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Hear the Echoes #19 - Monday, June 6, 2011
Hear the Echoes No. 19

What everybody knows about education?


          Sometimes we learn from history, if we take the trouble to look back at it.


          Louisiana Department of Education’s loss in the Race to the Top (RTTT) competition last year was a huge blow to former Superintendent Paul Pastorek and to the state.  The Louisiana School Boards Association strongly opposed the proposal for very valid reasons.


          Revisiting the Louisiana proposal shapes an understanding of the major reason for the loss.  The State Success Factors category was, in evaluators’ judgment, the weakest part of a complex proposal.  It fell short on ability to articulate how it would scale up and sustain reforms beyond the grant timeframe.  Louisiana needed to make the case that the level of Local Education Agency and teachers can carry the plan through to implementation. The proposal did not!


          The most positive aspect, in reviewer judgment, was its showing in the Great Teachers and Leaders category.  Its score of 122.2 was the highest of any of the 41 state applicants.  In May of 2007, Pastorek said "…the teacher quality programs that have risen out of the Blue Ribbon Commission for Educational Excellence is recognized as the best effort at improving teacher quality in the country.”  In July of 2010, Pastorek told Lafayette business leaders that "…research shows the state needs higher-quality teachers…:


          In light of the positive, it now seems strange that teachers are so strongly attacked by the Jindal administration that demanded much tougher evaluations than the winning state, Delaware, guaranteed.  The administration has continually asserted that Louisiana teachers are failing to provide students what they need in order to achieve success.  Dropout and graduation rates, they assert, are much too high, and too many kids are not reading at grade level.  Pastorek also in 2009 touted the achievement by teachers of national certification as vital to creating a world-class education system.  A year later, bowing to Jindal pressure to cut budgets, he concluded that national certification does not mean teachers are getting the job done in the classroom.


          The shortcoming in the RTTT proposal was clearly seen in the lack of support from school boards and teachers who saw little promise of help from the feds or state and lots of exposure to risk in carrying out the reform strategies required.


          In light of the Jindal administration cuts in education budgets, three consecutive freezes of the growth factor from the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP), and shifting of state costs to local expense (National Board Certified Teacher stipends, bus transport of private school children, and state retirement contributions) it is clear that LSBA membership was correct in its assumptions that the state would not be fiscally responsible for providing funding for programs it initiated.

          Analysis of the Jindal education program reveals that it was, in fact, part of a well orchestrated effort born out of conservative ideological think tanks and specifically the work of Paul T. Hill at the Center for Reinventing Public Education, at Washington University. Hill had been writing for years for the need to radically transform education through conservative market-based reforms and new public-private partnerships in education in order to cure what allegedly ails school districts. In a publication for the Brookings Institution Press, in 2004 Hill and his colleague, James Harvey, wrote a small publication entitled: Making School Reform Work. In the book, the two authors write that the current system of education governance creates barriers that can make (educational) reform even harder (Hill and Harvey 2004).

          Thus one can see why it was important to attack local school boards as was done by the Jindal administration two years ago.  How the administration responded was through an aggressive turn of a pre-Katrina state takeover law.

          The demolition of New Orleans schools by Hurricane Katrina presented an opportunity for what Naomi Klein refers to as "disaster capitalism”; "Within nineteen months,” writes Klein, "New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools.” (The Shock Doctrine, 5) The hurricane was the ideal opportunity to replace the public schools with a new system of charter schools which would serve as the model for a broader movement across America. Danny Weil, author of Charter School Movement, argues that this shows "how public school systems in their entirety are being targeted for sweeping conservative change in the form of a contractualized charter school experiment that is the most radical of its kind in the nation.”

          How’s the experiment progressing?

          In December, Pastorek had the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education renew the charter contracts for a dozen New Orleans RSD schools that had reached sunset under the RSD law.  None of those dozen had met their academic achievement goals, and only one had met its fiscal reporting contract agreements in five years.  Yet they obtained a contract renewal.  Such a decision was to circumvent Act 35 requirement that school control by the RSD should sunset and be returned to the local district from which they were taken.

          Clearly the administration cares little of contract obligations, the law, or even the Constitution.  Even after half a decade of whole school reform models and excessive funding, the experiment in reinventing public education leaves most New Orleans children in underperforming schools.

          Dr. Michael Fullan and the Center for Development and Learning in Covington, LA, the high-priced Canadian consultant that Pastorek brought in to help reorganize education advised that accountability be played down in favor of capacity building, and then re-entry to accountability later.  "If you lead with accountability, which most states do, then people are immediately on the defensive and it doesn’t work so well.”

          Well Dr. Fullan was paid fully, but then Jindal and Pastorek ignored his advice and rammed through the legislature a shift to an alphabet system of grading schools that almost insures that the 14th highest rated high school in the U.S. News & World Report rankings will be only graded a "C” school.

          Pastorek, in 2007, believed in Fullan.  He said "…"The three pillars that Michael Fullan proposes are already being implemented in New Orleans, and there is reason to believe that we are setting the stage for real transformation of the quality of teaching in New Orleans RSD school.”

          Now we see that the RSD experiment has made few systematic strides toward building a world-class system of schools, and despite generous federal and private funding, the New Orleans model will fade.

          History is a harsh teacher.  In this review it seems apparent that reform or change is more likely to reach a satisfactory conclusion if the well established, and legal policy invested by the Constitution in elected local school boards frame and adopt programs of change. 

          If there is a reform charter school capable of matching the performance of local district controlled charter schools it can’t be found in the Department of Education rank ordering reports of School Performance Scores.

          The upcoming elections for Governor and BESE membership will define change.  Most locally elected officials believe that change will be more effective in the hands of local school leaders chosen by citizens of the community and responsive to them.

          That will be one of the most important decisions facing voters this fall.

Don Whittinghill



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