Walter Pierce

Pastorek touts education reform

by Walter Pierce

State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek made a case for education reform during a presentation on the South Louisiana Community College campus Tuesday. Sponsored by the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce and the Black Chamber of Commerce, Pastorek’s Power Point presentation was big on bold ideas for transforming public schools, and thin on specifics. "I want Louisiana to have a vision of public education - that we want all our schools to be world class," he said to roughly 40 business, civic and education leaders.

Pastorek said modest improvements in achievement, say, 5 percent annually, are not good enough. "I think we need to pursue a big idea. And if we decide to pursue other big ideas, it means that the world as we know it in public education has to dramatically change."

The superintendent praised so-called "new tech high schools," which are technology- and vocation-driven and focus on collaborations with outside industry. In fact, Pastorek said, given his druthers, he would do away with the "comprehensive" model for high schools that has been the standard for decades. He also praised Lafayette Parish’s adoption of the academy model for high schools. "Some people say we shouldn’t be preparing kids for a marketplace," he said. "Well, I absolutely disagree. The world as we know it is a marketplace, and if we’re going to survive we better be prepared for it. When we prepare students to just get a high school diploma, we are preparing them for failure in life."

Pastorek also held up the Recovery School District established in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina as a model for innovative ideas and provided a graph showing dramatic increases in achievement by RSD students, who are primarily poor and minority, compared to the state average. He referred to the RSD approach as "seed, feed and weed," arguing that "you seed new schools, you feed the ones that are there, and you weed out the ones that aren’t working." The lawyer by training also said he supports charter schools as long as they show results.

While the school chief’s pitch was short on specifics about how the state can achieve reform, he did return several times to a theme that has generated perhaps the most press coverage and the most opposition: taking local school boards out of the political equation to empower district superintendents and give principals CEO-like control over their individual schools. Pastorek’s plan includes imposing term limits on board members, replacing their salaries with modest per diems, and requiring them to have high school diplomas.

In support of this controversial component, Pastorek offered as evidence anecdotes about school boards meddling in the business of superintendents and getting bogged down in affairs he believes are outside their scope. "Board members need to be working on board policy. Superintendents need to be working on running the district. And the two should not be crossing over. That’s my main argument."