Academic journal article Education Next

Louisiana Threads the Needle on ED Reform: Launching a Coherent Curriculum in a Local-Control State

Academic journal article Education Next

Louisiana Threads the Needle on ED Reform: Launching a Coherent Curriculum in a Local-Control State

Article excerpt

"IT WAS ONE OF THE MOST POWERFUL VISITS I've ever taken," says Sheila Briggs, an assistant state superintendent with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. She is describing a visit last fall to Lake Pontchartrain Elementary School, a low-income school in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana, about 30 miles northwest of New Orleans. "The ability to hear what the state education agency was doing and then go into classrooms and see direct evidence was phenomenal," Briggs gushes. "I've never seen anything like it anywhere else."

Officials of state education agencies are not known for hyperbole. Maintaining data systems, drafting rules and regulations, and monitoring compliance are not the stuff of breathless raves--especially in Louisiana, whose education system ranks near the bottom nationwide on measures of student achievement and high-school graduation rates. Yet in the last year, education leaders from across the country have beaten a path here to see what they might learn from state education superintendent John White; his assistant superintendent of academics, Rebecca Kockler; and their colleagues. Together, this team has quietly engineered a system of curriculum-driven reforms that have prompted Louisiana's public school teachers to change the quality of their instruction in measurable and observable ways. These advances are unmatched in other states that, like Louisiana, have adopted Common Core or similar standards.

The linchpin of the state's work has been providing incentives for districts and schools statewide to adopt and implement a high-quality and coherent curriculum, particularly in English language arts (ELA) and mathematics, and to use that curriculum as the hook on which everything else hangs: assessment, professional development, and teacher training. Most notably, White and Kockler have pulled off these reforms in the face of strident political resistance to Common Core and without running afoul of districts and teachers in this staunch local-control state. The state has also posted tantalizing gains in student outcomes: Louisiana 4th graders showed the highest growth among all states on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test, and the second-highest in math (see Figure 1). However, in both Louisiana and the nation as a whole, 8th grade scores in reading and math declined slightly that year. It's too early to call Louisiana the new Massachusetts--2017 NAEP scores could indicate whether the needle is continuing to move in the right direction--but other states are taking notice and may be following Louisiana's lead.

"Large and Intriguing Differences"

Adopting new standards accomplishes nothing unless it gets teachers to change classroom practice. In 2016, when researchers at the RAND Corporation set out to study Common Core implementation at the state level, they found something unexpected. Using data from the organization's American Teacher Panel, a standing nationwide sample of about 2,700 teachers, the researchers noticed "large and intriguing differences" between Louisiana teachers and those in other states. Louisiana's educators were far more likely to be using instructional materials aligned with Common Core standards. They also demonstrated a better understanding of the standards and taught their students in ways the standards were meant to encourage.

"We saw consistently higher results in Louisiana," says Julia Kaufman, a RAND policy researcher. "There were occasional high points in other states, but we kept seeing this difference between Louisiana [teachers] and other teachers, which is why we decided to write the report. We just thought there was a story there."

There is a story, and it's about curriculum--perhaps the last, best, and almost entirely un-pulled education-reform lever. Despite persuasive evidence suggesting that a high-quality curriculum is a more cost-effective means of improving student outcomes than many more-popular ed-reform measures, such as merit pay for teachers or reducing class size, states have largely ignored curriculum reform. …

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