Louisiana serves as model in teacher assessment

Schools in Louisiana are using test scores to evaluate teachers and institutions. The initiative, supported by President Obama, was launched in stages since 2003, has drawn support from three governors, including Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal.
By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 13, 2009

LAFAYETTE, La.-- In the fluorescent glow of Room 46 at J.W. Faulk Elementary School, second-year teacher Shannon Bower saw big challenges ahead for her fourth-graders who are struggling in reading and math. "I do what I can," she said during a recent class. "I move them up a little, but I can't do two years in one."

How much they advance will affect not only the students and their school, but also the university a few miles away that trained Bower. Through an initiative that Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls a model for the nation, Louisiana has become the first state to tie student test scores into a chain of evaluation that reaches all the way to teacher colleges. Those that fail to perform on this new metric someday could face shake-ups or, in extreme cases, closure.

"It's accountability on steroids," said E. Joseph Savoie, president of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, which trained Bower.

The movement to overhaul public education through high-stakes testing has accelerated since the 2002 No Child Left Behind law mandated an expansion of standardized exams and put low-performing schools in jeopardy. Now, the Obama administration wants to use test scores to help evaluate teachers and the institutions that train them. Louisiana provides the most aggressive example.

UL-Lafayette, a major teacher producer in the Acadiana region, is working to fix possible flaws in its program that the state Board of Regents identified in August. The report examined three years of test data from classrooms led by first- and second-year teachers to determine which teacher preparation programs had the strongest impact.

Savoie, who in a previous position helped oversee the development of the initiative, said he huddled with top administrators within an hour of hearing that his school had placed at Level 4 in English language arts on a five-rung scale; Level 1 is the most favorable.

"We got the numbers and said, 'We've got to figure this out,' " he recalled. Savoie said he is seeking to offer professional development to any alumni who might have gaps in teaching skills. He considered shutting down an alternative certification program the state had flagged, but was persuaded that adding a language arts course, among other measures, would suffice. Education and English faculty members are discussing how to beef up writing and grammar instruction for undergraduates.

Quick action

In the tradition-bound world of teacher education, experts say, such rapid-fire decisions based on classroom test results are rare.

"A lot of people are talking about doing it," said Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College at Columbia University, "but Louisiana got there first. It's the model. I think you're going to see a lot more of it over the next several years."

Duncan has said that many education schools do a "mediocre job" in preparing teachers, but he has praised Louisiana often. "This is simply having the courage to say that great teaching matters," Duncan said last month. "Why is it today that we have only one state operating in this manner?"

Reports show that Florida and Texas are moving toward linking test scores and teacher preparation. Maryland and Virginia officials said they are studying Louisiana's approach. Sally Clausen, Louisiana's commissioner of higher education, said officials from Minnesota and elsewhere have sought advice.

Clausen said the initiative, launched in stages since 2003, has drawn bipartisan support from three governors, including incumbent Bobby Jindal (R). The state aims to have a detailed policy in place within a year to guide interventions. Clausen said she wants to help universities "get better and smarter because they've been given information that informs them about results."

Still, Clausen and other officials said several deans of education in the state have left their posts in recent years. The timing, they said, was not coincidental.

"They didn't want to go through the process," said Gerald Carlson, dean of the education college at UL-Lafayette since 2001. "I don't quit," he said. "I enjoy the challenges. We can't improve unless we know something's broken."

Carlson's faculty members largely echoes his views. But professors note that the college is nationally accredited and well regarded by principals who hire its graduates. "In the end, we have a fine product," said David Beard, director of teacher clinical experiences.

Real-world lessons

Nationwide, about 150,000 new teachers enter the workforce each year, according to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, about 80 percent from college- or university-based programs. The rest enter through alternate paths sponsored by organizations such as Teach for America that aim to bypass traditional education coursework to speed instructors into the classroom. But many colleges and universities, long criticized as detached from the troubles of public education, also are starting to give students more exposure to real-world classrooms.

At UL-Lafayette, with about 2,500 education students, courses typically require at least 10 hours of fieldwork in local schools. The curriculum runs the gamut from early-childhood to secondary education. In a children's literature course, an instructor wheeled a cart of Caldecott Medal winners into her classroom one morning and passed around the picture books to help students prepare for a final exam. "What's a limerick again?" she asked them. "Robert Frost primarily writes what kinds of poems?"

The main program culminates with an internship that pairs students with mentor teachers, immersing them in a school for about 500 hours in a full semester.

In a meeting with some of those interns, Carlson learned that classroom management -- the art of keeping students focused and on task -- was a major concern. "I try not to be mean," said one. "Some teachers are mean and it works for them. That's not me." Another said his greatest accomplishment was "getting over the fear" of working in an "at-risk school."

The interns said they often struggled to keep pace with the state curriculum and that sometimes their university coursework, on topics such as testing and measurement, felt repetitive. But they called their fieldwork invaluable.

"Everything we learned was theory, theory, theory," intern Laurel Halphen said. "It was all theory, and then you get into the classroom and interact with kids and see how their minds work."

Faulk Elementary, one of several schools that host interns, draws about half its teachers from the university. Principal Carol Mays said the pipeline pays dividends for a school where nearly all of the students come from poverty and state tests show that about 64 percent are proficient in reading and math.

In Room 45, next door to Bower, UL-Lafayette graduate Tiffany Bruce was mentoring an intern and shepherding fourth-graders through the properties of a pentagon and techniques for solving math story problems. Bruce, in her third year, said she shares Bower's concerns about upcoming state tests. "I know where my kids are, and I know what they need," she said. "I feel like we're a few steps behind and we need to catch up."

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