Friday, August 28, 2009

New Monroe superintendent celebrates with union

From all accounts, it seemed more like a festival than a back-to-school union meeting in Monroe last night. Less than a day earlier, the school board had finally severed its ties with a despised superintendent, and the new head of the district was feted like a conquering hero at his maiden appearance before teachers and school employees.

Interim Superintendent Julian Gray was greeted with cheers by more than a hundred union members at the Monroe Federation of Teachers and School Employees' "All Aboard" meeting, as News-Star reporter Stephen Largent wrote here.

For much of the day, school board members had been writing a contract for Gray, completing it in time for him to be recognized as the system's new leader at the union party.

Gray's signing marked the end of a most unpleasant chapter in the history of Monroe City Schools. Former Superintendent James Dupree on Wednesday night accepted a $235,000 buyout of his contract, saving the board from a protracted and ugly legal battle.

Dupree had been on suspension since July 16, charged with multiple violations of school board policy. But the board's fight with the superintendent had been going on for months even before that.

The bad blood seemed to be washed away by the time MFT/SE's party started on Thursday evening. As Federation President Sandie Lollie put it, "We're going to let the past be the past."

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Lafayette to Vitter: slow down on charters

Senator David Vitter's office got an earful from public education advocates when members of the Lafayette Parish School Board met with the senator's education advisor. Their message: Maybe we should rein in the mass movement for charter schools.

As Lafayette Advertiser reporter Claire Taylor writes here, there are downsides to the charter movement. The objections are not unfamiliar to the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, but it is not often that they are voiced in the mass media.

Consulting for dollars

Lake Charles American Press columnist Jim Beam makes an exceptionally bright observation in this column. It exposes the hypocrisy of a modern governing style that argues on one hand for hiring exceptional people to manage the public's business, but on the other for contracting out that same public business because the people we hire just aren't smart enough.

In the education arena, it works like this: Governor Bobby Jindal explains that Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek's $400,000 pay package is a good investment for the state because that is the going rate for a public servant of his caliber. Pastorek explains that the cadre of $100,000-plus educators in his administration are worthy because of the value they bring the department.

But then Pastorek gets permission to spend googobs for even more high-priced bureaucrats and consultants: "Three of those jobs will go to national experts making up to $140,000 a year. The other three will be consultants making up to $80,000 a year."

The experts we already have aren't enough?

Asks Beam:
Why look elsewhere when someone already on the payroll is competent,
experienced and well qualified to handle the
job? Consultants and search firms may have a role to
play, but they don’t have all the answers. Before looking elsewhere for
expensive advice from outsiders, the state should first tap its own employees
and resources. They have a lot to offer.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Showdown at the College Corral?

There are currently two legislatively authorized commissions seeking ways to make Louisiana work even better. They are holding televised hearings with expert witnesses. Those witnesses are offering testimony that will become language in bills to be introduced in upcoming legislative sessions.

These two commissions could be ambling toward an earth-shaking showdown next spring.

One of those, the so-called Tucker Commission, wants to make higher education more effective and efficient. It comprises several outside experts, as well as representatives of the Board of Regents, LSU board, Southern University board, University of Louisiana board and Community and Technical College board.

The commission must present its findings to the legislature by February 12, 2010, 45 days before the regular legislative session convenes.

The second panel is the Commission on Streamlining Government. Its job is to find ways to make Louisiana's government smaller and cheaper.

By December 15, the panel is supposed to make its own set of recommendations for lawmakers to consider in the next legislative session.

This is where it gets explosive. As Gannett reporter Mike Hasten writes here, the streamlining commission is considering the abolition of all higher education boards except for the Board of Regents. That's an idea favored by State Treasurer John Kennedy, among others.

But the higher education commission includes all of the bodies that Kennedy has in his gun sights. It's not likely that they will recommend their own termination.

Rock, meet hard place. Coming to a legislative session near you, Spring 2010.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Editorial writers want to see Pastorek's evaluation

The Advocate is not happy. Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek was given a favorable evaluation by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (making him eligible for the raise that he turned down), but the board will not make that evaluation public.

Says the Gray Lady of Baton Rouge, "While keeping Pastorek’s evaluation secret might be within the law, we don’t believe it’s good public policy."

That policy exists not just for Pastorek's benefit, however, but to protect all public employees. That includes teachers and school support staff, whose personnel files and evaluations are off limits to the press and public.

The Advocate has a point in saying that "Pastorek isn’t just any employee." He is the head of the whole shebang, with the salary and perks to prove it.

But substitute the name of your favorite teacher for Pastorek's in this sentence: "Pastorek works for the state’s taxpayers and is paid by them, but they can’t see the formal evaluation of how Pastorek is doing his job."

Remember the old saw about babies and bathwater. There are those who would love to gain access to teacher files. We need to be careful what we wish for, and ever vigilant for the unintended consequences of "reform."

Monday, August 24, 2009

USA Today wrong on New Orleans schools

USA Today is on the charter school bandwagon in New Orleans, claiming in this editorial that the wholesale takeover on the city's public schools is a successful experiment. Verging on the distasteful, USA Today says that Hurricane Katrina "washed away one of the nation's worst school systems and left New Orleans determined to rebuild in a wholly new way."

Factual errors abound in the piece. Here's one: "Since the fall of 2005, the schools have been slowly climbing out of the cellar."

In truth, the climb had begun several years before Katrina. Test scores in all but a handful of the city's schools were on the rise before the storm - a fact conveniently ignored by the education "reformers" who've treated the city like vultures tearing the carcass of a not-quite-dead animal.

Here's another: "Last year, the school district was able to spend $15,500 per pupil..."

Wrong. It's the Recovery School District - those schools seized by the state - that have the largesse. District schools, those still under the authority of the Orleans Parish School Board, must make do with thousands less. Yet they seem to be doing about as well as the RSD schools in providing services to the children of the city.

To USA Today's credit, the newspaper allowed United Teachers of New Orleans President Larry Carter to respond.

Carter makes four important points in his op-ed:
  • The funds spent on charter schools lack accountability.
  • Charter schools in the city often rely on traditional public schools to provide special education services.
  • Charter schools don’t provide the same insurance and retirement benefits to educators as regular public schools.
  • Charter schools can create a gap between Haves and Have-nots in the city, leading to "the creation of a separate but unequal, semi-private school system."
The union is not knee-jerk opposed to charter schools, Carter writes:

The United Teachers of New Orleans supports charter schools that are accountable
to the public, ensure educational equity, are open to all students,and give
their employees a real voice in decisions.

The question is, how many charter schools can meet those standards?

Drug test suit awaits decision

Last May, the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers won a critical lawsuit (more here), guaranteeing that educators injured on the job do not have to submit to a drug test before they can be treated for their injuries.

Now the second shoe is about to drop. As Advocate reporter Bill Lodge, who has been on the case from the start, writes here, the teacher who brought the original suit has a federal case against the school board's risk management specialist (the people paid to find ways around employee rights).

Oops...state is late with school data

The Associated Press reports that the Louisiana Department of Education missed an important deadline for reporting school performance scores.

The delay means parents at these schools have less time to take advantage of
federally mandated private tutoring or school choice.

State officials blame the delay on moving the testing dates from March to April, because the testing companies that are paid millions to score the tests need more time to complete their task.

Uhhh...Bad excuse. Test dates were moved for a very good reason: teachers need enough time to ensure that students are taught all the materials included on the tests. If we must have high-stakes tests, they should be done as late in the year as possible.

It is inexcusable that the school year has been calendared for the benefit and convenience of testing companies. But that's just what we've done in Louisiana. That's why school begins in August, when air conditioning costs are highest for schools, when families' vacation plans are inconvenienced, and when school buses are at their hottest.

Perhaps this delay will spur some outrage by parents, and some pressure will build for a more reasonable school calendar.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Blessed are the peacemakers

The feud between State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek and some education advocates is ratcheting back, and credit for getting the parties in a room and talking civilly is going to Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Linda Johnson of Plaquemine.

Advocate reporter Will Sentell just published this story about a meeting Wednesday night that included Pastorek, along with representatives of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, Louisiana School Boards Association, Louisiana Association of Educators, Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, Louisiana PTA and governor Bobby Jindal's deputy chief of staff, Stephen Waguespack.

They met under the aegis of a new organization called One Voice in Public Education, and discussion centered around strategies to secure funds from the federal Race to the Top program.

It was the first meeting of the parties since the LAE and LSBA called for Pastorek to be removed from office several weeks ago. In response, LFT called on Governor Jindal to mediate what LFT President Steve Monaghan termed a "bitter feud between the superintendent of education and the organizations," Monaghan said at the time. "There is a grave danger that the current situation could threaten the progress our schools and our children have made."

Pastorek turns down $22K raise

State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek will not accept a $22,616 pay raise, according to this article by Advocate reporter Will Sentell.

The superintendent is reportedly entitled to the raise because he received a positive evaluation from the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Pastorek told the reporter that he won't accept the raise because, in the current poor economy, "I think I need to set an example for holding the line."

Writes Sentell, "Pastorek’s annual pay package includes a salary of $287,907, a housing allowance of $57,240 and a car allowance of $31,800."

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Indy says Jindal should "stick his neck out a little"

Endorsing the LFT call for Governor Bobby Jindal to intervene in the Paul Pastorek squabble, the Lafayette Independent says it's time for Jindal to "stick his neck out a little" and act a referee's role.

Columnist Walter Pierce says that Jindal's refusal to get involved - even though he supports Pastorek's agenda as state superintendent of education - calls the governor's leadership into question:

But it leaves one to wonder: When are we going to see the aggressive,
gifted Bobby Jindal who was given a mandate by voters? Can he do it? Can he
actually advance Louisiana, make it a better place to live, a place where our
children want to live? His predecessors — Republican and Democrat alike — have
come and gone with little effect on our bottom-dwelling status.

LRCE moves into spacious new facility

Congratulations to the Louisiana Resource Center for Educators, which recently moved into its new facility in the former Louisiana Office Products building on Florida Boulevard in Baton Rouge.

As Advocate feature reporter Carol Anne Blitzer writes here, LRCE is now 25 years old, and provides resources to teachers in 76 individual schools and 18 school systems.

The resources go far beyond the classroom materials that were originally provided by LRCE. In the new building, some 45,000 items are available for checkout, but the Center also offers training sessions and meeting space and is a provider for the practitioner teacher certification program.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Louisiana's ACT scores decline, number of students taking test increases

Louisiana students scores on the ACT test dropped by two-tenths of a point this year, disappointing educators who had hoped for an increase over last year's record high achievement.

As Advocate reporter Will Sentell writes in this story, this year's Louisiana ACT scores averaged 20.1, a slight decline from the record 20.3 posted the year before. The national average, 21.1, remains the same as last year.

The decline can be partially explained by a 13% increase in the number of Louisiana students taking the test, say officials of the Southern Regional Education Board.

UPDATE: Here is the Department of Education's press release about the latest ACT scores. DOE spokesperson Renee Greer has a quote from ACT's Ed Colby that further explains how the expanded number of participants affected results:

“Generally, when the testing population expands so dramatically, it’s not
unusual for scores to go down, because it is likely that a more academically
diverse group of students is being tested. The fact that Louisiana’s overall
trend is positive is encouraging.”

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Are merit pay and career ladders in Louisiana's future?

While the federal government presses ahead with plans to judge teacher performance based on student test scores, a Louisiana commission is looking at ways to impose an unpopular merit pay scheme on teachers in the state.

Houma Courier reporter Daniel McBride is on top of this story, reporting that the state's Blue Ribbon Commission is considering a pay plan with different categories, including career ladders, merit pay and the traditional lane-and-step pay scale.

Most teachers object to tying teacher salaries to student test scores for obvious and valid reasons. As McBride's article points out, factors beyond a teacher's control play a part in student test scores. And as professional educators like to note, a single high-stakes test does not necessarily reflect a student's achievement.

Teachers may be more willing to experiment with career ladders, which reward them for taking on additional responsibilities: "The career ladder approach would advance teachers from classroom to mentor to master designations. Each level would include new administrative duties and increased pay."

It's all a non-starter unless teachers are involved in the process, however. As LFT President Steve Monaghan tells McBride, "You cannot expect the teachers to trust the process again if they’re not included in the development. These kind of programs look very much like they’ve been designed by the top, for the top.”

Breaking news: LA is in for federal education millions

The stars seem to be aligning for Louisiana to bring in the lion's share of federal education dollars under President Obama's "Race to the Top" program. As WAFB-TV's Keitha Nelson reports here, our state could net $25 million to $50 million per year for up to three years.

There is a catch, of course. As Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek tells the reporter, "aggressive steps" will be expected by the feds, and that could include a greater emphasis on charter schools. It could even mean reconstitution of schools, which Pastorek describes as firing the entire faculty and allowing them to reapply for their jobs.

With just a bit of understatement, Pastorek says, "Not every district is going to want to do this."

The New York Times has a succinct headline over reporter Sam Dillon's story describing Race to the Top: "Dangling Money, Obama Pushes Education Shift."

Dillon reinforces reports that Louisiana might get big bucks from Race to the Top, but also looks beneath the rock at the creepy crawlies that may come with the largess.

The article notes that members of the education community who supported Obama are disappointed, or at least puzzled, by his embrace of what they believe to be the worst aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act. "Much of the grumbling," he writes, " is from educators who say they supported Mr. Obama’s candidacy."
The administration’s stance has caught by surprise educators and officials who
had hoped that Mr. Obama’s calls during the campaign for an overhaul of the No
Child law would mean a reduced federal role and less reliance on standardized

Indeed, Race to the Top could wind up increasing reliance on high-stakes tests, and on judging teachers and principals by the results of those tests.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Reporter says Jindal should intervene

LFT's position in the flap over State Superintendent of Schools Paul Pastorek is gaining traction in the news media.

To recap, some organizations have called for Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek to resign. Or for Governor Jindal to fire him. Or for the Board of Elementary and Secondary education to fire him (see here, here, and here).

As we've noted before, Pastorek isn't going to be fired. He has the support of the governor and BESE. That makes the dispute a sideshow, a distraction as teachers, children and parents struggle with back-to-school issues.

Associated Press reporter Melinda Deslatte weighs in on the dispute in this opinion column. After noting that Pastorek "has lawmakers calling him arrogant, school board members lambasting his policies and education groups calling for his ouster," Deslatte acknowledges that he is aggressive and "in-your-face."

She also knows that it is unfortunately unlikely that Gov. Bobby Jindal will step in and resolve the dispute. But she closes on a note of common sense:

However, an intervention of sorts might be needed so the disputes don't
create a stalemate that renders Pastorek ineffective or stymied as

LFT President Steve Monaghan summed it up in his letter to Jindal: "The
last thing our children need at this moment is a bitter feud between the
superintendent of education and the organizations that represent teachers and
school boards."

More RSD failures

Thirty-five missing computers in the State Recovery School District is a "minor consideration," according to the district superintendent. One million dollars worth of paychecks issued to people who no longer work there is an "inherited problem."

Gannett reporter Mike Hasten is on the story here.

Is RSD an expensive, divisive failure?

Will the experiment with state takeovers of challenged public schools wind up an expensive, divisive failure?

That seems to be a preliminary estimation of the State Recovery School District effort in East Baton Rouge and Pointe Coupee Parishes. As Advocate reporter Charles Lussiere writes here, the four schools in question are "faring little or no better than they were two or three years before state takeover, according to audits."

The State Department of Education supervisor for the schools agrees that school performance has been unacceptable, but blames the failure in part on an inability to gain stable leadership in the schools.

One of those, Prescott Middle School, has had three principals in one year, and last year lacked certified, highly qualified teachers.

Looking ahead, the supervisor said the takeovers will be judged successful if "in three to five years, 60 percent to 75 percent of their students are scoring “basic” or above — i.e., at or above grade level — on state standardized tests."

Thus far, RSD is spending $1 million to evaluate the progress of the schools. At one of them, Capitol High, the private company that manages the school is spending another million to upgrade programs and course offerings.

Which begs the question: If these schools had been offered the same resources while under control of the local school board, would they be performing at least as well as they are under the recovery district?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

New law holds parents accountable for student absence, tardiness

Among all the new laws going into effect (remember to buckle up in the back seat!), one takes a step toward making parents more accountable for their children's truancy and tardiness.

As WAFB-TV's Caroline Moses reports here, the parents of children who are habitually late or absent can be fined and even jailed.

Teachers know that parental involvement is a crucial for student success. One of their biggest complaints concerns parents who don't show up for parent-teacher conferences, don't ensure that children complete homework assignments, and don't seem to even care if their children are at school when they are supposed to be.

This new law is part of a movement toward a bolder, broader approach to public education that tries to draw entire communities into school improvement, rather than simply blaming teachers for what is a much larger social problem.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The "L" word is leadership, governor!

Just a few weeks ago, as the legislative session was drawing to a close, a gaggle of former governors staged an intervention. They dragged Gov. Bobby Jindal out of hiding to resolve the furor over higher education funding. Reminding the nation's youngest governor of his primary responsibility, the four said, "Lead, governor. We're prepared to follow."

Now the call is out once again for the governor to exercise some leadership, and once again the question arises as to whether or not Jindal possesses that quality.

This time, it was the Louisiana Federation of Teachers calling on the governor to intervene in a squabble that arose when the Louisiana Association of Educators and the Louisiana School Boards Association called for the head of State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek.

Said LFT President Steve Monaghan, “The last thing our children need at this moment is a bitter feud between the superintendent of education and the organizations that represent teachers and school boards.”

So far, Jindal has refused to answer any questions in person. But he did issue a statement to WAFB-TV reporter David Spunt, who noted "Governor Jindal does not want to get involved."
Here is the video in which Jindal avoids yet another difficult issue.

How long Jindal can stay out of the controversy is another question. Today the Shreveport Times and the Lake Charles American Press both editorially agreed with LFT and called on the governor to demonstrate that he was elected to do more than participate in carefully staged media events.

Wrote The Times: "Clearly it's time for the principal — in this case Gov. Bobby Jindal — to step in and get these parties to a conference...Send out the invitations, Governor."

And columnist Jim Beam of the American Press wrote, "The Louisiana Federation of Teachers has shown some leadership by calling on Jindal to resolve the disputes that are hindering educational advancement...Gov. Jindal may be the only person who can get everyone involved to move past this unfortunate episode."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Study: Disabled students more subject to corporal punishment

Alexandria blogger Lamar White, Jr. writes about this disturbing report from Human Rights Watch which demonstrates that disabled students are more likely than others to receive corporal punishment in schools.

White's revulsion at the report is understandable. He describes himself as "a disabled American," and his blog advocates passionately and effectively for his community. But the report should also shock anyone who believes, as White does, that it is "ridiculous and cruel" to lay hands on disabled children.

The report notes that the southern states have the worst record of physically abusing disabled students. In Louisiana, for example, 2.4% of students with recognized disabilities receive corporal punishment, as opposed to just 1.7% of all students.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Can't we all just get along?

The call by some organizations for State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek to be relieved of his post is a distraction from important issues facing public education.

As reported by Barbara Leader of the Monroe News-Star on Friday, the Louisiana School Boards Association has joined the call for Pastorek's scalp. That newspaper responded with an editorial calling for peace in the education community.

Pastorek has the support of his Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the governor. He's going nowhere.

Our concentration should be on the issues, policies, decisions and choices made by Pastorek, Governor Jindal and the BESE board. If we disagree with those, we should take every opportunity to explain why they are wrong for our schools and our children. And we should remind voters of those at the next election.

But personalizing the dispute can bring discussion of issues to a halt, and that's what has happened in Louisiana. Which is why LFT President Steve Monaghan has called on Governor Jindal to intercede, saying that the controversy is "counterproductive and dangerous for public education." (Click here to read the full letter to Jindal.)

The governor, Monaghan said, is the only person with sufficient stature to bring the opposing parties together in a summit aimed at establishing a civil discussion of important issues.

“Such a meeting would obviously not resolve all differences,” Monaghan wrote. “But it would help to create a framework for discussion of those differences.

“There is a grave danger that the current situation could threaten the progress our schools and our children have made. This could make it even more difficult to cooperate in the future,” Monaghan’s letter concludes. “We hope that you will lend your skills and your leadership to this situation.”

Gannett reporter Mike Hasten covered the issue in this News-Star article; Melinda Deslatte from the Associated Press wrote this story about it.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Pastorek's $500,000 goof spawns lawsuit

An admitted mistake by State Superintendent of Education could cost the Union Parish School Board a half-million dollars. That has prompted the school board to file a federal lawsuit against Pastorek.

As was first reported by Monroe News-Star journalist Barbara Leader, Pastorek failed to notify the Union Parish board that a proposed charter school would be considered at the last meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

In an e-mail to Union Parish Superintendent Steve Dozier, Pastorek said he was "shocked" to learn that BESE had approved a charter for the D'Arbonne Woods Charter School.

The Union Parish board had twice refused to accept D'Arbonne Woods as a parish charter school. Supporters of the school in 2007 were granted a Type II charter, which can be approved by BESE if the local school board denies the request.

Under rules in place in 2007, the Type II charter school would have been funded completely by the state. But under new regulations, those charters are entitled to local school funds. If the school opens as scheduled on August 15, the Union Parish School Board will be forced to give it some $500,000, a significant share of the parish's $15 million education budget.

In his e-mail to Dozier, Pastorek said he did not believe BESE would grant the charter to D'Arbonne Woods:
"My fault, I should have let you know. Frankly we were asked to bring it up in
June, but I didn't because there weren't enough votes. I was asked to bring it
up again, but didn't believe it had the votes. I was shocked that it passed."

Pastorek suggested that the parish issue a charter to the school as a way to avoid a lawsuit.

But as Barbara Leader reports in this article, the board filed a suit in federal court asking to halt the charter school from opening on August 17. U.S. District Judge Robbie James told the parties that he will try to rule quickly on the case.

Today the State Department of Education issued a terse statement from Pastorek, saying that he has "reached out" to the community and hopes that the suit can be resolved "through terms that allow both groups to successfully educate students in Union Parish."

Pastorek creates six new high-paid jobs

Apparently not satisfied that his own $400,000+ salary package doesn't tip the education pay scale far enough in the direction of the top bureaucrats, State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek wants to create a whole handful of new department bigwigs.

According to this article by Advocate reporter Marsha Shuler, it's all part of Pastorek's plan to bring Louisiana a "world class" education system.

The six news jobs would be unclassified, meaning that the employees would serve strictly at the pleasure of the superintendent. Pastorek plans to hire three"national experts" at salaries of up to $140,00 each, and three consultants at up to $80,00 each.

These employees will be in addition to the 14 unclassified positions already created by Pastorek - five of them have salaries over $100,000, Shuler reports.

Creation of the positions was approved by the State Civil Service Commission, whose members are appinted by the governor.

As Superintendent Pastorek and Governor Bobby Jindal like to point out when they disburse exorbitant salaries to their at-will employees, you have to pay top dollar to get the best talent.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

All the news that fits, they print

There's an interesting development in the news media's coverage of the controversial career diploma program approved by the legislature earlier this year. Facts are being deliberately distorted to give the public a false impression of how school districts are reacting to the program.

With few exceptions (including the Monroe News-Star), the media opposed the career diploma option. In the worst cases, it was derided as a dummy diploma with hints of lingering racism.

So nothing made the editorial poohbahs happier than seeing a significant number of school systems apply for waivers at last week's meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

As Lake Charles American Press columnist Jim Beam put it, "Opponents of the new diploma picked up more support for their arguments last week when nearly one-third of the state’s 70 public school districts asked to be exempted from the new law’s provisions."

Or as the New Orleans Times-Picayune explained it, "These school systems, thank goodness, seem to be more concerned about academic standards than the Jindal administration or the Legislature, which created the dumbed-down diploma this year. "

Even in the non-editorial pages, supposedly dedicated to delivering straight news, spin has trumped substance.

Like in this Advocate article by reporter Will Sentell. Noting that nearly half of the state's school systems are opting out of the program, Sentell wrote, "The latest batch of districts that do not want to offer the 'career diploma' curriculum this year include East Baton Rouge, Livingston and Lafayette parishes."

To the casual reader skimming the news, it would seem that local school systems oppose the new diploma option and do not want it in their schools. Not until much farther down in Sentell's story does East Baton Rouge Parish School Board spokesman Chris Trahan explain
that the board simply wants to delay the career option for a year "because of logistical problems, not philosophical opposition to the law."

Said Trahan, “It was purely an issue of timing. We just want to ensure that we have enough time to implement a strong program.”

Beam made a similar admission, again near the bottom of his column, when he wrote, "Some districts are opting out because they don’t have enough time to get the new program off and running..."

But in both cases, that inconvenient fact was ignored until after the impression had already been created that local districts oppose the career diploma option. And it seems very deliberate.

Otherwise, the lede in stories about the issue would have been, "Concerned that tight time lines make it difficult to get a new program in place before school opens, several school systems are asking for waivers..."

Monday, August 3, 2009

Irony: Press release welcomes RSD teachers, news report notes firing of RSD teachers

On the same day that the Recovery School District issued this statement to the news media:

NEW ORLEANS, LA.- Recovery School District (RSD) Superintendent Paul Vallas will deliver remarks
to hundreds of new and returning RSD school-based staff, including school
administrators and teachers, at the Opening of School Convocation, Tuesday,
August 4, 2009, at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, 2515 Franklin Ave. in New
Orleans. The program will take place from 1:00 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the church. The
event also will feature a special announcement by the New Orleans Hornets....

The Times-Picayune posted this story by reporter Sarah Carr noting that over 100 teachers and school employees in RSD schools have been fired.

According to the article, many of those who lost their jobs are veterans who say they are being replaced with Teach for America volunteers who can be hired for much less money. TFA officials dispute that claim.

One thing is indisputably true for teachers who work in Recovery District Schools: they surrender all rights when they enter the door. As Carr's article puts it: "Seniority guarantees nothing, collective bargaining does not exist, and teachers keep their jobs only at the discretion of their principals."

Editorial supports career diploma

The Monroe News-Star has a strongly worded editorial criticizing those who unfairly label the new career diploma as having somehow "dumbed down" education.

The editorial makes an important point about those who are so sure the new graduation program makes a mockery out of education reform: What is their alternative?

The career diploma was created to give some hope to the 35% of Louisiana ninth graders who will not graduate from high school. Until now, the only remedy proposed for the state's obscenely high dropout rate was to make school more "rigorous."

By adding a good dose of relevance to the state's rigorous curriculum, the News-Star argues, the career diploma may also offer hope to struggling students:

It will engage students who don't intend to go to college and who otherwise
might disengage from high school. It may not encourage them to try calculus or
advanced physics or AP courses, but it will challenge them to master enough
English and math skills that they can pursue technical training or
job-preparation coursework through the technical colleges. It may prepare them
with enough skills to gain employment in the trades. It may keep them in school.
It may direct them for successful lives.

The editorial acknowledges that 19 school systems asked to opt out of the career diploma program at a meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education last week. Not all of them asked for a waiver because they don't believe in the program. Most of them simply believed they could not have a workable program in operation by the time school starts this year.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

News video: Audit shows BR school takeover failing

Despite the good intentions of Advance Baton Rouge, the non-profit group chosen by the state Recovery School District to run Prescott Middle School as a charter, indications are that the experiment is failing.

WAFB-TV reporter Tyana Williams studied the RSD's own internal investigation before filing this story on Friday night's newscast (there's a short commercial before the report begins).

A three-member RSD team created the Prescott report, which included these damning revelations about the school:
  • Problems at the school range from Advance Baton Rouge's management to the behavior of the students themselves.
  • Students at Prescott still score below basic in math and reading
  • The school has had three principals since becoming a charter a year ago.
  • Of 33 teachers on staff, many are neither certified or highly qualified.
  • Twenty students were suspended in a four-day period.
  • Report cards were not sent out after one grading period due to lack of postage.
One direct quote from the investigation says the "current staff does not have the capacity to bring this school out of its current academic standing."

The CEO of Advance Baton Rouge, Henry Shepard, told reporter Williams that the "report is very accurate."

The school's new principal says he hopes to provide an "organizational structure conducive to learning," but that it may take three or four years to see results.

At the close of the report, WAFB anchor Donna Britt made a cogent statement: "The community has got to rally around Prescott."

That identifies the real problem with Prescott and many other so-called "failing schools." The schools are part of a larger community, and reflect the pathologies of the community at large.

Improving schools is part of the equation, but the answer lies in lifting up the whole community. Unless we take a bolder, broader approach that encompasses all the ills of impoverished communities, school takeovers and "reform" will not permanently improve student performance.