Monday, October 31, 2011

School discipline's Catch-22

There have recently been a few disturbing, highly publicized incidents of teachers physically attacking students.

While no one condones it when a teacher loses control like that, Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan explained to WAFB-TV that a changing culture in our classrooms has led to increased frustration in the teacher corps.

"If that teacher is dealing excessively with discipline, discipline, discipline all day long - we're all human beings," Monaghan told reporter Kelsey Davis. "At some point there is a breaking point."

Louisiana has tough laws on the books that ought to guarantee an environment that is conducive to teaching and learning. But all too often, those laws are not enforced.

One reason for that is a "Catch-22" built into our state's school accountability laws. Disciplinary actions such as expulsions and suspensions must be reported, and can help lower the letter grade reported to the public. Doing the right thing can lead to bad results for the school.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Why is the mayor of New York buying Louisiana elections?

Why is so much money being funneled into an election to a board that pays no salary? And why is the mayor of New York City so interested in Louisiana's public schools that he donated $100,000 to a group that is dedicated to stacking that same board?

Those are just two of the questions swirling around the 2011 election to the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. As EdLog has noted before, BESE has risen higher than ever before on the political radar screen.

At the heart of the issue is Gov. Bobby Jindal's desire to have complete control of the state school board, and the ability to name the next superintendent of schools. That requires eight votes on an 11-member board.

The governor appoints three members. The rest are elected. And the person chosen by the governor to be the next state superintendent is a former deputy chancellor of the New York City school system.

Mayor Bloomberg's donation was to the Alliance for Better Classrooms. It was formed by multimillionaire Lane Grigsby in order to elect BESE members who would adhere to a rigid corporatist ideology and support the governor's agenda.

Which helps to explain why a state school board race is being shaped by forces from far outside the borders of Louisiana, from all the way to the halls of power in New York City.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The foolish inconsistency of Bobby Jindal

"Foolish consistency," Ralph Waldo Emerson once sniffed, "is the hobgoblin of little minds." But what is there to be said about the foolish inconsistency of the Jindal administration's refusal to apply for $60 million in federal funds for pre-kindergarten education?

That's the topic explored by Associated Press pundit Melinda Deslatte in this column, in which she explores an inconsistency that crosses the line into hypocrisy.

The governor had no qualms when he denounced federal stimulus funds for other purposes, then accepted the tainted money and presented huge cardboard checks to local officials as if they were personal contributions to the welfare of the communities.

So what's the big deal about the pre-K program? We all know that early childhood intervention is the best guarantee of future academic success. This sudden, foolish inconsistency will do actual harm to thousands of children who could benefit from pre-K services.

And congratulations to Sen. Mary Landrieu for pointing out the damage that Gov. Jindal's decision can cause.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Livingston issue proves union value

If teachers and school employees ever wonder why a union is valuable to them, they need look no further than this article by Advocate reporter Faimon Roberts.

The Livingston Parish School Board had adopted a policy requiring employees to complete an overly intrusive medical history form just in case they are ever injured on the job and need to apply for worker's compensation.

They would have been forced to complete the form, which included numerous questions about very personal issues, and have every page signed by their principal or supervisor.

Unions complained. At a school board meeting, LFT Field Representative Mona Icamena said the information required on the form went far beyond what principals ought to know about their employees.

Thanks to the unions, the board agreed to change the way information required by workers' compensation is collected, keeping sensitive information away from prying eyes.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Stretching the numbers and the truth

Across the political spectrum, Gov. Bobby Jindal's agenda is being exposed as an exercise in spin aimed more at political gain than the good of the state.

As Mark Ballard, The Advocate's capitol bureau chief, lays out in this column, Jindal's claims of fiscal success ring very hollow.

First, C.B. Forgotston, a right-leaning economic analyst, lays bare the deception in the governor's claims that he has “reduced the state budget by a stunning total of $9 billion..."

In fact, the reduction claimed by Jindal is the result of comparing estimates, according to Forgotston, and not because of any real reduction in the budget.

As the Louisiana Budget Project has demonstrated, when federal funds are subtracted, Louisiana's general fund budget has remained virtually flat since 2005.

Then there is the administration's claim to have actually increased education funding through the Minimum Foundation Program, a claim debunked by the LFT in Ballard's column.

The governor did not increase education funding. Per-pupil funding for the MFP has been frozen for three years, thanks to the governor, the legislature and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

While the total amount of money in the MFP has gone up, that is because of increases in student enrolment and other automatic triggers that the governor does not control. He is taking credit for something he did not do.

Outrage du jour: Jindal turns down millions for pre-K

Shocking many in the education community, Gov. Bobby Jindal and his underlings refuse to apply for some $60 million in federal early education funds, as reported here by The Advocate's Will Sentell.

Despite a wealth of data proving beyond doubt that pre-K intervention is the best way to ensure future academic success, the Jindal administration has already frozen LA4, a nationally respected program. The result is that tens of thousands of children remain on waiting lists for this service.

Now the administration doesn't even deign to ask for the available federal grant, claiming that it comes with "strings." All that means is that the state has to prove a need - no heavy lift there - and that we have proper organization for our pre-K services.

Just another shameful episode for a state that lags the nation in just about every positive measure.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Truth in advertising: Chas Roemer edition

To see Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Chas Roemer's TV re-election ad, you'd think he is shocked - shocked, I tell you - by Louisiana's "bloated" education bureaucracy.

Standing with the wife and kids, he says of Louisiana's $9 billion education budget, "we should put that money into the classroom not into the pockets of bureaucrats.”

And yet, as part of the Jindal administration's majority on the BESE board, Roemer voted to make former State Superintendent Paul Pastorek the highest paid education superintendent in the nation at over $300,000 per year, and Roemer voted to pay Recovery School District Superintendent John White some $250,000 per year.

The state department of education, which Roemer's board oversees, now has 45 staff members who make more than $100,0000 per year.

Bloated bureaucracy? Take a peek in the mirror.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

School letter grades become BESE issue

In this Advocate article, District 6 BESE member Chas Roemer says of the recently released school letter grades, "For the first time we are getting a real sense of how our schools are doing.”

How can that be possible? There are two things that we know about the letter grades: they tell us absolutely nothing new about schools because they simply repackage existing data; and they lump so many key components together that the effect is to slap a meaningless label on schools.

But for Roemer and the other Jindal allies on BESE, letter grades have become a defining, bright-line issue in this year's election. Roemer's two opponents, Democrat Donald Songy of Ascension Parish and Republican Elizabeth Meyers of Livingston Parish, both oppose the way letter grades have been imposed. Both Meyers and Songy have been declared favorable candidates by LFT.

In District 8, the article notes, LFT-endorsed candidate Domoine Rutledge opposes the letter grades while other major candidates are in support.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Educator gives state "I" and "D" for grading schools

Educator and researcher Dr. Andre Perry says the State Department of Education's letter grades for schools is a "gross, inexact measure that does not reveal the very important details of how a school is performing" in this article from The New Orleans Agenda.

"The State," he concludes, "must add letter grades that separately measure key components of school performance as part of a school report card. In the meantime, the State and individual school leaders must now explain the inaccurate grades without sounding like they're offering excuses for them. Therefore, the State should be given an 'I' for its incomplete efforts to measure school performance. But, following the their own practice, we'll give them a 'D' for their efforts."

Friday, October 7, 2011

School letter grades are intellectually dishonest

Letter grades have an important function in schools. In each subject, children receive grades as indicators of their progress and to identify areas that need improvement. Letter grades have become so ingrained in our culture that everyone understands "A" means excellent and "F" means failure.

But no child ever comes home from school simply labeled "A", "F" or anything in between. The letter grades indicate levels of progress in a range of subjects.

Which is one reason why the letter grades issued to schools this week are so intellectually dishonest. They simply slap a label on a school without explaining anything. School letter grades take advantage of a common understanding in order to create an impression that can be very misleading.

A second reason why this week's exercise is intellectually dishonest is that the school letter grades tell us nothing that we don't already know. Before Wednesday, schools were rated by a system of stars and labels. The new system assigns grades of “A” through “F” to schools and school districts. There is no other difference in the way that school data is collected or analyzed.

Governor Jindal and his political cohort simply repackaged what we already know about schools in the most negative light possible, then held a press conference to bang the drum for their own idea of reform just weeks before an election.

The news media took the bait, as this article, which occupied most of The Advocate's front page on Thursday, demonstrates.

The media frenzy validated the Louisiana Federation of Teachers' concern that "assigning a single letter grade to a school oversimplifies complex issues and trivializes the numerous factors that contribute to the performance of a school."

It should be no surprise, for example, that magnet schools with selective admissions policies earned an "A," and no one should be shocked that alternative schools which take in troubled children for short periods are labeled with an "F."

What is lost in the hoopla over the new labels is the fact that most schools are improving, and that teachers are going to extraordinary lengths to help their students succeed.

These gains are underway even though resources for public education have shrunk dramatically. The main funding source for schools, the Minimum Foundation Program, has been frozen for three years, even as costs to local school boards skyrocketed.

Over $76 million for after school tutorial programs, classroom technology, reading and math initiatives and stipends for nationally certified teachers - the very programs that help students succeed - was cut by Governor Jindal.

The governor called Wednesday's press conference and touted these questionable labels to further his campaign on behalf of his hand-picked candidates for the legislature and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Their agenda is clear. They want to abolish teacher tenure, turn more schools over to private operators and seize authority over schools from locally elected school boards.

If the governor and his allies are really concerned with improving education, they will fully fund the Minimum Foundation Program and restore the programs that work to achieve student success.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

LFT Marches in Solidarity with Shipyard Workers

The Louisiana Federation of Teachers marched October 1 in solidarity with workers at Avondale Shipyard in New Orleans, which is under threat of closing. LFT leaders from around the state made the trek to New Orleans to show support for the shipyard.

It was a true Second Line parade, with marchers stepping out behind the Treme Brass Band and a grand marshal replete with umbrella, all members of the musicians' union. Hundreds of workers and community supporters met at the Superdome and marched down Poydras Street for a rally at the federal building.

The shipyard workers live in Jefferson Parish and surrounding communities, and their children attend local public schools. Educators already are seeing the ravages of past rounds of budget cuts and the effect they have on students. If the shipyards close, this dire situation will become even worse, so AFT members are doing their best to be there for the workers and their families. (More information about the fight to save Avondale is available online .)

"We all need Avondale, and American business needs more ships," said United Teachers of New Orleans President Larry Carter. "We want to know what elected leaders and the Avondale owners are doing to keep the shipyard open. Our community, our students and our jobs depend on it."

Teachers and school support personnel alike realize that the shipyard's closing would hit the New Orleans area economically and harm the public schools, said Laura Harper, PSRP chair of the Jefferson Federation. "Many of our members have spouses who worked at the yard and have already been laid off," she said. "They can't find other jobs, so they are living on unemployment and the salary of the PSRP member, which tops out, for a paraprofessional, at $23,500.”

See more photos of the march in our Facebook album. Please click here.