Believe it or not, John White did not start off with the intent of trying to delude Louisiana into believing his education reforms worked simply by altering a few scores. At first I think White believed much of his own rhetoric. Namely:
- that teachers were lazy and holding kids back with their incompetence
- that State workers were lazy union wannabe’s, and essentially worthless
- that IT folks were unnecessary
- that data would almost magically flow in the department’s coffers with little effort on anyone’s part
- that most corporations in the education business had kids best interests at heart
- that charter schools are inherently better than all public schools
- that simply improving reading and math test scores is the keystone to unlocking all other student learning and overcoming the challenges of poverty
- that Common Core will improve student outcomes and level the playing field across the nation
- and that the data will eventually prove that all of his education “reforms” were a success.
John White always wanted to be “the Decider”, a difference maker, a leader of a Nationwide Education Reform movement destined to change the entire landscape of education, schools and teaching, for the better – or so he thought. But there were a lot entrenched interests in his way, ready to pounce on any misstep, any nuance, any faltering. John White knew this, was told this, and had done this himself. Reformers used this approach to make inroads across the nation and even the world, by harping on data often taken out of context or interpreted in self-serving ways. This is what his team, the Reformers, specialized in. White knew exactly how to defeat this move and buy enough time for his vision to work its magic. To defeat people who use data to criticize the status quo, which he had now become, he needed to starve them for data. Like the propaganda master Joseph Goebbels, John White knew he needed to be the sole provider and purveyor of data and messaging to achieve a history making goal that would be thwarted otherwise. Without any real data, just summarized and sanitized data delivered without any historical or comparative context, White knew he could define his program as successful until it had time to grow into the success he envisioned; that he “Believed” it would be. His first official major act as head of LDOE was to cut off communications with the schools districts, media, researchers and legislature – except through carefully monitored channels and calculated messaging.
At first, I really think John White believed he would change the nation and the world with his ideas, and sacrificing a little honesty was not that great a price for the glorious prize (in his mind) he was working for. Then reality started to creep in. Governor Jindal started to exert his control by inserting a voucher program White disagreed with, but White knuckled under and by all appearances seemed to back it under the frequently bandied guise of “Choice.” John White wanted to develop a new revolutionary system to grade and evaluate teachers and so COMPASS was created, but VAM (Value Added Modeling) was already in place and approved by the legislature. Over time White began to realize VAM was a sham, that there were many flaws in his VAM system for teachers as the extremes (teaching very advanced or severely disabled students) and students with significant emotional problems that might not have been diagnosed. At first he believed these were simply small factors, and would by and large the vast majority of teachers were being graded accurately, and his ally Chas Roemer and Bobby Jindal really wanted this system to work. It also had the added bonus of eliminating and demoralizing many experienced teachers to make room for TFA to supply and offload their growing surplus of teachers in more agreeable geographies. However as the Seabaugh Solution showed, White was not opposed to rejiggering the entire formula and outcomes for the entire state to appease a single legislator, Alan Seabaugh from Shreveport, to fix the outcomes to ensure three teachers of gifted students were defined as effective by definition. This redefined numerous other teachers as ineffective as a result. This change was not done as a result of mathematics, but political expediency. When his entire staff that designed the VAM system quit in protest and word came to light of how White had simply altered the entire outcome for the entire state for a political reason, which no doubt caused the firing of many teachers and financially impacted numerous others through raises or no raises, and no significant personal cost came of this John White realized he could do anything he wanted to scores and formulae and as long as he stayed in the graces of the status quo, nothing and no one could touch him. After this fiasco John White simply created a bonus point scheme for teachers evaluated under VAM that he could dispense as needed. A few folks picked up on this, but no major media cared because they were controlled by many of the same forces that protected John White. Additionally, John White learned that anything to do with math immediately causes the public and reporters to lose interest and fall asleep. You can do anything with a formula, add any points for any reason, just as long as you name it and come up with a rationale, however flimsy. Most people who take tests are not able to add bonus points themselves to the results after they get those results. John White has been enabled to operate differently by a lack of sustained interest, outrage, or understanding by the general public.
The thought process that resulted in John White asking to have student test scores directly inflated was a gradual one, and not altogether as insane as you might first think considering the wide latitude he had been given in his brief tenure as Louisiana Superintendent. I say “insane” because I really thought the idea was crazy when I first heard it. It wasn’t until I connected the historical dots that show a directly linear path that I realized doing so would not only be absolutely in character but completely reasonable to an “ends justifies the means” operator, like White.
John White has also been altering SPS (School Performance Scores) to suit his agenda. He has done this by selectively including and excluding data and students, changing the impacts and penalties for disabled students and students performing below grade level, and adding bonus points based on formulae that cannot be verified and have room to be reconfigured and calculated multiple ways until he achieves the outcome he wants. Most people don’t realize the formula for calculating scores has changed every year since Katrina in 2005, and probably before that. They also don’t realize that John White has a say over where the “cut-off” score is set every year. By changing the cut-off score after you get all the results in, you can achieve almost any result you want. Set the cut-off score lower, more kids score basic or above, fewer kids are defined as below basic or “failing”. If you want people to tell you that you are doing a great job and that your reforms are working, simply set a lower cut-off score every year. Eventually though, this tactic will catch up with you.
For Example: Let’s say you set the cut-off score at 5 out of 10 for basic one year, 7 as Mastery and 9 as Advanced, 3 as Approaching Basic and 1 as Unsatisfactory. The next year you could set the cutoff score as 4 for basic, making a score of 6 Mastery, 8 Advanced, 2 as Approaching Basic and 0 as Unsatisfactory. If performance actually stayed the same, it would look like you had improved outcomes by simply changing the “cut” score.
I’m told this this has been going on for a while to show progress where there was none. If you were to lower the score again you might actually have an unusually low number of “Unsatisfactories” and large number of Approaching Basics. This is one of the reasons John White probably released category summary counts this year, removed the summaries by district and embargoed the scores until after the legislative session. He lowered the cut score too low to where the manipulation would be obvious. If what I’ve been told is correct, students did much, much, worse this year to where the cut-scores can’t be lowered enough to where the overall numbers won’t look fishy. Results are down statewide, even with the much lower cut-score. There are too few students at the upper ends and most of the student lumped into the approaching basic after the cut score determinations.
Apparently John White had his vendor recalculate the designations (Mastery, Advanced, Basic, Approaching Basic, Unsatisfactory) several times with several different cut scores before realizing the only way to get the numbers he wanted was to actually alter the scores or designations directly. This approach was actually ideal, because he could raise the scores of charters and RSD to where they look better than traditional public schools, making the case for them stronger. If the scores were reported as too low across the state while the legislative session was ongoing, it would call into question the Common Core initiative and breathe life into the resistance movement. If Common Core had been tested against PARCC this year, a completely new test that has already been responsible for lower test scores across the nation, poor performance could easily have been explained away and comparing it to previous test results would have impossible. PARCC allows White to “reset” the cut-score scale and gradually lower the cut score to show “improvement” if students don’t improve on their own. My guess is he gave up on altering the test scores after word of this plan came to light, thus the reason for the delayed results, merged categories, lies about deadlines, and embargoing.
John White wanted to make a difference in education. It turns out he got his wish. The data is in, and it turns out he made a big difference in Louisiana. Unfortunately the difference he made was all bad, but nothing a low cut-score and ambiguous reporting can’t fix. Atter all, this is Math we’re talking about, and with Common Core mathematics the deception will only get easier.