The initial round of Louisiana’s LEAP test score revelation for last academic year demonstrates the limits of educational reform and political will.
As a whole, the state’s students improved marginally. More substantial improvement, however, came at historically low-performing schools provided with more autonomy, resources, and demanding expectations, known as Transformation Zone schools. Each implemented a Tier 1 curriculum, recognized by the state as best aligned with and able to achieve state-mandated learning objectives. These also received additional funding from their districts (often grant money) and faced fewer constraints in administration, with many being charter schools.
By contrast, the original cockpit of state educational reform, Orleans Parish, suffered a small decline in scores on the standardized exam. This meant that over the past four years essentially no progress occurred in a district that, in that time span, went from having a majority of schools chartered and outside the Orleans Parish School District to having all schools become charters and under OPSD jurisdiction.
The institution of charter schools answering to authorities outside the district, coupled with above-average funding by the state that ran them, at first brought stunning progress to student achievement in Orleans. Admittedly, OPSD prior to Hurricane Katrina defined dysfunctionality, having in the aggregate some of the nation’s worst schools exacerbated by corruption and a leadership more interested in political than educational outcomes, so you really only could go up.
However, half-measures in reform unlikely would have made too little difference. Pulling up the entire system by the roots probably only could have pulled off the huge gains. Still, all that progress brought parish schools (those run by OPSD and the state combined) only to a mediocre level compared to the rest of the state.
Not that this means much. On the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress exams given in all states, Louisiana students placed 50th in both fourth and eighth grade math and 48th in both fourth and eighth grade reading. Although the state spent more per student than all but three southern regional states, on only eighth-grade reading did its students outscore any one of the other 15 states – several of which had more students in poverty. In other words, even the best-performing districts in Louisiana are mediocre elsewhere, and mediocre districts perform poorly compared to the rest of the country.
Yet it’s unlikely not coincidence that the stagnation in Orleans schools set in as OPSD began taking over more schools, and decline has commenced once it took over all schools. Proponents of reintegrating all schools into the district argued that local control would make these more responsive and presumably should perform better.
But this view forgets about the role of politics and how that can warp the goal of maximal learning. By contrast, having state-level supervision insulates such schools from the less savory political aspects of local control. Further, in this environment adding another layer of local control does little to add to local accountability, as charter schools already have boards supposedly accountable to parents and must follow even stricter state regulation.
In essence, having a central authority try to run dozens of semi-autonomous units which themselves answer partially to the state sets up the possibility of policy confusion and fragmented implementation. This may create inertia that triggered backsliding.
Optimally, the best solution might be to abolish the OPSD and have direct state supervision, but not operation, of schools within an educational accountability district. Political elites in New Orleans, seeing offices and power disappear, never will countenance this.
Of course, real political leadership on education has gone missing from the state’s chief executive since his election. Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards has done next to nothing to advance education except throw more money this year at a state educational system with the lowest-achieving schools in the country, even though it ranks in the middle of states in per pupil expenditures. Only the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, of which almost all of its elected members Edwards didn’t support, and its superintendent John White, who Edwards wanted to fire, have made positive statewide policy progress in education since Edwards’ election.
Any future progress the state needs to make will face headwinds until a governor serious about improving public education stops acting as a brake on the Legislature and BESE.