Louisiana’s School Policy Mojo: New Research Spotlights 7 Years of Successful Efforts to Earn Buy-in From Bayou Teachers on Big Education Reforms

The 74

Given Louisiana’s oppressive July heat, it’s probably a slow one, but somewhere right now state Superintendent of Education John White likely is taking a victory lap. Even as efforts to institute the much-vilified Common Core became the stuff of late-night comedy sketches and political pandering, White conjured broad support for higher academic standards among Louisiana teachers.

A new research brief from RAND found widespread buy-in to policy changes implemented over the past seven years in Louisiana from teachers, school leaders and others. It’s too early to allow for conclusions about the policies’ effectiveness, the researchers said, but anyone contemplating new education initiatives should take note of the support officials generated for large-scale, ambitious moves.

RAND researchers gathered feedback that showed educator buy-in to efforts to get schools to adopt high-quality curricula aligned with new, higher state standards, to train teachers to use the materials and to require a year-long residency for all aspiring teachers. In addition, their research revealed broad support for efforts to increase college- and career-readiness and access to early childhood education.

At the same time, researchers said, data suggested that an achievement gap between white students and kids who are economically disadvantaged, black and Hispanic may be starting to widen.

In addition to reviewing academic and demographic data, the researchers conducted more than 200 interviews and focus groups with teachers and others within the system and drew on a national educator survey RAND conducts periodically. A majority of those surveyed said they supported the policy shifts, likely the result of early efforts by state officials to communicate directly to stakeholders and to support teacher leadership.

“If you are going to engage in these policies at any level, these are the things you’re going to have to think about,” co-author Julia Kaufman told The 74 in an interview. “Despite the fact that these changes were really big in scale, the data we got from our interviews suggests that there was lots of buy-in.”

A key strategy, she said, was the state’s use of multiple communication channels. “This means messages were redundant,” said Kaufman. “They were hearing the same thing in different forums.”

While the annual teacher survey is an ongoing RAND effort, the Louisiana-specific research was commissioned by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Buy-in was particularly pronounced for curriculum reform, Kaufman said the researchers found. Louisiana reading teachers reported more extensive use of practices aligned with state standards than their peers in other parts of the country, though educators also expressed frustration that high-quality curricula were not readily available.

This may sound like a detail, but the amount of attention focused on ensuring that teachers have access to classroom materials that are high-quality and match each state’s academic standards — virtually all of which were raised in the wake of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top stimulus funding — has mushroomed over the past year.

In 2014, University of Southern California assistant professor of education Morgan Polikoff and William Schmidt, the co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University, released a study that debunked claims by major publishers that their textbooks were aligned with the Common Core standards, then adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia.

In 2016, a RAND team that included Kaufman found that virtually all teachers develop or select their own math and English language arts materials, most frequently via Google (94 percent) or Pinterest (87 percent). While some master teachers are adept at this, commentators have noted that most — and in particular, novices — don’t have the time or the background to locate high-quality curriculum and adapt it for students of varying abilities.

Other research has shown that good curriculum is “a great equalizer” that can have a bigger impact on student achievement than replacing a middling teacher with a highly effective one.

In some places, resistance to adopting vetted curriculum has rivaled the din over the Common Core standards. Under White’s leadership, Louisiana, while not immune to the ideological scrum surrounding standards adoption, took the unique step of creating a system for identifying the best curricula and incentives for schools to use them.

The state assigned materials to three quality tiers and published the lists online. Schools could still adopt any materials they chose, but the state would endorse and pay only for teacher professional development to support items from Tier One. In addition, Louisiana negotiated bulk discounts for the top-rated curricula, making adoption more attractive.

According to a spokeswoman, starting in 2014, the Louisiana Department of Education used frequent newsletters, roundtables and stakeholder meetings throughout the state and sessions at an annual educator summit to communicate about the new policies. They used a similar combination of convenings and written communications to stakeholders about ambitious changes to early childhood education, career- and college-readiness programs and teacher training. Parents and lawmakers were included.

RAND’s data collection in support of the Louisiana policy reviews ended last year, said Kaufman, so it’s not clear whether future research will go beyond the policies’ acceptance to gauge their effectiveness. But the lessons regarding the rollout of big changes in education are clear.

Advises the report: “Other states seeking to bring about such widespread change should consider careful planning, strong communication strategies, ready-to-go resources and supports, and forward-thinking ways to address potential equity issues before rollout.”

Or, as Kaufman put it, “The communication is as important as the reform you’re engaging in.”

Disclosure: Bloomberg Philanthropies provided support to the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and to The 74.

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