EDITOR’S NOTE: Mercedes Schneider is a teacher in St. Tammany Parish with a background as a statistician and researcher. She has tried on numerous occasions to ellicit a response from John White and the Louisiana Department of Education about what she says are misleading data relative to Louisiana’s high school graduation rates.
By MERCEDES SCHNEIDER
Recently, I had an email from Barbara Leader, reporter for the Monroe News-Star, requesting that I call her. She wrote that she had lost my number and wanted to talk to me. I had conversed and exchanged a series of emails with Ms. Leader twice before, both times about inflation in the 2012 Louisiana school performance scores. Both times the “promised” story loomed on a nonexistent horizon. Here was Horizon Number Three.
This time was different; my colleague Herb Bassett’s and my writings on score inflation had “gone national”, and I sent the link to Ms. Leader. On Dr. Ravitch’s blog, I responded as follows to a comment asking why this information had not been in the local news: “… the papers are skittish about carrying the story. I have sent to the Advocate, Times-Picayune, and Monroe News-Star. Sometimes I get a message initially of interest, then silence.” So, when Ms. Leader contacted me, I thought perhaps this might be the time for a local article. Sometimes it takes “going national” to “go local.”
She phoned during my break (I teach public school), and as I took that call, I was surprised to hear her ask me more than once (and I paraphrase), “Would you be willing to go to a BESE meeting?” This question baffled me; I expected she might first ask if I had been to a BESE meeting with my concerns. In fact I had, in October, and it cost me one of only three personal days I have per year. I was able to speak for about 20 seconds on Value Added Modeling (VAM) issues (“I’m sorry, but that item is not on our agenda today.”) and for three minutes about the misuse of the ACT as a gauge of teacher performance (“Thank you for your comments, and let me tell you why we’re going to go through with this anyway.”) I briefly mentioned my efforts to formally contact John White and BESE via email with my detailed concerns over school performance score measurement issues, VAM instability, and faulty investment of one million dollars into Teach for America (TFA). I told Ms. Leader that there was no real conversation about any of these issues; if I heard anything from White, it was a justifying of his position, nothing more.
(As an aside, let me add that when I write of BESE, I am referring to the established, nine-to-two voting that is characteristic of BESE as a body, one that is pro-corporate-takeover-of-education and anti-traditional-teacher-and school. I am not referring to Ms. Lottie Beebe and Ms. Carolyn Hill. Ms.Beebe has been extremely helpful in aiding my quest to dispense information, including arranging public speaking venues for me, such as the Louisiana Association of Parish Textbook Administrators [LAPTA] annual conference in November.)
A second reason for my surprise at Ms. Leader’s push to have me attend BESE was that I had long before sent my work to Ms. Leader, including my letters to BESE, and she did not ask if I had heard from White/BESE. I told her that since I had used one of my personal days to attend a BESE meeting, I would not use another. She said she might have follow-up questions and would contact me by phone that evening if she did. She said she would talk to her boss about having the article appear in tomorrow’s paper.
No follow-up call. No article. No surprise.
I think it is time for me to write my own account of my interactions with John White and BESE as such are connected to my work on exposing measurement and analysis flaws in “reform” research. Given that White and LDOE try so hard to operate in unanswerable secrecy, and given that the BESE majority is no more that a White/LDOE rubber stamp, I thought it valuable to publicize my interactions with these agencies.
The Louisiana school performance scores have serious problems. This is not my opinion; it is an easily-documented fact. In particular, the 2012 high school/combination school scores are inflated. I discussed such info on the phone with Barbara Leader in late October. At that time, the evidence I had was based upon my informal examination of a column of data called the “transitional baseline.” Ms. Leader said she needed time to investigate this and would be in touch. I sat on this information for weeks in an effort to give Ms. Leader time. I finally called and emailed to see if she had decided not to pursue the story. I received no response; so, I counted myself as released from any obligation, and I moved forward.
I emailed John White and asked only one question: Who calculated the scores? He sent as an answer, “DOE’s Division of Assessment and Accountability.” I sent another email clarifying that I wanted to know exactly who calculated the scores, their names, please. No response.
I decided to write a letter to John White and BESE in which I demonstrated via three different calculations the bias in the high/combination school scores. I received one response, an email from Lottie Beebe, in which she copied me as part of her forwarding my work to a number of people: “FYI…. Please feel free to share with your legislative colleagues. … Don’t you think some should seriously question what is happening in La? … Does one embrace the information provided by one who is a statistician or a politician?”
I appreciate Lottie Beebe.
Thanks to Ms. Beebe’s forwarded email, Mike Deshotels of the Louisiana Educator blog asked me to write a guest spot based upon this first letter to White BESE. A colleague of mine sent John White an email asking him to respond to this blog. In the blog, I mention that White did not respond to my request for the name(s) of those who calculated the school performance scores and that I suspected by now he knew of me and of my professional credentials. So, he directed Dr. Jennifer Baird, an employee of DOE, to send a response. However, Dr. Baird’s so-called response addressed none of the concerns I had regarding the presence of scoring bias or the potentially damaging outcomes of such bias. Instead, Dr. Baird proceeded only justify DOE’s position. There was no hint of concern that DOE error could harm schools and lead to fiscal misappropriation and certainly no expressed desire to right any psychometric wrongs.
Before I continue writing about Jennifer Baird, I need to mention here what I observed about John White from the Molly Horstman incident. Molly Horstman, a TFAer with two years of teaching experience and an expired teaching certificate, was listed on the DOE website as the Director of COMPASS, the teacher evaluation system, for the state of Louisiana. Her identification as Director of COMPASS is documented in this professional meeting bio. Once Horstman’s position and lack of credentials were publicized, John White lied in an email to one of my colleagues as he wrote, “So you know, Molly is not the head of the teacher evaluation process.” It turns out Horstman’s “replacement,” (?) the “real” director, is Hannah Dietsch. However, like Molly Horstman, Ms. Dietsch has only a few years in the classroom: Three years in Baltimore. Dietsch did earn a master’s in education from Harvard, which sounds impressive, but I question any graduate program that will accept a student into a master’s program in school leadership when such a person is currently experiencing only her third year of teaching. The credential becomes a veneer for lack of a solid teaching career, much less the extensive evaluation experience required to lead a state evaluation program.
Regardless of her title, Horstman continues to pull 77k as a DOE “fellow.”
Now back to White’s having Dr. Jennifer Baird respond to my scoring bias letter. In her email to me, she signed her name “Ph.D.” but indicated no title or field. I found this suspect; so, I looked up her dissertation to see if her field is statistics or measurement. Based on her dissertation title, I determined that Baird’s Ph.D. is perhaps educational leadership and/or policy. Thus, like Hannah Dietsch, Jennifer Baird holds a credential but cannot function as an expert given the situation at hand: psychometric inconsistency.
I noticed also that Baird copied her email to a four people: White, Jessica (Tucker) Baghian (and here) Kunjan Narechania, and Erin Bendily. Between the four of them, I was able to determine that, at most, they have nine years of classroom teaching experience. None has training in statistics or measurement. Including White’s 275K salary, this group earns $650k.
Along with a forward of Baird’s email, I sent a second letter to White/BESE. In this letter, I confront White for having someone not qualified to respond to my concerns send an email. I also point out additional information regarding manipulation of the grad index and mislabeling of a column of 2012 data. No response.
Next, I wrote a review of the limitations of Noell’s TFA study and sent it on December 8 in an email to White/BESE. The Noell TFA study has been used as support for the “superiority” of minimally-trained, temporary TFAers. In fact, in October, White/BESE approved spending a million dollars on TFA. However, the Noell TFA study shows no significant results for TFAers outperforming teachers in general. The data quality is suspect, and discussion of the results is slanted.
The same day, December 8, I had an email from Lottie Beebe: “Awesome job! Thank you for providing the ‘rest of the story’!” The next day, December 9, I received email responses within 15 minutes of each other from two other BESE members. The second was a canned acknowledgment from Jindal- appointee Connie Bradford: “Thank you for your email. Your concerns are noted.”
The first response that day came from Jindal-appointee and Board President Penny Dastugue: “I would appreciate it if you would remove firstname.lastname@example.org from your email list and instead send to email@example.com.” In no uncertain terms, Penny Dastugue, a public servant, was telling me, her constituent, that she no longer wished to receive business pertinent to BESE at her publicized BESE email address and instead desired that I send my concerns, concerns that apparently she had no intent of reading, to an old, generic, BESE email address. On the morning of December 12, I sent this email regarding Dastugue’s response to Will Sentell of the Baton Rouge Advocate.
(Not long after, Sentell printed a slanted article lauding most of BESE for following Jindal’s plan; in the article, he writes, “Now White is expected to get a positive evaluation in January when he goes through his first formal evaluation from the panel.” The evaluation hasn’t happened, yet the outcome is “expected.” Sentell also blocked comments to this article. No opposition allowed.)
Sentell printed no article based on the Dastugue email, but I found it quite the coincidence that that very evening, I had an email response from White via Beth Gleason, an employee of DOE and researcher who worked with Noell on the unstable 2011 VAM study. I also found it interesting that Noell did not respond regarding his own work. Gleason did not write this TFA study. Her comments are a weak defense. White refers to Gleason’s email as a “point by point response.” Not true. Gleason did not respond to all of my concerns. Especially telling was what she chose not to comment on, including the confounding presence of experienced, traditionally trained teachers in the room with some TFAers. And what of that small TFA data set? From a national group that has been around for decades? Glreason glosses over this inconsistency. As one TFAer notes, “TFA has a lot of people who leave because they get burned out.” It is a matter of research ethics to note how self-selection out of TFA affects available data.
That evening, I responded to Gleason’s comments and attached my comments to the original email from White. I noticed that White had chosen to copy this email to BESE members using email addresses other than their BESE addresses. Included on the list was Dastugue’s personal email. Why would White conduct BESE business on email accounts outside of the la.gov accounts assigned to BESE and publicized on BESE’s website? The Jindal administration’s use of personal email accounts to conduct state business had just been made public. Like my Dastugue forward, Sentell also chose to sit on this one.
I received no follow-up response to my comments on Gleason. However, one of my colleagues has continued to press White for a response to my documented evidence of scoring bias. He responded in an email to the effect that he is excused from the issue since BESE guidelines were set before his arrival—a lie, since part of the bias is due to his changing the rules and contributing to the inflated high school scores. White also uses the Advocate article as supposed evidence that the scores are really good—a continued lie pointed out in the comments section—and that he has “delivered what he has promised,” so to speak, by bringing in the ACT test. My colleague Herb Bassett points out White’s lying via White’s manipulation of the grad index in a follow-up post.
That pretty much brings me to the present day. I intent to keep writing, my next planned piece being a paper on the aforementioned TFA “success” study and Gleason’s comments (and noncomments). White likes to say what he does is “for the children.” What White does is more aptly described as “to the children—and teachers—and communities.”
All the more reason to write.
–Mercedes K. Schneider, Ph.D.
Public school teacher and trained, experienced statistician and researcher
St, Tammany Parish, Louisiana