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How Does Your District Measure Up? - Monday, August 18, 2008

Listen UP!

How Does Your District Measure UP?

Subject: Top News - Technology key to New Orleans school revival

By Don Whittinghill LSBA Consultant

Quality Counts rates the equity of funding in Louisiana schools with an

Do all your high school students have laptop computers? Gee, 496 Promethean systems in 33 Recovery School District schools (15 per school average) would suggest that there is a significant unequal distribution of funding.

eSchool News reported, recently, that New Orleans schools chief Paul Vallas passed his first major test when fourth and eighth graders in the city's public schools posted significantly higher scores on the state exam--and his plans for using technology to help spur achievement might lead to even further gains.

The superintendent of a 33-school district that includes many of New Orleans' historically worst-performing schools has received mostly positive reviews after his first year on the job, but many challenges remain. Too many students continue to fail or not show up for classes, there is limited funding for dilapidated buildings, and the district needs to retain high-quality teachers.

Vallas, 54, was known as a hard-driving reformer in Chicago and Philadelphia. After a year as superintendent of the Recovery School District (RSD) in New Orleans, Vallas has lengthened school days, made class sizes smaller, and boosted students' access to classroom technology. He's also helping to create schools that revolve around themes such as the arts and technology.

RSD offers open enrollment at all schools, a district spokeswoman said--meaning students can attend any school in the district.

This fall, RSD is introducing six "career" academies as part of a high school redesign initiative. The academies will open with the freshman class and then grow by a grade level each year.

One such career academy is New Tech New Orleans at Joseph S. Clark High School, which will introduce students to careers in software and game design, database administration, and desktop publishing.

RSD also is launching the Academy of Engineering, Math, Science, and Technology at Sarah T. Reed High School. This school will be turned into a "multiplex" of distinct, small learning communities focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

In addition, two National Academy Foundation programs are in the works: an Academy of Information Technology and an Academy of Engineering. Over time, students in those programs will take elective courses in science, engineering, information technology, and web development.

High school students throughout the district are getting laptop computers to encourage working at home. During the 2007-08 school year, RSD piloted a program using laptop appliances from Epic Learning to deliver supplemental curriculum.

Students used the machines to study on their own, and district officials say feedback on the program generally was positive. The program will be expanded to all high school classrooms this fall.

The district also will issue Epic laptops to its eighth graders, and if they qualify, they could begin taking high school courses for credit.

The Epic laptops and supplemental curriculum were part of Vallas' classroom modernization initiative, which included the installation of school networks, 496 Promethean interactive whiteboards in core subject classrooms in grades 4-12, and approximately 1,500 teacher laptops.

This is part of the situation that underlies LSBA’s proposed campaign in favor of raising education funding to adequacy. If Pastorek and the legislature provides RSD with funding sufficient to provide all that technology; and Vallas attributes the RSD student performance improvement, in part, to his technology program; then why not the rest of underperforming schools.

Overall, a glance at the LEAP/GEE scores for 2008 shows that Louisiana schools are making real progress. After a year of no significant growth, Louisiana’s public school students have shown marked improvement on the state’s LEAP exams. Fourth and 8th graders made gains in English language arts, and importantly, students made a particularly strong showing in 4th and 8th grade mathematics.

High school students taking the Graduation Exit Exam (GEE) showed small but positive gains on the math and English/language arts portions of the test among those achieving Basic and above, while GEE science and social studies scores were either flat or showed modest losses as compared to past years. The Department will examine this further to determine the causes.

Meanwhile Louisiana students taking the ACT tests showed significant improvement according to the Education Testing Service. The Average composite rate increased to 20.3 while the national average scores fell by a tenth. Mindful that 88% of all Louisiana students took the ACT tests, the state’s ranking of 48th in the nation should come as no surprise. With only 12% of students being untested, a lot of low performing students were included in the average.

Louisiana, as compared to its usual benchmark states, tests a far larger percentage of students. Alabama tests 77% and its average composite rate is 20.4. Georgia tests 38% and its average composite rate is 20.6. Kentucky tests 72% and scored 20.9. Kentucky progressed through a state adequacy of funding crisis many years ago and has been approaching adequate funding for several years.

Progress toward goals should not be expected overnight. The system is providing for student achievement. When comparing ACT score subsets, Louisiana is doing as well as national averages for students coming from at-risk black student pools, and for their cohorts from better-endowed families.

Alabama has been seen, by some state leaders, as being worthy of use as a model. However, the most recent ACT scores show that Louisiana students tested, in spite of the fact that more low-performing students comprise the test population, to a composite score of 19.7 and the Alabama composite was 19.5.

Given the level of support with which the RSD schools are endowed, the results of schools whose performance falls short of adequacy might well perform to the expectations contained in Louisiana’s Grade Level Expectations.

Quality Counts 2008 rates Louisiana educational finance as a C+. Its spending earned a score of 60.4 while the national average spending for education was scored at 70.3. Obviously the MFP provides equity in education spending but the level of spending shows a real lack.

Improvement in student achievement requires, among others, high expectations of success and equally high quantity of resources. It appears as if Louisiana has embraced, by its adoption of Grade Level Expectations, a definition of adequacy.

It is time that the level of funding necessary to reach the GLE goals be defined and then allocated to classrooms over the entire state.


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