Friday, July 31, 2009

Jefferson parternship enhances teacher professionalism

Here's a good story to follow as the Jefferson Federation of Teachers negotiates its new contract with the school board. Times-Picayune reporter Barri Bronston is tracking JFT's efforts to rein in the school system's interval testing program.

It is an important story because it demonstrates the power of collective bargaining to bring teachers' perspectives to education issues. While it is commonly believed that bargaining only affects salaries and benefits, partnership with the board also gives teachers a voice in their professional responsibilities.

The issue at hand is interval testing, a series of six tests that administrators feel better prepare students for standardized tests. JFT President Meladie Munch agrees that the tests may have some value, but that too much testing robs teachers of valuable classroom time.

Because of the collective bargaining agreement, the board must listen to the concerns of educators and incorporate them into policy. The contract guarantees the professionalism of professional educators.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Race to the Top fund raising questions

A week ago, President Obama announced his new education initiative. The "Race to the Top" fund, with almost $5 billion earmarked for teacher raises, is getting a lot of attention.

The pieces have not yet all fallen into place, and it's too early to predict just how the funding will come down. As noted in a previous EdLog post, teachers are concerned about a requirement that states have no restrictions against tying teacher pay to student achievement.

How that rule is interpreted by the states will have a lot to do with whether or not the Obama plan is accepted by teachers and their professional organizations.

Reporter Daniel McBride with the Daily Comet in Thibodaux is one of the first Louisiana reporters to visit the issue. Here is his story.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Jarvis DeBerry gets it all wrong

Times-Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry gets it all wrong in this screed against the alternate diploma bill approved by the legislature this year.

It is tempting to forgive him because we understand where he is coming from. For too many years, school systems used tracking to dampen the futures of African-American students, poor white students or anyone else from the wrong side of the class divide.

But that was then and this is now. Thirty five percent of the students who enter Louisiana's high schools won't graduate. Some estimates put it closer to 50%, counting those who drop out before eighth grade.

There are a lot of reasons for that, most having to do with our state's ignoble history of downplaying the importance of education. It was once possible for an uneducated person to make a decent, if hard, living in the oil patch or on a shrimp boat. Scores of politicians built their careers pandering to ignorance and making fun of intellectualism.

But that was then and this is now. Jobs in the oil patch have dried up. Cheap foreign imports have dry docked our once-proud shrimping fleet. Kids who drop out have few options and little chance for success.

Leaders finally came to understand that an educated work force is the bootstrap we must use to pull ourselves up from poverty. So far, so good. But at some point, the aim of public education became to push every child through a college prep curriculum. Rigor became the buzzword driving the education reform agenda.

Somehow, our leaders came to believe that if too many children were dropping out of school, the solution was to make school harder. Test them relentlessly, and fail them for a single shortfall.

DeBerry contends that the career diploma is mean-spirited, but what could be meaner than a high-stakes, pass/fail system that degrades any other accomplishments a student may have?

The column seems to be based on the unwarranted contention that the career diploma "is inherently shameful because it encourages adults to give up on their young students and those students to give up on themselves."

The columnist absorbed all the talking points made against the career diploma, even quoting George H.W. Bush to deride supporters as guilty of "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

You might hear a very different story from the teachers at our community colleges and technical schools. They haven't given up on students and they don't have low expectations. There is rigor in those schools, just as there will be in the alternative diploma programs.

The difference will be another word that begins with "R": Relevance. Bright students who don't necessarily see the virtue of a college-prep curriculum will be able to focus their energies, talents and ambitions on learning facts and skills with real applications to their lives.

Contrary to DeBerry's demeaning assertions, students earning career diplomas won't necessarily learn less than others, but they will learn it differently.

Teachers want their students to succeed. That's why they have been so frustrated with a system that tries to squeeze all children into a mold that many simply don't fit. The career diploma can give more children a way to succeed in school and to find their life's passion. And it can reduce our state's truly shameful dropout rate.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Some districts want career diploma waivers

This week, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education accepted requests from 19 school systems asking to opt out of the newly-created career diploma program.

According to this press release, the waivers were approved at a special BESE meeting called to discuss the criteria for the career diploma program.

Some decisions about criteria were made at the meeting, but most were postponed until September, giving the State Department of Education staff time to study the policy issues involved, and to meet with "stakeholders" about coursework, curriculum and assessment requirements.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Paul Pastorek: wrong target

It might feel good to demand the head of the State Department of Education, especially when the policies coming from his department seem dedicated to a.) blaming teachers for most of the ills of public education, b.) narrowly focusing on single, high-stakes tests to judge student performance, c.) taking over and chartering as many schools as possible and d.) spending as much money as possible on private contractors to do work that could be done for less by qualified state employees.

But that is only so if you believe that Superintendent Paul Pastorek is a rogue agent, acting on his own volition against the wishes of the governor who supported his reappointment to office and gave him a ginormous pay raise to boot.

The facts are, as LFT President Steve Monaghan pointed out, that elections have consequences, and that Pastorek's policies emanate directly from Governor Bobby Jindal's office.

And Gov. Jindal has a big agenda that stretches far beyond the boundaries of Louisiana.

Today's editorial in The Advocate dwells on the disconnect between Jindal's spin on the state of the state and the reality in which we live. It is a disconnect required by the governor's ambition for higher office.

It is that same ambition that prompts Pastorek to push for questionable goals in the name of "education reform," goals designed more to satisfy an ultraconservative national base than to improve our schools.

The governor has already signalled his unwavering support for the prickly Pastorek. The superintendent has already stated that he has no intention of stepping down. It is in fact doubtful that the superintendent would leave now under almost any circumstances. In the glare of the national spotlight, that might make the governor look weak.

Bobby Jindal is the governor, and those in his cabinet do his bidding. His agenda can be defeated, as was shown in the recent legislative session. But to focus on one of his water-carriers is to waste time on a side-show instead of the main event.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Obama announces "Race to the Top" fund

Not everyone is happy with the strings tied to President Barack Obama's nearly $5 billion "Race to the Top" fund , but union leaders like AFT President Randi Weingarten say it's too early to make strong pronouncements.

Many of those opposed to teacher unionism are gloating at the fund's requirement that states allow the use of student achievement data to evaluate teacher performance. Unions like the American Federation of Teachers have traditionally opposed such linkage.

But union opponents could be reading too much into the apparent philosophical divide. After all, the president left no doubt that he sees a vital role for unions in school improvement. He singled out Weingarten's great leadership of a professional union and, when it comes to problems such as turning around low-performing schools, he encouraged local union leaders to work with other stakeholders in "making collective bargaining a catalyst and not an impediment to reform."

Said Weingarten, "President Obama emphasized the importance of working with teachers and their unions to implement successful education reform, saying that collective bargaining can be a catalyst—not an impediment—to reform. He recognizes that this work must be done with teachers, not to teachers."

The Race to the Top fund will provide grants to encourage and reward states for plans in four core education reform areas aimed at improving teacher and principal quality, academic standards, data collection and turning around low-performing schools.

"Will we agree with everything? I doubt it," said Weingarten. "But hopefully we will agree that teacher evaluations must be improved the right way. We need meaningful, fair and multiple measures for supporting and evaluating teachers so that evaluations aren't based on one observation by a principal or one standardized test score."

The AFT president concluded, "Both the president and Secretary Duncan understand that teachers are essential to education reform and that their voices need to be heard as we launch this major offensive to improve public education."

The Associated Press filed this story about the president's announcement of the Race to the Top fund.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Voucher schemers fill Jindal's kitty

Want to know how the education strings get pulled in the Bobby Jindal administration? Advocate reporter Marsha Shuler has the goods in this story about the pile of money that's been collected to advance his program.

About one-fourth of the $1.05 million raised for "Believe in Louisiana," a non-profit organization formed to shill for the governor's agenda, was donated by a school voucher outfit from Washington, D.C. called Advocates for School Choice. Coincidentally(?) the contribution was made just as Jindal's voucher scheme was being considered in the 2008 session.

Another $100,000 came from failed Senate candidate (and voucher supporter) Lee Domingue, who was endorsed by Jindal in his ill-fated run against Dan Claitor. Houston millionaire Bob J. Perry, identified in the article as "the chief financial backer of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth challenging Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s military record" also kicked in.

And the mastermind behind the "Believe in Louisiana" fund? None other than Baton Rouge Business Report publisher and voucher supporter Rolfe McCollister, recently featured in EdLog as the hatchet man behind the campaign to discredit Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Tammie McDaniel of Monroe.

It will be no surprise when voucher schemes pop up in future legislative sessions, with mega advertising budgets paid for by "Believe in Louisiana."

Jindal rethinks college panel makeup

Governor Jindal has "reevaluated" his appointments to the Tucker Commission studying higher education in the state. According to reporter Advocate Jordan Blum, the governor will un-appoint the chairmen of the LSU and Southern University systems and replace them with neutral parties. LSU and Southern will have appointees with non-voting status, as will the University of Louisiana and Community and Technical College systems.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Federation survey goes to Tangi board

The Tangiphoa Federation of Teachers made public the results of a teacher survey, and discipline leads the list of issues that concern educators. Advocate reporter Debra Lemoine covered the story here.

ULL, LCTCS cry foul

Want to know why the University of Louisiana System and the Community and Technical College System are crying foul?

One of the Jindal administration's successes in the recently concluded legislative session was the creation of the so-called Tucker Commission. Named for Speaker of the House Jim Tucker, who wrote the resolution authorizing the commission, the nine member panel is to come up with a road map for Louisiana's higher education future.

The idea is that Louisiana has too many four-year institutions with too many overlapping programs. It was accepted at the capitol that this model is fiscally unsustainable, and that changes must be made.

In order to remove state politics from the equation as much as possible, the commission is supposed include four outside experts, along with two gubernatorial appointees, the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate or their appointees, and the chairman of the Board of Regents or his appointee.

The governor appointed the chairmen of the boards of LSU and Southern to the commission, but nobody thought to include ULL or LCTC in the mix.

According to this story by Advocate reporter Jordan Blum, the panel may be expanded to include reps from those systems. The catch is, they won't be able to vote.

Monday, July 20, 2009

BESE soap opera continues

In EdLog's last post before going on summer hiatus, we learned that Gov. Bobby Jindal wanted Tammie McDaniel, one of his three appointees to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, to step down. As we return, the drama is still playing out. And it's getting nasty.

The governor gave no reason for his request, other than that he expected all his appointees to conform to his "reform agenda."

To most observers, McDaniel has been a loyal water-carrier for Jindal and scrupulously towed the line for her liege. The only question in any one's mind was whether or not she would accede to Jindal's request. Unlike some gubernatorial appointments, BESE members don't serve at the governor's pleasure. They are approved by the Senate, their terms are concurrent with the governor's, and they don't have to resign when asked. McDaniel can stay through the end of Jindal's current term if she wishes.

McDaniel says she'll stay, thank you very much.

According to this column by AP reporter Melinda Desattte, McDaniel has drawn support from her native Ouachita Parish, where she was a strategist for Jindal's election campaign.

Her colleagues on the BESE board seem to support her decision to stay and question why the governor wants her gone.

That has been the big unanswered question. Philosophically, she seems to be in lockstep with the governor's brand of evangelical conservatism. But she does have an independent streak, and most observers believe that her real nemesis is Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek.

McDaniel has publicly questioned him about insurance payments in New Orleans recovery district schools, among other things connected to the RSD. Her issues, it seems, have not been with Jindal's agenda but with Pastorek's management.

To this point, it certainly seems that McDaniel is the aggrieved party, a conservative educator and supporter of the governor who ran afoul of the powerful and prickly Pastorek. And since Jindal won't go public with his rationale, that has been the story. Until...

Enter Baton Rouge Business Report publisher Rolfe McCollister. Ever ready to do the dirty knife work of big business, McCollister happily shivs McDaniel in this column, a prime example of conservatives turning on their own.

McCollister calls McDaniel in turn a liar, an enemy of reform, strange, rude and an embarrassment. What had been a fairly civil, if unprecedented, disagreement between a governor and his appointee turned nasty.

So now the question is, whose dirty knife work is McCollister doing? Was it Jindal or Pastorek who dropped the dime on Tammie McDaniel and called in the assassin? What is the next chapter in this sordid tale of insider intrigue?

Friday, July 10, 2009

EdLog is on hiatus

EdLog will be on hiatus until the week of July 20.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Jindal boots booster from BESE

Governor Bobby Jindal couldn't have asked for a more loyal appointee than Monroe's Tammie McDaniel on the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. She was one of his top strategists during the governor's election campaign, and as a BESE member she has towed the administration line admirably.

One of three gubernatorial appointees to BESE, McDaniel has been a consistent vote to guarantee that the governor gets what he wants out of the state's highest education board.

But McDaniel apparently has an ethical streak which caused her to question the millions of dollars being spent for insurance in state Recovery School District schools in New Orleans.

According to this story by Gannett reporter Mike Hasten, that put her at odds with Jindal's man in the Claiborne Building, Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek. The superintendent was not please with McDaniel's observation that RSD, like all other school systems in the state, has money from local and federal sources to pay for the insurance.

As Hasten delicately put it in his article, "...Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek, who is close to the governor, is often protective of the RSD and considers its success a priority."

If Pastorek is behind Jindal's move against McDaniel, he may not be serving the governor well. The article includes numerous comments from North Louisiana lawmakers in support if McDaniel. Some are urging him to rescind his request that she resign.

And then there are the comments that follow the article, which at this point unanimously support McDaniel. Can the governor afford to alienate this many people in North Louisiana? That part of the state strongly supported his election, and he may need them again in 2011.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Expert teachers raise student scores

Imagine this: classroom teachers, left to their own devices and professional judgment, pulled math scores in a Florida elementary school up from a collective "D" to a "B."

How did they do it? By putting away the textbooks and using their skills. As this story by St. Petersburg Times reporter Sylvia Lim demonstrates, canned curricula and top-down mandates are no substitute for the expertise of a highly trained professional:

Instead of textbooks, teachers used games, group assignments and other materials. They also focused on showing students different ways to solve the same problem.
"We get to pull activities targeted for higher level of engagement with students, rather than using textbooks or worksheets," said teacher Denise White, who helped rewrite the curriculum.

Let this story serve as an object lesson to those who believe that all we need is a rigorous state-mandated curriculum, high-stakes tests, a handful of consultants and a few warm bodies in front of the classroom to keep the students "on task." It all comes back to excellent teachers who are allowed to exercise their professional judgment.