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Louisiana School Board Association

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Believe in Whom? - Friday, November 21, 2008
Listen Up!
Believe in Whom?
The Baton Rouge City Club’s Distinguished Speaker Series hosted Paul Pastorek, the Louisiana State Superintendent of Education. It provided him with a forum to air his belief that the system of public education “…is at fault, because it was designed decades ago to move students through a series of grades, with the end being graduates who could make a good living without higher-level skills.”
He also accused critics, “Apologists for today’s system…” of using poverty and social ills as an excuse for public education failures.
Of course in so doing he ignores a virtual library full of sound research that reveals that even Pre-K students from socially deprived families are at least one and a half grades behind children with more social advantages.
He also vigorously defended the state’s accountability program including the high-stakes LEAP test for promotion.
“They’ve not been failed by the LEAP test,” he said of students.” “They’ve been failed in the first grade and retained in school. They’ve been failed in the sixth grade and retained.”
In defending the testing regime he noted that in 1995, “fewer than half of fourth-graders were reading at a level sufficient to pass the test.”
“Even with higher standards over time, 82 percent are now passing, although some of them are on second try.”
It might be a bit confusing to some to read that the Louisiana system of public education is failing. By his own boasting the number of students passing has more than doubled over the past 12 years.
His reliance on testing to gauge whole district or school progress ignores the advice of most international authorities on testing who maintain that one test is not a rational method for determining school or district performance since they were designed only to provide a snapshot of a student’s performance at a single moment in time.
Mr. Pastorek has hired Sir Michael Barber, the official who led the United Kingdom’s education reform under former Prime Minister Tony Blair. He is, without doubt, highly qualified, works for the renowned Mc Kinsey and Company consulting firm, and is paid by the state department in top dollar fashion.
What does Sir Michael have to say about student achievement testing?
Sir Michael said that he considers No Child Left Behind to be an outstanding law, perhaps one of the most important pieces of education legislation in American history, he said. But the law is not without its flaws, he said, which include its methodology for identifying underperforming schools on the basis of student test scores alone. “It depends much too often on quite crude tests and one year’s data,” he said. The world’s best school rating systems, including England’s, he said, not only consider test results, but also send government inspectors directly into schools to search for causes of poor performance. (New York Times-Imported from Britain, Sam Dillon, August 15, 2007)
One can join with Mr. Pastorek in being impatient in seeking more positive results. Surely all of us would like to decide, today, that no child will be left behind, then flip a switch and it is done. Unfortunately, the significant progress now being made in nearly all local districts in Louisiana does not meet that test. Sir Michael Barber has some words on that as well.
“Probably the most difficult political challenge, though, is just how hard it is to stay the course when the going gets tough. Most big reforms take eight or 10 years. You can make an impact in three to four, as we did, but to really transform a system it's going to be eight or 10 years. How you stay the course—not just through changes of party but also with ministerial turnover in one party—is a real issue.” (Source: Education Reform Lessons from England, An Interview with Sir Michael Barber, Author: Mead, Publication Date: January 13, 2006)
While Mr. Pastorek was suggesting to the City Club that social ills and poverty simply constitute an excuse for public education failures, Sir Michael observed something else:
Sir Michael, speaking in Delaware on education reform, had this to say about the importance of social differences: “…In other words, rather than overcoming the social differences children bring with them when they start school, the US system – like ours in the UK – tends to reinforce them. As Goldin and Katz have argued, “The slowdown in the growth of educational attainment…is the single most important factor increasing wage differentials since 1980 and is a major contributor to increased family inequality.” (Rodel Foundation of Delaware, Delaware University, 2 October 2008)
Paul Pastorek has made important contributions to the betterment of Louisiana’s ailing education system. There is no doubt that much more is required to achieve world class status that gives Louisiana children every opportunity to compete in the world economy and to build a satisfying life.
LSBA has, and continues to; support Mr. Pastorek in his efforts. However, the position that the system is fundamentally flawed needs to be evaluated in a more positive light. The truth is somewhere between Mr. Pastorek’s negative perspective and the education establishment (including LSBA) which believes that the current track is correct, only the timing for arrival at goals is wrong.