Disg-RACE to the TOP?

Here’s how Dems for Ed Reform characterizes Louisiana’s education reform efforts in relation to the federal Race to the Top competition:

Louisiana. The state passed legislation by Rep. Walt Leger III (D-New Orleans) lifting its charter school cap in June at the end of its legislative session. Louisiana is also pioneering an accountability system that tracks graduates of teacher training programs so that they can be held accountable for the performance of the teachers they train and so that their programs can be improved and/or revamped. A “unified group” of education and community-based organizations launched a statewide RttT effort in August.


Note that I’m merely using this description as an example. DFER is far from the biggest offender when it comes to heaping praise on Louisiana.

Most pundits seem to agree that Louisiana is a front-runner to receive race to the top funding primarily because of its efforts to increase data and link student data to teachers (for practical issues on this point, see: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/12/04/pondering-the-usefulness-of-value-added-assessment-of-teachers/) and for the state’s lack of caps on numbers of new charters which can be granted per year.

I continue to argue, however, that even if these to factors are signs of “innovation” or an environment to support “innovation,” that innovation without real investment or true commitment is doomed to fail. Louisiana is the perfect example of the insanity that is race to the top. I pick on Louisiana here because it is such an absurd case, and because it is illustrative of the myopic and misguided criteria being used to evaluate innovation, and even more so, illustrative of the utter lack of critical thinking and analysis by pundits and ill-informed media-junkies, ed-writers and twitterers (who seem to lack any ability to critically evaluate … anything… but will re-tweet anything that praises Louisiana’s RttT application).

Let’s take a look at Louisiana’s education system. Yes, their system needs help, but the reality is that Louisiana politicians have never attempted to help their own system. In fact they’ve thrown it under the bus and now they want an award? Here’s the rundown:

  • 3rd lowest (behind Delaware & South Dakota) % of gross state product spent on elementary and secondary schools (American Community Survey of 2005, 2006, 2007)
  • 2nd lowest percent of 6 to 16 year old children attending the public system at about 80% (tied with Hawaii, behind Delaware) (American Community Survey of 2005, 2006, 2007). The national average is about 87%.
  • 2nd largest (behind Mississippi) racial gap between % white in private schools (82%) and % white in public schools (52%) (American Community Survey of 2005, 2006, 2007).  The national average is a 13% difference in whiteness, compared to 30% in Louisiana.
  • 3rd largest income gap between publicly and privately schooled children at about a 2 to 1 ratio. (American Community Survey of 2005, 2006, 2007)
  • 4th highest percent of teachers who attended non-competitive or less competitive (bottom 2 categories) undergraduate colleges based on Barrons’ ratings (NCES Schools and Staffing Survey of 2003-04). Almost half of Louisiana teachers attended less or non-competitive colleges, compared to 24% nationally.
  • Negative relationship between per pupil state and local revenues and district poverty rates, after controlling for regional wage variation, economies of scale, population density (poor get less).
  • 46th (of 52) on NAEP 8th Grade Math in 2009. 38th of 41 in 2000. http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/statecomparisons/
  • 49th (of 52) on NAEP 4th Grade Math in 2009. 35th of 42 in 2000.

So, this is a state where 20% abandon the public system and 82% of those who leave are white and have income twice that of those left in the public system, half of whom are non-white. While the racial gap is large in Mississippi, a much smaller share of Mississippi children abandon the public system and Mississippi is average on the percent of GSP allocated to public education. Mississippi simply lacks the capacity to do better. Louisiana doesn’t even try. And they deserve and award?

I read an article the other day that was uncritically tweeted (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/12/12/AR2009121202631.html), explaining how Louisiana has adopted this great new teacher evaluation system. But, hey, look above. Louisiana ranks right near the top of the pack on the percent of all public school teachers who attended the least competitive colleges (which matters). Why worry about a dysfunctional supply pipeline for teachers? You wouldn’t want to consider the possibility that improved teacher wages and working conditions and investment in higher education could possibly improve that pipeline? A good teacher evaluation system will wash that  supply problem away!

Quite simply, if you’ve got the academically weakest teachers to begin with and you’ve got a system where 20% of students, almost entirely white from households with twice the average income leave the system, and where you’re putting about the lowest share of your state productivity into schools, and where your kids continue to score near the bottom on national assessments, all the data and supposed accountability in the world is not going to make much difference. Throwing RttT money into this mess isn’t likely to help much either. Applying a business investment mindset, Louisiana schools are certainly not a product line in which I’d invest my own hard earned money (but wait, RttT is ours, isn’t it?). That is, if I bother to think critically for a minute or two.

While I sympathize with the 80% of children left in Louisiana public schools, it is not the federal gov’t via RttT that is going to begin to dig them out of the hole in which they’ve been buried for decades by their own political leadership. The state of Louisiana must step up first, and big-time. The state must invest sufficiently in public schools to improve quality to the point where some of the wealthier and whiter families might actually opt back into the public system. At the very least, the state should be required  to put up “average” fiscal effort (% of GSP to schools) if it wants an award and should be required to show that it has targeted money to the highest need schools and children. Louisiana needs a stick, not a carrot!

Heaping mindless tweeted and re-tweeted praise on Louisiana is incredibly unhelpful and quite honestly, a bit embarrassing!  State data systems and charter caps cannot alone solve the world’s problems and certainly can’t solve Louisiana’s self-inflicted ailments.

Let’s hope the federal government can see through the smokescreen that it is at least partially responsible for creating, and make good use of RttT funding. Dumping that funding into states such as Louisiana or Delaware, Colorado, or Illinois is probably not best use. See: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/12/14/racingwhere/)

I have written previously about Louisiana among other states, here: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/12/15/why-do-states-with-best-data-systems/

And here: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/02/25/public-schooling-in-louisiana-and-mississippi/