distinct and disturbing bias against traditional public education and the teachers in our schools.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten is painted as the villain in the piece. She was interviewed extensively for the documentary, and has appeared in panel discussions to rebut its conclusions since its release.

As Weingarten says in this article, the film's producers have a deep concern for children, but completely missed the mark by vilifying teachers and promoting charter schools as the answer for public education's woes.

Writes the AFT president, "the film casts two outliers in starring roles - the 'bad' teacher as villain, and charter schools as heroes ready to save the day. The problem, of course, is that these caricatures are more fictional than factual."

By focusing on a few identifiably bad teachers and a few high-achieving boutique charter schools, the film skews reality. That's the problem with an ideological, anecdotal approach to documentary film making.

"It is insulting and counterproductive to suggest, as the film does, that the deplorable behavior of one or two teachers is representative of all public school teachers," writes Weingarten.

The reality, she writes, is that many charter schools "perform worse than or just about as well as regular public schools."

The real answer, says Weingartern is to redouble our efforts to make sure that all schools work for all children.

"This film," she writes, "misses a crucial point: We think about all kids, not only some of them. And reforms that affect small numbers of students, even when they live up to their promise, still leave that promise unfulfilled for others. Every child should have access to a great education - not by chance, not even by choice, but by right."

For another viewpoint about "Waiting for Superman," click here to read a blogger's suspicion that the documentary is a stalking horse for business interests that want to privatize public education.

"Yes, public schools have big problems," writes Susie Madrack. "Selling them off to unregulated private bidders will only make things worse."

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

In defense of the indefensible

What do you do?

Your client is a convicted felon who's been found guilty of violating Louisiana's labor law, and has been ordered to repay victimized foreign teachers some $1.8 million in illegally charged fees.

The foreign teachers who were ripped off by the client joined a union which brought the case that resulted in the judgment.

That same union unearthed evidence that your client is guilty of violating Racketeering Influenced Organized Crime statutes, and is assisting in a federal suit to claim damages on behalf of the foreign teachers.

You appear in district court to ask a judge to overturn the ruling against your client.

What do you do?

If you are the attorney for the disgraced and disreputable Lourdes "Lulu" Navarro and Universal Placement International, you claim that the union actually hates the foreign teachers on whose behalf these actions were filed. You claim that there is a secret union plot to get rid of the teachers.

And you hope that you've made enough noise to deflect attention from the uncomfortable facts of the case.

Advocate reporter Joe Gyan covered the story for this report; the LFT Web site has more information here and here.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

LSU could lose thousands of students, hundreds of employees under Jindal plan

Last Sunday the Baton Rouge Advocate published a report about how school systems can go about firing teachers because the state is facing yet another budget crisis - a $2 billion shortfall is looming for the coming fiscal year.

Today, the state's newspaper of record has this frightening headline: "LSU predicts massive layoff, loss of students if budget cut."

Reporter Jordan Blum writes that the flagship university will lose about 700 employees and close to 8,000 students if LSU is forced to trim its budget by another $62 million.

That number wasn't just drawn from a hat. The Jindal administration is requiring the university to write a budget plan that includes the cut. All told, the state is asking Louisiana's colleges and universities to write budget estimates with cuts amounting to $437 million next year.

And that's on top of the $270 million cut from higher education by the legislature and the Jindal administration over the past two years.

As The Advocate report notes, the cuts are seriously eroding higher education in our state. LSU is planning to shutter the School of Library Information and Science, and eliminate degree programs in German and Latin. These are not steps that should be considered by a major university.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

National History Day contest open to students in grades 6-12

Students in grades 6-12 are encouraged to enter the National History Day contest sponsored by the WWII Museum in New Orleans. Louisiana regional competitions will be held on March 12-26, 2011.

History Day in Louisiana is part of National History Day, a research program for students in grades 6-12 that promotes research, literacy, and inquiry. Students who participate have the opportunity to display their research projects at a series of contests at the regional and state level that lead to a national contest held in June at the University of Maryland.

All types of students participate in History Day—public, private, parochial, and home school students; urban and rural students; academically gifted and average students; and students with special needs.

Students select and research a topic, which relates to the Annual Theme. The theme for 2011 is Debate and Diplomacy in History: Successes, Failures, Consequences. After analyzing and interpreting their findings, students present them in one of five ways: documentary, exhibit, performance, paper, or web site. Students may enter as individuals or in groups of two to five students. The paper category is for individual students only.

To download a flier with more information about National History day, please click here.

The National History Day contest Web site is here.

Louisiana wins $147 million to save educator jobs

Louisiana has been awarded a significant share of the $10 billion EduJobs plan adopted by Congress in an effort to save the jobs of teachers and school employees. In this press release from the Department of Education, it was announced that our share will be $147 million.

The press release says that funds will be divided among school districts according to the Minimum Foundation Program funding formula. At today's meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Superintendent Paul Pastorek said a chart will be prepared by Friday or Monday outlining how much each district will receive.

More information is available in this report on the LFT Web site.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

In defense of public sector salaries and benefits

In some political circles, it's popular to attack teachers and other public employees. We saw it in the last legislative session, when lawmakers sought ways to reduce retirement benefits that seem overly generous in comparison to the desultory performance of private sector workers' 401(k) plans.

It's part of a larger, nationwide assault on public service. To some politicians, the current recession is seen as permission to denigrate the decent salaries and benefits earned by those who made the career decision to serve the public.

As writer Daniel Morris puts it in this New York Daily News article, "Now pundits and politicians across the country are getting in on the action by claiming that public-sector employees must sacrifice more and act like private sector employees who supposedly feel blessed and thankful to get a paycheck, any paycheck."

In what he calls a "new race to the bottom," Morris says that the woes of private sector employees are being used to "stir up rage" at public sector employees and, more specifically, at the unions that have worked to win those salaries and benefits.

The better solution is to ensure private sector employees' rights to the same decent salaries and benefits as those in the public sector. That didn't seem like such a strange concept a generation or two ago. But in an age that offers golden parachutes to top executives and the shaft to everyone else, the idea of basic fairness is sloughed off as quaint or, even worse, socialist.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Why are we asking about the best way to fire teachers?

Advocate reporter Charles Lussiere is telling the wrong story in this Sunday article, with the subhead, "Budget woes tighten focus on how to lay off teachers."

We should be asking how many teachers we need to give our children an adequate education. We should be asking what we need to do to attract and keep the best educators in our classrooms. We should be asking how much it costs to educate our children, and then do everything possible to make sure that much money goes into our schools.

But instead, the front page is asking about the best way to fire teachers. And there are elected officials willing to plug into that frame. Shameful.

Friday, September 10, 2010

LFT cheers state's application for education jobs fund

The Louisiana Federation of Teachers cheered Thursday’s announcement that Louisiana has applied for part of the new $10 billion federal Education Jobs Fund. The state is eligible to receive approximately $147 million through the federal allocation.

"This funding is a critical lifeline for school systems already faced with difficult budget choices," LFT President Steve Monaghan said. "We are grateful for the president's initiative and Congress' intent to make sure that Louisiana children do not suffer the unnecessary loss of vital educational resources while we work together for more permanent solutions to the financial crisis plaguing our state and nation." Please click here to read the rest of this story.

First Lady visits Louisiana on anti-obesity campaign

First Lady Michelle Obama was in Slidell this week to commend Louisiana schools for their effort in fighting childhood obesity. Visiting Brock Elementary School, one of 59 schools in the state to earn the Department of Agriculture's Gold Award of Distinction, Mrs. Obama announced an ambitious goal: to "solve the problem of childhood obesity so that kids born today reach adulthood at a healthy weight."

"We're beginning to better understand the magnitude of this crisis," said Mrs. Obama. "We're seeing it all over. Everyone is talking about it now. And we know the threat that it poses to the health of our children. So it's simply not enough to solve this problem halfway or to do it incrementally. This is a national problem and it's affecting every single child in every single community in this country."
The First Lady spoke about her signature program, "Let's Move," which she launched in conjunction with the National Football League, in an effort to get youngsters more physically active.Special guests at the Slidell appearance included the principals and food service managers from schools that earned the Department of Agriculture award.
Following the Slidell appearance, Mrs. Obama went to New Orleans, where she and football stars were joined by singer Taylor Swift to promote a healthier lifestyle for children.
Louisiana AFL-CIO President Louis Reine, left, and St. Tammany Federation of Teachers and School Employees President Elsie Burkhalter, who is also a Vice President of the American Federation of Teachers, were guests at the First Lady's appearance in Slidell.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Do UNO students protest budget cuts in vain?

For a moment there, it looked like the 1960s all over again - protesting students disrupted a campus and fought with police. But it wasn't over a war or civil rights that University of New Orleans students took to the barricades last week. It was over budget cuts that threaten to decimate the university and devalue their educations.

As Times-Picayune reporter John Pope writes here, the students protested the fact that the school's budget has been cut by $14.5 million since 2009, and that more budget cuts are on the way - Governor Jindal's commissioner of administration has asked state agencies to prepare budgets with another 35% worth of cuts.

The students' concern about their educational future may be in vain, as Associated Press reporter Melinda Deslatte writes in this column.

"But those students probably need to brace for the reality that appears to be slowly sinking in with the higher education community," writes Deslatte. "Protests or not, the cuts are coming, and Jindal and Louisiana's legislators don't seem to have any plans to stop them."

Friday, September 3, 2010

Louisiana gets share of assesssment instrument grant

Louisiana is one of 26 states that will share a federal grant aimed at creating common assessment instruments for the recently adopted Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts (ELA) and mathematics. Ours is one of 35 states and the District of Columbia to adopt the new Common Core standards.

According to this press release from the State Department of Education, the new assessments will eventually replace the iLEAP and LEAP tests, which will be phased out after the 2013-14 school year.

An important goal of the new assessment will be to have scores that can be compared among states that subscribe to the common standards.

The State Department says the new assessments will be administered by computer at key times during the year.

In a related Education Week story, reporter Erik W. Robelen writes that there are actually two sets of grants aimed at designing new assessment systems. Both are part of the Race to the Top program.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

California teachers outraged over release of evaluations

Teachers in Los Angeles are outraged that a newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, has published evaluation scores, based on standardized tests, of some 6,000 teachers.

That issue arose in Louisiana during debate on legislation that created a "value added model" of teacher evaluation, in which half of a teacher's evaluation will, in the future, be based on student growth.

The Louisiana Federation of Teachers was adamant that state law protecting the confidentiality of teacher evaluations must be preserved. As a result, the law does not allow the release of data on individual teacher evaluations.

For the think tank Public Agenda, the Los Angeles controversy raised numerous questions about
the teaching profession and teacher accountability. Here is the article that appeared in the Public Agenda Alert for September 2:

When databases and disenchantment collide, the results can be explosive - as the debate over "value-added" grading of teachers showed this week.

The Los Angeles Times provoked a furious reaction from teachers this week when it launched a database of 6,000 elementary school teachers analyzing how they've done measured by standardized tests. The stories prompted debate around the nation on the methods used and at least one piece wondering "When Does Holding Teachers Accountable Go Too Far?"

We'd argue that you can't understand the debate over the database without understanding the disenchantment so many teachers feel over their jobs.

Public Agenda's research, conducted with Learning Point Associates, shows a stunning number of K-12 teachers, some 40 percent, appear to be disheartened and disappointed in their jobs. Only 14 percent of these "Disenchanted" teachers rate their principals as "excellent" at supporting them. Nearly three-quarters cite "discipline and behavior issues" in the classroom as a drawback to teaching, and 7 in 10 say that testing is a major drawbacks as well. More than half of the Disenchanted teachers (54 percent) work in low-income schools.

By contrast, the 23 percent of teachers who shaped up as "Idealists" and the 37 percent we termed "Contented" were more likely to say their principal was supportive, more likely to say their school was orderly, and more likely to say good teachers can make a difference in student learning. Only 34 percent of the Contented and 45 percent of the Idealists work in low-income schools.

The Teaching for a Living survey can't tell us whether the Disenchanted are bad teachers, or good teachers trapped in bad schools, or whether the Idealists are effective in the classroom or just more optimistic. But the survey does tell us something about what teachers believe their problems are. Regardless of how we try to measure success in the classroom, a better understanding of how teachers feel about their jobs can help explain why some things work and others don't.

Most can't name federal reform models

Quiz: Can you name the four school reform models touted by the federal government?

Don't feel bad. Neither can most school systems, according to this Education Week article by reporter Dakarai Aarons :

More than a third of school districts reported they had no familiarity with the
models that are part of the federal School Improvement Grants heading to
school districts this fall in a bid by the Obama administration to change
the fortunes of the bottom five percent of America's schools, according to
the report from the Washington-based Center on Education
. And fewer than 12 percent had implemented any of
the models in their schools.

The answers to the quiz: Transformation, Turnaround, Restart and Closure. See the article for definitions.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

First Lady to visit Slidell school

First Lady Michelle Obama will visit Brock Elementary School in Slidell on September 8 as part of her campaign against childhood obesity. The Associated Press has the story here.