Monthly Archives: December 2013

The Voice of Common Sense Comes Not From Senator Elbert Guillory

Copied from a website posting Senator Elbert Guillory's video speech "Why I am a Republican." (http://globetribune.info/2013/06/18/elbert-guillory-why-i-became-a-republican-video/)

Copied from a website posting Senator Elbert Guillory’s video speech “Why I am a Republican.” (http://globetribune.info/2013/06/18/elbert-guillory-why-i-became-a-republican-video/)

Senator Elbert Guillory (R-Opelousas) wrote an opinion piece in the Advertiser praising the Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP) providing vouchers to low-income parents. It is filled with heart, but lacks specifics and ignores inconvenient facts.

“The Louisiana Scholarship Program is working to pick up the pieces of Louisiana’s broken educational system,” so the senator claims. One month ago, the Times-Picayune published an article on November 28th with the devastating title “Half of Louisiana’s voucher students at D or F schools in program’s first year, data shows.”

In all fairness, only 22 of the 118 schools got a grade, but to be graded, a school has to have 40 or more voucher students in the school population. Another wrinkle is that 52% of the students are in Kindergarten through second grade and don’t have standardized tests—rightly so—and therefore there is no process to grade those schools. Of the 22 schools, one scored a B, and the rest earned Cs, Ds, or Fs, the exact grade making students eligible for the LSP.

The senator claims that test scores have improved by 20 to 25 percentage points, but does not cite his source. In the future, his statements would be more believable with proof.

He also asserts that the LSP helps low-income parents, but it allows for families with incomes up to two-and-a-half times the poverty level. That works out to families earning $60,000, not exactly what one could normally call low-income families.

He affirms he is fighting tirelessly to reform our system and enact common sense solutions. Common Core Standards, which the Louisiana legislature approved in 2010, were written predominantly by twenty-five people with little classroom or standards-writing experience. How is that common sense? 

He avows that “critics and naysayers want to take us back,” but those critics and naysayers are also teachers and parents who have legitimate concerns. The senator’s letter brushes aside their anxieties and negatively associates any critic as some unworthy defender of the status quo.

The one positive piece of information he quotes is that 93% of the program’s parents support the LSP. When those parents discovered that their students were removed from a C, D, or F school to attend a different C, D, or F school, I wonder how many of them were still supportive of the system. That data is unavailable.

The senator states that the LSP is fortifying itself as it expands. That unfortunate remark came out the day after the legislative audit stated that the program does not necessarily ensure a better education for students and that the Department of Education isn’t properly monitoring the program. 

It is interesting to note that Senator Guillory, who is now running for Lt. Governor, was one of four votes in the Senate Education Subcommittee that killed the unanimously-passed, 2013 House Bill to delay the punitive effects of the Louisiana COMPASS teacher evaluation system. Those 100+ House members had legitimate concerns too that he nullified with one vote.

Common sense may prevail in Louisiana, but it hasn’t yet.

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My Christmas Gifts Were the Words of My Students

A Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to you all!

I have made a decision to write my legislators in Louisiana about the inadequacies of the Louisiana COMPASS teacher evaluation system. I have scored 1.8 and 2.0 on a 4.0 scale every time I do a fall evaluation, and I firmly reject the notion that these numbers reflect my qualities as a teacher. I requested students to write to me with either positive or negative impressions I left with them during my twenty-three years of teaching. The responses have been, to say the least, heart-warming and humbling, especially during this precious time of Advent. A few responses are below.

As this time of Advent draws to a close, I am re-invigorated with a spirit of hope. I have one of the best vocations in the world and have imparted knowledge about life and learning to over 3,000 souls. It doesn’t get any better than this. Merry Christmas!

From the Students…

You were definitely a great teacher! … You taught algebra really well and when I didn’t understand something you were able to explain it just right so that I was able to comprehend it. The jokes you made in class actually made algebra bearable and fun to go to!

David Mas, LHS Class of 2012

You made World History and Western Civ come alive for me. Your teaching and testing methods are what helped me through college and helped prepare me to “look it up” and discover on my own instead of spoon feeding me the info… I am so sad that my children won’t get to experience your show.

Ashlee Comeaux Gary, CHS Class of 2001

I had to take a test with an educational diagnostician. She also went through some of my school work and test papers. It was because of your tests that she was able to pinpoint where I struggled. Because you asked such a variety of questions using various methods, she was able to see where I was struggling. That was a turning point in my academic career. I went from As, Bs, and Cs to mostly A’s. Changed my life completely.

Mary Carolyn Haik Duffy, CHS Class of 2004

You are an amazing teacher. You really try to teach your students any way that you think that they would remember… You are one of the very few teachers that I have found that really does care about his students and values knowledge above all things… I am working on my BA in history due largely to your influence because your love of history was infectious. I wish there were more teachers like that who will instill the love of learning instead of just worried about test scores.

Abby Williamson Kennedy, CHS Class of 2008

Mr. Barras is one of the most motivating and attention grabbing teachers I have ever had. I looked forward to his class every year, I doubt any teacher could make math as interesting as he did. He really understands his students and relays the learning material in a way that we understand. I continue to use his methods in my college classes today. He is an amazing educator, any student would be lucky to have him as a teacher.

Christina Benoit, LHS Class of 2011

Mr. Barras. I can honestly say you were the best history teacher that I have ever had the privilege of learning from. You are in the top 3 teachers that I have ever had in my life in any subject, including college. Your one World History class at Catholic High School taught me enough to allow me to minor in history at ULL and finish with a 3.6gpa in history classes… It was truly an honor to have you as a teacher and I thank you for doing it so well.

Alex Crochet, CHS Class of 2005

Mr. B, you only taught me one course and that was freshman algebra… What I can remember from 20 years ago is that you strict yet fair, but concerned about all your students’ well-being. You demanded the best from your students because you knew how capable we were. All you wanted for us was to succeed. You always gave 110% to your students even if we didn’t. You taught me that sometimes hard work is required to achieve my goals… The fact that you care so much after all these years is proof enough that you are a damn fine teacher. I would be proud and honored if you ever taught my kids.

Patrick Dauterive, CHS Class of 1998

The entire Fleet Anti-Submarine Warfare Command salutes you, Mr. Barras. I remember when I came to your class I had stopped caring. Stopped caring about grades, about people, about anything. I hated math and I could never understand it, until I learned to pay attention. And when I chose to listen to those complicated strings of arithmetic, I found that you put them in such a way that I could understand them. And you know what? I passed. It was too late in the year to make much of a difference, but it was just enough to allow me to pass junior year. From then on, I chose to be proud of my grades. Proud of everything I do. You played a vital role in making me who I am today as a proud sailor of the greatest navy in the world. And, on a rather amusing note, I DO actually use some of the things you taught me in class. I use graphs and linear functions on a regular basis to do some pretty cool things, like hunting submarines and tracking torpedoes. So you can tell that to your students who think they’ll never use algebra. You are a truly wonderful teacher as well as a beautiful person. Please keep this very same determination in what you love to do, and stay motivated in making sure you continue to benefit the lives of others. Thank you so much for your efforts.

Chase Hebert, LHS Class of 2013

I applaud you, Mr. Barras and I appreciate your willingness to better our society even despite those above you, and so many others, who have no idea what it means to teach… You are a hero, as are many other teachers who, like you have chosen to stand up. You are a remarkable teacher.

Brandon Comeaux, LHS Class of 2013

You’re anything but a failure.

Evie Credeur, LHS Class of 2014

Vincent Barras was one of the best teachers I have ever had the pleasure to be associated with, rivaled only by his mentor, Dr. Donald Voorhies and a former poet laureate of Louisiana that I studied under at LSU, Dr. David Madden. His interesting and fun teaching techniques, involving multiple facets of learning structures (be it kinesthetic, auditory and/or visual), were always incredibly effective at helping ALL of his students learn. He has the unique ability to generate interest in even the most mundane of topics by directing his students to aspects of the subject that engage them in multi-faceted ways. This ability allows students to explore new subjects with an invigorated interest, which facilitates learning in ways that cannot be described. As an individual who has ADHD, I needed multiple inputs of information just to keep myself on track in school, and Vince’s teaching techniques were always helpful in allowing me a full sensory input that engaged my mind and allowed me to completely understand subject matter that may have otherwise bored me.

Not only was Vince an incredible teacher in the classroom, but he became a great friend out of the classroom and later in my life through his diligence and interest in individual students’ lives, including my own. He shows his students that he CARES about THEM. They are not simply a number in a desk. They are important, unique human beings whose daily struggles and achievements matter to Vince. This is important for students going through the tumultuous task of adolescence, with the added expectations of maintaining college-ready grades and curricula, because it allows them a venue to express frustrations in confidence, express their failures to an earnest and caring ear and to celebrate their victories with a confidant they know they can rely on. It is also important for young people to have such a confidant when they move on past high school education and Vince continues to excel in that role for literally thousands of young adults whose lives he has touched in some way or another.

I know that my life would not be the same if I had not been blessed with the experience and interactions I had with Vince. He continues to be a dear friend that I treasure to this day.

Jonathan Parich, CHS Class of 2002

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School Choice: Great Catch Phrase Built on a False Analogy

I recently attended an extremely educational session in Lafayette about Common Core and its various tentacles: school choice, data mining, teacher evaluations, and student testing. I want to focus today on the first two words, or school choice.

Education won’t be improved by simple-sounding phrases like school choice.

School choice sounds lovely, but it derives from a false analogy.

When I go Christmas shopping, I have the luxury of comparison buying. I can look for a certain item, find it in three different stores, compare the prices, and then proceed to buy the lowest priced item. Hence the capitalist, market-based economy prevails, and I get the best bargain.

That is not the proper analogy for educating our children. Education does not follow market-style pressures. Schools are not clumped together in the same area of town like stores in a mall. Often they are dispersed haphazardly, dictated by uneven city growth over decades. The school buildings remain even if the population demographics change and property values fluctuate. School districts reflect fixed areas with populations of differing social and economic situations, and political persuasions. Re-zoning school districts has become the new political, hot-topic button that school board members are wary of touching.

Governor Bobby Jindal, Superintendent of Education John White, and other proponents of voucher-style systems have created this false analogy that schools can operate like a market. Keep the best schools open, close the schools that fail. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? If your child is in a “failing” school—which Louisiana stretches to include C-level institutions—then why can’t they be switched to another higher level school? They have couched the phrase “school choice” with a wholesome picture of loving parents who only want the best for their kids. They have carefully positioned the argument into an “us versus them” mentality, the haves versus the have nots.

I am not defending those schools that cannot fulfill their mission, but there are many factors that affect that mission, and the final answer can’t rely on just student scores. The truly difficult and courageous option would be improving all Louisiana schools, especially those in economically-distressed areas. Those schools with A or B rankings are doing something right, so forcing them to abandon their successful programs for the untested, one-size-fits-all Common Core is ludicrous. The state should focus on the schools in the bottom rankings and work to improve those instead of siphoning away necessary funds to remove students from those schools and send them elsewhere. In the latest round of school rankings, the entire voucher program got a significant black eye by scoring on par or worse than public school institutions. All this time and effort to pull students from failing schools … to place them in different failing schools is insane. (Sounds like a solid plan to get elected President of the United States, doesn’t it?) Even more disturbing was the fact that many private or charter institutions cannot even be evaluated, so there is little accountability for the voucher program.

Educating our youth is complicated and depends on so many factors that state tests will never evaluate effectively. Education won’t be improved by simple-sounding phrases like school choice.

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PISA Scores: Much Ado About Nothing

My response to all this hysteria over PISA Scores: take a chill pill.

There has been much gnashing and wailing since the release of the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) scores. As Math Professor Solomon Friedberg pointed out in a Los Angeles Times article, the US did not perform in the top twenty countries in any category. Michelle Rhee, former Washington D.C. Schools Chancellor, wrote an incendiary op-ed piece in Politico about how Common Core will fix all these ills. Even the Lafayette Advertiser, for which I write occasionally, had an opinion piece claiming this was just the shock the nation needed to wake it from its complacency.

My response to all this hysteria: take a chill pill.

First of all, PISA scores do not provide a full picture of the US and its unique situation. Veteran teacher Mercedes Schneider wrote a devastating, fact-filled article on her blog that pointed out that simply because countries like Latvia, Estonia, and Vietnam are out-performing the US on these tests, does NOT signify some superpower triumvirate takeover of the world. Perhaps we should do like China, which only tests the city of Shanghai. Yes, Ireland and Poland outscored us, but what exactly does that mean? The US is still #1 in patents, has the world’s largest economy, and is in no danger any time soon of falling into some secondary status compared to these countries.

What exactly would these professors, chancellors, and editorial boards like us to do? Become testing hells as in certain Asian countries that place so much emphasis on high-stakes tests that their students crumble under the pressure and commit suicide? Often many of them have simply parroted the tired statements that the rigor of Common Core will solve all problems, even though there is no empirical evidence that this will be the case.

What PISA also does not take into account is the crushing effect poverty has on a nation’s scores. The US has a poverty rate higher than twenty percent, yet countries like Finland have rates less than a quarter of that. When you look at the scores of those portions of the US that have comparable poverty rates, our students rank first. What we need to do is address the poverty problem, and while I am not advocating that such things are easy or that education needs no improvement, it gets tiresome to hear oft-repeated mantras in the hopes that they will turn fiction into fact.

So when the next set of PISA scores come out three years from now, remember that it’s not a terribly useful tool, producing apples-to-oranges comparisons. Oh, and take the chill pill.

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A Letter to my Students

A letter to my students, past and present,

My dear students,

I am taking this moment to speak to you directly. Thirty-two years ago, I was blessed with the knowledge that I have a gift for explanation, modeling, and teaching. I witnessed an extraordinary teacher, Dr. Donald Voorhies, who inspired me to become an educator. I earned three college degrees so I could have the privilege of doing what I love. I kept a 3.823 GPA, earned scholarships to pay for college, and then paid those scholarships back by teaching. I love what I do, have never considered it a job, and still find it fascinating that I get paid to do something so fulfilling.

I am defending myself. I am standing up for my honor as a teacher and a professional.

When I started public school teaching in 2007, I did not understood the power the Louisiana legislature had when it came to evaluating teachers. The legislature approved the COMPASS evaluation system, though how many legislators had actually been teachers or who had actually read the COMPASS system is not known to me. I find it hard to believe any true teacher would ever approve a system that prescribes group learning as the only legitimate way to teach. The Department of Education implemented the system statewide in 2012, and I have been evaluated three times.

Today, I earned a second failing score. Waves of anger, remorse, frustration, even melancholy rolled over me. And then I felt a wave of relief as one simple word rang through my head.

Stop.

Stop trying to adapt to an inept, invalid system. Stop trying to match a mold designed by people with so little classroom experience. Stop trying to parrot Utopian fantasies that don’t meet the realities of my classroom.

What clarity. I originally thought that I was giving up, but I realized something else. I am defending myself. I am standing up for my honor as a teacher and a professional. I will no longer submit myself to this farce, no longer curb my teaching strategies that work, no longer allow myself to feel inferior based on a faulty system. I must be evaluated every year, but I hold no value or respect for a model that cannot even recognize the good that I do.

I have taught approximately 3,000 or more students. I have watched you grow up and grow older. I have attended your multiple graduations, your weddings, and watch your children grow. I have traveled with you to foreign countries, have kept up with you on Facebook, have witnessed extraordinary acts of kindness and bravery, and have hopefully contributed in some small way to you becoming productive, loving human beings. I will continue to teach, no matter how COMPASS ranks me. I refuse to lose another minute of sleep over it. I would much rather have my students become healthy, happy individuals with a love for learning and life. I already know the impact I’ve had on some of you. As long as I have breath in me, I will continue making positive contributions to your lives.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jzf7OFBeTFk

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Michelle Rhee: Be Careful What You Wish For

Change is hard. As someone who battles daily to teach future adults-in-training, not assemble some internationally-competitive, global workforce, I’m no stranger to fighting against well-funded, well-connected, but naïve reformers.

Sadly, Michelle Rhee, former Washington D.C. Schools Chancellor and proponent of untried, untested reforms, has once again waded into the murky waters of reforms. She and her ilk continue to exploit a famous Mark Twain maxim about the three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. Reformers will twist international test scores in extremely selective ways to support their questionable improvements.

Michelle Rhee’s article was titled “How America Is Failing Its Kids.” The only people failing the kids are these so-called education reformists.

Last week, the United States got a painful reminder that international tests are relatively useless for comparing countries. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) provides yearly rankings of industrialized nations, and the US apparently is still on that same horrific decline that “A Nation at Risk” declared some thirty years ago. Presently Mercedes Schneider has written a piercing piece on those latest PISA scores (http://deutsch29.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/anti-union-nonprofit-shill-attacks-aft/), pointing out that since Latvia, Estonia, and Vietnam scored higher than we did, they therefore must signal a new global triumvirate that will replace the United States as a Superpower.

Frankly it’s ridiculous to use this test to compare countries. China, for example, doesn’t test their entire population, just the city of Shanghai. Wouldn’t the US scores be wonderful if we only tested, say, Boston, with its top-notch, educational standards? Comparing Finland, which has a poverty rate of less than 5% and the United States, with higher than 20%, reminds one of oranges and apples, and does not represent the fine qualities for which the United States stands.

Michelle Rhee, o astute analyst of information, thank you for your incredible diagnostic skills. Your breakdown of numbers in Massachusetts pointed out a disparity of scores between white students and “children of color.” Ms. Rhee claims that Common Core will miraculously solve this unacceptable disparity. How exactly does making all students meet the same standards suddenly close the gap between the two groups, white and colored, to use her phrase? It doesn’t, and apparently with the recent first rounds of scores from states engaging in the Common Core testing debacle, all it has done is widen the gap between these two groups and set all students up for failure against incredibly high benchmarks.

Michelle Rhee, o sensible sage of perspicacity, your perception of the Constitution is woefully lacking. Education is a state issue. Encouraging a common set of standards for all states through bribery–liberal doses of federal money (Race to the Top Grants)—is tantamount to creating a federal curriculum. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 specifically forbids this, a most inconvenient fact for education reform proponents. Their disingenuous claims that no state was forced to apply for grant money doesn’t disguise the naked fact that states desperately need money for education, and the strings attached were adoption of the same standards for some 45 states. When 90% of a country is trying to meet the same standards, you have a federally-aligned system. States have the right to set their own curricula that match nobody else’s, and if one state is higher than the other, well, that’s the cost of federalism. It’s useful to know those definitions.

Michelle Rhee, o crafty architect of anecdotes, that story about students transferring states, while lamentable, is the price of federalism inherent in our constitutional republic. That same republic allows us to speak against these ill-designed, unverified reforms and even chase out educational leaders who lack the skills and prerequisite educational background to guide educational systems. How can a woman whose failed educational career of three years’ in the classroom be trusted to run an intricate system with thousands of employees? How can a man who too lasted just three years in the classroom be trusted, after six weekend seminars, to become an education leader in New York, a Superintendent of a Recovery School District, and then get elevated to the top educational job in the State of Louisiana? (Think John White.) How can a man who could not get hired as a teacher, much less a principal, and has little standard-writing experience get cherry-picked to rewrite all the standards for Common Core? (Think David Coleman.)

Michelle Rhee, o failed former firer of principals and teachers, be careful what you wish for. Your words were “The United States made no improvement from previous years, while other countries leapfrogged us by dramatically improving their students’ proficiency levels.” What better proof that this stunning package of reforms aren’t working? Ten years of No Child Left Behind, ten years of claiming market-based theories will fix education’s woes, ten years of denigrating teachers and principals as the enemy, apparently hasn’t worked. So what’s my favorite definition of insanity? Oh, that’s right, it’s Albert Einstein’s: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Michelle Rhee’s article was titled “How America Is Failing Its Kids.” The only people failing the kids are these so-called education reformists.

 

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The Difference Between Instruction and Learning

While reading the many educational posts from the untiring Diane Ravitch, I read a response by a doctoral candidate that struck me with its clarity: there is a vast difference between instruction and learning. It’s a difference worth exploring.

A teacher is responsible for instruction, for preparing lessons that will lead to student learning. They outline what activities will occur during the class period, whether it’s fifty or ninety minutes, how the class will begin and end, and what reinforcements will be assigned in the form of homework. Good teachers take their years of experience and model the behaviors they want from their students, varying the level of difficulty for those students with myriad learning levels. They must also constantly monitor classroom behavior and minimize disruptions from students who are still being, well, students: young kids with short attention spans and likes/dislikes of fellow kids. This vigilance is equally as important as the lesson itself, because without classroom control, no instruction is possible. Along with this awareness is an alertness to determine if the students are grasping the concepts being taught, and if not, to spend more time on those skills.

A student is responsible for learning the material, for paying attention to the lesson, for copying down the examples, and imitating the processes presented in the class. They are responsible for doing the homework, bringing it to class, going over it in class, and turning it in. They are responsible for preparing for the assessment when it arrives, and that does not mean cramming the night before the test, but absorbing the material a little every night by practicing just a small portion every evening.

The path between instruction and learning is precious and perilous. Many things threaten that journey. Sickness often puts children at a disadvantage, especially when they miss more than a single day but several due to a lengthy illness. Economic situations often force young adults from high school to take on a job to help the family, even though it robs needed time for homework and test preparation. Social situations—single parent families, homelessness, moving from parent to parent—also make stable home situations less likely, and some of those youngsters have to take on the role of raising their younger siblings. Students going through puberty have erratic sleep patterns that make staying awake during school a challenge, and some just don’t see the point of school. Never-ending technology in terms of computers, phones, and gaming devices suck away precious time to reinforce the day’s lessons. All these factors can block the path between the teacher instructing and the students learning.

Standardized tests like End of Course tests (EOC), Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC), and Graduate Exit Exam (GEE) all test one thing directly: student learning. They gauge if the student has learned the material presented in the class. These tests do NOT measure the quality of the instruction. They do not take into account all those threats to student learning mentioned above. They wrongly assume that if students failed to learn, then the teacher failed to instruct. That is a false assumption and a false correlation.

People in power use that false assumption to say that if a student has failed to learn, then the teacher failed to instruct and should be fired. According to this narrow-minded thinking, schools with a large number of failing students should also be closed. This is most pernicious in New York State: Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor Andrew Cuomo have shuttered several low-performing schools and have threatened teachers based on their students’ test scores. Louisiana under Governor Bobby Jindal and Education Superintendent John White have reinforced this false connection by having any teacher rated ineffective losing their tenure and become an at-will employee, capable of being terminated with little due process. Instead of encouraging teachers to be their best, to strive for greater excellence, teachers are demoralized, depressed, and worried that despite their best efforts, they could still lose their jobs. What an unhealthy way to promote education.

Common Core Standards, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and Race to the Top all promote this fallacy that poor student learning must equate with poor teacher instruction. Thanks to NCLB, we must test our children every year to see if they learn, where many countries that outperform us on international tests never barrage their students with yearly tests. PARCC tests require more sophisticated computers, so we will spend billions on computers, forcing spending cuts, firing teachers, and increasing class sizes. All this emphasis on testing and on blaming teachers is just wrong. It is fraying the fabric of public education, the foundation of our future, for the sake of instant gratification, of trying to look like we’re doing something significant.

This is a complex problem not fixable by this simple, short-sighted solution.

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