Incompetence, laziness and opacity are not permissible, even if you’re the good guys.

I’ve grown to accept the following conditions as facts, even if I don’t like them:

1) John White’s obvious goal is to destroy public education, and he has no clue how to actually improve education.

2) Majorities of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and of each house of the legislature are willing to let John White get away with whatever stupid, irresponsible, destructive ideas he wants to impose upon the people of Louisiana.

3) The Recovery School District has nothing to do with recovery and everything to do with privatization of public education.

4) The folks pushing for creation of one or more independent school districts, municipalities, fiefdoms or hamlets in southish Baton Rouge appear to know that they don’t like the status quo, but have absolutely no clue what they’d do differently to get better results (or even how those “better” results would be measured).

So, the East Baton Rouge Parish School System (EBRPSS) is being attacked on many fronts.  However, its response has been underwhelming at best and malfeasant at worst.  The current school board engaged in the pretense of a national search (and then a do-over) and selected a candidate unanimously.  Never mind that the search firm couldn’t even properly list all the applicants, or that one of the prime qualifications for finalist status appeared to be participation in the same company’s overpriced pseudo-superintendent training program.

The board selected Dr. Bernard Taylor, a veteran of public-to-private disintegration of public education in Kansas City, MO, and Grand Rapids, MI.  They then completely abandoned their responsibility to oversee his work or to provide clear statements of policy priorities.  After more than a year of doing nothing they, with great fanfare, issued a so-called “strategic” plan full of grammatical, structural and policy errors.  Now Dr. Taylor is starting to muddle through his interpretation of the strategic plan’s goals.

In the latest example of flailing ineptitude, the Superintendent has proposed some piecemeal attempts to fix the mismatches between where students live and where schools are located, and between the demand for specialized magnets and the supply of such magnets.

As described by Charles Lussier in The Advocate (http://theadvocate.com/home/7533017-125/magnet-proposal-irks-board-members), the proposal on the table is to move a few magnet programs around, start a few more, and generally upset the apple cart without an overall plan.  I could happily criticize the specific proposals offered, but that misses the point:  The entire process is being handled poorly.

If I ruled the world, this is how the balance of neighborhood and magnet schools would be handled:

1) EBRPSS should produce a current, accurate, report indicating how many classrooms are available at each site and how they are currently being used.

2) The system should (either in-house or by using a consultant) designate several hundred well-defined neighborhoods to be used as the building blocks of neighborhood attendance zones.  (In the spirit of full disclosure, I have repeatedly offered to do this work but my proposal has not been accepted by the current or previous Superintendents.)

3) For each of the neighborhoods defined above, EBRPSS should tally how many students attend each of the various schools within the system.  These data could be used to gauge neighborhood support of the nearby schools and give useful information on where the student body actually resides.

4) The results of step #3 could be loosely compared to census data (or better yet with data shared by the larger private schools) to see where there are school-age children not currently enrolled in public schools.  At the very least, perhaps the Recovery School District could share information regarding the neighborhoods whence their students come.

5) Given solid information on the demand provided by students and the supply of instructional space, numerical optimization could be used to collect the neighborhoods defined in step #2 into the most logical attendance zones based on whatever objective criteria were proposed.

6) The optimization would clearly show where excess instructional capacity exists (where a magnet program might help the balance) or where there is a deficit of instructional space (suggesting a need for new construction or relocation of an existing magnet program).

7) Rather than having a mysterious game of chance dictate placement at magnet programs, the system could interview applicant families to find out the factors driving interest in magnet programs (as opposed to neighborhood schools).  The results could be used to make informed decisions about expansion of magnet programs or enhancements to neighborhood schools that would make them more attractive.

There are many other issues besides neighborhood/magnet balance that demand a thoughtful, methodical approach.  These issues include honoring the commitment to include retirees in the group health insurance plan, allocating personnel for maximum effectiveness and efficiency, using the budget process to reflect the most important activities on which to spend limited resources, preventing students from reaching the end of third grade without addressing any special educational needs they might have, and many others.

But perhaps the EBRPSS Board can use the current discussion regarding neighborhood and magnet schools to establish a precedent that they expect the Superintendent and his staff to supply useful information so that the Board can make wise decisions that come closer to serving the needs of the public.  Education is, in my view, an essential governmental function.  Because it is so important, there should be absolutely no tolerance for a central office that gives even the appearance of incompetence or laziness.  Neither should there be any tolerance for an administration that is unwilling or unable to share complete and accurate data regarding the system’s operations and plans.  Those of us who support public education (and specifically the wonderful teachers, librarians, counselors and support staff in EBRPSS) should demand exceptional performance from our elected representatives and the administrators.  The best defense against the attacks from the likes of John White, Patrick Dobard and Norman Browning is a good offense in the form of efficient, effective and transparent management and governance of the local school system.

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Thoughts on the Recovery School District, transparency and deadlines

According to the all-encompassing Bulletin 111 (see http://bese.louisiana.gov/documents-resources/policies-bulletins), which appears to be the Keeper of the Rules in all important dealings of the Louisiana Department of Education, “No later than October 1 each year, the recovery school district should make a report to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.”  Bulletin 111 continues to specify the contents of such report.  Being the curious sort that I am, I placed a request for public records with the Department of Education on October 17, 2013.  I finally received a copy on November 6, 2013.  That’s not a very impressive turnaround time for something that could have (and should have) been provided immediately upon request from any member of the public.  It is now apparently available, for the moment, at http://www.boarddocs.com/la/bese/Board.nsf/files/9D6UHZ779ACB/$file/RSD_COW_3-2_RSD_School_Annual_Report.pdf for consideration by BESE at an upcoming meeting.

So at least the recovery school district (I figure that, since Bulletin 111 didn’t bother to capitalize the name I won’t either) has complied with this particular requirement, although perhaps not by the stated deadline.  But I guess they’re just so busy figuring out how to destroy public education that they can’t be bothered with little details like deadlines and public record laws.

On to the contents of the report:  The second paragraph states, “Guided by the values of parental choice, school autonomy, and high standards of accountability, the RSD relentlessly pursues turnaround strategies to ensure that all students in chronically underperforming schools will graduate high school on-time and be college and career ready.”  Even by the standards of public-relations hype, this is way over the top.  “Parental choice”?  Not if you’re in St. Helena parish and have a middle school student.  “High standards of accountability”?  I’d hate to see a low standard.  I’ve commented previously on some of the major flaws in the state’s school performance scoring and grading schemes.  “Pursue turnaround strategies”?  The RSD appears to have exactly one strategy:  Dump everything and start over.  If it works, they claim how great they are.  When it doesn’t, they repeat.  And repeat.  And the kids get churned from school to school.  “Students . . . graduate high school on-time and be college and career ready.”  That would suggest the sort of longitudinal study that would be legitimate for a school system to perform (not to dump off onto some out-of-state corporate sleaze) but there’s no evidence to suggest any such study is being conducted.  It would be one way to assure that an effort is being made to keep students from slipping through the cracks.  It’s not like there aren’t a lot of employees in the RSD central offices.  Maybe they could do something useful.

The report notes that the RSD has control of 74 schools:  62 in Orleans Parish, eight in East Baton Rouge Parish, two in Caddo Parish and one each in St. Helena Parish and Point Coupee Parish.  They conveniently ignore the damage done to the remaining educational systems in each of the parishes that is caused by the existence of the RSD and its misuse of physical and financial resources.

There has not been a recovery of public education in New Orleans, as far as I can tell from my vantage point 70 miles or so up the interstate.  There has been, between the Orleans Parish School Board and the RSD, a rather thorough desctruction of the notion of a SYSTEM of publicly-supported schools working together to offer a free and appropriate education to every student who doesn’t explicitly choose the alternatives of private schools or home study.  The new anti-system is a hodgepodge of private entities opaquely funded with a generous amount of public funding and what appears to be very little real coordination.

I know that the RSD has actively interfered with local interests in St. Helena Parish who wish an orderly progression of study from elementary school through to graduation.  This fight has been well-documented in the local media.  I suspect that the RSD’s existence has added to the expense and difficulty of educating the most vulnerable students in Caddo and Point Coupee Parishes also.

They have absolutely contributed great expense to the East Baton Rouge Parish School System by insisting on occupying buildings to which they are unable to attract students.  The people of Baton Rouge have exercised their choice, and in overwhelming numbers it is to keep their students in locally-controlled schools.  With great fanfare the RSD has announced that they’ve now found out-of-state private operators to run one high school and two elementary schools, and two to take over two middle schools and convert them to elementary/middle combinations.  They also announced that they plan to leave two huge schools in the middle of North Baton Rouge vacant for at least a year.  And they seem to think they can get away with such flagrant misuse of the public’s property and trust.  I hope they’re wrong.  If anyone thinks I’m being harsh, drive down Monarch Street and check out the condition of the running track.  That’s only the tip of the iceberg.  Crestworth Middle was left unfit for occupancy by an earlier charter operator, under the watchful (?) eyes of the RSD.

So let’s concentrate on New Orleans, where the RSD had had at least eight years to create a totally transformed Utopian system of wonderschools where no child is left behind and everyone is to graduate on time.  The ONLY statistics provided in the report were based on the state’s school performance scoring system, which appears to have been contructed to be as favorable as possible to the RSD.  Yet, out of 58 schools, each with their own ability to weed out undesirable students, exactly ZERO earned an A grade on the state’s grading scale.  The range of school performance scores for RSD schools in Orleans Parish was 2.0 – 96.9, with four of the schools somehow scoring fewer than 10 points.  The range for RSD schools outside Orleans was even lower: 21.3 – 75.2.  The report happily mentions the number of B and C schools, apparently forgetting the idea that (with regard to vouchers at least) a C school is a failure in the state’s eyes.

It’s time for the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to face the reality that imposing the “recovery” school district on Louisiana school districts has done more harm than good, pull the plug on the experiment, and start the recovery from the “recovery”.  Any politician who harps on his soapbox about the evils of federal intervention in Louisiana’s education would be a hypocrite to think the state has a better idea of of how to run local schools than local citizens.

The state should return to role of helping local efforts to have an effective and efficient system of schools that serve the needs of students along the full spectrum of needs and abilities.  The state should quickly discontinue the practice of robbing from the local schools to support out-of-state interests.

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What we know about SPS, and what John White won’t tell us.

With the recent release of Louiana’s latest version of School Performance Scores comes an opportunity to note one of the system’s major flaws — the lack of transparency.  When I heard they were being released Thursday (10/24/31), I did the obvious — I went to the state’s cartoonish website, www.louisianabelieves.com, and clicked on the link for “Accountability”.  No such luck.  Old news there.  Instead the proper clicks are “Library” and then “Data Center” until finally http://www.louisianabelieves.com/docs/data-management/school-performance-summary-2013.xlsx?sfvrsn=2 is available for download.  Then the fun starts.

First, here’s an overview of the score ranges of this new 150-point scale: http://www.louisianaschools.net/lde/uploads/20472.pdf.  If you don’t open the link, at least be informed that the explanation came from Stand for Children, not from the state.  It shouldn’t require a private advocacy group to translate state policy.  Especially when Superintedent John White supposedly got an English degree at some point in his not-so-distant past.  So it made sense to ask the Department of Education for a straight answer.  This is the response I got to one of many such attempts, this one following a meeting where Mr. White indicated details required submission of a public record request.

“Dr.  Finney:

 On September 19, 2013 you deposited with the Department, a hand written request which read:

 “I wish to inspect, now, all documents necessary to understand how School Performance Scores and COMPASS educator evaluations scores will be calculated by Louisiana’s Department of Education for the 2013-14 school year.”

 The Department’s public affairs office asked that I provide you with the below links in response to that request.

 See Bulletin 111 on this page:

http://bese.louisiana.gov/documents-resources/policies-bulletins

 See SPS calculators on this page: 

http://www.louisianabelieves.com/resources/classroom-support-toolbox/district-support-toolbox/school-results

http://www.louisianabelieves.com/docs/key-compass-resources/training—compass-teacher-evaluator-training.pdf?sfvrsn=4

http://www.louisianabelieves.com/docs/key-compass-resources/training—compass-leader-evaluator-training.pdf?sfvrsn=6

 I can be reached at (225) 342-3572 should you have any questions regarding this matter.

 Sincerely,

 Troy Anthony Humphrey                  

Attorney, LDOE”

 Interesting reading material, I suppose, but not very complete.  Even though this public record request was technically for the current school year rather than the one for which scores were just released, the response is consistent with what I’ve seen from other public record requests:  The Louisiana Department of Education either has absolutely no clue what it’s doing, or it has a clue but doesn’t want the public to get one.  I will post more information in a later installment regarding my September 30 – November 1 project of challenging the Department of Education to produce records that should exist in electronic form and should be easily shareable with the public.

Back so School Performance Scores just released:  Other writers have pointed out how meaningless the scores and grades really are.  But they’re worse than meaningless:  They give false confidence to schools that may (but may not) be doing the best job of educating the students they have but might get bitten by an ever-changing scheme next year, and they give false discouragement to schools that happen to be serving a vulnerable population.  That’s sensible if the goal is to replace public schools with charters.  It’s not sensible if the goal is to improve public education.  There is, unfortunately, an incentive from this grading scale for schools to select the strongest students they can attract, and remove those that will harm the school’s performance score.  As an example, does anyone really believe that EVERY student who entered Baton Rouge Magnet High School (BRMHS) as a freshman five years ago graduated?  Of course not — they just got shifted back to another school if they weren’t on track.  That’s not to pick on BRMHS any more than on the other selective schools; I would question ANY graduation rate of “>95%”.  Which reminds me — whatever moron at the Department of Education thinks reporting the graduation as “>95%” is required or even encouraged by federal privacy requirements should have his head examined.  The only excuse I can maybe accept for not reporting numbers is when a school has fewer than ten students in a particular class.  And even then there’s probably no loss of privacy when reporting actual numbers.

Here are some questions that I dare anyone from the Department of Education to answer:

What are the actual statewide distributions for each of the tests used in SPS (not the % in each of four or five labeled categories but the number of students who got each possible score)?  Note that for some of the science tests there are fewer than 40 possible scores, even though they are spread across the range 100-500.  See the previous post on this blog for comments on the scaled scores of LEAP and iLEAP.
 
In the graduation-rate and graduation-index cohorts, how many students at each high school transferred in, and how many students transferred out? (I have the numbers from which the graduation rates were calculated, but they say nothing about how many students were churned in or out.)  And why can’t we just use the Class of 2013 in 2013 (and note any fifth-year graduates in a separate tally)?  Judging a new faculty based on what happened before they arrived (with the graduation of most of the Class of 2012) is more than a little ridiculous.  For that matter, why wait until expected graduation?  Why not at least report on how many more cumulative core and total credits students have at the end of each year?  That way we wouldn’t have to wait five years to see whether a charter high school was successful or disastrous.
 
Why does the state insist on pretending that school performance scores mean anything for schools where everything measured happens outside the school?  It is bad enough to pair primary feeder schools with their receiving schools when almost everybody follows that pattern (in Zachary, for example).  That pairing is deceptive because the K-2 (or other primary grade configuration) is being judged based on what their PREVIOUS YEAR’S students did at the new school.  That says something about last year’s performance of the K-2 school, maybe, but nothing about this year’s performance.  And consider Southdowns School (my middle child’s first alma mater).  It gets a grade of C based on what the students at some other school or schools did (the Department of Education doesn’t tell us which school).  Southdowns is primarily a preschool and kindergarten for special-needs children who, if things work as they should, move on to many neighborhood schools (the least restrictive environment).  But the Department of Education insists on a grade for every school (except an RSD school where the operator has been dumped and a new experiment started) even if it makes no sense to assign one.  Yet there are dozens of schools for which no school performance score was reported.
 
For that matter, why do we wait until the end of third grade to measure ANYTHING regarding accountability?  If the state really wanted to improve the outcomes of students in public schools, they would study ways of identifying why some children stay on grade level and some fall behind at an early age.  Eventually we should abandon the idea that every child should learn the same material at the same age in the same way at the same speed and demonstrate proficiency using the same instrument.  But I’ll leave the rest of that thought for another time.
 
Regarding bonus points, why isn’t a meaningful explanation of the calculation methods provided?  The obvious is that John White and his staff kept changing the rules to favor RSD schools.  I hope I’m wrong but fear I’m right.  On which tests must students show better-than-expected performance?  What prior year tests are used for comparison (be specific to each grade and subject)?  What determines proficiency on Explore or Plan?  Regarding bonus points, what are the coefficients for the VAM formula(s) used to determine expected scores?  Do some special-education students count double in bonus-point calculations?  If so, what are the specific criteria for determing who gets the doubling?  For each school, how many K-8 students and how many 9-12 students were in the super sub-group?  For each school, how many K-8 students and how many 9-12 students showed bonus-eligible progress?
 
And is it fair to change the rules after the school year has started?  Imagine playing basketball, but you don’t know the score until months after the game, because the official scorer hasn’t decided how many points you get for a field goal and how many points you get for a free throw. 
 
That’s only a good start on listing the opacities of the School Performance Score system.  It would seem as though a comprehensive technical report should have been released concurrently with the school scores and grades.  Answers to the questions above would almost certainly lead to some followup questions.  I challenge John White or his minions to provide the public some more details regarding the issues I’ve raised.  I encourage  anyone whose email or tweets John White would read to send him this link.  It’s unfortunate that I’m having to consider legal action to get the proper response from public record requests.  Doesn’t John White work for the people of Louisiana?  Or am I leaving in a dream world?
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What does John White have against Science, Math and Smart Kids?

I should actually extend the title to ask why John White wants to rid the state of teachers who specialize in teaching math, science or social studies to kids who are either doing very well or doing very poorly.  Why would I ask that?  Because the Very Awful Mess (VAM, sometimes incorrectly referred to as the Value-Added Model) is built in such a way that teachers of those subjects, when their students’ expected scores are near the top of the range (500) or the bottom (100), are much less likely to get a benign rating from VAM than English teachers or teachers with middle-of-the-range students.  Why?  Let me try to explain in a simple way, so that maybe even John White could understand.

The VAM scheme calculates an expected score for students subjected to LEAP (4th and 8th grades) and iLEAP (3rd, 5th, 6th and 7th grades) tests and the End-of-Course tests in Algebra and Geometry.  For third graders, expected scores are calculated on only English-Language-Arts (ELA) and Math.  For the other grades 4-8, there are four tests evaluated:  ELA, Math, Science and Social Studies.  For purposes of this post, I will ignore Algebra and Geometry, since the scoring details of those tests seem to be state secrets of John White’s office.  Apparently, so are the possible scores for 2013 administrations of the LEAP and iLEAP tests.  However, I have the technical reports containing the conversion tables used to convert raw scores on the 2012 tests to scaled scores between 100 and 500.  It’s reasonable to assume the test-scoring scheme didn’t change enough in one year to correct the problem I am about to describe.

Consider the Social Studies portion of the iLEAP test given to 7th grade students.  There were 40 points available in the raw score (mostly if not entirely from multiple-choice questions each counting one point).  If a student gets none right, his scaled score is 100 (the lowest available).  If he gets one, two, three, four, five, six, seven or eight points, the scaled scored remains 100.  However, getting a ninth answer correct jumps the scaled scored to 161.  Now, let us assume that the student’s expected score from the VAM (Very Awful Mess) is 130.  The “expected score” is calculated from the mysterious black box that is the Very Awful Mess and allegedly contains inputs regarding previous test scores and student characteristics, stirred together in a caldron in the Claiborne Building and reported to the teachers of the state (after the current tests have already been taken) as though it means anything beyond an attempt to fire a random chunk of teachers by calling them ineffective.

Back to the example:  This student’s contribution to the teacher’s average “teacher effect” will either be -30 (130 minus 100, considered ineffective) or 31 or more (161 minus 130, considered highly effective).  The same situation arises at the high end of the scale; on this same test a student with an expected score of 450 would generate a teacher effect of 50 (if the kid gets all the answers right and earns a scaled score of 500) or -22 at best (if the student misses at least one question and gets a score of 428 or lower).  Now consider an “average” kid in terms of social-studies test-taking proficiency.  If the student has a calculated expected score of 300, she can get very close by getting 19 questions correct (scaled score of 297, teacher effect of -3) or 20 correct (scaled score of 302, teacher effect of 2).  A student would have to get a much higher or lower raw score to have the same effect on teacher effect as compared to a single question when the student is expected to do very well or very poorly.

The reason English doesn’t have the issue to the same degree is that the 400-point range from 100 to 500 is divided into many more pieces.  There are more questions on the English exams, and they can be scored in half-point increments.  There’s still volatility at the high and low ends, but it is not as pronounced as with the other subjects.

So, if you were considered “highly effective” by the Very Awful Mess, be wary; it might be your turn to be unlucky next year if this problem isn’t fixed.  And if you were considered “ineffective” look closely at whether you students’ expected scores were even possible.

To see the data and some graphs, go to https://sites.google.com/site/drjamescfinney/home/files and select either the .xlsx or .pdf version of raw_to_scale_conversions_final.  I also put copies of the LEAP and iLEAP technical reports there, in case they can’t be obtained from the state.

I’d love to be more specific about how many teachers got screwed by this particular characteristic of the Very Awful Mess; unfortunately the Department of Education needs to be further educated on public records law in Louisiana.  In the mean time, I offer this as yet one more reason to hate the Very Awful Mess of VAM.

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If this is recovery, why don’t I feel better?

In yet another arrogant display of disdain for the public interest, the so-called Recovery School District (RSD) announced Tuesday which private operators have been blessed with the privilege of getting money thrown at them by New Schools of Baton Rouge so they can cherrypick some easy-to-test students and make some money.  The press release is available on-line at http://www.rsdla.net/apps/news/show_news.jsp?REC_ID=287722&id=0 with all the cartoonish quality of the Department of Education’s web presence.  I could spend a whole post on the lies, bias and spin of the press release, but I’ll hit a few low points:

“Back in 2012, with over thirty percent of Baton Rouge’s public schools rated an F, the RSD and community partners created the Achievement Zone to quickly and effectively provide a clear plan along with innovative solutions to transform the city’s lowest performing schools.”  I won’t even bother to fact-check the “over thirty percent . . . F” garbage because the state’s School Performance Scores do not represent, at all, whether schools are serving their students well.  The “Achievement Zone” is a farce.  When asked for the boundaries of said imaginary zone, the Superintendent of the so-called Recovery School District refused to answer.  Clearly he wants to grab all the taxpayer funded real estate he can in order to set up privately-operated schools at public expense.  And as for “innovative solutions to transform”?  I’d hardly call privatization innovative.  Cynical, segregationist and expensive, maybe.  But not innovative.  And the spin goes on for the rest of the piece.  A somewhat more objective description is available at http://theadvocate.com/home/7443677-125/charter-schools-will-run-rsd.

I will explain the title of the post soon, but first I must comment on the state’s plans.

Let’s take a look at the Louisiana non-profits that will be charged with running these schools.  The agenda for the August 15, 2013, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) meeting (http://www.boarddocs.com/la/bese/Board.nsf/files/9AAHQR48BC67/$file/SIT_2-3_Type5Charters.pdf) where these organizations were granted Type 5 charters doesn’t bother to list the board members or to include the full applications, but some hints are there.  More details can be discovered at the Louisiana Secretary of State’s web site (www.sos.la.gov), which gives information on Louisiana corporations, including non-profits.

Friendship Louisiana, Inc., (which is to be given use of the Capitol High School campus) is registered with the Louisiana Secretary of State, but is not in good standing because it didn’t bother filing its annual report.  I wonder how well the charter will comply with any reports due to the Department of Education.  The domicile address is 620 Florida St., Suite 110, Baton Rouge, LA 70801.  The registered agent, however, is Lee Reid, 701 Poydras St., Suite 4500, New Orleans, LA 70139.  The only officer listed is Vice-President James Gray, 1100 Poydras St., Suite 1460, New Orleans, LA 70163.  I’m sure Poydras is a lovely street, but it’s a long walk from any kind of local accountability for Baton Rouge.  The Type 5 charter application indicates that the non-profit will be punting operation of the school to Friendship Public Charter School, Inc.  Unfortunately there is no such Louisiana corporation.  Details.

Family Urban Schools of Excellence LA (FUSE for short, prospective operator of Dalton Elementary) has a domicile address of “C/O New Schools for Baton Rouge, 100 Lafayette St., Floor 2, Baton Rouge, LA 70802”.  Isn’t that cozy.  Their registered agent is Andrea Comer of the same address.  The only officer listed is President Taryn Perry, 339 Blue Hills Avenue, Hartford, CT, 06112.  I guess the out-of-state charter operators fit the apparent belief of state and local leaders that all the good ideas have to come from somewhere other than dumb ol’ Louisiana.  For whatever it’s worth (apparently not much), the FUSE application was recommended for denial by SchoolWorks, who is BESE’s reviewer of charter applicants.

The BESE application for Celerity (mercenaries-to-be for Crestworth Middle and Lanier Elementary) lists “Celerity Schools Inc.” as the non-profit applicant.  There are two similar-sounding non-profit corporations listed with the Secretary of State:  Celerity Louisiana Schools, Inc., and Celerity Louisiana Group, Inc.  Fortunately they share a domicile, the office of their registered agent:  C T Corporation System, 5615 Corporate Blvd., Suite 400B, Baton Rouge, LA 70808.  Unfortunately, they have different directors.  For the first corporation the directors are Enriquetta Cabrera, Julie Stern and Curt Hessler.  For the other corporation, the named directors are Vielka McFarlane, Curt Hessler, and Dana Walden.  All directors have an address of 2069 W. Slauson Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90047.  Inquiring minds might want to know to which corporation millions of dollars of taxpayer money will be going.  Details normally matter, though apparently not for the Recovery School District.

The fourth non-profit given a coronation today is Baton Rouge University Preparatory Charter School Inc.  That name is a mouthful of meaningless words thrown together in a feeble attempt to sound impressive.  But back to their corporate existence.  The domicile is 620 Florida St., Suite 110.  Sound familiar?  Besides being the domicile for Friendship Louisiana, it’s the location of 4th Sector Solutions, the current (or former) employer of the prospective school leader, who is apparently just now learning how to lead a school (according to the charter application).  The registered agent is Melissa Fox, 12317 Nan Rd., Gonzales, LA 70737.  The only officer listed is Jennifer Fowler, Vice-President, 1120 Country Club Dr., Baton Rouge, LA 70806.

Neither in the corporate records nor in the BESE-meeting materials posted on the web was I able to find a complete list of the board members of each of the non-profits.  So I guess I know what my next public record request will have to include.

It’s worth noting that the state seized Prescott Middle’s campus because of a perceived failure of the East Baton Rouge Parish School System (EBRPSS) to educate students in grades 6-8 who were assigned to that campus.  The state’s solution, it seems, is to move to some strange state of “recovery” by putting an elementary school on that campus, one grade at a time.  And state Superintendent John White mocks EBRPSS’s use of facilities?  Hidden in the RSD press release is another enlightnening tidbit:  Celerity’s Crestworth Middle campus will not only presume to merge the student bodies of three middle schools into one campus, but it will introduce early elementary students also.  Never mind that there is a functioning elementary school next door.  It’s operated by the big, bad, beast known as EBRPSS so the state must offer CHOICE!  Never mind that students can already choose among Crestworth, Ryan or Progress Elementaries or one of the many magnets available for consideration.

Which gets me back to the title of this post.  If the Recovery School District is properly named, the end game should be a healthy school system providing a free and appropriate education to all students who wish to attend.  To the contrary, though, today’s announcement makes it clear that the purpose of the RSD is not restoring the East Baton Rouge School System to health.  Did I neglect to mention that the charters are expecting five-year contracts to occupy, rent-free, the property owned by the local school system and seized by the state?

If a piano player is having trouble with a particular passage, would the teacher cut off two of his fingers and demand that he try harder to hit all the notes?  If a football team was routinely getting clobbered, would the coach kick off the starting players and demand that the six freshmen he puts on the field defeat the opponent’s 11 players?  If a car has a worn-out tire, would a mechanic take it off and insist that the car should drive more economically if it only has three wheels in use?  The analogies are a bit far-fetched, but no more ridiculous than having the state take over real estate it doesn’t need to hand over students who don’t want charters to private operators who have to be bribed by New Schools to come to Baton Rouge.

A few closing thoughts before I go compose today’s public record request for submission to the Department of Education:  It’s hard enough already to get answers about how operations are conducted at schools run directly by state employees.  It will be much harder when the record requests will involve private operators.  I am of the opinion that records regarding the use of public money are public records (even when funds are laundered by way of privatization).  But that may require litigation.

I have unofficial enrollment data in hand for the seven schools directly run by RSD in Baton Rouge (they appear to have forgotten that they are in charge of the charter at Kenilworth Middle School).  The seven campuses collectively have a capacity of 6285, but are serving only 1720 students.  That’s 27.4%.  If you remove the two elementary schools (which aren’t quite that empty), the five remaining campuses are operating at 15.7% capacity.  And Superintendent White and the folks at the RSD work for a governor who claims to be conservative?

As for the announcement that the Istrouma High and Glen Oaks Middle campuses will be unused for the 2014-15 school year (except maybe for an office or two)?  That is a horrible idea which should offend both Democrats and Republicans.  Unfortunately the Republicans in Louisiana appear to believe that the cure to everything that ails society is to steal from the poor and give to the rich.  And the Democrats seem all too anxious to accept employment from the people doing the stealing.  Has anyone else noticed that the state’s Democratic chairwoman is married to the RSD’s second-in-command?  Maybe I need a new party to join?  I like efficient and effective public education under local control with guidance and assistance offered by state and federal governments.  Is that so wrong?

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School Performance Scores finally out?

Since the Louisiana Department of Education finally released their School Performance Scores (SPS) yesterday, I’m inspired to pass along some thoughts on how screwed-up the methodology is.  At various points I assign letter grades to various component indices.  In doing so, I am using the same scales as the composite SPS (below 50 F, 50-69.9 D, 70-84.9 C, 85-99.9 B, 100-150 A).

1) Timing:  The scores released October 24, 2013, depend on scores of tests taken primarily before the end of the school year in May, perhaps with some summer retests thrown in.  The graduation data are one year older.  How incompetent must the Department of Education be to not be able to release data before school started again this fall?  I’m stunned that legislators and citizens tolerate the lag time between actions and so-called accountability.

2) Missing schools:  1315 schools in Louisiana had SPS scores and grades assigned, and all but 5 of those used the same site code and school name as reported on the February, 2013, enrollment count.  The five exceptions are in Lincoln Parish, where the Howard School (which appears to be at the Methodist Children’s Home) and four University-affilitated lab schools (three at Grambling and one at Louisiana Tech, if I’m not mistaken) were removed from Lincoln Parish’s district grouping and placed in their own groups.  That’s odd, but even more disturbing is that 79 schools were not given a school performance score.  Many of those are low in enrollment or alternative schools; others have closed.  However, they all had students.  One, East St. John High School (site code 048001) had 1306 students.  Yet there’s no school grade reported.  See https://sites.google.com/site/drjamescfinney/home/files/ for a spreadsheet showing the missing schools.

3) FERPA nonsense:  In their omnipresent effort to keep useful data away from the public, the folks at the Department of Education routinely use the federal government as an excuse to obfuscate:  “The Louisiana Department of Education has modified and/or suppressed data reported to protect the privacy of students in compliance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) codified at 20 U.S.C. 1232g. The strategies used to protect privacy vary and may include rounding or other techniques but do not substantially affect the general usefulness of the data. . .”  Baloney!  It’s hard to do any kind of mathematical operation on the number “>145” because it’s not a number.  Is anyone’s privacy really being protected by not letting us know if the credit accumulation/dropout index is exactly 150 or some slightly smaller number?  Hardly.  But “muddying the narrative” with FERPA as an excuse makes it very difficult to check on the quality of the calculations used by the state.  So much for accountability.

4) Combination schools:  Bulletin 111, which supposedly defines how this SPS “accountability” system is supposed to work, appears to put twice the weight on high school students versus elementary and middle school students when calculating a score for a school with students in both grade ranges.  Unfortunately the public is not privy to the exact number of units on each side to see if, for example, the K-8 component consists of only one student, or most of the students, or some other ratio.  There might be a legitimate privacy concern if there are only a few students in either group, but we could at least be given the two component SPS scores (K-8 and 9-12) from which the composite scores were calculated.

5) Overall grade distribution:  Of the 1315 schools given a grade, 106 got Fs, 264 got Ds, 374 got Cs, 384 got Bs and 187 got As.  What does this mean?  Absolutely nothing.

6) K-8 assessment index distributions: Of 1177 K-8 assessment indices, there were 160 Fs, 299 Ds, 315Cs, 265 Bs, 100As, and 38 not reported due to low enrollments.  So there would have been a lot more potential takeover targets before bonus points were thrown in.  Where available, the dropout/credit accumulation index mentioned below also would generally have moved the scores up.  The hideous characteristic about the K-8 assessment index (which also applies to the high school EOC and ACT indices) is that a student either earns the school an A (100 points for Basic, 125 for Mastery and 150 for Advanced) or an F (0 points for either Approaching Basic or Unsatisfactory).  And the difference between Approaching Basic and Basic is one multiple-choice test question.

7) Dropout credit accumulation index:  This component is ridiculous for at least two reasons.  First, it appears to judge a school containing eighth grade based on what the 2011-12 eighth grade class did at their high school in 2012-13.  Note that the high school doesn’t get judged directly on credits accumulated by those students.  Furthermore, almost everyone got an A.  Of 448 schools given a dropout-credit-accumulation index, only 7 got index values between below 50, the F range. Another 4 were Ds, 10 Ds and 9 Bs.  The remaining 418 schools with eighth grade got index values above 100, the A range.  A student contributes 100 points to the index if, by the end of ninth grade, they have at least five high school credits.  Is this raising the bar?  The pattern seems to raise one bar too far, and then drop another to compensate.

8) The End-of-Course Assessment Index is reported, at least in theory, for 352 high schools, although 16 apparently had fewer than 10 students and hence no data reported.  Of the remaining 336, the index values were in the F range for 87, D 103, C 85, B 39 and A 22.  Yep.  John White’s magic formula says 87 schools flunked the End-of-Course Assessment  index and only 22 got an A.  These data have the same problem as the elementary assessment index data — a student either contributes 100 points or more (worth an A) or zero points (lowest possible F score).  Again the difference is one multiple-choice problem.  There is no difference in SPS terms between getting every answer wrong and getting the highest-possible “non-proficient” score.  But one more correct answer turns an F into an A.  Then enough additional correct answers might make the score a higher A.  And the state won’t even share the histogram of how many students got each of the possible scores.

9) The ACT Index is even more perverse in its distribution than the End-of-Course Assessment Index.  Of 321 high schools, 12 had insufficient numbers to report data.  Of the remaining 309, the distribution was 104 F, 105 D, 61 C, 24 B, and 15 A.  It should be noted that two schools with identical average ACT scores can have wildly different ACT index values.  For example, a school with an average ACT of 17 could get an ACT index as low as 0 (if everyone got a score of 17) or as high as 94.1 (if 16 students got 18s and the other one got a zero).  In reality, the variability would not be as extreme.  However, shifting from a score of 17 being worthless in SPS terms to an 18 being valuable just seems bizarre.

10) Graduation Index:  Of 306 high schools with reported graduation index values, 10 were in the F range, 20 D, 85 C, 125 B, and 66 A.  So maybe this is supposed to compensate for the opposite skew on the End-of-Course and ACT data?  It’s also worth noting that there is a one-year lag in the graduation index data beyond the compression of four year’s worth of history into one reporting interval.  Thus a student who dropped out October 24, 2008 (five years to the day before the scores were released) would finally count (as a zero) on the 2013 School Performance Score.  And a high school whose entire senior class dropped out last year could still have an excellent graduation index because of the one-year delay.  Go figure.

11) Graduation Rate:  The same problems mentioned with Graduation Index recur with the Graduation Rate.  The data are all one year old, and a dropout from five years ago affects the current score.  Also, the conversion from graduation rate as a percentage to the Graduation Rate Index is generous.  There were only 10 Fs, 15 Ds, 32 Cs, 53 Bs and 196 As.  All it takes to get an A is for 3/4 of the freshmen to last through graduation.  So much for high standards.

12) Bonus Points (High School):  John White has suggested that poor scores on ACT or End-of-Course indices would be compensated by the bonus points.  In fact, that was his testimony before a lesislative committee.  The reality?  Of 138 high schools with no K-8 component, exactly 7 were given bonus points.  They were:

  • Caddo Parish Magnet High School (already an A before the 4.3 bonus points)
  • Live Oak High School (Livingston Parish, already a low A before the 3.7 bonus points)
  • Edna Karr High School (Orleans Parish, a B school with or without the 3.7 bonus points)
  • International High School of New Orleans (charter school, a D school with or without the 4.8 bonus points)
  • O. Perry Walker Senior High School (Recovery School District charter, 9.7 bonus points changed a C to a B)
  • Sarah Towles Reed Senior High School (Recovery School District, 10 bonus points changed an F to a D)
  • G.W. Carver High School (Recovery School District, a D with or without the 10 bonus points)

On the other hand, of 963 K-8 schools with no high school component, more than half (498) got bonus points.  Of those, 218 got the maximum 10 bonus points.  Of the 214 combination schools (at least some K-8 students and some high school students), 123 got some bonus points, and 55 got all 10.  Unfortunately there is no easy way to see whether those were mostly earned by high school students or by elementary students.  And there’s also no provision for letting the public know on which tests the non-proficient students demonstrated their improvement enough to earn bonus points.

Lucky 13)  But wait, there’s more!  It’s easy to get lost in the details of how weird the mathematics are, but that misses the point.  The state is making career-ending and neighborhood-disrupting decisions based on an ever-changing, arbitray, opaque process.  Never has it been made clear what a score of A, B, C, D or F should truly represent in terms of school quality.  And even if that were clearly defined, it likely wouldn’t be measured by a set of once-per-year tests.  And even if the annual tests truly measured either student achievement or instructional quality, Louisiana’s accountability system ignores what happens at the beginning of a student’s educational career (since the first test that counts is at the end of third grade) or at the end (since End-of-Course tests and ACT are normally completed in the first three years of high school).  It’s ridiculous that scores aren’t released before the end of summer, and it’s asinine to judge the quality of a school in 2012-13 by the accomplishments of the Class of 2012.

I’m not sure this pseudo-accountability system is worth fixing.  But releasing more data and releasing it earlier would help while we wait for the Legislature to come to its senses and demand an accountability system that improves education.  The current system serves the interests of those who would destroy public education, not those who would benefit from its improvement. 

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Names of Baton Rouge public schools, and why details matter

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board’s Committe of the Whole decided at their last meeting to advance the following item to this Thursday’s full board meeting (5 pm 10/17/13):

“Consideration of a request for approval to submit the following school name changes to the Louisiana Department of Education, in compliance with Board policy for naming schools: (Herman Brister)

a. North Banks Middle School (formerly Banks Elementary)

b. East Baton Rouge Readiness Superintendent’s Academy (formerly Valley Park)

c. Christa McAuliffe Superintendent’s Academy (formerly Christa McAuliffe Center)

d. Staring Superintendent’s Academy (formerly Staring Education Center)

e. Eden Park Superintendent’s Academy (formerly Mohican Center)

f. Beechwood Superintendent’s Academy (formerly Scotlandville Middle Magnet)

g. Northdale Superintendent’s Academy (formerly Northdale Magnet Academy)”

This got me inspired to think that this would be a good time to fix school names throughout the system, so they would be more consistently meaningful.  But first I have some thoughts regarding the names on this week’s agenda.

North Banks Middle School:  The “North” got thrown in by board member Vereta Lee in the midst of a flurry of let’s-pick-a-quick-temporary-name-and-fix-it-later game at an earlier board meeting.  Drop that word, which doesn’t fit the actual name of the neighborhood surrounding the 72nd Street location, and you get Banks Middle School, which is a better name.

The other six schools have “Superintendent’s Academy” in the name, so I will comment on that portion of the name once.  When the Superintendent proposed opening one or more Superintendent’s Academy(ies) it sounded good.  Then we went through months of obfuscation and confusion before arriving at a list of six schools with at least five different formats.  The delay and bad communication tainted the term “Superintendent’s Academy” (in my opinion and perhaps that of a majority of board members).  Furthermore, I’ve seen it in official school system documents both with an apostrophe-s combination at the end, and without.  Finally, the term occupies 24 characters in a name without providing much information.

Although all six could reasonably be called alternative schools, the word “alternative” may be off-putting to potential students and other stakeholders.  Perhaps “transitional” is better; that’s what I have used in the proposals below, though I’d be interested in hearing other, potentially better, words.  I’ve heard “innovation”, “select”, “choice”, and “non-graded” offered.  So far I like “transitional” better than the others.  “Transitional” at least captures the idea that the suspended and expelled kids should transition back to their home schools once they have served the consequences of bad behavior, and that over-age kids should transition back to a point where they are on pace to graduate.

East Baton Rouge Readiness Superintendent’s Academy:  The term “Baton Rouge” should be reserved for Baton Rouge Magnet High School, in my opinion.  Putting Baton Rouge or East Baton Rouge on another high school is silly.  And the word “Readiness” doesn’t really convey any useful meaning.  Finally, the current location is in a rented strip mall so naming it after a neighborhood from which it may soon move would seem like a bad idea.  So I propose Superintendent’s Transitional High School as the name of this school.

Christa McAuliffe Superintendent’s Academy:  I propose McAuliffe Transitional Middle School, dropping the first name of the late astronaut to be more consistent with other school names and to eliminate any confusion as to alphabetization.

Staring Superintendent’s Academy: It may have made sense to keep the name “Staring” when the alternative middle school moved from the strip mall mentioned earlier to the former Greenville Elementary.  But when the strip mall again became a school site, it eliminated any justification to use the word “Staring” at a location not on Staring Lane.  I propose Greenville Transitional Middle School.  The lone student in attendance at Friday’s redo of the community forum to consider names was adamant that he didn’t like “Alternative” in the name of his school.

Eden Park Superintendent’s Academy:  The name Eden Park is perfect, but I think Eden Park Transitional Elementary School conveys more useful information than Eden Park Superintendent’s Academy.

Beechwood Superintendent’s Academy:  As with Eden Park, the name Beechwood is perfect here.  But I would propose Beechwood Transitional Middle School.

Northdale Superintendent’s Academy:  As long as we’re messing with names, let’s acknowledge that the school hasn’t been in Northdale for many years (probably at least 15).  Northdale Elementary is the site used by the Community School for Apprenticeship Learning charter.  Northdale is the neigborhood immediately north of Memorial Stadium, west of Scenic Highway and South of Choctaw Drive.  Red Oak is the neighborhood where the Northdale program moved many years ago (when the arts immersion program moved from Red Oak Elementary to Walnut Hills Elementary).  So a sensible name would be Red Oak Transitional High School. 

But why stop there?  I’d like to see other strange names fixed, and will make suggestions in a future post.  In the meantime, I would invite comments about the suggestions above.  And, if you feel strongly enough about what these seven schools should be named, contact one or more school board members and/or come to the meeting prepared to comment aloud for up to three minutes.  The board would be thrilled to hear someone else talk; they already should expect a three-minute contribution from me.

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