Monthly Archives: March 2014

My Letters to the Representatives in the Louisiana House

In the Louisiana 2014 session, the Education Committee for the House of Representatives explores numerous bills concerning education. On Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014, the House Committee will explore bills concerning Common Core and the PARCC tests accompanying Common Core. On the urging of Michael Deshotels, a prolific educational blogger, I wrote two letters to all 17 members of the committee, one on Common Core and PARCC, and a second one on the COMPASS evaluation system. Those letters were actually revised and rehashed posts from my blog, but I’ve included them here.

FIRST LETTER

Dear Representative,

My name is Vincent P. Barras, and as a veteran teacher of 23 years, I wish to express my educated opinion about Common Core and the PARCC tests associated with them.

It is my understanding that various bills relative to the Common Core Standards and the PARCC testing will be debated in the House Education Committee this week. Educational standards should be developed by experts in writing such standards, and unfortunately the twenty-seven authors of Common Core were not experts. They weren’t even teachers. They were comprised mostly of test-makers: they work for ACT, Achieve Inc, the College Board, and Student Achievement Partners; not a single teacher grades K-12 was invited or included. How can anyone find Common Core credible when not one of its authors would be allowed to teach in a classroom? I would like to ask you to vote for any legislation that would remove Louisiana from participation in the Common Core Standards.

I also politely ask that you support any bill that will put a stop to the PARCC testing which is scheduled to start in Louisiana next year and is supposed to be field tested in five weeks. I will lose valuable teaching days to test an untried system that recently shut down an entire school’s computer system when they attempted a field test. These tests have proved to be unreliable and have failed 70% of the students who took them last year in New York. Our students do not deserve to be subjected to these unfair tests.

Sincerely,

Vincent P. Barras, Lafayette High School Teacher

SECOND LETTER

Dear Representative,

My name is Vincent P. Barras, and as a veteran teacher of 23 years, I wish to express my educated opinion about the COMPASS evaluation system designed to evaluate Louisiana teachers like myself. I find it a highly-flawed system that unfairly judges my abilities as a teacher with three collegiate degrees and expertise in teaching Advanced Placement classes and writing curricula.

COMPASS assumes this Utopian world where all students have an equal eagerness to learn and are willing to discipline themselves and others to follow the path to enlightenment. The only problem is that describes a collegiate world. It’s not the world of K-12 students. By definition, students are NOT adults yet. They are still learning appropriate actions to follow depending on the situation, and have, frankly, not left the realm of childhood completely yet. Most students by their very age lack the maturity level to police themselves, let along turn to a fellow disruptive student and try to inhibit that behavior. COMPASS assumes an ideal world, not the real world where students are facing myriad social, economic, cultural, and hormonal problems.

Here’s an example of the insanity COMPASS employs. Should I have a student that is not on task, and should I steer him or her back into the “activity,” then I can earn a “3″ on the 4 point scale. If, however, a student takes it upon himself or herself to steer the distracted student back on task, then I can earn a “4″ on the 4 point scale. Exactly how is it valid that I earn more points by doing… nothing? How am I a more valuable teacher when students are doing my job for me? COMPASS designers clearly believe that having students teach themselves, and having me as a benign facilitator is the most ideal way to educate. Too bad it’s completely divorced from reality. Students left to their own devices would devolve into a Lord of the Flies scenario. It is precisely why the teacher TEACHES, not FACILITATES.

Ask yourself this question: if “lecture-style” learning is considered the least effective method of instructing, thus earning me a “1” on the teaching scale, then what are we telling students about college? When those young adults attend a university, the vast majority of their classes will be taught in a style the COMPASS system says is thoroughly ineffective. College professors are teaching in a manner that would get me fired for ineffectiveness. So are our colleges bastions of ineffective teaching?

It is my understanding that various bills relative to the COMPASS evaluation system are coming before your committee. I wholeheartedly ask that you support any bill that would revise the COMPASS system in a manner that more closely reflects the reality of teaching and not the idealistic hopes of fantasy. Reducing the percentage of the VAM is a good start, but it is nothing compared to a complete revamping of the evaluation system.

In closing, I have attached the words of my former students from my years of teaching. If you don’t believe me, perhaps you will believe them.

Sincerely,

Vincent P. Barras, Lafayette High School Teacher

 

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.

David Mas, LHS Class of 2012

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… 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…. Changed my life completely.

Mary Carolyn Haik Duffy, CHS Class of 2004

You are an amazing teacher… 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…. 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…

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…. 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… 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.

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….

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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I’m as Mad as Hell, and I’m Not Going to Take This Anymore!

In the movie Network, Peter Finch said a line that has now become immortal: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

Frankly, that’s me right now, and here’s why.

On March 27th, the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce listed its priorities for the legislative session, and among them is its support for Common Core.

I then thought, “Oh great. Another organization is trumpeting its support for Common Core.”

If I were to write a manual telling doctors how to operate, people would laugh and doctors would rightfully ignore me. I have not attended medical school nor received the training a doctor needs.

Yet organization after organization with little or no educational background thinks they are experts on education. The Council for a Better Louisiana, Stand for Children Louisiana, and the Louisiana Association for Business and Industry, just to name a few, have all published their support for Common Core.

Apparently, merely having attended school or college—or simply having a child—affords everyone a seat at the table to determine the future of education. Worse, everyone listens to these organizations and not the teachers themselves.

I am a highly-qualified teacher with two Bachelor’s degrees and a Masters in History. I was chosen the Outstanding Sophomore, Junior, and Senior in UL’s College of Education, not to mention the Outstanding Graduate of its 1992 Spring Commencement. I have experience writing curricula and have taught Algebra I and II for twenty-three years, as well as numerous history and English classes.  I am an expert on education, not these various groups.

To every organization that announces their support of Common Core, I have a right to explore your qualifications and biases. Have you received money from Bill Gates or any of his organizations? Are you teachers who have implemented the Engage New York curricula that was designed to match Common Core? Have you actually read the poorly-written modules we teachers have received or taken one of their confusing tests? Are you experts in the cognitive abilities of young children and adolescents? I suspect the answers to these questions are a resounding NO.

And I have upsetting news for these organizations who don’t even bother to explore what is in Common Core: the people who wrote it weren’t experts either. The twenty-seven authors were mostly test-makers, and none were teachers. Why should I give their handiwork any credibility when they lack the credentials to even be classroom teachers?

So, should any new organization wish to herald the need for Common Core, I have these words of advice: unless you’re qualified to speak on the subject, mind your own business. Otherwise, I will accord your opinion the weight it deserves: little.

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My Opinion of Common Core, Straight from Disney’s Frozen: Let It Go!

I heartily welcome this Louisiana legislative session with its record number of bills concerning educational reform in Louisiana. I have also noticed that some are unhappy with that. My response, inspired by the Disney movie Frozen: Let It Go!

Louisiana made a dreadful mistake four years ago by listening to Governor Bobby Jindal and the BESE Board. The legislature adopted Common Core without exploring it: developed mostly by test-makers and funded by billionaires (Bill Gates) who want to apply market-economy, business-model solutions to the education world. Teachers, the REAL educators, were not invited for the creation, though supporters repeatedly parrot that “thousands” of teachers gave their input but conveniently never mention specific names.

That beautifully-orchestrated, stealth campaign used all the right phrases: it would improve our children’s lives; it would make them competitive in a global economy. Backed by a governor with presidential ambitions and later implemented by a Superintendent with one-seventh the teaching experience I have, the pliant BESE board and the Legislature blindly agreed to adopt a system never tested nor statistically proven to do the things it said it would.

Four years later, parents are in an uproar over data-mining, confusingly-written homework problems, the age-inappropriateness of the questions, and a Superintendent who decided on his own to push up the implementation date of Common Core, leaving 69 school districts to scramble and develop their own curricula. This disaster should fall squarely on the Superintendent, and the Legislature has wisely stepped in.

BESE board President Chas Roemer has expressed concerns that Jindal has “crawfished” on his support of Common Core. The Advocate quoted Roemer that the BESE Board “reaffirmed our position (on Common Core) in our January meeting. We think this is the best plan for children.”

How would he know? Has he ever been a teacher? The goal of Common Core is to create a “workforce” rather than educate children, so how is that the “best plan” for our children?

BESE Board member Holly Boffy, former Louisiana Teacher of the Year, is distraught that the Legislature is threatening to pull out of Common Core and develop its own standards. She was quoted in the aforementioned article that “something should have been done four years ago.”

She’s right. Four years ago, we never should have adopted this piece of junk. She claims that it is frustrating to teachers that the Legislature is meddling now, but it is even more frustrating to a great many more teachers that the Legislature and BESE saddled us with this albatross in the first place. It is refreshing to see a Legislature grapple with serious issues and listen to their constituents, to admit belatedly that this grand experiment should be stopped.

Better late than never.

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My Speech to the Lafayette Parish School Board

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I have never spoken before the School Board until now. Presently, my parish is proposing that we have only 171 contact days with my students when, once upon a time, it used to be 180. Everyone keeps emphasizing the quality of the time, but I keep emphasizing the paltry nature of 171 contact days. Here was my speech to the board, which I judged to be about three minutes. I spoke after Jonathan Cole and before Joel Armentor, all three of us teachers at Lafayette High.

“I’ll never be able to match up to taking a bullet, like my father did in World War II, but I can fiercely defend what I deem to be quality education.”

“Dear Dr. Cooper, School Board Members, Honored Guests,

My name is Vincent P. Barras, a 23 year veteran teacher, presently—and happily—employed at Lafayette High School. I wish to express my concerns over the proposed calendar for next year.

When I hear the statement that I have 385 instructional minutes in a day, I want everyone to understand that is both true and false. In terms of Carnegie units, a subject for which a student earns credit, there are only 350 minutes. Five minutes are for announcements. Thirty minutes are being counted from RTI, the Response to Intervention class in the high schools, but students don’t earn a Carnegie unit for it. More importantly, those minutes don’t count for me. That is not extra time I have with my 158 students. I am only going to get 50 minutes a day, times 171 days, or 8,550 minutes when I used to have closer to 9,000.

And there is something else you should consider: I lose instructional time regularly. There are eight days of exams, where I’m not instructing. This past two week, I lost a day giving the PLAN and Explore Test, and another day giving the mandatory ACT. In math, I am also required to give Data Director tests and that took another four days away from me. These tests asked five to eight questions on one skill, when one or two should do. They also include questions on topics I was not supposed to cover, and vice versa, there are topics I was required to cover that never showed up on the test. When I taught Algebra I years ago, I lost six days to give those tests. This year in May, I will lose more days giving a PARCC Field test, when the Louisiana Legislature is presently considering withdrawing completely from PARCC and Common Core. Is it any wonder why I jealously want my time with students?

In closing, I wish to apologize for not being able to stay. I am going check in on my Dad who just spent four days in the hospital. He’s a WWII veteran who will turn 88 this May. He was shot at Iwo Jima, fighting for freedom, my freedom to stand before you now and speak my mind without fear of retaliation or retribution. I am here simply, to ask, to beg for more time with my students. In an ideal world, I shouldn’t even have to ask.

Thank you for your time.”

As I walked away, I was humbled by the polite applause in the room. I’ll never be able to match up to taking a bullet, like my father did in World War II, but I can fiercely defend what I deem to be quality education. It’s a shame others don’t share the same goals that I possess.

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Loving You Has Been A Pleasure

Some people call it coincidence; others say it is contact from beyond. I’ll let you be the judge.

While searching in my Dad’s house for something he needed, I found a crumpled bit of paper tucked away toward the back of a dresser drawer. My instant reaction was to throw it away, but curiosity got the better of me. The paper seemed yellowed and it did have writing on it, so I slowly began unbundling it.

It took a while, but in the process, I recognized my mother’s handwriting, so it became even more precious to me. She had passed away nearly seven years ago, and I became curious to see what this was. Eventually enough paper, however, had been smoothed to make me stop: I recognized a sentence. I had seen it before. “I haven’t written a letter in years.”

This was the opening sentence to a letter my mother had written me in 1986 for my high school senior retreat. The more I unwrapped the letter, I understood this was a draft version of the final letter she sent me. How it got in the dresser crumpled into such a small size, I will never know.

When at last I finished, I was holding the draft of a letter written 28 years ago. Being a historian, I relished this moment. It being from my mother made it even more precious.

Near the end, however, was a line crossed through, even though I could still read the sentence. It never made it to the final draft, which I have since checked. It’s a simple six-word sentence that touched me instantly and brought me to tears. “Loving you has been a pleasure.”

To every person who’s even been a son or daughter, my wish for you is that you know and feel the sentiment behind those six lovely words. Not all dads or moms are the same, but hopefully they have shown some of that love that my mother gave me so unreservedly. An extraordinary woman showed me love and formed the person I am today. I hope you have or had something like that in your life too.

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The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Minutes Versus Days

I am about to wade into a dangerous topic: How many minutes are in a day?

The answer seems simple: 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day, so 1,440 minutes in a day, right? Well that depends on your definition of “day.”

Minutes versus Days: a topic that should not be dominating educational policy, for it’s a distraction from real educational progress. 

There has been discussion at the most recent Lafayette Parish School Board meeting on the merits of minutes versus days. A proposed 2014-15 calendar has only 171 student contact days versus 180, the usual number we citizens have taken for granted. That 180 days changed last year with a calendar that included only 174 contact days, and this year’s calendar decreases that by three more. How is this possible, especially when state law mandates that a student be present 167 days of the school year?

The answer to that question concerns minutes versus days. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education changed its formula to allow a minimum number of minutes in a year. For example, Lafayette Parish employs 385 instructional minutes in a day, and even meeting only 171 days will produce 65,835 total minutes, or 9,405 minutes for a class. Central office personnel are using this definition to assure everyone that this amount is still way above the minimum level set by BESE.

This is a lovely numbers game that requires closer scrutiny.

First, I do not consider the present BESE board, comprised of nine members who vote consistently with whatever Bobby Jindal/John White propose as a fountain of wisdom when they more resemble a trickle. Switching to minimum minutes is a charade disguised as alternative education. Theoretically, we could double the length of a school day for 90 days and meet the minimum requirements time-wise, but I guarantee none of those students will have adequately learned their subject material.

Second, minutes are not an accurate measure of education. I provide an example to which many parishes in the state have resorted since that eureka moment of minimum minutes. Whenever a parish has to make up days due to inclement weather, they simply add minutes to each school day. For example, seven minutes in one parish were added to every day from January until school ended, thus adding 630 minutes over 90 days, thus making up almost two days of missed school. Every class each day got a grand extra minute of teaching. Be still our teachers’ hearts. I guarantee you that extra minute over 90 days did not replace the lost two days. It’s a numbers game that fulfills the letter of the law but not the spirit.

Three, 385 instructional minutes is not an accurate measure of Carnegie unit time in high schools, as only 355 minutes actually belong to the seven Carnegie units being taught—and the first period of the day has an extra five minutes for announcements, so this isn’t actually instructional time either. We have seven periods, fifty minutes each, or 350 minutes a day. This parish, however, instituted a Response to Intervention Class (RTI), or an extra eighth class lasting 30 minutes each day. That class is designed to help students in academic distress and act like a study hall for all others. It is not, however, extra minutes for those seven Carnegie classes; it’s an eighth class often nicknamed the skinny. Its minutes are being used to bolster our overall minutes when in actuality, classroom teachers are still only getting 50 minutes a day. The real classroom time total is 8,550 minutes versus the bloated 9,405 minutes total mentioned earlier. When you divide 9,405 minutes by 50 minutes per class, it looks like I actually have 188 contact days, when I really have 171. It’s a manipulation of numbers worthy of a statistician trying to prove something that isn’t there.

Four, if I am going to be judged at the end of the year based on my students’ scores on a test to determine how well they are doing, I have the right to request adequate time to teach my material. Two years ago, I had 9,000 minutes to achieve this goal; now I have 8,550, or five percent less. I have the chance of being ranked ineffective based on unrealistic expectations of achieving greater results with less time and fewer resources.

Minutes versus Days: a topic that should not be dominating educational policy, for it’s a distraction from real educational progress. When policy is being determined by a core group of unqualified Department of Education officials responsible to no one except a governor pining for the presidency, I cannot escape the feeling the inmates are running the asylum.

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What Would I Testify About Common Core?

Stop Common Core

Sometimes the most random things inspire a new thought or a new way of thinking. That just happened to me March 4th, 2014.

Every night, I read a book to help me sleep, unless if it’s a cracking good book like Divergent which kept me up instead of proving needed rest (thanks, Jenifer Anderson!) Just before reading the book for two solid hours, I was thinking about testimony I’ve seen lately decrying Common Core and its accompanying PARCC tests from the likes of Dr. Sandra Stotsky, Dr. James Milgram, Diane Ravitch, and Mercedes Schneider. I wondered to myself, “What would I say about Common Core and PARCC?” It’s an important question that all teachers should be able to answer for themselves.

What would I say?

I would say that it’s been thirty-three years since I sat in an Algebra I class watching a magnificent teacher standing in front of an ancient chalkboard, with chalk dust appropriately sprinkled on his dark colored pants. That man held such passion for what he was doing, and I realized that I wanted that same passion in whatever I did. It was a double blessing because I also realized that teaching other students, just like he was doing, was something I wanted to do as well. In that fall of 1982 was when I knew I was going to become a teacher, and it’s greatly due to Dr. Donald Voorhies, math teacher extraordinaire and now, a dear friend. I have never wavered in those thirty-three years, though the present climate is certainly doing its best to penalize and stigmatize good teachers for resisting the folly called Common Core.

I would also say that I’ve never quite realized what I wanted to do with those students I’ve taught since 1991. I have taught every math except Geometry and every social studies class out there, so I’ve seen a wide spectrum of courses. It was only last night that I understood with clarity what my goal of teaching was: to create educated, loving human beings.

I understand wholeheartedly that the subject matter is important, and I would never shirk on teaching the specifics of any subject, but it’s what goes on WHILE teaching the class that also matters. How I interact with the students, how I set an example of appropriate behavior—molding the good, eliminating the bad—and how I craft their interactions with others, those are the things for which I live. When a student once came to me after class to pay for another student’s class fee because that student couldn’t, when a student stops to help another one whose books have just fallen, and especially when a student came to hug me after my mother had abruptly died only seventeen days after being diagnosed with cancer, it is then more than ever that I know I’m in the right profession.

“What would I say about Common Core?”

And I have news for Common Core and PARCC supporters: those things will never test how successful my students will be at that never-ending class called life. There were more test designers than teachers crafting Common Core, and it shows in its unrealistic arrangement of subject material. Those PARCC tests will never evaluate the kindness and joy that these young adults-in-training will have for life. Louisiana may still be marching to the Common Core Madness, but now that parents are becoming more aware of its inflexibility and its affinity for teaching alternative methods of solving problems as the only acceptable method, the march has begun to stall. Most importantly, it will never help me create aspects of an educated, loving human being.

And then I would thank everyone for listening attentively. It’s the polite thing to do.

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