Saturday, January 21, 2012

NO PUBLIC IN THE "PUBLIC" SCHOOLS

When the grades came out, the Las Cruces Public School District demonstrated once again its consistent less-than-mediocre performance. Nearly half of its schools received below-average grades of D or F. The same was true of the public schools, taken as a whole, throughout the state. This poor report card is consistent with the results of other evaluations such as the state’s reading and mathematics proficiency tests and National Education Assessment Program tests. All of them agree: public education in New Mexico ranks in the lowest five percent of all states.

When the report card is poor, state “educrats” invariably complain about flaws in the methodology underlying the results. And they are right, up to a not-very-distant point; all evaluations have imperfections. But no one needs to pursue educrats’ obfuscatory, specious, or tendentious nit-picks to know that when all methods indicate the same mediocre or worse results, they are likely collectively and reliably reflecting a truth. In response to which, local school boards and superintendents do little more than issue press releases.

Thus, the LCPS District responded with typical hypocrisy and implicit blame-sharing, if not blame-shifting. Superintendent Stan Rounds stated that the district was “today asking every parent, every parent of every child to step up with us in a partnership here to move our kids forward, to accelerate them. This is a good wake-up call for all of us to hold hands and do that, to recommit ourselves.” The hypocrisy is the pretense of wishing parental participation in public education. Rounds neither stated nor promised specifics for this process of stepping-up or partnering or committing. Step up to what and how? Partnership how and with whom? Commit to what?

The record shows that the District does not want parental or citizen participation in District affairs. The exceptions have been the two redistricting committees, both of which performed admirably. Yet neither the School Board nor the Superintendent has seen their success as urging a continuing, constructive role for parents and other citizens to help the District and improve public education. Indeed, on the Superintendent’s watch, the School Board reformed its policy on standing committees, which had lapsed, by eliminating them altogether. His advisory committee is a compliant construct of no consequence.

But parental and citizen participation can support high-quality education. I have extended experience with superior public school systems in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and Fairfax County, Virginia. Both graduate most of their students; both send most of their graduates to colleges, many among the best in the country. Both expect, encourage, and welcome support from community residents in addressing the full range of educational issues. I know that both communities enjoy socio-economic advantages which Las Cruces lacks. But I believe that communities lacking them like Las Cruces should make even greater efforts to involve residents to overcome these disadvantages.

One of the obvious advantages of inclusion is better decisions on educational issues because of more and better information about the education actually provided by the District. As a founder of what became the country’s largest employee-owned company used to say, “all of us are smarter than some of us.” A District noted for its educational mediocrity disagrees; it prefers a priesthood of pedagogues to the experience of parents.

In my recent sortie into the “math wars,” I noticed once again that parents have no effective way of involving themselves in the education which their children receive in school. Eketrina Moore, a parent concerned about mathematics instruction, wrote a guest column for the local daily paper because she had no better place to address her concerns and those of other parents. School personnel are expert in deflecting parental concerns or complaints about curriculum or instruction. So, too, School Board and District staff in ignoring them. Ms. Moore could have spoken for three minutes at a School Board meeting; had she done so, Connie Phillips, its chair, would have kindly thanked her, and the Board would have ignored her. Steven Sanchez, the Assistant Superintendent for education, would have listened but neither responded to, nor had any exchange with her about, her concerns.

When NMSU experts on mathematics or mathematics instruction wrote a column dismissing Ms. Moore’s concerns because she lacked the “big picture,” I learned that when they talk, the District—that is, Sanchez—listens. The District values controversial theories of experts to the clear and continuing record of mediocre academic results. It does not respect parents who are concerned about their children’s education, does not care that test scores justify their complaints, and ignores businesses’ criticisms that LCPS graduates lack basic knowledge and skills, and have poor work habits.

Since public participation can benefit public education, I wonder at the effective exclusion of parents and other citizens from participation—I do not even need the qualifier “meaningful”—in District affairs relevant to public interests: curriculum, instruction, athletics, health and safety, budgets, and facilities. Indeed, I worry that, given the recent conduct of the four women School Board members in the high school redistricting, the exclusion of the public from District affairs enables them to serve their private interests and those of their friends, as they intend, not the interests of the public.

Moreover, these four School Board members are personally fearful of allowing any public participation which might involve controversy or criticism however constructive. Recently, when some members of the redistricting committee criticized Rounds’s change in transfer policies, Bonnie Votaw complained that they made the redistricting decision more difficult! Obviously, these four members cannot handle opinions different from theirs, especially when, in this case, they wanted to advance private rather than public interests. Earlier, when they considered a suggestion to have open public meetings to listen to residents in their districts, they decided instead to go to some schools and meet with students. This decision makes clear that they can cope only with children and subordinates, and are fearful of dealing with adults.

It is worth noting that members Maria Flores, Barbara Hall, and Votaw were teachers and represent teachers. Anyone concerned about public education needs to remember that fact when teachers complain about the failure of parents to involve themselves in their children’s education. Teachers and principals rebuff parents, and School Board members, the Superintendent, and other District staff do likewise—and then complain about the lack of parental involvement and ask parents to bail them out when they fail. The District deserves the blame for the lack of public participation by parents and other citizens. It is late and lame for Rounds to ask for their participation when the District has flunked again after long going it alone.

There are ways forward, but they can work only if the District first mends its ways. I offer one way, with the following steps: Revise District policies to encourage and enable public participation by parents and other citizens. Terminate the Superintendent’s advisory committee. Encourage PTAs and booster organizations to form an independent, District-wide organization open to PTA and booster organization representatives, other parents, and other citizens; and charter advisory committees on a range of educational (curriculum and instruction), health and safety, and educational management issues (budget and facilities), among others. Initially, until the organization is widely recognized, require teachers and principals to report parental concerns to the District administration and require the District administration to report them to the leadership of this organization.

The important thing is to put the public back in “public” education. Increasing public participation would better inform parents and other citizens, encourage more support from them in student education, improve academic performance, enable better decision-making, and develop future leaders in the District and the city. The alternative is a continuation of the status quo, which disserves students, parents, and businesses.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

MOVING THE DISTRICT FORWARD TO MEDIOCRITY

There are many reasons and even more excuses for the poor overall performance of the Las Cruces Public School District according to the state’s new A-to-F grading system. The Superintendent’s response that the district’s report card was not so bad because some of the Ds were close to Cs sounds as if the district aspires to, or would be satisfied with, mediocrity.

And there is a mix of non-surprise and surprise. The non-surprise: an A for Desert Hills Elementary School, located in a culturally and socio-economically advantaged area. The surprise: Bs for Las Cruces and Onate High Schools, and D for Mayfield High School. MHS came to everyone’s attention—it thinks itself the flagship of the district, apparently—because of the redistricting ruckus created by its parents and others, including many music-lovers with an MHS-uber-alles mentality. They were aided and abetted by three school board members who worked hard during the high school redistricting process to advance the parochial interests of MHS at the expense of the district as a whole.

Which facts focus attention on these three: Maria Flores, Barbara Hall, and Bonnie Votaw. All three are teachers. All three have personal or professional links to MHS. All three touted their background as teachers when they were candidates or applicants for the school board. The record of their performance in bringing their experience as teachers to bear on improving the academic performance of students in this district is unknown and probably non-existent. Indeed, their attention to special interests probably distracts them from the larger responsibilities of their job.

Ideas for education reform by the district have come to their attention. They have chosen to ignore them. What are those ideas? I can think of two: public participation, which they advocate in campaigns and ignore afterwards; and curriculum reform, which they oppose in defense of present staff and former colleagues. In short, they have made themselves isolated, insulated, and special-interest-oriented.

Their failed leadership in the redistricting process was simply the most obvious manifestation of their unfitness for educational leadership. A televised example occurred when the remaining board members had to replace a vacated position. They made the ability to work well with them a major criterion. Barbara Hall, assuring them that she wanted to do what they wanted to do, won. Other applicants stating their commitment to the public and public education, and the benefits of their non-teaching perspectives, not subservience to other board members, lost.

These three board members and the board chair, who aligns herself with them, have betrayed the public and disgraced themselves. The only public service left to them is to replace themselves with younger, community- and education-minded citizens who are not teachers, and then to resign.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

EDUCATION REFORM IN NEW MEXICO: IMPEDIMENTS AND ONE PROPOSAL FOR NOW

It is a very good thing that New Mexico is a land of cultural and scenic enchantment, because it is unlikely to be a land of economic or educational enrichment. Without the benefit of military bases and two national laboratories, it would probably be the poorest state in the union. With the benefit of its public schools and colleges, it is one of the worst educated states in the union.

The record is clear. Fifty percent, plus or minus, of fourth- and eighth-grade students fail to demonstrate proficiency in reading and math. One-third of eighth-grade students drop out of school before graduation. Fewer than ten percent of enrollees at Dona Ana Community College and fewer than fifty percent of enrollees at New Mexico State University graduate within 3 and 6 years, respectively. This record reflects academic performance for decades—a persistent mediocrity which, one must conclude, satisfies the people and their leaders, though almost all of them pretending otherwise.

Elected officials understand the necessity of this pretense and the importance of catering to constituencies with vested interests in the status quo, and thus have done nothing effectual to reform education for results. But, at the same time, they lack the knowledge of education which would enable them to distinguish the effectual from the fashionable. Recent efforts under the banner of education reform—among others, to improve testing, evaluate student and teacher performance, hold teachers and schools accountable (now, giving them A-F grades), shrink class or school size, and hire specialist teachers or educational consultant—do nothing to educate anyone. Every one of these efforts is a management gimmick unrelated to the transfer of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values from those who know more to those who know less. These gimmicks cost money and often create constituencies to vote for those who legislate for and fund them.

Ignorance in matters of public education begins at the top. When I interviewed Diane Denish and Susan Martinez, and attended their Albuquerque debate on education, I was stunned less by their ignorance than by their incomprehension of their ignorance. I was not stunned that Martinez appointed as Secretary of Education, not an educator, but an ideological politico inimical to public education from a state with a different economy and different demographic and educational issues. But the Senate, signaling legislative indifference, has not rejected this nominee not qualified under the state constitution.

Closer to home are elected legislators who patronize public education but have, as the record shows, nothing to show for it. These solons of Santa Fe, like their colleagues, spend about five percent of their time and energy on about fifty percent of the state budget. Typically, the longer-serving legislators from Las Cruces and environs, polished in the pieties and platitudes of good politics, have voted for spending money on the potholes of public education to no effect.

They and other legislators are reluctant to consider alternatives to the educational fads and fashions which perpetuate educational mediocrity because they are ignorant about education, embrace conformity, and desire approval. I speak from my experience with State Senators Stephen Fischmann and John Arthur Smith, both of whom have chosen to carry water for Martinez and Skandera in advancing elements of the “Florida Plan,” a dubious and deceptive approach to public education. But I am only one, and perhaps the least, of many sources providing them not only sustained criticism of this ideology-driven approach to public education, but also alternatives to the conventional wisdom. Indeed, neither has considered the views of such national experts as Diane Ravitch, who knows from her work on both sides of most of today’s educational issues.

I discussed alternatives and their rationales with both senators; I sent or gave them materials, or references to materials, on many alternatives on many educational issues. When Fischmann defended his vote on an element of the Florida Plan, he claimed that he had not received other ideas for improving education. I took this lie, not as a slight to me, but as a necessity to him to cover a lack of courage because of a lack of conviction in reforms not in the mainstream. After a discussion with Smith, throughout which he said “yes, yes” to my comments and suggestions, he said, as we walked to our cars, that his wife was a teacher. I immediately realized that each “yes, yes” meant “no, no,” many teachers being among those most opposed to education reform. I am not surprised that Smith is sponsoring legislation to support Martinez’s politically motivated, punitive, and discriminatory proposal for retaining third-grade students not proficient in reading.

Both senators are typical of most elected state and local officials. Lacking expertise in the subject, they follow the politically powerful, “educrats,” and special-interest agents who sustain the status quo—sheep following goats. Unable to distinguish good from bad advice, they accept the conventional wisdom and avoid the responsibility to think and speak for themselves, and to consider possibly effective alternative educational reforms.

Paradoxically, the last place from which to expect initiatives to reform education is schools of education. When I met with Michael Morehead, Dean of the NMSU School of Education, we rehearsed the record of poor academic performance and high dropout rates in Las Cruces. When I asked him why he thought that his school had well prepared its graduates for teaching, especially at the elementary school level, he answered that it sends principals a client satisfaction survey and receives uniformly favorable replies. When I asked what incentive respondents had to reply otherwise, if otherwise was the case, he had no answer. When I asked him why the low proficiency scores and high dropout rates over decades did not provide a better measure of the preparation of NMSU School of Education graduates, he answered by blaming everyone else, mainly parents. I replied that it seemed odd that the School of Education, with a faculty doing educational research and many students native to the city, county, or state had failed, over decades, to find ways to teach New Mexico students effectively—a comment not well received and urging my departure.

Notwithstanding, there really are low- or no-cost means to improve public education. I am going to discuss one in detail now and others later.

One no-cost proposal addresses the training of elementary school teachers. Everyone avoids this subject because, as these teachers tell us, they try so hard and have good intentions—and because they are politically potent. It is not cynical to say that trying hard and having good intentions are not the stuff of education or the reasons why taxpayers pay for public education.

A symptom of the establishment’s unwillingness to consider these teachers as a major factor in poor student performance is the shift in perceptions of the problems. A few years ago, the perceived problem was dropouts, and the solutions were programs to prevent them. But such programs are too late, costly, and ineffective. For, if students had not learned to read by the end of fourth grade, they would be unable to read to learn thereafter and would and did drop out to avoid continued frustration and failure. Then the perceived problem was the poor preparation of preschoolers. Early childhood reading programs may do some good, but initial gains will be lost from the moment their students enter kindergarten because elementary school teachers, the first to teach—or fail to teach—them cannot sustain the benefits of an early start on literacy. (Such, by the way, has been the record of Head Start.) The shift from one perceived problem to another perceived problems skips over the problem.

The first problem—one elephant in the room—is the failure of elementary school teachers, who are responsible for teaching reading—or were. When it became evident that large percentages of students were not learning to read, students were blamed as the problems and reading specialists were hired as the solution to do what regular teachers had once done. But the large percentages of students still not learning to read persist. Obviously, students were not the problem, and reading specialists were not the solution. But, by avoiding the first problem and adopting a non-solution, legislators everywhere created an ineffective, special-interest constituency now permanent at great expense to the state—another elephant in the room.

The following proposal, if implemented, promises better results at virtually no cost. The proposal is a simple one: require schools of education to ensure that their graduates have mastery of the subject matter which they will have to teach in conformity to state-mandated curriculums. The truth is simple; for example, if students must know grammar, then teachers must know it to teach it.

The concept of curriculum alignment is known to the state. It studied the alignment of high-school courses with college requirements to serve purposes educational and not. But it has not studied the alignment between schools of education course requirements and state-mandated curriculums. Until it does, it will not understand how serious the misalignment is, how much teacher training is misdirected, and how harmful to students the results are; and it will be unable to document the need for reforms.

The gap between what schools of education require of prospective elementary school teachers and what state curriculums require is great, greatest perhaps in English. At NMSU, prospective elementary school teachers select a concentration in one of four academic subjects: English, history, science, or math. About nine in ten pick English. All but two of the required English courses are in literature. The exceptions are composition courses in college writing at the 100 and 200 levels. These courses wrongly assume undergraduate competency in the fundamentals of grammar and the principles of composition. If prospective teachers lack this competency when they enroll, they have no way to acquire it. The NMSU School of Education does not ensure that its students who will become elementary school teachers have or acquire the knowledge and skills which the state curriculums require.

Obviously, one way to improve teaching by elementary school teachers is to require courses ensuring their mastery of the knowledge and skills which the curriculums imply that they must teach to their students. Requirements for this alignment are modest: have schools of education revise their course requirements in these four subjects; have the appropriate academic departments develop state-curriculum-based courses for teachers; find teachers to teach those courses, and reduce requirements for methods courses, which crowd out subject-matter courses and cannot compensate for ignorance.

There are problems: schools of education might not know what state curriculums require, and their faculty members and perhaps those in other academic departments might be unable to teach such courses. Likely impediments to this suggestion are less these practical difficulties, but attitudinal resistance. The lesser is a faculty belief that graduates going into elementary school teaching know or can quickly learn what they need to teach. The greater is a faculty mindset which discounts intellectual development and academic mastery, and overrates emotional and social development—in a word, disconnects the interplay among them in student development and disregards the public interest in competent graduates. A result of this institutionalized anti-intellectualism is mediocre state scores in reading and math proficiency—proof of just how successful school of education deans, faculty members, and their graduates can be in acting free of accountability to the public.

More, later.