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Attitude shift needed for LA education to rise from abysmal

The “Nation’s Report Card” is out, and Louisiana schools and students as a whole flunked yet again. The nationally-applied test covers reading and mathematics for 4th and 8th graders. Overall for each, the state finished no higher than 45th and as a whole only about 20 percent of students were graded as proficient or better, meaning about 80 percent of Louisiana’s 4th and 8th graders are non-proficient in reading and math.

This is miserable, and the educational establishment and its defenders no doubt will offer a combination of excuses or “silver lining” statements to deflect from its failures. Typical of the latter is the comment of the former head of one of the bigger underperforming school districts in the state:

Assistant Education Superintendent Ollie Tyler, a former Caddo schools superintendent, said Louisiana students have steadily led the nation in improvements on [the] NAEP [test]. Although that did not happen this year, the number of students excluded from NAEP testing “significantly dropped, and that makes these results a reliable base from which we can continue to improve.”

Translation: the assumed progress of recent years was an artifact of an unrepresentative sample, and the no progress situation of the present most accurately describes how little education has progressed in Louisiana – but, hey, maybe it can get better.

The excuses will be something on the order of Louisiana has more minority students (of whom blacks and Hispanics typically perform worse although Asians typically perform better than average), that it has more poor students (who also typically perform worse) and teachers’ salaries are too low to get better teaching. But an investigation of the report and a little ancillary material, and a comparison with a neighbor, shows these are all bogus as explanations.

Very interestingly, in a relative sense, both minority students and poorer students (indicated by those on the free school lunch program) in Louisiana performed relatively better than the state’s students as a whole. In some categories of these, Louisiana actually was almost near the national average. If we excluded white students and “non-poor” students, Louisiana would rank much higher relatively (even as the proportions of those deemed at least proficient would go down somewhat.)

But checking next door, we find that a state similar in ethnic composition, Texas, had students doing not only far better than Louisiana students, but were among the top in the nation in most categories (and thus in the aggregate) for both grades and both subjects. Their proportion of students achieving proficient status was about double that of Louisiana’s. And it’s not teachers’ salaries causing this: Texas’ average salary was only about $1,500 more than Louisiana’s last year, ranking only 9th among the Southern Regional Education Board states, well behind states which were well behind Texas in student achievement.

The truth, long resisted by the Louisiana educational establishment, is that it is change in attitudes about education delivery that will allow the state to scale the same heights as Texas. It begins in the universities where more emphasis in attaining education degrees must be placed on learning subject content, not instruction method (including expansion of alternative certification options). It must be reinforced by schools where teaching excellence is encouraged by regular rigorous testing and application of other accountability measures to teachers, and by reward structures that emphasis quality, like merit pay, instead of just showing up for work and collecting a yearly COLA. It must be encouraged by shifting existing funding out of central offices and into the classroom. It must be strengthened by increasing discipline in schools.

Throwing more money at teachers, whining about demographics, and trying to avoid addressing the structural problems born of suboptimal attitudes about education delivery isn’t going to make it. There’s no reason Louisiana can’t do better in education with what it has if only new attitudes take root.

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