As an indication of just how desperate Gov. Piyush Jindal, State Education Superintendent John White and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education President (BESE) Chas Roemer are to put a good face on their much-ballyhooed education reform, one need only read the glowing “news” story picked up by Press Release Central and dutifully reported by media outlets across the state on Monday.
The story (if one wishes to call it that), issued by Louisiana Believes, the Glass-is-half-full propaganda arm of John White’s Department of Education (DOE), sounded the news like the proverbial trumpet in Revelations that Louisiana ranks first in the nation for educational policies that prioritize the interests of children, according to a report by StudentsFirst, an organization founded by Michelle Rhee, who has come under withering criticism for suspicious scoring gains at Washington, D.C., schools during her tenure as chancellor.
The New York Times made an interesting point about the Rhee report:
“The ratings, which focused purely on state laws and policies, did not take into account student test scores.”
That prompted Mercedes Schneider, who has been tracking statistical analyses of Louisiana’s propensity to fudge school data, to comment wryly on the blog of Diane Ravitch, a leading authority on education issues, “Ironic, ain’t it?”
Ravitch, on her blog, said, “Rhee wants teachers to be evaluated and fired by test scores; she wants schools to be closed by test scores. But when she ranked the states, she didn’t look at test scores. If she had, her number-one state—Louisiana—would have been at the bottom of her rankings.”
And when one peels back the layers on Rhee’s metaphorical onion, it’s easy to see that the organization compiling those rankings, StudentsFirst, has a stake in the outcome—a very big stake. It has a dog in this hunt, as it were.
Also on Monday, the U.S. Department of Education may have thrown a damper on Piyush’s premature party with its own news release that shows Louisiana not faring so well in high school graduation statistics.
Louisiana, the U.S. DOE said in lobbing its own stink bomb, ranked sixth from the bottom in public high school graduation rate.
The state’s graduation rate of 71 percent is higher only than Alaska, Georgia, New Mexico, Oregon, Nevada and the District of Columbia. The D.C. graduation rate of 59 percent was lowest in the nation, followed by Nevada’s 62 percent. Iowa leads the nation at 88 percent.
The Louisiana Legislature passed legislation in 2009 mandating that the state’s graduation rate should be 80 percent by 2014, which means Jindal, White, Roemer, et al have their work cut out for them.
It also means that StudentsFirst report is mostly hogwash and the decision to release it reveals an administration desperate to prop up a failing policy heading into the 2013 legislative session.
StudentsFirst has poured money into the campaigns of four of Jindal’s hand-picked BESE members who support Jindal and White—$5,000 each to Holly Boffy, James Garvey, Kira Orange Jones and Roemer.
In addition, StudentsFirst received $5,000 from Future PAC, the political action committee of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber of Commerce. Future PAC in turn chipped in an additional $5,000 to Roemer’s campaign fund.
Future PAC also contributed $5,000 to the Alliance for Better Classrooms (ABC) which also received $27,000 from various Jindal/White/Roemer supporters, including Baton Rouge Business Report Publisher Rolfe McCollister ($2,000).
As a curious aside, in tracking the various campaign contributions and expenditures, LouisianaVoice discovered Innovative Advertising in Covington, a firm that caters almost exclusively to Republicans in its political advertising campaigns.
The firm’s web page boasts victories for Republican candidates in North Carolina, Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana.
The Alliance for Better Classrooms spent more than $272,000 with Innovative Advertising in 2011 alone and the Republican Party of Louisiana spent another $359,000 with Innovative in 2007 through 2011.
But back to the administration’s touting of the StudentsFirst report.
“This report confirms that Louisiana is now leading the nation in education reform,” Jindal pontificated.
“The report’s findings validate the courage and boldness of Louisiana’s policy makers, voters and educators,” added White in an effort to outshine his boss in perfunctory rhetoric.
Not to be outdone, Roemer chimed in: “We are moving forward in education in this state and contrary to what the status quo wants us to believe, the majority of Louisiana people are excited to see real reform at last.”
Sadly, none of those statements is accurate. The report confirms nothing and it validates nothing and it’s highly doubtful if the people of this state are truly excited at what this administration passes off as reform. The courts certainly are not as three separate courts have knocked down various aspects of the education reform measures.
The Louisiana Believes release noted that the report praises Louisiana’s teacher evaluation system; the state’s tying layoff and tenure to teacher performance; awarding tenure only to “highly effective” teaching in five out of six years and the potential to revoke tenure after one year of ineffective teaching; the state’s charter school program; publicly-funded scholarships (part of which was struck down by a Baton Rouge court); letter grades for schools and for “setting the standard” for state level intervention through the Recovery School District.
The news release described StudentsFirst as a “grassroots movement formed in 2010 in response to an increasing demand for a better education system in the U.S.
But the most ludicrous aspect of the news release remains its source: StudentsFirst.
Rhee, before founding StudentsFirst, served as head of the Washington, D.C. school system from 2007 to 2010, when she and her boss, Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, both lost their jobs when Fenty was defeated for re-election.
During her tenure, student test scores improved dramatically but plummeted in 2011, particularly at one of the city’s award-winning schools after the principal tightened security on test score grading after accidentally discovering three school staff members late at night sitting in a room strewn with more than 200 test booklets.
Students had just completed a midyear practice version of the city’s annual standardized test and one of the adults was at a desk, holding an eraser with the other two sat at a table with open booklets before them.
One of Rhee’s more notable moves was converting the D.C. system’s annual standardized test into a barometer for teachers and principals meaning for the first time, their jobs and pay depended upon students’ scores increasing.
The district’s scores did increase, making a quantum jump, but in 2011, USA Today published an investigation that cast doubt on the validity of the test scores and about the effectiveness of Rhee’s reforms.
The newspaper story revealed an unusual number of wrong-to-right erasures on students’ answer sheets at more than 100 D.C. schools between 2008 and 2010.
The centerpiece of Rhee’s reform movement was Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus. Under her watch, the school went from being deemed in need of improvement to one of the district’s “shining stars.” In 2006, only 10 percent of Noyes’ students scored “proficient” or “advanced” in math on standardized tests mandated under the federal No Child Left Behind Law. Two years later, 58 percent achieved that level and the school showed similar improvement in reading.
Rhee rewarded Noyes’ staff twice in three years—in 2008 and again in 2010—by handing out $8,000 bonuses to each teacher and $10,000 to the principal.
During that same three-year span, however, most of Noyes’ classrooms had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on the tests, with most of the erasures being that wrong answers were changed to correct ones.
In all, 103 public schools—more than half the D.C. schools—had erasure rates exceeding D.C. averages. In 2007-2008, six of eight classrooms taking tests at Noyes were flagged for the high rate of wrong-to-right erasure rates. The same pattern was repeated in the 2008-09 and 2009-2010 school years, when 80 percent of classrooms at the school were flagged by the CTB/McGraw-Hill testing company.
For the 2009 reading test, one Noyes seventh grade classroom averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasure rates, according to the USA Today story.
Thus, the chancellor of District of Columbia public schools presided over one of the biggest student test score cheating scandals in the nation and subsequently was forced out in 2010 only to establish the StudentsFirst grassroots movement “to mobilize parents, teachers, students, administrators and citizens throughout the country and to channel their energy to produce meaningful results on both the local and national level.” (Wonder if all that is on the organization’s letterhead?)
And now we are being asked to believe Jindal and White when they regurgitate a highly suspect report churned out by Michelle Rhee.
If still not convinced of the StudentsFirst shenanigans, you may wish to watch Frontline on LPB tonight (Tuesday) at 9 p.m.