Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Cutting Through Bureaucracy in Education

By  Dr. Phillip Rozeman, Founder and Board Member Alliance For Education


This appeared as an Editorial in The Times (Shreveport) on Sunday, May 3 2010)


Bureaucracy is like sitting in a closed room without air conditioning in August.  It is stifling.  Cutting through bureaucracy is the intent of the “Louisiana Red Tape Reduction and Autonomy Act” authored by Rep. Jane Smith and supported by Governor Jindal.  This bill is about letting teachers teach and letting leaders lead.  The sheer number and magnitude of rules and regulations enacted over the years by the state of Louisiana related to education make compliance difficult for everyone involved.


Outside the world of education, it is hard to fathom living under regulations where the number of minutes in the school year or the prescribed minutes for a particular subject or summer remediation are mandated.  In my profession, I can’t even imagine someone mandating the use of 120 minutes to do a cardiac stent procedure when I can get a great outcome in 60 minutes.  In this bill, school systems would be judged by outcomes – not mandated time schedules and process. 


Rep. Smith’s bill is about local control of schools.  The topic of conversation among education leaders is often the lack of control over their own destiny.  Now is their chance to make changes they believe could improve schools in their district.  Everything is on the table except federal mandates and accountability requirements. The bill is built on the premise that the person closest to the work is in the best position to make decisions.  If enacted, this legislation would allow school districts to put more of the day to day decisions about the education of children in the hands of local policymakers, education leaders, and teachers.  This management principle is a foundation of successful organizations in any sector.


The recipe for common sense education policy is combining reduced politics in school policy decisions with a system that funds education programs that work and ends those that fail.  The closer decision makers are to the actual work, the more likely common sense will prevail.The “Red Tape Reduction and Autonomy Act” is voluntary.  Each school district has a choice of whether or not to sign up.  Nobody is forced to participate.  No unfunded mandates.  Just more freedom to develop solutions to address the challenges in local schools.


Reducing bureaucracy…Letting teachers teach... Local control...Hands on leadership.  Rep. Smith learned what it takes to make a great school during thirty years as a successful teacher, principal, and district superintendent.  This legislation gives people the freedom to develop solutions to problems that heretofore have been “out of bounds” for them.  Every system is designed to get the results it gets.  A system of greater freedom and choice will spur greater innovation and imagination.  Allowing for these missing ingredients will build better schools for Louisiana’s children.


Posted by: Scott Hughes @ 1:55:41 pm  Comments (1)
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Truancy Program Worth Funding

By  D. Scott Hughes, Executive Director Alliance For Education

At their last Board meeting the Caddo School Board approved $60,000 to help continue funding a truancy prevention program through Volunteers For Youth Justice (VYJ) for the remainder of the school year.  We want to applaud this decision and encourage expansion of this partnership between the Caddo Schools and the VYJ ACT Now! truancy program.  ACT Now!, which stands for “Abolish Caddo Truancy Now!” has been an ideal model of how the community can work together to find a better solution to current day issues.  It also has been an extremely successful and beneficial partnership to the Caddo School system.

The project began as a series of luncheons hosted by the Learning To Finish campaign, a partnership of the Community Foundation and the Alliance For Education, around the idea of how we can all work together to keep more children in school.  The data on drop outs was fairly clear that truancy is an early indicator a child is getting into academic trouble.  The data is also clear that children who do not attend school often develop many other social and legal problems that further impede their ability to learn and graduate.  Monthly lunches were held and attended by representatives from Caddo Schools, the Juvenile Courts, Caddo Juvenile Services, the District Attorney’s office, the Caddo Sherriff’s office and the Shreveport Police Department, the Caddo Parish Commission, area non-profits who are active in truancy prevention and other community partners.  Key was the personal participation of Juvenile Judge David Matlock, District Attorney Charles Scott and Superintendent Gerald Dawkins.

The community team worked to develop a new model using the existing parts we already had in Caddo Parish.  Each part in the process brought something to table and found ways to improve efficiency and outcomes.  In the end the group selected VYJ as the best provider to serve in the critical role of program administrator and be the home for the expansion of more FINS (Families In Need of Services) Officers, who serve as officers to the court and are vital to working with truant children.  The Community Foundation agreed to fund the first year of operations with a $208,000 grant to seed the program and allow it to prove its success.  And succeed it has.

Since the program began in January 2009 through March 2010 the program has received 4,355 truancy conference referrals.  When the program began it was common practice to see participation at the initial conference level, the best place to intervene the fastest, hovering at the 10% level.  Since the new process has been put in place VYJ has seen this number steadily increase to a level that now reaches 65% participation at the initial conference with an overall rate over the 15 months now up to 40%, or four times what is was previously.  What does this mean in real terms?  As reported in The Times, this means a 2-point rise in Caddo daily attendance, or about 1,000 more students a day who weren’t in school a year ago now attending.  This rate is as much as a 10-point rise in alternative schools.  The program is working and children are attending school.  That ultimately translates to more children learning and prepared to succeed in life, fewer social and legal issues for children, and yes, dare we say better test scores.  It is a win-win-win for the children of Caddo Parish.

It is worth noting this program is a great partnership that expands on all the existing good work being done in Caddo.  Rutherford House continues to offer high quality services for the schools it serves.  The Caddo Schools Child Welfare and Attendance Office continues to reach out to help children and Caddo Parish and the City of Shreveport continue to fund FINS officers to help address the problem.  The decision of the Caddo School Board to make this commitment to help push truancy efforts in Caddo Parish even higher is a strong commitment to help children.  It is a commitment that will continue to pay huge returns for years to come.  The Caddo Schools/VYJ program is a great model of finding a way to improve services, help children and build strong community partnerships.

Posted by: Scott Hughes @ 2:05:25 pm  Comments (1)
Monday, March 29, 2010
Healthy Schools Mean Better Students

By  D. Scott Hughes, Executive Director Alliance For Education 


America is slowly becoming a nation of obese and unhealthy people.  As our national wealth has grown so have our waistlines.  As our ability to connect to more technologies, primarily television, has improved our ability to connect with meaningful exercise has waned.  And sadly this is a trend that can be seen directly in the health and success of our children in our public schools. 


In recognition of these trends local school systems were directed in 2006 to put in place a Wellness Policy by 2007 to help improve the health outcomes of all students.  The State Department of Education recently renewed this call for all districts to have a Wellness Policy in place as well as a Wellness Coordinator.  This matches the national effort that is picking up steam to work to improve the health outcomes and obesity levels of our children.  It is an effort being lead on the national level by First Lady Michelle Obama among many others, and it is a message whose time has come.


In Caddo Parish the good news is our district was an early mover in establishing a Wellness Policy.  The Caddo Wellness Policy was approved by the Caddo School Board in October 2007 and we are now in year three of the first five-year Strategic Plan.  Caddo’s plan is built around three key Strategic Goals of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Healthy Behaviors.  It builds on a fundamental belief that we can imbed Wellness into all aspects of school activity.  And the research from California and Texas studies indicates this type of an approach does lead to better educational outcomes.  Locally, Sabine Parish just south of us has made a major commitment to “Healthy Schools” or “Coordinated School Health” as it is often referred to in governmental speak, and it is paying off big time for Sabine. 


The key component to date in the Caddo Wellness Plan is the introduction and now expansion to all Caddo schools of the Fitness Gram testing.  All children in grades 4-12 should be receiving a pre and post Fitness Gram test.  A report of the wellbeing of the student is sent home to parents to help them better understand the health status of their child and the data gained as a school site and district can be used to review and improve the programs in place at the various schools sites.  This is a vital process that will help bring focus, accountability and consistency to Caddo wellness programs. 


At the Alliance For Education we are very interested in the concept of using wellness to improve educational outcomes.  As stated above, the data available indicates healthy children perform better academically.  As the District PTA and other community partners of the district we should be asking how we can better support the healthy outcomes for our children.  Does your school have a functioning Wellness Team?  Is your PTA helping promote healthy activity for your children in terms of physical education, health instruction, and dietary choices.  Are you reaching our through health fairs, parent information meetings and other ways to help your parents better understand the data being provided them on the Fitness Gram reports.  At the Alliance For Education we are working to revamp many of our projects including the Walk For Education to place more focus on fitness and less on fundraising.  We hope to have some exciting announcements soon on the Walk changes and would like to encourage all local PTA’s to begin to focus on the wellness of the children of their school as a strategy to improve learning.  We would be happy to come speak to any PTA on school wellness or would encourage you to contact the Caddo Wellness Coordinator Kay Cochran directly at the School Board office who is also available to come speak to your PTA.  By improving the health and fitness of our children we all win.  And the big winners will be the children.

Posted by: Scott Hughes @ 3:31:29 pm  Comments (0)
Friday, February 26, 2010
Summer School Looms On Horizon

By  D. Scott Hughes, Executive Director Alliance For Education



Beginning in March and ending in April students in Louisiana public schools will be sitting down to take the iLEAP test.  This is the test that largely sets the stage for the annual issuance of School Performance Scores in the fall and tells children, especially those in the high stakes years of 4th and 8th grade if they get to promote on to the next grade with their peers.  The results of the State testing program will be released on May 18.  For those who succeed this will be a joyous day.  For those who fail it will be the first date in a string of days that will begin a process called "remediation" in education circles.  This means those students will get additional instruction to help them on the re-take date of June 28.  The period between the end of school in a given district and June 28 is often referred to as Summer School.  And Summer School this year in Louisiana is in a world of chaos. 


The Louisiana Department of Education mandates summer remediation for those children who fail to pass the iLEAP in 4th and 8th grade.  They mandate 100 hours (50 for Math and 50 for Language Arts).  Traditionally this mandate has been accompanied with funding to assist local districts implement this task.  This summer there is no funding.  Summer school has become an unfunded mandate from the State to local districts.  This now places all the accountability on the districts, with very specific rules and no funding.  And with many districts struggling financially, the prospect for high quality summer school to help save many of our most struggling students is not looking good.  Something needs to happen to allow for summer school remediation to take place in a meaning, and viable manner.


Current law allows for no more than 20 of the 100 hours needed to be allowable during the final weeks of school after the testing is done and the results are known (May 18 until the end of school).  The reality is most Districts have the capacity and infrastructure in place, including the children already in school, to do upwards of 40 hours of remediation with these children without any additional costs.  This should be allowed.  Why wait until the lazy days of summer to start on a known problem.  Districts need flexibility around the 20 hour in-school remediation rule to start to work right away.  Further, no known research seems to indicate the 100 hour rule (50+50) is any magic bullet.  In fact, most research including our own personal experience at the Alliance For Education with very successful high quality, short term After School Academies seems to indicate that shorter term high quality interdiction can be very effective.  In today's world our school districts should be allowed great flexibility around the 100 hour rule to try higher quality short term strategies.  Especially when they are accountable for the results and now are footing the bill 100%. 



This concept of allowing public school districts more flexibility and even waivers from several onerous rules and regulations is one whose time has come.  The State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek has expressed as much in numerous public appearances.  Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has supported the idea publicly to give public schools more flexibilty and autonomy.  The time has come for the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Departmental staff to allow such flexibility and let our local districts have a chance to put in place a quality remediation and summer school program that works for Northwest Louisiana.  It's the last chance many of these children have before they fail an entire year and move a step closer to dropping out rather than a rung higher on the climb to graduation.

Posted by: Scott Hughes @ 6:59:40 pm  Comments (0)
Monday, November 16, 2009

By  D. Scott Hughes, Executive Director Alliance For Education



Louisiana has led the nation in educational accountability, a key benchmark in reform efforts, for the last several years.  One of the most controversial pieces of our accountability efforts is the inclusion of what is referred to “high stakes testing” in the 4th grade, 8th grade and 12th grade.  Simply put, this means in Louisiana you must pass an Exit Exam to move from 4th to 5th, from 8th to 9th and to gradate from high school.  While the 4th grade test has proven troublesome for many elementary programs, it is the 8th grade and high stakes graduation exam that have attracted the most attention.  Data clearly shows one of the highest grades for drop-outs is the 8th grade, and many believe the high stakes test to promote out of 8th grade is a prime reason.  Leaving aside the issue that the test only measures the fact that many 8th graders cannot read or perform at grade level, the inability of students to pass the test and promote does begin a cycle that clearly leads to many dropping out.


Where the 8th grade test is clearly exposing academic issues in our systems, the 12th grade test creates another whole set of problems for School Boards and students.  For where the 4th grade and 8th grade tests are primarily a measure of a student’s readiness to move on in their studies, the 12th grade test becomes a single test to determine graduation.  Many students had done well in school, passed the needed courses and simply had a bad testing day.  The fact they were able to successfully complete the twelve years of course work shows they had a basic foundation of skills.  Those with out basic skills were largely exposed at 4th or 8th grade.  But failure to pass the one exit test meant they did not graduate with their class.  Parents and students ended up petitioning local school boards who were basically powerless to grant exemptions.  Twelve years of working towards a day of Pomp and Circumstance was undone and the student was left with a horrible experience on day that should have been a proud moment.  And while most caught in this exit exam net did go on to graduate in summer school on a test retake, they were unable to move immediately to college lacking a high school diploma and many more were simply left with a bad experience that marred their school experience and desire to continue learning.


This policy of high stakes 12th grade exit exam was recently undone by the BESE Board.  And while many may immediately accuse the Board of backing off accountability, it was the right move.  We still have testing in Louisiana high schools.  In fact, the move was largely made routine with the addition on high stakes “End of Course” testing for all the major academic subjects.  This means that now a student must pass a standardize test at the conclusion of the subject material to get credit for that class.  They must now actually pass numerous “high stakes” tests to successfully complete the high school credits needed to get to graduation.  What this means in the big picture is that we have made a huge stride towards insuring classes hold the same weight, or at least similar minimum standards, across the entire state.  Algebra I now means you learned, were tested and passed on the same material and level in Shreveport as a student did in Bunkie or New Orleans.  The trade out of one all-or-nothing high stakes exit exam for numerous end of course high stakes tests is a good policy move by Louisiana. 



In fact, we now have a system similar to that in most higher educations institutions.  With few exceptions, college graduates are not expected to pass one test on their four years of various subject matter studies.  They pass the unique classes one at a time.  If you fail that class you repeat that class.  A common sense solution that has been returned to Louisiana high schools to place the focus back on learning specific content and not focused on being able to pass a generalized end of high school test.  Now we need to start to work on helping those 4th and 8th graders read and perform at grade level.  When more children are able to actually get to high school with improved basic skills we will have even less worry about high stakes tests in high school.

Posted by: Scott Hughes @ 5:33:15 pm  Comments (2)
Monday, November 9, 2009

By  D. Scott Hughes, Executive Director Alliance For Education


At the November 3 meeting of the District PTA I had the honor of serving as the program presenter.  That day I choose to present a program entitled “SPS & PTA – A Direct Connection”.  I presented some data that showed more clearly what School Performance Scores (SPS) really mean.  After reviewing what comprises the SPS scores and reviewing the good results posted by Caddo Parish for the past school year I took a look at what the various levels of SPS really mean.

The goal of the Accountability Program is to get all schools to an SPS score of 100.  Currently statewide 300 of 1,300 schools (23%) have hit this target goal and here in Caddo 16 of 66 (24%) have done so.  What does 100 SPS mean?  It is a test metric that reflects on average at a school with a 100 SPS 75% of children are at or above grade level.  That means 25% of children at a school with an SPS score of 100 are below grade level.

The State average is an SPS score of 86.  In Caddo we have 24 of 66 (36%) with a score of at least 86.  What does 86 SPS mean?  It means on average a school with an 86 SPS has 56% of children at or above grade level.  That means 44% of children at a school with an SPS score of 86 are below grade level. 

The minimum SPS allowed to avoid sanctions and possible State takeover is an SPS of 60.  Statewide 55 of 1,300 (4%) are below 60 SPS.  In Caddo we currently have 7 of 66 (11%), although our numbers here are rapidly improving.  What does 60 SPS mean?  It means on average a school with an 60 SPS has 35% of children at or above grade level.  That means 65% of children at a school with an SPS score of 60 are below grade level.  It means something has to be done.  The collective “we” must do something.

I believe firmly a big that of that “something” is more and better PTA’s.  When you look at the data there is a direct link between those schools with a very active PTA and good SPS scores.  So much so in fact that I believe you can make a mathematical equation:  PTA = SPS.  It is that simple.  And as with any math equation with an equal sign, what you do to one side directly affects the other side of the equation.  If PTA is non-existent or weak, then expect a weaker SPS score.  But if we can improve or in many cases, start a PTA at a struggling school then we can fully expect improved SPS scores.  Parental and community involvement matters.

So the question becomes whose role is it to start PTA’s, and are we being as effective with the ones we already have in place.  I believe firmly the role of starting a local school site PTA is the responsibility of the school and the District PTA.  The Alliance and other community partners will help, but it will require the leadership of the PTA structure to make units happen at those schools without a functioning unit.  The data is clear that PTA works.  We need to all help make it work for all children and schools in Caddo Parish.

Posted by: Scott Hughes @ 9:19:04 pm  Comments (0)
Monday, October 26, 2009
What Does “SPS” Really Mean?

By  D. Scott Hughes, Executive Director Alliance For Education



In Louisiana we have been attempting to measure educational outcomes through our School Accountability Program, which has set a goal of every school reaching an School Performance Score (SPS) Score of 100.  An SPS score of 100 is an academic measurement of a school that shows 75% of children are at grade level or better.  To date, through the just released scores for the 2008/09 SY, roughly 300 of Louisiana’s 1,300 schools (23%) have met this basic standard where at least 75% of the children are on grade level.  Locally, 33 of 140 schools (24%) in our seven parishes have met the 100 SPS goal.  Simply put that means we have 3 out of 4 schools in our state and region where less than 75% of children are not on grade level. 


Looking deeper, the State average for an SPS score last year was an 86, an all-time high.  What does an 86 SPS mean?  It means that 56% of children at that school are at or above grade level.  In Louisiana 650 of 1,300 schools are at or above the average.  In a state with roughly 680,000 K-12 school children that equates to about 200,000 children currently below grade level.  Assuming the seven systems in northwest Louisiana have about 85,000 school aged children it means we likely have about 38,000 currently below grade level.  Those schools who receive an SPS score below 60, the current level to be at to avoid Academically Unacceptable status, have only 35% of children at or above grade level.


Experience has taught us that understanding SPS scores can be very difficult.  Though the goal as stated above is to get all schools to 100 SPS score, this only reflects 75% of children at grade level.  We have been conditioned to believe 100 is the top score, when in fact on this scale a top score would be 200, reflecting 100% of all children at that school well above grade level.  So a score of 86, the State average looks like a high “B” when in fact it really means only a little more than half the students at that school are on grade level.  And all accountability and testing aside, being on grade level seems like a reasonable expectation.


Simply put, grade level is an easy concept Americans can relate too.  In fact, the Obama Administration has recently begun to better outline its larger vision for public education in the United States.    In brief, it is built around two simple premises: 


1)     Every child on grade level in that grade

2)     Every graduate ready for college and career


Simple concepts that are much harder to put into action.  Ultimately the goal seems to be to create an environment where the school works well.  And as school districts across the country are learning, that type of learning environment will likely take different solutions for different collections of students.  Some need more basic instruction to catch up.  Some need more personal options for their unique learning style.  All need more relevant learning that engages and inspires us to go well beyond a point where we are even willing to accept 75% of kids on grade level as a goal. 

Posted by: Scott Hughes @ 7:15:47 pm  Comments (1)
Monday, October 19, 2009
State Accountability Working

By  D. Scott Hughes, Executive Director Alliance For Education


The State Department of Education recently released the School Performance Scores (SPS) for every school in the State of Louisiana.  Test scores, viewed as a reflection of learning, were up across the board.  They were also up in northwest Louisiana. 

Here is a recap of how our local districts did with the latest data release:


Bienville          8 of 8 showed growth

                        3 of 8 achieved target growth

                        NO schools in AUS status (<60)

                        2 schools with an SPS of 100+



Bossier          20 of 29 showed growth

                       10 of 29 achieved target growth

                        NO schools in AUS status (<60)

                       13 schools with an SPS of 100+



Caddo            54 of 66 showed growth

                        20 of 66 achieved target growth

                        7 schools in AUS status (<60)

                        16 schools with an SPS of 100+



Claiborne       4 of 7 showed growth

                        2 of 7 achieved target growth

                        NO schools in AUS status (<60)

                        NO schools with an SPS of 100+



DeSoto           4 of 11 showed growth

                         3 of 11 achieved target growth

                         NO schools in AUS status (<60)

                        1 school with an SPS of 100+



Red River       2 of 3 showed growth

                        1 of 3 achieved target growth

                        NO schools in AUS status (<60)

                        NO schools with an SPS of 100+


Webster         9 of 16 showed growth

                        3 of 16 achieved target growth

                        NO schools in AUS status (<60)

                        1 school with an SPS of 100+



All told 101 of the 140 (72%) of reporting school sites saw growth in the 2008/09 school year.  Every school is also assigned a projected growth rate based on where they need to be under the No Child Left Behind goals and 42 (30%) of the 140 schools hit those growth targets. And while growth targets can be harder to understand, the goal of the targets is to try and keep the school on target to achieve a 100 SPS score this school year.  So schools who were farther away had larger SPS growth targets since so little time remains to hit the target.  Either way, to see 101 schools achieve growth is a very positive trend I am glad to see in our local schools.


What does it all mean?  In the big picture it means the Accountability Program is working.  Schools are performing better due to the hard work of teachers, principals and school staffs.  It means more children are learning.  It does not mean we are where we need to be, but we are headed in the right direction.

Posted by: Scott Hughes @ 7:03:04 pm  Comments (0)
Monday, October 12, 2009
Keep the Door Open for Teaching Talent

D. Scott Hughes, Executive Director Alliance For Education



The recent flack in Caddo Parish and throughout Louisiana over the treatment of foreign teachers and their families by recruiters in their home country has caused quite a stir in Louisiana education circles.  For those not familiar with the issue, Caddo Parish and many other school systems throughout Louisiana went to the Philippines to recruit foreign teachers to come to Louisiana to help fill vital needs including Math, Science and Special Education teaching slots.  This was done under a larger umbrella contract with a company that had been selected by the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) to work with the Recovery School District (RSD) in New Orleans and in other RSD schools across the State.  Local school districts were offered the opportunity to piggyback along on this State contract and many did in search of new teaching talent.


The districts traveled to the Philippines to met and recruit hundreds of teachers who then relocated to Louisiana and began teaching.  It is worth noting that by all accounts these teachers have performed well in the classroom, and many are still in place today throughout the districts.  This issue is not about their competency, but rather about the conditions many endured to get to the United States.  As the facts are now coming to light, many of the recruited teachers were taken advantage of by the local Philippine contractor who apparently demanded high portions of the recruits salary and even threatened harm to the families if the monies were not paid in return for helping provide access to the American recruiters.  This was all done without the knowledge of the American recruiters. 


What is clear is that no one in the process believes what took place is acceptable on any level.  The Philippine teachers received abused from their fellow countrymen akin to indentured servitude, and as the details have come forth both the State and local districts have reacted swiftly to help insure the safety and wellbeing of the teachers.  Investigations have been started and the Philippine contractor in question has been fired.  These teachers were wronged on a scale that is hard to imagine in today’s modern world. 


What is less clear is how local districts and school boards will react to the situation.  Many boards have immediately reacted by talking about rules that would prohibit any future hiring of foreign teachers.  Some have talked about putting into place rules and policies that limit travel of recruiters.  Sadly, in typical reactionary mode many boards may miss the larger issue. 


At the core of this issue is the principle of seeking the best and brightest teachers available to educate our children.  This process sadly had a bad vendor in the mix, but a fraudulent vendor relationship can exist in textbook purchasing, construction or human resources recruiting.  In the end we should be very careful not to overreact to a tragic situation by putting rules in place to make us feel good, but that might ultimately limit a districts ability to seek and attract good talent.  And while prudent financial and contractual checks and balances should always be in place, putting the “where” and “when” and “who” gets recruited or hired decisions to a board vote is a dangerous slippery slope.  We have a much more diverse work force today in our local school systems because recruiters are allowed to travel and search for qualified applicants.  This same type of recruitment process first opened the doors to recruitment of African American applicants on Historically Black Colleges and is now being used to attract highly qualified teachers in specialty areas from around the country.  Diverse talents and people have been good for expanding the teaching pool and that means going where the talent is to get it to come here.


No one has questioned the work ethic or teaching ability of the foreign teachers.  Their very presence has enriched our community and they are making a difference in the classroom.  Let’s hope we continue to seek bright minds from within and from without our community to educate our children.  Let’s not put in place rules that keep much needed human capital out of our communities. 

Posted by: Scott Hughes @ 4:20:03 pm  Comments (0)
Friday, July 10, 2009
The 5 things we should consider to improve our schools

D. Scott Hughes, Executive Director Alliance For Education

Improving public education is a huge task for any community to undertake.  It involves the combined efforts of the education, business and civic communities.  It requires consistent effort and strong leadership.  It also requires a vision on where we are headed.  Over the past decade school reform in Louisiana has been largely driven by increased academic standards, often referred to as “Rigor” in education circles, and through implementation of the toughest accountability program in the country.  The accountability program comes in the form of testing and school performance scores (SPS), most notably the “high stakes testing” in the 4th and 8th grade.  High stakes means pass or you repeat the grade.  Many argue that this has led to over focus on teaching to the test and not enough focus on better reform improvements than simply testing.  While these reform efforts have helped drive improvements, many other ideas exist that can also help led to improving our schools.  Based on research the Alliance For Education has done, here are five ideas for communities to consider:

Year Round School .  Many models have shown that year round programs increase learning, especially among high poverty children.  In Caddo several schools use a “year round calendar” without placing any more days of instructions into the year.  They simply take a shorter summer break and add in a few breaks, called “intercessions”, throughout the year.  And while the complete story is still largely untested, there is data that suggests this improves learning cycles of students throughout the year and eliminates the regression of some children over the long summer break.  Surveys have also shown it helps keep teaching morale and retention high since the faculty gets a break every nine weeks to recharge.  And history has shown the intercession breaks offer a great opportunity for community camps and expanded learning sessions without taking away from core teaching time.  An idea worth further consideration.

Extended Year.  Building on year round school, extended year actually adds days to the instructional calendar.  Many schools do this around a year round concept, but the basic idea is simply more time on task.  Around the globe most school children in other country attend school many more days than those in America .  Several area schools, most notably the very successful “high poverty” school Pine Grove Elementary  has used this concept to add instruction time to help catch children up to grade level.  Another idea worth further consideration.

Extended Day.  Much like extended year seeks to add time on task, extended day is a concept built around more instruction time and better alignment of community needs.  Caddo Parish is exploring extended day this year with the eight struggling schools identified in the Caddo Plan.  Extending the school day obviously adds more instruction time.  But extending the day also helps address a huge social issue that currently places children out of school in the middle of the afternoon with little or no adult supervision available in many situations.  It is no surprise to law enforcement and courts that most juvenile crime and troubles occur between 2:00 and 5:00 p.m.  Extended day helps better align the needs of working families with an educational solution that provides more learning time.  And while the focus will need to be on how we better use the extra time, extended day is a concept well worth considering. 

Coordinated School Health.  Simply put, this is about putting more caring people into our school buildings.  More nurses, more guidance counselors and where needed more social workers and security officers.  Developed by Dr. Pat Cooper (Springhill, LA native) for the CDC in Washington , it is a nine component plan to place resources into a school to address the complete needs of both the students and the faculty.  Wellness, nutrition, mental health and physical health and instruction are some of the key areas.  It is a concept built around Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid that simply asks “What do our children need to be at their highest and best learning potential?”  School systems like Sabine that have committed to a Coordinated School Health program have seen tremendous academic gains.  The North Caddo area simply added a nurse through a community partnership and saw out of school check-outs go down over 200%.  Natchitoches and DeSoto are working to implement parts of the plan and Webster Parish is very interested in CSH as a solution to many needs.  It is an idea worth consideration in many other communities. 

Pre-K.  All data shows the best learning time is the early developmental years.  Recent research shows that Louisiana leads the nation in high quality Pre-K programs, particularly with the LA4 Program and many outstanding Head Start Programs.  But in a State that only mandates attendance beginning with the 1st Grade, the time has come to place more focus on the early years.  A good start would be mandating kindergarten for attendance and placing more funding through the now approved LA4 Program that would provide Pre-K school for all children up to 400% of the poverty level, which is almost all children in Louisiana .  We also now have a STAR rating program for private Pre-K facilities that awards tax credits to private pay students based on the quality level of the service received.  More focus and funding on the early foundation years is a concept well worth further consideration.

Posted by: Scott Hughes @ 10:21:53 am  Comments (0)
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Editorial 1-18-09

D. Scott Hughes, Executive Director Alliance For Education

Recent actions by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) have placed eight Caddo schools into a unique operating environment to avoid state takeover and placed two schools, Linwood and Linear middle schools, under direct state control.  It is always sad when a community loses control of local schools.  Caddo Parish has long had a community spirit that believes we can best solve our problems locally.  The Caddo Plan that was created by Caddo Superintendent Dr. Gerald Dawkins is a great example of local creativity and solutions to a local problem. 

I believe in its actions BESE greatly honored our community's desire to solve our own problems.  After New Orleans schools failed children for decades the BESE Board finally stepped in and took control of all schools in greater New Orleans.  To date more than 150 Orleans area schools have been placed under direct state control.  The East Baton Rouge (EBR) School System failed to improve for over a decade and BESE has now taken direct control of 12 of the 16 EBR schools to come before them, including eight of the 12 in this round.   Caddo was allowed to keep eight of 10 this round, and including Bethune Middle School which is currently under an operating agreement, BESE has voted to allow Caddo to keep local control of nine of the 11 schools to come before them for failure to meet minimum standards. 

In its decision BESE sent a strong message about capacity.  Both the capacity of a local district to implement such a bold plan and the capacity of our community to deal with change.  It is clear had we only had two or five or even eight schools in academic failure we would have had the capacity to keep all our schools.  We now have 11 schools in failure and BESE felt that was too many for the same district that failed these children to help these children.  Sadly, as strong as the Caddo Plan is it came too late to save all ten of our schools. 

BESE is also recognizing that Caddo is not Orleans or Baton Rouge.  We are not a charter school market and with over 90% of our children still in public school, BESE understands we want to remain a strong public school market.  The key issue now is not about control of schools.  That is a policy debate that will likely never end.  The key question now is how we will insure the success of the schools we have been allowed to keep.  The Caddo Plan is a bold vision.  It can turn these schools around and prevent others from further failure.  The Alliance For Education pledges to continue to support Caddo Parish and help Dr. Dawkins with the Caddo Plan.  Taking advantage of the opportunity BESE has given us to prove local communities and school boards can solve our own problems can do more than just save our schools.  More than rhetoric, we have the opportunity to show local control can do a better job than state control.

Posted by: Scott Hughes @ 2:12:37 pm  Comments (1)
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