Monthly Archives: October 2013

A Letter From New York Highlights Similarities Between John White and John King.

In her vigilant fight to preserve educational excellence in the US, Diane Ravitch posted this letter from a mother who spoke at one of New York Chancellor John King’s informational gatherings around New York State. This one was held in Port Chester, New York, and her letter and testimony is included below. It is interesting to note that Louisiana’s Superintendent of Education John White has followed an almost identical path to New York Commissioner John King. Neither King nor White has taught more than three years in a classroom. Both gentleman then spent all their educational experience in leadership positions, King founding a private charter school, and White serving as Deputy Superintendent in New York. Both gentlemen had the support of powerful governors, and both are pushing PARCC testing for their states. New York has already implemented one round of testing, with disastrous first-round scores, and Louisiana is supposed to start in 2014-2015. Even more telling, Bianca Tanis speaks about her son, who has autism and who had to take the high-stakes tests. Louisiana under John White required its special education students to take the ACT test also, until Louisiana legislator John Bel Edwards (D)  stepped in with HB 343 to correct this oversight. Both men are under intense pressure and scrutiny.

Here is that mother’s letter to Diane Ravitch.

“Dear Diane,

Last night I attended the Common Core Forum in Port Chester, NY. I was number 6 to speak.It was an incredible feeling to finally be able to look Commissioner King in the eye and say what I have been wanting to say to him for the past 6 months, and to know that this time, he would have to hear me. But that’s the thing, he didn’t hear me or anyone else for that matter.

I brought my almost 80 year old father to the forum. Before last night he was only peripherally aware of education reform. As we left, he was holding back tears, overwhelmed by the pain that he heard parents and teachers expressing and moved by the dozens of parents, teachers and administrators who had spoken so eloquently on behalf of children. I too was moved but I was also angry.

Despite being forced to listen to dozens of parents, superintendents and teachers say over and over again that the current education reform is hurting children and public education, Commissioner King was unmoved. King had not heard me or anyone else for that matter. Despite his 12 stop mea culpa tour, King is going full steam ahead with his corporate, hostile takeover of education.

Back when I was a 28 year old mother of 2 children on the Autism spectrum, I worked hard to return to graduate school and become a teacher. During my teacher training I lost my little brother to cancer and watched my son undergo numerous surgeries. Through it all I continued my graduate work and maintained a near perfect GPA. I don’t tell you these things because I want sympathy or accolades, but to make the point that I know perseverance, I know struggle…the qualities that commissioner king believes that 8 and 9 year olds should experience as the means of motivating them to achieve career and college readiness. And part of what has helped me to persevere and to push through the tough times is my ability to stop and reflect, to change course when one paradigm no longer works. I am saddened and angered that public education is led by someone who is willing to do neither.

I have attached my testimony from the forum below. This is what our commissioner of education didn’t hear.Commissioner King must resign because as parents and educators, we deserve better.

Bianca Tanis
Parent, educator and co-founder of New York State Allies for Public Education

“My son has autism and your reforms have hurt him. You mandate schools to share sensitive student data. You force students with disabilities to submit to inappropriate and humiliating testing. Only now, 5 months later, after you have had to endure public outcry, are you willing to consider changes. Where was common sense and decency 5 months ago when parents begged to for their children to be exempt and when children with disabilities were being tortured. You should be ashamed.

“These reforms are not about education. They are about the agenda of billionaires with no teaching experience. The fact that your close advisors are the mysterious Regents Fellows, individuals with little to no teaching experience, who are paid 6 figure salaries with private donations by Bill Gates and Chancellor Meryl Tisch, speaks volumes. Private money comes with a price tag and that price tag is influence. We reject leadership that allows public education to be bought. That is not democracy. By the way, the Regents Fellow job description does not mention teaching experience as a requirement.

“It has been said that parent opposition is typical when change is introduced. There is nothing typical about the present response. The incompetent roll out of the common core and the naked disregard that has been shown for developmentally appropriate and educationally sound practice is unacceptable. Your recent concessions are disingenuous and a case of too little too late. They do nothing to reduce the hours of testing or the inappropriate level of test difficulty. They do nothing to make cut scores reasonable or address serious problems associated with high stakes testing.

“In addition to hurting children, your policies promote social inequality. Private school parents, such as your self have the opportunity to say to no to harmful testing and data sharing while public school parents are not afforded the same rights. Are you afraid of what would happen if you gave all parents a choice?

“The inadequacy of our schools is a manufactured crisis. Poverty is the number one indicator of student achievement. When you factor in poverty, US schools are at the top. New York deserves real leadership that addresses real issues. If you won’t provide that leadership, we need someone who will.”

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The Love Fest for Common Core: A One-Sided Panel Indeed

“Common Core’s here, it’s a done deal, and we might as well get used to it” appears to be the stock reply.

I read the Lafayette Advertiser‘s article ” Common Core Needed in Louisiana to Improve College, Job Performance” by Amanda McElfresh. I noted the speakers present: United Way of Acadiana CEO Margaret Trahan, University of Louisiana at Lafayette President Dr. Joseph Savoie, Lafayette High School Instructional Strategist Amy Deslattes, Lafayette Parish Superintendent Dr. Pat Cooper, BESE Board Member Holly Boffy, and Parents Empowered Founder Heather Blanchard. (Full disclosure: I taught Joe Savoie’s son twice in math and I work at Lafayette High School alongside Amy Deslattes.) These are all good, hard-working people, and any meeting that discusses Common Core is a good thing. This meeting, however, was TOTALLY one-sided with a group of panelists all in support of Common Core. Whoever held this meeting did a disservice to parents, teachers, and any adults who have legitimate concerns about how Common Core was created, how it has produced age-inappropriate materials, and how it minimized the input of teachers, parents, and educational psychologists from the very inception of Common Core.

I am most baffled at how most supporters of Common Core, and I am not implying the people mentioned above, hardly blink an eye when people raise concerns about how Common Core was developed in the first place. When opponents point out that no teachers in grades K-12 served on the Standards Work Group that wrote the standards, the only answer given is that thousands of educators gave their input, though exactly what that input was and how it was handled is never explained. The undeniable fact is that no teachers served on that group, and inviting people to give suggestions after the fact is not truly involvement, it’s window-dressing. When opponents point out that a growing number of prominent professors, notably Dr. James Milgram, Dr. Sandra Stotsky, and Dr. Ze’ev Wurman, decry its deficiencies, the circle-the-wagons answer is we must do something to fix education for our students. When opponents point out justifiably that simply moving harder material down a grade level or two ignores the chemistry of the brain and its ability to absorb some age-inappropriate material, the answer … is usually not to answer. Supporters appear apoplectic that we don’t just bow down in prostration at their incredible program funded largely by Bill Gates. Supporters seem unfazed by the legitimate concerns of parents and the very teachers who have to carry out these so-called reforms. Supporters don’t really listen to our concerns, and instead launch pro-Common Core rallies like the panel above, who, interestingly enough, never addressed the concern about how Common Core was developed in the first place. “Common Core’s here, it’s a done deal, and we might as well get used to it” appears to be the stock reply.

In the future, there should be meetings that involves ALL the stakeholders woefully absent from the panel: parents, teachers, principals, and educational psychologists. Having only business leaders, university professors, and pro-Common Core educators does not present the whole picture, and while their input is valuable, those persons do not work in the classroom day after day working on the ever-changing quicksands of Common Core and its haphazard implementation in Louisiana. Anything worth doing is worth doing correctly, and Common Core was developed in a way to ostracize certain groups (parents, teachers, principals, educational psychologists) and promote a selective agenda. Please stop thinking a louder chorus of pro-Common Core propaganda is going to assuage the voices of the anti-Common Core crowd. Not inviting us to the discussion is a sign of disrespect and will not persuade us that you actually listen to us or take our concerns seriously.


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The Future of Louisiana Needs a Competent, Experienced Leader

“John White lacks the qualifications to be hired even as a principal in any Louisiana public high school, and yet inexplicably, he is guiding the future of thousands of principals in Louisiana. How did this come to pass?”

Life has an uneven mix of pleasure and pain, fatefully intertwined. Education, too, has such a mix, and educators are struggling with a new world of technology and societal changes in the family structure. Louisiana presently has a reputation, deserved or not, as being near the bottom of the barrel in terms of its education system. Over decades, leaders have struggled with providing a quality education to its 700,000 students, and that struggle will never end. While no clear answers have surfaced, one thing is painfully clear: State Superintendent John White is incapable of shepherding Louisiana’s educational situation through these tumultuous times.

John White’s qualifications are appallingly slim, and they betray a pattern of short-term jobs without any accurate measure of his effectiveness in those brief positions. A 2003 English graduate of the University of Virginia, he became a Teach for America teacher and taught THREE years at Dickinson High School in New Jersey until 2006. From 2004 to 2006, he also became the executive director of Teach for America Chicago and Teach for America New Jersey. From there, he has been fast-tracked with inordinate speed into positions of leadership that far outstripped his abilities. In 2006, White became a Deputy Chancellor under New York City Education Chancellor Joel Klein. While there, he attended the Broad’s Superintendent Academy, which trains him to become a superintendent after a paltry six seminars over ten months. When Paul Vallas left as New Orleans Recovery School District Superintendent, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal courted White to take the job, even though he had never been a superintendent before. Within months, Jindal made it clear that he wanted White as the State Superintendent, and after serving only eight months as RSD Superintendent, White was elevated to the top education position in the state, where he has now served for sixteen months.

His path to becoming State Superintendent was typically political. The eleven-member Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) must approve state superintendents, but the 2011 BESE Board wasn’t too keen on White. Four members, in fact, openly opposed him, making his appointment impossible since eight votes are needed. Louisiana politics being what they are, the governor has an undue influence on the BESE Board by appointing three of its eleven members, meaning the governor with seven votes only needed one more to secure White’s appointment. The Jindal political machine, with support from Education Secretary Arne Duncan, began pouring money in the 2011 elections to get those four White critics removed. Incumbent Dale Bayard was unseated by Holly Boffe, who called her first conversation with White “memorable and inspiring.” Jim Garvey successfully beat back two challengers to keep his seat and subsequently voted for White. (One of his challengers was Lee Barrios, another relentless critic of both White and Jindal.) Keith Guice, a former school parish Superintendent himself and therefore highly qualified to judge the qualifications of another Superintendent, said White would not be his first choice. He, too, was unseated by a Jindal-backed candidate named Jay Guillot. Louella Givens was also ousted by Kira Orange Jones, a Teach for America executive director just like John White. Linda Johnson, who also opposed White but chose to retire after serving twelve years on the board, was replaced by Carolyn Hill, who voted for White’s appointment. In a rare instance of Jindal money not getting the desired results, Dr. Lottie Beebe, who flatly stated that White lacked the qualifications for the appointment and was the only board member to vote against him, unseated Glenny Lee Buquet. Still, Jindal got his wish and the BESE board voted for White in January of 2012.

Since then, White has proved a colossal failure. Though he was not responsible for creating the COMPASS system designed to evaluate teacher effectiveness, he is directly responsible for executing it statewide for the 2012-13 school year. It has been so roundly criticized, so badly implemented, so highly demoralizing, and so constantly changed, that even the Louisiana state House of Representatives voted unanimously to delay the punitive portions for another year. (The Senate in typical fashion never even brought the bill before the full Senate for consideration.) The Superintendent at first denied there’s a teacher exodus, and then insulted the very group he’s tasked with improving education by claiming that most teachers who were leaving must be the ineffective ones. You do not save a child by savaging a teacher. Adding insult to injury, White appointed Hannah Dietsch, another TFA alumna in her early 30s, to oversee the COMPASS evaluation system. Though she holds degrees from Tulane and Harvard, Ms. Dietsch, a fellow Broad Superintendents Academy alumna, has limited teaching experience, if any, and her knowledge of evaluation systems is mostly book-knowledge and not hands-on. White’s office has been plagued with inefficiency—it is difficult to determine who’s in charge of what in the LDOE these days—and has been in defense mode from the beginning of his term. Numerous reports keep surfacing of millions of dollars in misplaced money or equipment from the New Orleans RSD or of students in the voucher program scoring lower than students in the public schools. White assured the people of Louisiana that the State Supreme Court would uphold the voucher system and its use of Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) funds. He was wrong. Nearly every act that Jindal and White wanted passed through the 2013 legislature has been withdrawn or voted down outright. And whose bright idea was it to evaluate special education teachers according to the same standards as regular teachers? How does the group-teaching-is-best method work for a class of students with autism? While the state legislature is fixing this gross error, the question remains: who at the state department even thought this was a valid concept to begin with? Is this what we call competence in Louisiana?

I am also increasingly appalled at the poor evaluation skills of this state’s leaders and the media. Evaluation is the highest level of knowledge in Bloom’s taxonomy, but the things I have witnessed have only proven our leaders lack this skill. Governor Bobby Jindal has said, “I’ve been so impressed with not only [White’s] credentials but his on-the-job performance…” White had only been the RSD Superintendent for seven months when Jindal said that, and White came with only five years of experience as a deputy superintendent. How can Holly Boffy, herself a Teacher of the Year, claim that White “understands what it’s like to be in the classroom,” considering his limited classroom experience? Former BESE president Penny Dastague called White the “natural choice” for superintendent, especially “When you look at what he brings to the table…” Again, how does three years of teaching, and five and a half years of administrative positions qualify one for such an important job? Even the Broad Superintendents Academy contradicted their own mission statement (“An advanced development program that identifies and prepares experienced leaders to successfully run urban public school education systems.”) by admitting John White to their numbers with only three years of teaching, which hardly qualifies him as an “experienced leader.” Three days before John White’s appointment as state superintendent, Peter Meyer interviewed him for EducationNext, an educational blog devoted to “bold changes,” and Meyer penned this hagiographic statement: “His three years in the classroom at Dickinson High gives White a firm grasp of these fundamental teaching challenges…” (Please ignore the incorrect subject-verb agreement.) No, they do not. Twenty years of teaching experience might, but three years in a classroom does not enlighten any soul to the true complexities of education nor the needed solutions.

There is but one true step that can be taken to improve the state of education in Louisiana: find a competent, highly-qualified state superintendent. Every teacher has to meet certain requirements to attain the definition of “highly qualified.” John White would not even meet those same minimum standards. Rumors abound that White will possibly accept a position under Arne Duncan at the federal level. While I heartily endorse White leaving his present position, the thought of his advancing his pernicious ideas to the federal level sickens me. It only reinforces the notion that only these inexperienced outsiders can fix what’s wrong. If they couldn’t last in the classroom more than three to five years, why are we trusting them to fix education? We don’t let first-year medical students revise and revamp the entire hospital system, so why do grant the awesome task of education to adults with so little first-hand experience? Just take a glance at John White’s biography on the Louisiana Schools’ website to witness his hubris: he claims that he initiated “12 commitments to the city of New Orleans” and in eight short months, fulfilled all those commitments. John White was never qualified for this job, and it is past time he relinquished it. So, John White must resign or, in the words of Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV to Pope Gregory VII, “come down, come down, and be damned throughout the ages.”

Note: This is an older article I composed several months ago, but it seemed timely to remind people of the state of education in Louisiana.

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Don’t Call Them State Standards; They Are Anything But That!

“In short, twenty-five people with no classroom experience just radically altered the classroom experience for millions of students in America.” 

Having taught Sophomore English, I am quick to identify misplaced modifiers, as I take writing very seriously. Perhaps the inappropriate adjective that infuriates me most is the third word in the phrase “Common Core State Standards.”

Let me state this clearly and bluntly: these are not STATE standards. They were written by twenty-five people, NOT by the states. They were merely adopted by the states, and since they are copy-righted, they cannot be changed. Some forty-five states are now saddled with this laundry list that is actually in some states weaker than the program that had already been in place.

The designers of Common Core were specific in using the word “state,” in order to disguise the overwhelming goal of Common Core: to align all fifty states into covering the same material. (In the 1990s, the US tried to create a set of national standards, and it failed miserably.) Part of their goal is understandable. A student moving from Wyoming to Florida should not have to suffer wildly different curricula as they travel from state to state.

While that sentiment is understandable, it’s not constitutional. The Constitution clearly states in the tenth amendment that powers not granted to the federal government are reserved to the states. Education is a state issue, a fact conveniently and frequently ignored by US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Each state has the sovereign right to establish their own standards and curricula to meet those standards.

Common Core has robbed the states of their ability to set their own standards, except for those states who did not adopt them. Supporters argue it is not curricula and each state is free to create their own paths to meeting Common Core. They conveniently ignore the fact that the starting point, Common Core, is the same for forty-five states, so exactly how dissimilar will they be? A horrific side-effect has been that certain states, like New York, have taken the lead in developing curricula, so other states, like Louisiana, simply adopt their already-developed work, no matter how strange it may be and how foreign it can be to the South.

Twenty five individuals wrote the standards in two committees, one in English Language Arts and in Mathematics, with four members serving on both committees. No states sent representatives to this selective organization paid for with Bill Gates’ grant money. No states served on the equally selective feedback committee or validation committee. In short, twenty-five people with no classroom experience just radically altered the classroom experience for millions of students in America. Many states and their state education boards backed the Common Core before it was even finished being written—Louisiana’s state legislature supported this plan in 2010, never having carefully observed the finished product—but this wholesale hijacking of the educational system was not ratified by the people or the parents who are now watching the frustration on their children’s faces as they now struggle with age-inappropriate materials and/or badly-designed handouts made by people with little educational experience.

Let’s just call a spade a spade: this is a corporate take-over of public education, funded with Gates’ money and coerced on several states, who took badly needed money in the Race to the Top grants from the US Department of Education. But don’t call it State Standards. Call it the Gang of Twenty-five’s standards, but last I heard, twenty-five people do not a state make.

Vincent P. Barras

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October 23, 2013 · 1:24 am

Who Needs Common Sense When We Have Common Core?

Common Core was created to address multiple problems: 1) Our ranking compared to other developed nations was slipping, and 2) universities were getting high school graduates unprepared for college and dropping out. In order to fix these problems, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, with heavy financial support from the Bill Gates Foundation, oversaw the creation of Common Core, a set of standards that all children should reach by a certain age.

Slipping in world rank and graduating ill-equipped seniors are problems. You do NOT fix those problems by creating standards with NO involvement from the people who have to implement those standards. The standards’ authors work for ACT, Achieve, the College Board, and Student Achievement Partners; not a single teacher grades K-12 was invited or included. In fact, the lead English standards writers were David Coleman and Susan Pimentel, who have never taught English at the high school or collegiate level, and who had little experience concerning instruction, curricula, or research.

The Feedback Committee had college professionals and only one high school math teacher. The Validation Committee has two members who have since spoken up in opposition. Sandra Stotsky, who had considerable experience crafting Massachusetts’ highly-successful English standards, has thoroughly detailed her objections to the validation process and the weakness of the English standards. Dr. R. James Milgram testified before committees in both Texas and Indiana that “there is no good reason to adopt Common Core Math standards… They are actually two or more years behind international expectations by eighth grade, and only fall further behind as they talk about grade 8-12.”

I have no problem with improving schools in Louisiana and in the USA; I have problems with select individuals who’ve never set foot inside a public school dictating to K-12 public school educators the skills all students should know. This group has radically altered the content taught and the way it is taught IN ALL GRADES across 45 states, many of which are beginning to regret this relinquishing of sovereign control over education to a faceless laundry list of collegiate expectations. Texas, one of the few states which refused to adopt Common Core, did so partially because Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott said he was pressured to agree to the standards before they were even completed.

This just defies all reasoning and common sense. But who needs common sense when we have Common Core?

Feel free to share this with anyone and everyone you know.


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Educational Reform Without Representation

How I can have reservations about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), especially when its supporters truly believe it will lead to a brighter future for Louisiana students? Supporters claim that it will improve our state ranking, provide rigor, produce college ready students, and enhance our international standing. I know of no other field that would create a new system and simply ask us to trust the awesome results to come. This involves the future of our children, and while I don’t believe the Louisiana Grade Level Expectations were all they could be, I would rather improve the system I have than scrap the whole thing for some brand new fad lacking any research to back it up. I believe kids are too important for this educational experiment.

If something is flawed from the beginning, how is it valid? The people writing CCSS work for these groups: ACT (5 people), the College Board (6), Achieve Inc. (7), Student Achievement Partners (2), America’s Choice (2), an educational consultant, a retired professor, and the founder of Vockleylang, LLC. I was unaware that the ACT and College Board possess some insight into fixing the problems of education that we teachers somehow lack. Even more suspect is Achieve Inc, a Washington D.C.-based group whose major purpose is to align all states so that they have similar goals and expectations. This hints at federal alignment, and the fact that 45 states have adopted CCSS pretty much makes it federal in scope. America’s Choice, a company that designs research-based strategies to help schools dramatically improve student achievement, has not surprising been bought by Pearson, the world’s largest educational company and the designer of the future tests that will accompany CCSS. Student Achievement Partners is a non-profit organization founded by David Coleman, Susan Pimentel and Jason Zimba, three members conveniently serving on the CCSS and writing its standards. And VockleyLang is a communications group that specializes in effective message management, or getting people to see a point of view, in this case, Common Core’s.

One cannot ignore that these authors have significant ties to companies that make educational materials and that stand to make piles of money making new textbooks and devising new tests to meet the CCSS. Where were the teachers, the principals, the parents, and the educational psychologists among the 25 authors? Nowhere. How can one ask to improve educational standards and not include any representation from the people who will have to carry out those reforms? To paraphrase the famous quote from American Revolutionary history–taxation without representation–this is “education reform” without representation.

This is why I have, and will continue to have, reservations.

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