Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Primary Focus of Louisiana's Race to the Top Proposal

The primary focus of Louisiana’s Race to the Top application for millions of dollars in federal education funding will be on linking teacher and principal evaluations directly to student performance on the Louisiana Comprehensive Curriculum (see theadvocate article titled Race bid brings big changes).Using this anticipated federal grant, State Superintendent Pastorek is proposing a state-directed revamp of how teachers are evaluated, compensated and tenured in Louisiana. In addition, the evaluation of, retention and promotion of school principals will be based almost entirely on the academic performance of students enrolled in their assigned schools.

Louisiana’s application for the Race to the Top grant titled “Race to the Top: Louisiana’s Education Reform Plan” (a copy of the plan can be found at was approved by BESE on January 12. It proposes a new teacher and school principal evaluation program (page 3 of the Reform plan) to be developed by the State Dept. titled “The Comprehensive Performance Management System (CPMS). This new system will require that 50% of each teacher’s evaluations be based on student achievement growth data. For principals, their evaluation will be based completely on student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and retention of effective teachers.

According to the State Department plan, the 4 year federal grant money which could total between 175 and 300 million dollars over the term of the program would focus efforts on 28 local school systems who have signed formal partnership agreements with the State Department. Up to half of the grant would go to those local school systems to assist them in reaching local student achievement goals (negotiated and agreed to with the State Dept.) and to implement the new teacher and administrator evaluation system. There will also be an optional component of the program aimed at “Turnaround” of low achieving schools with a SPS of 75 or below. At the same meeting where the R2T proposal was approved, BESE also raised the minimum SPS score for acceptable school performance from 60 to 75 over a three year period. Schools that remain below the minimum acceptable score for 4 years are subject to state takeover. Superintendents have been assured however, that participation of those schools in this “High Performance Schools Initiative” will temporarily exempt such schools from state takeover.

State Superintendent Pastorek in a recent conference call with local Superintendents said Louisiana’s R2T’s primary objective is “to have an effective teacher in every classroom”. He also specified that “our R2T effort will be all about teacher effectiveness”. He pointed out that there is also a component of the R2T program that requires teacher incentive pay or “stipends” based on student performance. There was a question from Superintendents about what would happen to the teacher incentive pay program after the R2T money runs out. Superintendent Pastorek responded “If you do not think you can sustain it (the compensation strategy) then R2T is not for you.” He also pointed out the following: “Most of these reforms are coming, one way or another. The Governor has announced that he will seek legislation to use value added assessments in the 2011 school year.”

Comment and Opinion: This proposal for Race to the Top as described by the State Superintendent will focus primarily on tying teacher and principal evaluations, retention and even salaries to student test results. There is no mention in the plan of using the grant for improved materials of instruction, equipment, supplies, student and teacher computers, or state of the art teaching aides, or reducing the pupil/teacher ratio. Even though it can be assumed that some schools (particularly the turnaround schools) will get additional instructional support, the primary focus of the program is to retain or dismiss teachers and principals based on student achievement results.

Apparently, it is assumed that we can ignore all other factors in a student’s life and require the teacher to produce results no matter what! The theory is that if we can just get teachers to teach harder and more effectively, all students will meet the academic goals set by the state. In addition, the buck stops with the principal. It is assumed that if a principal is an effective instructional leader, teachers will be effective and students will learn what is expected – even in schools serving low socio-economic communities. To the average person on the street these assumptions may seem perfectly reasonable. This theory seems perfectly logical to State Superintendent Pastorek whose formal training and experience is in the field of law. He has never taught a day in his life! (He did serve for a couple of terms on BESE before being appointed as State Superintendent)

The problem is there is no evidence in educational research that supports the idea that teacher and principal evaluations and individual incentive pay based on student test scores actually results in better education. There are some studies; however that demonstrate that rewards for the entire faculty as a group based on student performance often results in team building, sharing of effective practices among teachers, better morale and even improved student performance. But that’s not the model being proposed for Louisiana.

The plan adopted by BESE contemplates an increase in the firing of teachers and principals who do not produce student test results. Page 4 of the proposal offers State Department “guidance to LEAs to reduce transaction costs of tenure hearings”. The Dept. will also “Create a pipeline of high-quality teachers and leaders through alternative and traditional recruiting and preparation partners that can fill in the gaps in the availability of effective teachers.”

In my opinion, such a system would be seriously flawed from the start. It would be like blaming farmers for the weather. In fact, the way our school Accountability system works, it would be like expecting farmers who experience bad weather such as droughts to be able to produce an even better crop. That’s because schools that serve disadvantaged students in Louisiana are expected to produce larger SPS gains than schools that serve more privileged populations and are already doing fairly well.

The fact is teachers and school administrators do not control all the major factors that influence students’ success in school. The publishing of school performance scores has demonstrated that the SPS of a school is much more dependent on the socioeconomic factors of the students than on the quality of the faculty! This same factor continues to hold true even for the schools that were taken over several years ago by the State Dept. and placed in the Recovery School District. A recent analysis shows that last year, schools run by parish and local school authorities improved student scores more than the schools in the Recovery District. (You can request a complete copy of this analysis by sending me an email) Also, a larger percentage of parish run schools moved out of the unacceptable category than did schools in the Recovery District!

So even though school performance scores have been gradually improved in most Louisiana school districts, the main factors holding schools back are socioeconomic. It just does not make sense to continue beating up on and threatening to fire teachers and principals who already have to work extra hard to help underprivileged students. By the way, did I mention that on page 7 of the R2T plan, turnaround schools are expected to implement extended day/Extended year programs?

Note: My next issue will discuss the problem of more state mandated testing of students and more on unintended consequences of the R2T plan. Please pass the word around about this blog to other educators. I also encourage your comments and suggestions.