08/04 - Education (K-12)

What needs to be done to improve Louisiana’s public schools?

State Superintendent of Education Cecil Picard, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education President Glenny Lee Buquet and BESE member Mary Washington will field questions on this subject from a panel of citizens on the August edition of Louisiana Public Broadcasting’s monthly public affairs program Louisiana Public Square.

Backgrounder

Louisiana spent about four and a half billion dollars last year to educate its 730 thousand public school students. And although the state has garnered praise for some initiatives, such as its accountability plan, Louisiana ’s long history of poor results has fostered the view among many that public education – especially grades K through 12 – is something that needs “fixing.” In the most recent state-wide Louisiana Survey, conducted by LSU, over 60% cited education as one of the three most important problems facing the state.

A number of groups outside Louisiana agree:

* The American Society of Civil Engineers rated the state as one of the ten worst states in terms of school buildings in need of repair.
* The National Center for Education Statistics ranked Louisiana near the bottom – 38th out of 50 – in per-pupil spending on public education.
* The National Education Association ranked Louisiana 6th worst in the nation for having the lowest salaries for public school teachers. (This is in spite of a 38% rise in average Louisiana teacher pay from 1996-97 to 2001-02.)
* Education Week rated Louisiana the lowest of any state – dead last – in ”School Climate,” which is based on student engagement, parent involvement and school safety.

These conditions are inter-related, and can affect other things – such as teacher retention. More than 2 out of 5 beginning teachers leave public schools within 3 years.

This problem is especially vexing, because the state’s recent moves to improve the quality of its teachers have been recognized nationally. A newly-adopted certification structure aims to increase teacher content knowledge in the grades they are expected to teach. The new structure also eliminates lifelong licensure.

SOCIAL ISSUES

Because schools do not exist in isolation from the rest of society, social issues, from poverty to lack of parental involvement, all influence what goes on in Louisiana ’s classrooms. The struggle over desegregation continues to haunt school systems throughout the state. Cases - some of which are decades old – are still pending in fifty parishes.

I think to some extent it’s hurt them academically, because they’ve been so focused on resolving those legal issues. And I haven’t seen the school boards themselves being able to really focus on the academic issues which have really come to bear on them in the last six years.
- Stephanie Desselle
- Council for A Better Louisiana

Louisiana’s high poverty rates also affect the classroom. Poor children tend to enter school less prepared and are less likely to possess the level of social and literacy skills displayed by more affluent children. The LA-4 Program, created to respond to the need for high-quality early childhood education, serves about a third of the state’s parishes.

Another factor in Louisiana’s K – 12 landscape is the very high number of children who attend private or parochial schools. The state’s ratio of private-to-public school attendance is one of the highest in the nation.

In 1995, Louisiana passed legislation allowing for the chartering of schools by non-profit organizations, parent groups, universities, municipalities and other entities. While free from many laws and regulations governing public schools, these “charter” schools are held accountable for student achievement. Students must take the same high-stakes tests required of their peers in public schools. In the 2002 -03 school year, there were 20 charter schools in operation in Louisiana.

STUDENT AND SCHOOL ACCOUNTABILITY

The biggest changes in Louisiana’s approach to education revolve around its Student and School Accountability System, begun in 1999. Achievement is based on criterion- and norm-based test scores, attendance and drop-out rates.

At the core of the accountability program is high-stakes testing, which consists of exams aligned with content standards created for each subject. Such testing, while providing needed data for gauging performance, puts heightened stress on both the students and the teachers.

Right now we have state tests, national tests ... I’m in a classroom: am I more concerned to teach to the test or am I more concerned about helping the kids acquire the content that I think - as a professional with 30 years experience - that I know they need in order to be successful in more advanced science courses?
- Barbara DeCuir
- High School Teacher

The LEAP 21 tests measure 4th and 8th grade students’ mastery of English and Math. In 2003, more than half of the students in these grades achieved the “Basic” level, meaning they demonstrated fundamental knowledge and skills in these subjects. Students who fail the LEAP 21 tests can take free remediation classes. About half of the 4th graders and one-third of the 8th graders pass the test after attending summer school.

The Iowa Tests compare students to a national norm. Although significant gains were made between 1999 and 2003 in some grades, Louisiana student scores on the most recent Iowa Tests generally showed only slight improvements. Overall, state scores remains near the national average.

High School students must pass the Graduation Exit Exam before they can receive their diplomas. About 80% pass English on their first attempt. Three out of four pass Math on their first try. Those who fail are given five additional chances to pass the Exit Exam before graduation day.

Schools – like the children they serve – are also “graded” under Louisiana’s accountability system. While the number of schools rated at the highest academic level increased in 2003, so did the number deemed “Academically Unacceptable.” A recent Louisiana constitutional amendment allows the state to “take over” these failing schools.

Most of these problem schools are in urban and rural areas. The majority are in Orleans Parish, where, for the first time, operation of a school will be taken out of the hands of the local school board. This fall, the University of New Orleans College of Education begins running Pierre Capdau Middle School – one of 14 New Orleans schools eligible for take-over.

NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND

The federal No Child Left Behind Act represents a major change in American education. The law requires states to develop and administer annual testing, and to indicate student progress toward meeting proficiency in mathematics and reading.

Louisiana’s accountability program had just started when the federal No Child Left Behind Act was passed. Because many of its testing and accountability requirements were mirrored in Louisiana’s plan, the state has fared far better than most of the rest of the nation in complying with the law’s mandates. But because the federal law sets the bar higher for student proficiency, trouble looms ahead. A year-long study by the Public Affairs Research Council (PAR) indicates that without an investment in the hundreds of millions of dollars, the state’s accountability program cannot be kept on track.

Our study shows that if the No Child Left Behind Act goes forward without any changes, Louisiana – like many other states – is headed for a train wreck. ... Our estimate shows that a few years down the road, easily 75% of the schools in Louisiana will not meet the federal goals that are set forth in the law.
- Jim Brandt
- Public Affairs Research Council

That prediction is for several years in the future. Louisiana – along with many other states – is counting on changes in the law to avert a crisis. For some, like Florida, the crisis is already here. About 80% of its schools are currently failing to meet the federal criteria. For the time being, Louisiana’s existing accountability program will provide the state some breathing room.

We’ve spent the last number of years putting in place this policy that’s getting rated number one in the nation, and a test that’s rated top five in the nation. But those are policies. To really improve education in the state, we have to change what happens in the classroom, in the schoolhouse. What is the interaction between that teacher and that student? That student and the school? That school and the child’s family? We can’t really make that happen at the state level. We have fourteen hundred schools in the state with sixty- eight school districts. And fundamentally, education is a local issue.
- Leslie Jacobs
- Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Click here to view the online survey results

Click here to view the LSU Before and After Survey Results

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