It’s a given that every four years when political campaigns for many state elected offices heat up the candidates talk about public education. They should. It’s a critical issue in Louisiana and we send billions of dollars to local school districts with the expectation they will give our children a quality education.
But while it seems everyone has something to say about education, it’s often hard to tell where the candidates stand on the actual issues that come up and that many of them will have to address if elected.
When you get past the political platitudes, there are some real world issues that are on the forefront of the education reform debate in Louisiana. Here are seven that CABL considers top priorities.
CABL PreK-12 Education Priorities
1. Protect and build upon the Louisiana School and District Accountability System.
Louisiana has one of the top school accountability systems in the country and it’s recognized as such every year. Still, it comes under legislative attack on an annual basis. So when we talk about our accountability system, what is it we’re trying to protect? Fundamentally we’re talking about a system that provides clear and accurate accountability measures and reports annually on the actual academic achievement of students and the performance of every school and district. This includes:
· Grade-level tests that measure the proficiency and skills of students.
· High school end-of-course tests.
· School Performance Scores that reflect a true picture of student achievement and school completion.
· Clear labels for reflecting school performance that are easily understood by parents and the public, such as letter grades.
· A separate growth score for each school based on a sound measurement of progress.
· District and state aggregate scores for students and schools on all measures.
2. Mandate clear annual benchmarks and long-term performance goals, rigorous standards and consequences for students, schools, districts and the state.
· Setting learning standards at a strong fundamental level for “basic” proficiency.
· High school end-of-course passing rates that ensure career and college readiness.
· Higher graduation rates.
· Statewide and school goals for increasing School Performance Scores.
· An annual growth benchmark for each school to reach state goals.
· High-stakes testing with summer school and other strategies to prevent social promotions.
· Guidance and consequences for schools that do not improve.
3. Make parental choice widely available in each district so that every student has an opportunity to escape low-performing schools and learn at their highest potential.
Today school choice is a critical tool to promote economic development and reverse the outmigration that has plagued our state by providing citizens with real options to send their children to high-achieving public schools. In the old days, some viewed choice as a code word for vouchers. These days it means a variety of other innovative options, including all types of charter schools, high-academic magnet schools, high-tech and career-based high schools, virtual schools, university-partnership schools and more. All choice options should be held to the same accountability measures, tests, standards and ratings of any other public school.
4. Provide more opportunities for students to be prepared to enter kindergarten.
This requires all local, state and federal education entities to prioritize their funding and increase their efforts to provide high-quality preK programs for every at-risk four-year-old in the state. It also requires that all preK programs, including Head Start, be based on high standards of early childhood development and learning.
5. Maintain and protect the state Recovery School District which assumes authority and operations over chronically failing schools.
The RSD provides intensive turnaround efforts for failing schools and has shown a number of successes. It has greater flexibility than regular school districts to help low-performing schools. It has the freedom to hire the talent and expertise needed and allows for an array of targeted instructional strategies such as a longer school year, research-based teaching, increased technology and pay incentives for teachers. Recently, there have been legislative efforts to pull schools out of the RSD or prevent new schools from going in. These efforts should be opposed and mechanisms put in place to ensure that schools remain in the setting that is best for their students to make measurable academic progress.
6. Increase teaching quality and school leadership.
Along with strong accountability should come more autonomy for principals to hire, remove and assign faculty as needed for student success, all without interference from school board members or district bureaucracies. In addition, schools should be encouraged to hire new highly-trained teachers or institute effective re-training of entire faculties, especially in low-performing schools where previous teaching and leadership competencies were lacking. This includes hiring Teach for America teachers, principals who are turn-around specialists, and implementing proven leadership programs such as the Teacher Advancement Program which includes performance pay. Likewise, teachers should be fairly, but rigorously, evaluated and their performance in the classroom should be a significant consideration.
7. District and schools must take greater responsibility for dropouts and implement strategies that will significantly reduce the number of students leaving school in grades 7-12.
For decades dropouts were seen as a problem with the student, but it really has more to do with the schools that are failing those students. Over the years, local school districts have accepted little responsibility for the problem nor has there been much in the way of consequences for having large numbers of dropouts each year. Meanwhile, our serious crime and poverty problems persist. While state government has made major investments in programs, changed numerous policies, highlighted the problem, and provided some accountability measures to end “dropout factories,” much more can be done in the local school districts which bear the primary responsibility for retaining and educating students. Highly effective dropout prevention programs exist, but they are not widely used in Louisiana. The state should shine more light on districts and schools where significant dropouts occur and institute stronger consequences for those that do nothing to stem the tide. A minimum goal should be to have all students graduate and be ready for job training. That’s clearly not the case now.
Vision for Public Education
Priorities in education, or anywhere else for that matter, must be driven by a vision of what it is we want to achieve. Our actions and policies as a state should lead us to the outcomes we desire. These ten points represent CABL’s near-term aspirations for public education in Louisiana. They are values that are important and that we believe all citizens and candidates can embrace.
1. All Louisiana students should be performing, at the very least, on grade level every year. This would require every student, with exceptions for those with clear learning disabilities, to be scoring at the “basic” skill level or above on state tests.
2. All schools should have School Performance Scores of 120 or above. Using our new school performance labeling system, that means schools should receive a letter grade of “A.”
3. The state high school graduation rate should be 90-percent or better. It is currently about 67-percent.
4. Every student who desires to excel to more advanced academic levels should have an opportunity to be in a school or program that allows that to happen.
5. All of Louisiana’s at-risk students should have access to high-quality preK programs and every child should enter kindergarten prepared to learn.
6. Every classroom should have a competent, highly-qualified teacher and every school should have a strong principal with the autonomy to make decisions that are in the best interests of helping students learn.
7. Policymakers and educators at every level in education should embrace innovation, excellence, high standards, increased expectations and improved student performance in every aspect of their responsibilities, policies and actions.
8. Louisiana must have strong accountability measures with clear reporting of academic achievement at the student, school, district and state levels. Citizens deserve reporting that reflects clearly and accurately how much students are learning and oppose effort to artificially inflate or obscure the actual performance of schools and districts.
9. Parents should have more options for where they send their children to public schools.
10. Education policies and actions should follow strategies that will help reverse the state’s long trends of out-migration, poverty, crime and relatively low levels of high-tech and knowledge-based jobs. This requires not only turning around failing schools, but improving average schools, and increasing access to high-achieving and specialized schools.
These are among the things CABL believes in when it comes to public education in Louisiana. Education “reform” is what we do to make them happen. From CABL’s perspective, if the actions we take and the policies we implement are not moving in the direction of these or similar values, then one must question whether they really represent reform or just the same old politics.
View Related Data from the Louisiana Fact Book
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View Related Data for the Education Report Card
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LA Department of Education – www.louisianaschools.net
LA Recovery School District - www.rsdla.net
Southern Regional Education Board – www.sreb.org
New Schools for New Orleans - http://nsno.org/main.php
Cowent Institute for Public Education Initiatives - www.coweninstitute.com