Three weeks ago, The Independent Weekly’s Lecture Series presented Louisiana Superintendent of Schools Paul Pastorek to discuss the future of education in our state. The series has a six-year track record of success, and attendance usually ranges from 300-800 people — except when the topic is education, when the audience dwindles to about 100. That’s happened three times in the history of the series and is, I believe, noteworthy given how much we talk about education in this city.
The luncheon program also included a report — which journalist Don Allen and I produced — on the challenges facing the Lafayette Parish School System. It is safe to say that our presentation received mixed reviews. It’s also important to note that Pastorek had no involvement in our report.
Pastorek is aggressive and often controversial, but that day it wasn’t his speech that hit the hot button with many educators; it was our presentation. They objected to its tone and questioned the data that was used. I promised to follow up on their concerns in this column.
The statistics presented at the lecture were 2008 numbers, but the 2009 data was available and should have been included. The differences are charted below and reflect Lafayette Parish performance as it relates to 70 school districts in the state:
|2008 ||2009 |
|District Performance Score ||27th||22nd|
|Ranking by graduation rate||29th||28th|
Educators voiced even greater objections to the portion of the presentation that included a follow-up on goals set in a 2001 pact between the Lafayette Parish School System and the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce. Secured in exchange for chamber support of a sales tax for teacher pay raises that year, the 92-page agreement was signed by then-superintendent Dr. James Easton. It set school-by-school performance goals for the next 20 years. The tax passed but chamber representatives involved in negotiating the agreement feel that LPSS reneged for its part, citing little progress — and in some cases losses — against the goals adopted. School administrators bristle at assertions they abrogated their responsibility and believe the document is obsolete because the state has changed how it measures achievement.
I’ve spent weeks grappling with a flurry of statistics and hard feelings. The 2001 deal fell apart for many reasons, some inherent and inevitable:
- Yes, the state has altered its methodology for measuring student achievement and school district performance. I could make the argument that you can still correlate corresponding performance indicators, but I’ll put that aside here.
- Lafayette Parish has a different superintendent and a new school board. Sources inside the system say they twice updated the agreement and finally shelved it because of changing state standards and new goals set by No Child Left Behind. They also say the former school board never officially adopted the document anyway.
- The chamber, by design, rotates leadership each year, so it’s difficult for the organization to maintain focus on long-term goals. It is not well-suited to hold a body like the school board accountable for a three-year plan, much less a two-decade improvement continuum.
The upshot is this: While intended to benefit the children of Lafayette Parish, the 2001 agreement has at worst generated hard feelings and distrust between two important education stakeholders and, at best, been a learning experience. It’s time to turn the page and move on, and there are two important reasons why.
First, Pastorek has developed a simpler, more succinct performance measurement tool called “Districts at a Glance” that will make it easier for parents and others outside a school board office to figure out what’s going on within our schools and school districts. The numbers will be posted on the Department of Education’s Web site in January along with a guide for us regular folks on how to use them. This is crucial for building accountability and trust at all levels.
Additionally, LaPESC — the Lafayette Public Education Stakeholders Council — has organized with a common commitment to improve overall academic achievement in our schools, to eliminate the achievement gap and to increase the high school graduation rates of all students. The group seeks to identify roadblocks to educational attainment for children living in poverty, who are mostly African-American, and to advocate for solutions to those barriers. A focused organization like LaPESC will be much better positioned to concentrate on meaningful achievement. It also brings the chamber and LPSS back to the table (both are founding members), along with United Way of Acadiana, 100 Black Men of Greater Lafayette, the Citizens Action Council, Concerned Citizens for Good Government, the South Louisiana Black Chamber, the State of Greater Black Lafayette and UL.
Are there good things happening in our system? Of course. I get to witness some of them first-hand as a proud member of the citizen advisory committee for the Academy of Visual and Applied Arts at Comeaux High School. It’s part of the Schools of Choice program that has been recognized nationally as a model. In five years, LPSS has narrowed the achievement gap between white and African-American students by nine points — significantly outpacing the U.S. average. In the last seven years, the percentage of our students who attend college has increased by 7 percent, and the number of graduates required to take remedial courses at college is down by 7 percent. Education Week has recognized LPSS as one of the top 10 districts in the nation showing the strongest growth in graduation rates, with a 20 percent jump between 1996 and 2006. And the 2009 graduating class received more than $21 million in scholarships.
You’ll find more posted on the LPSS Web site at http://www.lpssonline.com/getthefacts.
Once there, you’ll see lots of references to exciting new programs, which is fantastic, but less mention of measurable gains in student performance scores, which is what concerned citizens are eager to see — and soon.
The bottom line is this: Lafayette is envied for its excellent quality of life. The members of our business community are respected for being entrepreneurial and results-driven, embracing high performance standards within the companies they own or manage. A school system that ranks mid-range in an under-performing state is not acceptable here. Pastorek’s goal is a world-class education system for Louisiana, and Lafayette Parish, with its reputation and resources, should be leading the way. We need to be confident that we have the leadership — on the board and in the central office — to embrace that goal and get us there.
A school system that ranks mid-range in an under-performing state is not acceptable here. Pastorek’s goal is a world-class education system for Louisiana, and Lafayette Parish, with its reputation and resources, should be leading the way.