Thursday, December 30, 2010

History you can dance to

What happens when a history teacher and a flash animation teacher team up to produce music parodies that inform and amuse with a beat you can dance to?

Find the answer on YouTube's historyteachers Channel, where out can see the products of Amy Burvall and Herb Mahelona's collaboration.

In dozens of videos, the pair tell Cleopatra's story by way of "Fergilicious" by Fergie, recount the French Revolution through the lens of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" and, for lovers of rock classics, explain the greatness of Alexander via The Knack's "My Sharona."

And if you've ever been stirred by Shakespeare's "Band of Brothers" speech in Henry V, you'll love their retelling of the Battle of Agincourt as imagined through Marianne Faithful's "As Tears Go By."

Washington Post blogger Valerie Strauss tells the story of the duo, and the effect their collaboration has on students, here.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Good cop, bad cop in the Jindal house

You have to admire the public relations machine behind the Jindal administration. Remember how the governor polished his conservative creds by knocking the federal stimulus program while at the same time building local support with staged photo ops featuring huge cardboard checks backed by stimulus dollars?

The same strategy is now at work on the education front. First Lady Supriya Jindal is featured in The Advocate for her initiative stressing technology in public schools. As reported by Michelle Millhollon in this story, Mrs. Jindal's admirable objective is the installation of computerized white boards to replace chalk boards in elementary schools.

Thus far, the article says, the First Lady's educational foundation has placed the $6,000 technology in about 160 classrooms across the state, at a cost of about $960,000. The very ambitious goal, Millhollon writes, is to wire up 4,000 classrooms.

That would cost some $24 million, to be raised by Mrs. Jindal's foundation. In comparison, the governor's frenetic nationwide quest for campaign funds has raised about $8 million over the past few years, making it seem unlikely that the 4,000 classroom goal is reachable during Gov. Jindal's tenure.

But the airy promise held out by one hand has already been trumped by the stark reality clenched in another: Gov. Jindal's budget cuts have led to a $30 million decrease in the Department of Education budget - the part of the budget dedicated to classroom technology.

And while the distaff side of the Jindal household upholds the "support our schools" banner, it looks like deep cuts might be on the horizon in the governor's budget.

That's the impression one gets from this article by Advocate reporter Will Sentell.

Ironically posted in the same edition as the Supriya Jindal article, this one quotes Board of Elementary and Secondary Education President Penny Dastugue as saying that it will take a fight to keep education funded at the same frozen level as the past two years.

Despite rising costs and new mandates on local school boards, the Minimum Foundation Program has not received the usual 2.75% inflation factor, much less any new funding, in the last two fiscal years.

“I think we will have to fight (to keep the level funding),” Dastugue told Sentell. “I don’t know what the Legislature wants.”

Which is sort of a disingenuous comment. The legislature is only one of the three players to determine MFP funding. Gov. Jindal, whose executive budget plan will be released in a couple of months, will say how much he expects to spend on education next year.

Dastugue's own BESE board has a crucial role to play - it is BESE's responsibility to decide how much money should be in the MFP in the first place. BESE has not fought very hard for the MFP over the past couple of years, and don't expect the board to buck the governor this time, either. Dastugue is one of Jindal's three appointments to BESE.

The legislature does have to approve funding for the MFP, so it is disappointing that Dastugue says she has no idea what lawmakers have in mind. Shouldn't they be communicating about something this important?

So as BESE dithers while education burns, the governor's PR machine grinds relentlessly on, expertly positioning him for a brighter future than our state can anticipate.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Ravitch versus the corporatists

In this Washington Post interview with Valerie Strauss, education historian Diane Ravitch takes on billionaire Bill Gates' corporatist approach to education reform.

It's an important exchange of ideas. Gates is representative of a group that apparently wants to support public education, and has the appropriate liberal credentials, yet winds up siding with right wingers whose goal is the privatization of our schools. It's an area explored by Strauss in an October column discussed in EdLog.

In her interview with Strauss, Ravitch demolishes several of Gates' canards about public education, teachers and their unions.

Answering the argument that opposing corporate reform is tantamount to endorsing the status quo, Ravitch succinctly criticizes the business model's bean counting approach:

"I don't hear any of the corporate reformers expressing concern about the
way standardized testing narrows the curriculum, the way it rewards convergent
thinking and punishes divergent thinking, the way it stamps out creativity and
originality. I don't hear any of them worried that a generation will grow up
ignorant of history and the workings of government. I don't hear any of them
putting up $100 million to make sure that every child has the chance to learn to
play a musical instrument. All I hear from them is a demand for higher test
scores and a demand to tie teachers' evaluations to those test scores. That is
not going to improve education."

Ravitch is an important truth-teller and diagnostician. The real problem with so-called "failing schools" lies in the growing gap between rich and poor in American society:

The single biggest correlate with low academic achievement (contrary
to the film Waiting for Superman) is poverty. Children who grow up in poverty
get less medical care. worse nutrition, less exposure to knowledge and
vocabulary, and are more likely to be exposed to childhood diseases, violence,
drugs, and abuse. They are more likely to have relatives who are incarcerated.
They are more likely to live in economic insecurity, not knowing if there is
enough money for a winter coat or food or housing. This affects their academic
performance. They tend to have lower attendance and to be sick more than
children whose parents are well-off.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Survey puts educational blame where it belongs

"Blaming teachers for low test scores, poor graduation rates and the other ills of American schools has been popular lately, but a new survey wags a finger closer to home."

That's the opening line of an Associated Press story covering the AP-Stanford Poll on Education, and it has some results that teachers may find surprising.

Not the one that says 68 percent of Americans believe parents are more to blame for educational failure than teachers, their unions or school boards - most teachers already know that. A majority of those surveyed also said that the education in their local public schools is either excellent or good - most teachers already know that, as well.

And while many believe that the U.S. is falling behind other countries educationally, "a majority of parents see improvement in the system since they were in school: 55 percent believe their children are getting a better education than they did, and three-quarters rate the quality of education at their child's school as excellent or good. Most say their child's school is doing a good job preparing students for college, the work force and life as an adult."

Again, most teachers probably know that education is really improving, mainly because research is better and more targeted, and serious efforts are underway to improve both professional development for those in the classroom, and teacher education for those planning to enter the profession.

The result that may surprise teachers is in the ideological breakdown of respondents. Those who self-identify as conservative are much more likely to blame parents for educational shortfalls than teachers.

Why is that surprising? Because among the political classes, it's been the conservatives who hammer hardest at so-called "bad teachers," and it is legislative right-wingers who have been most likely to introduce bills seen by teachers as punitive.

Although that has shifted somewhat in the very recent past. Propagandized documentaries like Waiting for Superman and The Lottery, which lean heavily on teachers and unions as villains for poor performance in impoverished urban school districts, were financed and produced by liberals.

To see the full results of the AP-Stanford poll, click here.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Like a junkie selling the radio and televsion for his next fix...

That's how Treasurer John Kennedy describes Governor Bobby Jindal's scheme to sell of state property in this column by Gannett reporter Mike Hasten.

School letter grades are "messy and confusing"

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education passed a new rule assigning letter grades, from A+ to F-, to all Louisiana schools, beginning next October. Supporters said it would make it easier for parents to understand how successful their schools are.

But what will a single letter grade tell you about a school? When little Johnny brings home a report card, he has a grade for each of his subjects, not one lone mark to sum up his whole educational experience.

As Associated Press reporter Melinda Deslatte writes here, the process for assigning letter grades to schools will be "messy and confusing," not the simple process described by BESE President Penny Dastuge, who defended the new system by saying, "People can relate to grades."

Well, yes. But a grade is a symbol with a deep context, and unless people understand everything that the symbol stands for, it can be very misleading.

In her column, Deslatte raises the issues that the legislature and Gov. Jindal should have considered before passing a law requiring the letter grades:
  • Should a school be rewarded for how much it improved its students' achievement rates and given a better grade even if its overall results still show a large percentage of students performing below their grade level and the state's standards?
  • Is it fair for a school in a poor neighborhood where many students don't have parental support and don't get basic reading training before they enter school be graded against a school in a wealthier neighborhood where more students start off with greater advantages?
  • If you curve the system, will it really provide any useful information to parents and will it meet the intent of what lawmakers and the governor wanted out of the grading scale?
  • Does a letter grading system in some cases discount the strides a school is making or the hard work its teachers are doing? Could it damage morale and make it more harder for a lower-graded school to attract strong teachers and education leaders to help improve it?

In their haste to show that they are committed to anything that can be labeled "school reform," our leaders have saddled schools with yet another bureaucratic layer that won't improve anything, but could contribute to unfair perceptions of public education.

Which just might have been the goal in the first place.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Judge derails anti-bargaining effort in Jefferson Parish

Efforts to derail the collective bargaining agreement for school employees in Jefferson Parish were thwarted on Friday when a district judge refused to grant a restraining order that would have halt the process.

More than 3,000 paraprofessionals and school related personnel in the parish won the right to negotiate a contract last Wednesday, when the Jefferson Parish School Board voted 5-3 to grant bargaining rights to the Jefferson Federation of Teachers and Service Employees International Union Local 21. The board agreed to negotiate with the unions after JFT and SEIU presented petitions signed by an overwhelming number of employees asking for collective bargaining.

On Friday, an anti-union cabal comprising Frank Morales, Glen W. Hayes, Sr., incoming school board member Glenn W. Hayes, Jr., The Jefferson Chamber of Commerce and The Jefferson Business Council asked District Judge Patrick McCabe for a Temporary restraining Order that would have prohibited the school board from recognizing JFT and SEIU are bargaining representatives for the employees.

To read more, please click here.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

St. Martin educators charter a new Federation chapter

The St. Martin Federation of Teachers and School Employees received its charter at the 46th annual Louisiana Federation of Teachers convention on November 22 in Lake Charles.

Shown at the ceremony are, from left, American Federation of Teachers Regional Director Al Squire, St. MFT/SE Secretary-Treasurer Jonathan Royer, St. MFT/SE Vice President April Benoit and LFT President Steve Monaghan.
Efforts to organize the St. Martin Federation began small, with 16 potential members meeting in December of 2008. That nucleus grew into the new chapter’s 360 members, and the St. Martin Federation is already the largest organization for teachers and school employees in St. Martin Parish. Membership in the Federation is limited to teachers and school employees; administrators and others who supervise or evaluate educators are ineligible.

Officers of the St. Martin Federation of Teachers and School Employees are President Latonia Cretian, Vice President April Benoit and Secretary-Treasurer Jonathan Royer.

The new union local is affiliated with the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. With more than 20,000 members in 36 local chapters around the state, LFT is the largest teacher and school employee organization in the state. Nationally, the St. Martin Federation is affiliated with the 1.5 million member American Federation of Teachers.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Jindal kicks the can down the road

Governor Bobby Jindal told a group of lawmakers on Thursday that he may propose selling off state assets and privatizing some services as a stopgap measure to deal with a looming $1.6 billion budget shortfall next year.

This is the same Gov. Jindal who used to say that it is a bad idea to use one-time funds to pay for recurring costs, but that is exactly what he is proposing. Skeptics say the governor is just kicking the can down the road, using whatever desperate measures he can conjure to keep the state afloat long enough for him to make his next job move.

Of particular concern is the idea of privatizing the PPO portion of the Office of State Group Benefits employee health plan. Many school districts use Office of Group Benefits to provide health insurance to their employees. Selling off employee benefits might raise some fast cash to further the governor's political ambitions, but could put the future health care of teachers and school employees at risk.

Jindal's new scheme was widely covered in the state's news media. Michelle Millhollon's story in The Advocate is here; Mike Hasten covered it for the Gannett chain here, and Jan Moller wrote it up for the Times Picayune here.

This Associated Press story in Gambit says that senators are already expressing concern over the governor's idea to sell state penal institutions: "Gov. Bobby Jindal’s idea to sell state property to offset budget gaps drew complaints Friday from state senators who said it doesn’t make sense to generate short-term cash relief for long-term money woes."

Science wins textbook debate

The great textbook debate is over, at least for this year, and science won.

This story from the National Center for Science education sums it all up as well as can be done, with a quote comparing religious opponents of Darwin's theory of evolution to Holocaust deniers:

"To suggest we need to teach both sides is like saying we should be
teaching the opinion that the earth is flat because there are some people who
believe the earth is flat and they claim they have evidence the earth is flat,
so we should give equal time to these people. Or we should give equal time to
people who say there was no Holocaust. ... It’s an attempt to make it seem like
there are two sides that have similar weight when in fact that isn’t the case at

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Jefferson Parish school employees win bargaining rights

Jefferson Federation of Teachers President Meladie Munch presents petitions signed by thousands of school employees asking for the right to bargain a contract with the Jefferson Parish School Board.

In a historic vote Wednesday night, the Jefferson Parish School Board granted collective bargaining rights to the district’s 3,000 paraprofessionals and school related personnel. The 5-3 vote marked the greatest expansion of bargaining rights in the parish since teachers won a collective bargaining agreement in 1977.

The board vote marked the climax of a campaign by the Jefferson Federation of Teachers and the Service Employees International Union Local 21 to win dignity and respect for school board employees. By gathering an overwhelming number of employee signatures on petitions, the unions convinced the board to grant the long-sought prize.

“This is a great victory for our support employees,” said JFT President Meladie Munch. “This opportunity will provide support employees the long needed dignity and respect that they deserve. These employees work hard and are essential to the success of our school system. We are excited to have the opportunity to represent school employees and help them have a voice in our school system.”

According to the board vote, JFT will negotiate on behalf of paraprofessionals, clerical employees and school crossing guards. SEIU will represent transportation workers, custodial and maintenance employees and child nutrition workers.

While Wednesday’s vote was a crucial step toward collective bargaining for the employees, the process is not over yet. Contracts must be negotiated and ratified by employees and the school board. Both sides are hopeful that the process can be completed this month, making it a great Christmas present for school employees in Jefferson Parish.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Penny Dastugue's bag of bromides

Newly-elected Board of Elementary and Secondary Education President Penny Dastugue dug deep into the right-wing bag of bromides for her appearance before the Press Club of Baton Rouge on Monday.

Reporter Will Sentell of The Advocate picked up on her desire for radical change in this article, but did not go into the details of her agenda.

For teachers and school employees who may be curious about what the Dastugue era will mean for public education, here are a few clues.

As far as the budget is concerned Dastugue said she wants to "tackle inefficiencies and impose fiscal discipline" on our schools. She warned against allowing local school systems to do the discipline, however, noting that districts "do more harm than good" when left to their own cost-cutting devices.

Dastugue said she's fairly sure that once again there will be no increase in the Minimum Foundation Program formula, but was vague about whether or not Gov. Jindal will impose cuts on the school formula (as one of Jindal's three appointees to the board, will she buck cuts if they come?).

As far as "reform" is concerned, she stuck to the predictable conservative formula. That means we can look forward to attacks on teacher tenure, battery pay, extended sick leave, retirement benefits and salary increments for advanced degrees and experience in the classroom - at least those are the ones she mentioned by name.

She followed the strict conservative line in calling for "student based budgeting," which is thought by true believers to empower individual schools by giving principals almost complete control over the budget.

Dastugue's timing was unfortunate, however, coming just a few days after every principal in Livingston Parish - no liberal bastion, that - signed a letter opposing student based budgeting.

As Advocate reporter Faimon A. Roberts tells it here, the principals believe the scheme "would divert the current predominant focus on classroom instruction and put it on school finances instead."

According to the article, school leaders in Livingston Parish believe that "giving principals the responsibility of determining salaries and making other financial arrangements would harm the quality of the education at their respective schools."

On Monday, Dastugue made it obvious that lines are being drawn. She represents the pro-Jindal faction on BESE, which has been balanced by a succession of presidents who did not always kowtow to the governor. Pundits will be watching closely to see how far to the right her election tips that scale.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Pastorek dares to differ with Jindal on school cuts

This is big news. Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek, who has marched lockstep with Gov. Bobby Jindal thus far, now dares to differ with his patron on the threat that Jindal's budget cuts pose to public education.

While the governor's mantra has been along the we-can-do-more-with-less line, Pastorek has gone public with the damage the governor's budget is doing to our kids.

After providing the Senate Finance Committee a list of the state's educational improvements, Pastorek ventured into territory the governor may consider treasonous, as reported by Will Sentell for this article in The Advocate.

"I’m telling you I am very concerned about where we are,” Pastorek told the committee. “When I tell you there aren’t many programs left in the Department of Education I mean it.”

Pastorek's report to the Senate Finance Committee laid bare the governor's disingenuous claims that K-12 education has not been cut over the past three years. Pastorek's department has been cut by $6.3 million, and has lost some 65 employees.

Future cuts, Pastorek told senators, would make it difficult, if not impossible, to implement the changes that the legislature has mandated.

Among funding cuts that have a direct, negative impact on the learning of children are these:
  • Teacher stipends for national certification went from $5.5 million to zero.
  • The budget for classroom technology went from $30 million to zero.
  • Public school awards went from $4.6 million to zero.
  • The K-3 reading and math initiative went from $6.7 million to zero.
  • The student remediation budget went from $18.9 million to zero.
“That is a very serious problem,” Pastorek told the committee. “That is a lot of kids counting on adults to get them to grade level.”

Friday, December 3, 2010

Avoiding the ideological divide

When former Florida governor and presidential aspirant Jeb Bush convened his annual Foundation for Excellence in Education summit in Washington, D.C. , ideological fault lines trumped education reform. The evidence is in this article by Tom Marshall in the St. Pertersburg Times.

In part, the line fell along a pro- and anti- teacher union divide. As one of Bush's Florida colleagues put it, "There is no way in our state right now that the dadgum unions are going to agree with this kind of stuff. So you either bring them to the table and tell them what you're going to do, or you run over them."

The speaker, State Sen. John Thrasher, was the author of a "reform" bill that was universally despised by teachers and was ultimately vetoed by Bush's successor.

His comment might be great for red-meat conservatives, but the more reasonable tone was struck by an actual educator, Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who said of her district's new teacher evaluation plan, "This entire plan was developed with our teachers union. I can tell you that we work very hard and very collaboratively with our teachers."

It is, of course, better to work collaboratively with teachers and their unions than to try to "run over them." That's a lesson already learned in Louisiana, which is in the midst of an experiment with value-added teacher evaluations.

This EdLog post from last May, followed by this one, demonstrates how lawmakers and the union can work together if they are willing to ignore the ideologues and look for better solutions to real problems.

Jindal may cut K-12 funding

Gov. Bobby Jindal is so in thrall to his "no taxes" fetish that he's now admitting there could well be cuts to K-12 education next year.

As Advocate reporter Will Sentell writes here, the governor told a room full of "education leaders" (Board of Elementary and Secondary Education members and legislators, but no representatives of classroom teachers) that next year's budget, with its anticipated $1.6 billion shortfall, that budget cuts could well be on the table when the legislature convenes in April.

The governor repeated his oft-stated prevarication that there have been no cuts to K-12 education during his administration. Unless, of course, you're counting his veto of funding for national certification stipends, or his reduction of funds for private and religious school transportation. Those costs must now be borne by local school boards.

And while funding for public education's Minimum Foundation Program has remained level, costs of retirement, health insurance and other expenses have risen dramatically. As far as local school systems are concerned, that, too, is a cut.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Monaghan tells convention: "Better choices for a Better Louisiana!"

Addressing some 200 delegates to the 46th annual Louisiana Federation of Teachers convention in Lake Charles on November 22, LFT President Steve Monaghan called upon Gov. Bobby Jindal and the state legislature to make “better choices for a better Louisiana.”

In his State of the Union address, Monaghan said that much of the financial crisis facing the state was caused by decisions made over the past few years. Unless better choices are made, he said, the state faces a bleak future.

“If we don’t stand up and demand other choices, the governor is telling you that the future is less,” Monaghan said. “It is not sustainable. Your retirement is not sustainable. Your way of life is not sustainable. And if yours isn’t, then those who are coming behind you have no chance.

“You owe it to them to provide the same quality of life,” he said. You have a civil, moral and cosmic responsibility to do that.”

To read more, please click here.