Lowering Standards in Louisiana (Senate Bill No. 259)

Louisiana’s Senate Bill No. 259 will create a high school career options program, giving students the option to pursue an “academic major” consisting mainly of core academic, college preparatory coursework, or a “career major” consisting of “academic courses and modern vocational studies.” Additionally, the new law will relax state testing standards for promotion to the 9th grade for students who will pursue a career major in high school. Currently, state testing standards require 8th graders to score at “basic competency” on either the English or mathematics portion of the LEAP Test (Louisiana Educational Assessment Program). That’s not a typo, I said either English or mathematics. Senate Bill No. 259 relaxes that standard and will allow prospective high school “career majors” to be promoted to the 9th grade if they score “approaching basic competency” in either English or mathematics.

Let me make this clear, testing standards in Louisiana presently say that students can go to 9th grade if they can do math and almost read, or they can read and almost do math. Senate Bill No. 259 will lower those pseudo standards even further to say that students can go to 9th grade if they can almost read but can’t count, or if they can use a calculator but may not be able to read a restaurant menu. The bill has already made its way through both chambers of the legislature and is on its way to Gov. Bobby Jindal who has said through a spokesperson that he will sign the bill.

Proponents of the bill defend it as a step toward lowering the state’s high school dropout rate (currently about 35%). However, critics including the State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek, contend that relaxing promotion standards for 8th graders is a step in the wrong direction for a state that has made progress in raising education standards. Additionally, I am greatly concerned about the message that we send by lowering educational standards that are already too low. If minimum basic standards can be lowered at will then they aren’t truly standards; they’re meaningless, no more than an educational game that we’re playing. In one breath we say to children that proficiency at X level in reading and mathematics is the minimum that you will need to be prepared for what lies ahead of you. But then in the next breath we say, well it’s okay if you don’t have these skills, we’ll send you on anyway.

Lawmakers are absolutely right that something must be done about the high rate of high school dropouts, but what they propose will not fix the problem. At best it might mask it. A high dropout rate is not the problem. Dropouts are only indicators of the problem. The problem is that too many children are not learning and lowering standards will not in anyway help them to learn. Whether you keep a student in 8th grade or send him to 9th grade, if he doesn’t have basic skills he still won’t be able to read. He still won’t be able to compute. Lowering standards for children does not help them, it does more academic and emotional harm by telling them that nobody expects them to achieve. The answer is not lowering standards, it’s maintaining them, eventually raising them, and seeing to it that children reach them.

Bullying & Gay, Lesbian, and Transgendered Students

The North Carolina School Violence Prevention Act (Senate Bill 526) passed its second reading in the state House yesterday. North Carolina is one of only a hand full of states that have yet to put an anti-bullying law on the books, but would be among the first to pass a bill that spells out protections for children bullied because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The act would require school employees to report all instances of bullying, and require local school districts to develop and implement policies for responding to such incidents. Few lawmakers have questioned the wisdom of requiring school districts to respond to school bullying. However, intense and largely partisan debate has ensued in the House around the specific protections for children bullied because of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The bill states specifically that bullying and harassing behavior includes “acts reasonably perceived as being motivated by any actual or perceived” characteristics such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, socioeconomic status, gender identity, physical appearance, sexual orientation, or disability. House Republicans argue that the inclusion of the controversial motivating factors for bullying is unnecessary, and that a bill protecting all children in the state from bullying is possible without the proposed language. State conservative analysts have assessed that including gender identity and sexual orientation as motivating characteristics in the bill would be a political victory for gay rights activists and set the stage for additional legislation including specific provisions to protect the rights of gay, lesbian, and transgendered citizens.

Conservative analysts are probably correct in their assessment that this bill’s passage would be a victory for gay rights activists in North Carolina setting the stage for activists to apply pressure in other areas. And I understand that for some, that is a threat. But the argument of Republican House lawmakers that it is possible to produce a bill that would protect all children from bullying without the inclusion of those specific motivating characteristics is questionable. Across the country, cases of bullying motivated by students’ perceived sexual orientation and/or gender identity have been ignored or minimally responded to by schools, resulting in more serious crimes committed against these young people and in all too many cases the tragic loss of life.

The language of the proposed bill says in no uncertain terms that bullying and harassing gay or perceived gay children in schools is unacceptable. Making that statement is important because for a long time our silence on the issue has sent the implicit message that it’s okay. While it still occurs, for the most part children are starting to understand that bullying or harassment based on race is unacceptable. We have been sending the message through legislation across the nation that sexual harassment will be not tolerated in our schools. Now it is time that we start to say plainly that the harassment of children because of their gender identity and sexual orientation will no longer be tolerated. Because this behavior has been ignored for so long, it is imperative that we now spell it out. Lawmakers should not allow their ideological or political stance on gay rights to stand in the way of sending the important and potentially life-saving message to children and school leaders that gay, lesbian, and transgendered children must be protected.

State Imposed Local School Board Term Limits

Both houses of the Louisiana state legislature have approved a bill (House Bill 504) that would limit Jefferson Parish School Board members to three consecutive four-year terms in office. Present members of the school board would be allowed to seek reelection three more times. Proponents of the bill contend that the measure is intended to bring new blood into the Jefferson Parish School Board. I find this bill intriguing for several reasons, but one stands out. The local school board has been heralded as the last bastion of direct democracy in America, with county/city residents having the opportunity every four years to choose which of their neighbors will make education policy for the local school district. The passage of House Bill 504, however slight, curtails that local decision-making power. It second guesses Jefferson Parish voters’ ability to choose school board members without the aid of additional state parameters. While it appears that the Louisiana legislature is within in rights to take the action that it has, let’s call their action what it is. House Bill 504 takes just a little bit more of Jefferson Parish residents’ power to make their own decisions about their children’s education.

Merit Pay and High-Poverty Schools

The News & Observer reported today that the Wake County School Board (Raleigh, NC) is discussing the possibility of applying for a federal grant that would provide pay incentives for teachers at high-poverty schools. The idea of merit pay for public school teachers is an extraordinarily controversial issue, and it is not my intent here to weigh into the merit pay debate. Rather, I propose that we consider the idea of ‘fairness’ that seems to get thrown around a lot in these discussions.

The ‘fairness’ question posed by opponents of merit pay is usually something like this: Is it fair to teachers at low-poverty schools to pay teachers at high-poverty schools a higher salary? Let me say first of all that I think this is an important question to consider. However, this is a question of fairness to teachers. I believe that before any questions of fairness to teachers are considered, we must fully consider how our action or inaction affects the lives of children. That being said, I offer the following ‘fairness’ questions for us to consider:

1. Is it fair to students in high-poverty schools that most teachers wouldn’t even consider teaching at their schools without incentives?

2. Is it fair to students in high-poverty schools that administrators sometimes must resort to hiring less than top quality teachers due to small and/or weak teacher applicant pools?

As always, I would love to hear from you!

Charter School Principal Salaries

The market-based and outcomes-based accountability systems that underlie the charter school concept are much different than the bureaucratic accountability systems that we have become accustomed to. While the specifics of charter school legislation vary considerably from state to state, the basic charter school concept is that these public/private hybrids of sorts are relieved of much of the bureaucratic oversight that traditional public schools are subject to, in exchange for agreeing to high standards of academic achievement. One area of freedom that many charter schools enjoy is budget autonomy; meaning most if not all school spending decisions are made at the school level, usually by boards of directors and school administrators. With that freedom, a number charter schools have chosen to pay their school leaders salaries that are significantly higher than the salaries of traditional public school principals. The Times Picayune reported on Sunday May 17, 2009 of some pretty remarkable salaries for charter school principals in New Orleans. At the top of that list were the head of Lusher Charter School who earns $203, 556 annually, and the principal of Lafayette Charter School who earns $186,000 per year.

It should be expected that many questions will be asked and much will be said about these salaries in the wake of this media attention. But issue I would like to focus on is this: if a charter school’s board of directors decides that the best way to meet the achievement goals of set forth in its charter is to pay its principal what the general public would consider to be an extraordinary amount of money, is that decision not that board’s statutory right? If that decision does not produce the results the desired results (at least theoretically) that school leader will be out of a job. And if that school does not reach the standards set forth in its charter, (again, theoretically) that school will be closed either because a state board of education has closed it or because parents have sent their children elsewhere. So the question that I raise is a simple one and is farther reaching than any question of an individual administrator’s salary in New Orleans. If by design charter schools are created as mostly autonomous entities with their boards of directors vested with the power to make autonomous school spending decisions, is the public entitled to any direct say in those decisions? As always, I’d love to hear from you!

Wayne D. Lewis, Jr.