Educators in Louisiana increasingly will have to prove their worth — quite literally — to advance in their careers, according to the nearly 200-page application submitted last month to President Barack Obama's Race to the Top grant program.
Teachers will be evaluated partly on their students' test score growth. Principals will be judged based on how many successful teachers they hire. Schools of education could be financially rewarded — or closed — depending on the performance of their graduates. And professional development programs could be expanded — or scrapped — based on whether they produce measurable results.
In sum, data will drive decisions in Louisiana's schools to an unprecedented degree. Education officials have praised Louisiana's application for the preciseness of its goals. Here's just one example: The number of log-ins to an online system allowing educators to track their students' progress will increase from 350,000 this school year to 2 million annually.
But as in other states, the Race to the Top effort must contend with critics on both sides of the political aisle. On the right, some worry that winners could wind up with unprecedented federal intrusion into their local schools. On the left, some fear that the program overemphasizes charter schools and could upend teacher union contracts.
Louisiana, which applied last month for $315 million through the program, is widely considered a strong contender for some portion of the $4 billion-plus pot. Decisions on the first round of grants will probably come in April.
While many of Louisiana's 69 traditional public school districts voted not to sign on to the application, state officials garnered the support of 28 traditional school districts and nearly all of the state's independently operated charter schools. It also received a nod from the Louisiana Federation of Teachers.
Only a fraction of the 40 states that applied for the grants will likely win in the first round. But it's increasingly clear to many educators and officials, in Louisiana and elsewhere, that Race to the Top represents more than a one-time competition; that, directly or indirectly, the program's focus on charter schools, relentless use of data, and common standards reflect the Obama administration's education priorities.
Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said his organization has "serious reservations" about certain parts of the state's proposal. But our goal was "to stay fully engaged in the application and shape it as much as we possibly could."
Chas Roemer, a member of the state board of education, said he has "considerable concern about what role the state and federal government will play in our education system."
"We should already be doing what's outlined in this application rather than going to get additional federal money," he said. "What are we doing with the $8 billion we've already spent on our schools if not using it to ensure teacher quality?"
Measuring Students' Learning
The cornerstone of Louisiana's application is the quick creation of a "value-added" system for measuring teacher performance. Such an approach would judge teachers on growth they make with individual students, not simply the students' absolute test scores.
"We spend a lot of time looking at inputs: Does the teacher cover rigorous material? Does a teacher engage students effectively in the classroom?" said State Education Superintendent Paul Pastorek. "But those are really inputs. 'Value-added' is designed to create an objective way to measure the learning that a teacher effects."
He added that, in schools that have tried it, teachers tend to like seeing value-added results.
State officials plan to work collaboratively to develop the model, and then pilot it in a few traditional school districts and charter schools later this year. They must figure out how, or whether, to weigh external factors like a student's socioeconomic background or disability in measuring a teacher's performance. They will also have to develop a way to grade teachers whose students do not take the state's standardized tests: the LEAP and iLEAP.
Following federal guidelines, they plan to develop at least four "ratings" for teachers, ranging from "experts" who make at least a year and a half of growth with their students annually to "ineffective" teachers who make less than a year of growth.
Louisiana's application specifies that half of a teacher's evaluation will be based on value-added data, with the rest based on a combination of other factors, including classroom observations.
Monaghan said his organization fought to include a provision that factors in impediments outside a teacher's direct control, such as high rates of truancy or shoddy facilities.
"We are never going to go for a pure value-added evaluation," he said.
Roemer, on the other hand, wondered why only half of a teacher's evaluation would be based on student growth. "Granted, 50 percent is better than zero," he said.
Participating districts will have to use the evaluations to make decisions about teacher pay and retention, although it's unclear at this point exactly how that will work.
Louisiana's application also makes clear that principals will ultimately be judged at least partly on how many effective teachers they have in their building, and that districts will have to take steps to remove both teachers and principals who chronically underperform.
In its heavy reliance on test score data, the Race to the Top guidelines closely resemble No Child Left Behind, the signature education reform of the Bush administration. But while No Child Left Behind hammered whole schools for poor performance — labeling them "failing" or "academically unacceptable" if they failed to hit targets — the current proposals extend that further, honing in on individual classrooms.
However, the value-added approach is more nuanced and sophisticated than that of No Child Left Behind, which could soon be reauthorized. That law relies more on absolute comparisons of test scores, so it sometimes seems as if Ben Franklin High School, which accepts only high-achieving students, is measured on the same yardstick as schools in the state-run Recovery School District, where the average student starts well below grade level.
"In a nutshell, value added means being able to show where a student started, and how much they grew over a period of time," said Rayne Martin, a Recovery School District official who worked on the state's application.
The 'backbone of he state's plan'
The application repeatedly holds up the Recovery School District as a model for the rest of Louisiana, calling it the "backbone of the state's plan to turnaround low-achieving schools," and recommending that it oversee most schools in New Orleans through 2014.
In the months after Katrina, the state took over dozens of New Orleans public schools, putting them in the district. More recently, the RSD has absorbed schools in Baton Rouge and Shreveport. The state board of education must decide later this year whether to extend the RSD's jurisdiction over New Orleans' schools beyond 2011 or return them to the Orleans Parish School Board.
Toward the end of the application, the authors recommend keeping all schools in the Recovery School District through the end of the grant period, or 2014. In New Orleans, the RSD currently oversees 37 charter schools and 33 traditional ones, although the district expects to charter or close many of its traditional schools in the next few years.
Pastorek said it will likely take the state three to five years to further stabilize the schools and devise a long-term governance structure.
Martin said the Recovery School District is already using some of the strategies pitched in the state's Race to the Top application. Specifically, she mentioned the district's quick firing or transfer of principals who do not produce strong results.
Notably, the Race to the Top application does not typically distinguish between the strikingly different management styles of the RSD's charter and traditional schools. The state has given the charter schools full autonomy over curriculum, hiring and firing and budgets, while keeping its traditional schools on a much tighter leash. Although district officials have started to let the principals at traditional schools make their own hiring decisions, they are often far less flexible when it comes to curriculum, budgets and schedules.
Indeed, as evidenced by the RSD, the school reform movement currently emphasizes two seemingly contradictory trends: More top-down, dictatorial administration and setting of policies on the one hand, and unprecedented autonomy and flexibility for charter schools on the other.
Louisiana's Department of Education would receive a significant share of the federal money if the Race to the Top application is successful, which state officials say they would use to directly assist schools with their work.
"I don't question the intent, I question the outcome," Roemer said. "We have a long history in this state of money not getting to where we want it."
Pastorek responded: "There's no doubt in my mind that the federal government will ensure that we live up to the terms of our plan. Even if I get run over by a truck tomorrow, we have to comply with this plan regardless and there are plenty of safeguards in place to make that happen."
Sarah Carr, The Times-Picayune, wrote this report.
Copyright 2010 Associated Press. All rights reserved.