Louisiana’s education system has had a rough go, historically. One of the poorest states in the nation, Louisiana sees lower-than-average graduation rates and scores below average on every NAEP test subject. The state has worked hard to reverse these trends since 2012, implementing sweeping and creative changes to state standards, assessments, and teacher resources. A recent report from Julia H. Kaufman, Elizabeth D. Steiner, and Matthew D. Baird at the RAND Corporation seeks to understand the implementation—and more importantly, the impacts—of these myriad policies. The bottom line: Teachers are enthusiastic about the improvements, if not a little overwhelmed at the speed of change, but students haven’t felt much effect just yet.
The authors layer data from several different sources into their exploration of the state’s reforms. To understand Louisiana teacher experiences and compare them to those of teachers nationwide, they draw from RAND’s own American Teacher Panel, a nationally representative survey of educators. They also conducted site visits at four school systems, interviewing office staff, school leaders, and teachers. And to explore how the state’s reforms have actually affected student outcomes, they collect student- and school-level data on math and English language arts achievement from NAEP and the Louisiana Department of Education.
Kaufman and colleagues organized their findings around each of five key policy actions.
- Use state standards, assessments, and accountability to define and communicate a high bar for what is expected from schools and students.
The teachers and administrators interviewed were largely supportive of Louisiana’s new math and ELA standards that were adopted in 2017 and replaced the Common Core, and the majority said standards helped guide their instruction. However, they were not as supportive of the statewide assessments.
Teachers worry that the standards are too challenging for many students. Particularly in the early years of implementation, students struggled to meet rigorous standards without an equally rigorous foundation laid in previous grades. As one math teacher opined, “You need to teach fractions in third grade; we need to do fractions every year after that.”
- Signal to educators which instructional materials are high quality, and which are not.
The Louisiana Department of Education now offers annotated reviews of commonly used math, ELA, and science curricula for free online, sorting resources into three tiers of quality. RAND found widespread buy-in to this system. At least one administrator at every case study site was aware of which curricula were rated Tier 1 (the highest quality). Moreover, more Louisiana teachers reported using Tier 1 materials than the national average.
The online reviews cover formative and benchmark assessment options as well, though the state education department also offers LEAP360, a standards-aligned, online assessment-building tool. Teachers reported using LEAP360, but rarely other Tier 1 assessment materials. Above all, educators were wary of simply adding to the number of tests students must take each year.
- Increase the supply of high-quality, curriculum-specific professional development.
Interviewees across all case study sites recognized the need for intensive professional development to get teachers up to speed on new, highly-rated curricula and its corresponding standards. New teachers in particular said they would like guidance in understanding new standards, as they didn’t learn how to teach to standards in their teacher prep programs (though we at Fordham hardly count this a surprise). Office administrators noted the importance of subject- and curriculum-specific PD and emphasized that teachers must first get familiar with the new standards before “delving deeply” into more specialized development.
RAND found that most districts design their own PD programs. Many of the resources they created centered on Tier 1 curricula, but again, administrators chafed at the speed of change as they worked to keep their PD offerings aligned with the latest standards and curricula.
- Incentivize the use of high-quality curricula, professional development, and formative assessments.
Reforms from the state capitol can only go so far without major buy-in at all levels, which is why the education department worked hard on communications plans and incentive structures. Louisiana offered Tier 1 curricula at discounted prices for all schools and further funding for low-income schools. Now a school receiving a “D” or “F” grade on its annual report card must include the use of Tier 1 curricula in its turnaround plan.
Most teachers believed the standards and curricula could improve student outcomes. In fact, interviewees mentioned the new resources themselves more often than the accompanying financial incentives.
- Use communication structures to identify champions and gather information.
Most interviewees had at least some knowledge of most state policy changes, RAND authors found, thanks to the state’s many conference calls, webinars, newsletters, and regional meetups. In 2017, about a third of Louisiana teachers regularly used the state education department website, more than double the national rate.
So is any of this helping students? Maybe. There is a slight upward trend to LEAP scores overall, but black and Hispanic student scores decreased slightly, thus widening the achievement gap. Biannual NAEP results show similar trends, with a slight upward trend but a widened gap in seven of eight subjects—this while national achievement gaps continue to decrease. ACT scores for Louisiana eleventh graders are also up slightly, but flat for most disadvantaged groups.
These results are, obviously, underwhelming so far. However, Louisiana has long been one of the most challenged states when it comes to education, and one powerful theme in RAND’s interviews was the mismatch between students’ current reading and math levels and new, heightened expectations from the state. Teachers are still struggling to bridge these gaps. With new tools and better standards at their disposal, though, students may finally get the chance to receive quality instruction from their earliest school days.
SOURCE: Julia H. Kaufman, Elizabeth D. Steiner, and Matthew D. Baird, “Raising the Bar for K-12 Academics: Early Signals on How Louisiana’s Education Policy Strategies are Working for Schools, Teachers, and Students,” RAND Corporation (2019).