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Caddo failing schools plan itself not likely to succeed

Newcomer Caddo Parish School District Superintendent Gerald Dawkins has introduced a plan to deal with schools threatened by state takeover, which should receive an answer concering it from the state next week. As befitting a situation where dramatic results must be changed the plan is bold. Unfortunately, it addresses too few of the impediments that have created the underachieving problem in the first place.

To prompt better performance out of failing schools, first one must be clear about why the underperformance happens. No one cause, but several in part interrelated must be addressed before any substantial improvement can occur. They deal with the students’ backgrounds themselves, the competency of the teachers, and the administrative/political environment in which it all operates.

Dawkins’ plan faces long odds because it cannot adequately address all of these considerations. It seeks to create a theme at each subpar school (typically utilizing some already-developed education system), clear all present positions of their occupants and invite open hiring into them, and add instructional and development time among other things. The hope is to attract students from other attendance zones in the district interested in theme areas which (even if this goes unstated) can increase the school’s test scores, as well as to attract better teachers to get students to achieve more.

These outcomes may be realized, but given all of the other inertia they are unlikely to cause the big improvement necessary. The least controllable factor of school performance is the students themselves, more specifically the backgrounds and cultures from which they hail. Simply, in these schools, children disproportionately come from families that do not possess the attitudes and/or abilities to facilitate success in learning.

Regrettably, too many of these children have parents who do not value education and/or are unable to assist their kids in their schoolwork or in providing support that encourages students to stay in school and learn. (Not surprisingly, most of these parents were poor or indifferent students usually if now working in low-paying jobs that afford them little opportunity to give support, creating a cycle of low achievement.) Shamefully, until welfare reform in the past dozen years, these attitudes were encouraged (what was so important about doing well in school if the state would support you regardless?) and it will take a generation to undo the entitlement mentality present in the subculture of underachievement, something Dawkins’ plan can do nothing about.

Teacher competency in their subject knowledge base also contributes. In its initial certification guidelines (and note that schools are not forced to hire only teachers certified in the subject area they teach), Louisiana requires some undemanding demonstration of knowledge, but none to renew certificates. And a large number of teachers still operate under the old certification system where no demonstration of competency is required at any time. Louisiana as many states have done already needs to implement a periodic testing of subject area knowledge of all teachers to make sure only those who demonstrate proficient knowledge of the subject areas they teach be allowed to do so.

But this necessity is a pipe dream as long as current school governance remains unaltered and teachers’ unions given power to prevent the needed changes. Ideally, the best teachers, both in terms of subject competency and in pedagogical skill, would be placed in the worst schools. The central office could create a process offering substantially better pay for teaching in these schools, based upon these two merits demonstrated by some objective process, with it doing the hiring for these schools. That would be needed to get the better teachers in place.

However, this would invoke the wrath of the beneficiaries of the current process, where hiring is done in a decentralized process by principals primarily based upon seniority and who knows whom where the low-performing school are generally the last choice of teachers, and would be opposed bitterly by unions whose main goal is to transfer as much money as possible into the pockets of as many (unionized) teachers as they can and who have vehemently obstructed any efforts at kinds of merit pay or competency testing. Another potential improvement would be to introduce much sterner disciplinary measures for disruptive students, whose behavior disproportionately plagues these schools, but then different political and legal forces would fight these changes as well.

For a vexing problem it’s good to be a big thinker. But one also must understand the root causes of the disease, some of which are beyond schools’ control and others where fundamental political change must occur requiring courage seldom seen within the educational establishment. Dawkins’ plan addresses little of this, and such represents a reshuffling of chairs resting on the deck of a sinking ship.

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