Linda F. Benedict, Schafer, Mark J.
Mark J. Schafer, Don Asay and Amanda Cowley
For decades, Louisiana has ranked below the national average on several measures of education outcomes. Still, Louisianans have become more educated over the past three decades. LSU AgCenter researchers have studied educational trends in the state as well as the various efforts to improve education.
From 1990 to 2010, the percentage of high school dropouts in Louisiana declined from over 30 percent to less than 20 percent (Figure 1). Further, the decline started in the 1990s and continued through the 2000s at about the same pace. The percentage of high school and college graduates increased steadily over the same period. The percentage of high school graduates went from 52 percent in 1990 to 60 percent by 2010. The college graduates went from 16 percent in 1990 to 21 percent by 2010.
These are positive statewide trends. In comparison to other states, Louisiana is below average with higher proportions with less than a high school education (19 percent in 2005- 2009 in Louisiana versus a national average of around 16 percent) and a smaller proportion of college graduates (21 percent in Louisiana versus about 28 percent nationally). Nonetheless, Louisiana’s rate of improvement with lower proportions with less than high school completion and higher proportions with a bachelor’s degree is consistent with national trends.
The high school completion rate improved significantly in Louisiana. On average, the mean parish high school completion rate increased from 63 percent in 1990 to 73 percent in 2005-2009. Parishes varied widely in terms of where they started in 1990 and how fast they improved. Ten parishes, mostly rural, had high school completion rates below 55 percent in 1990. By 2005-2009, Allen Parish was the only parish with a high school completion rate under 60 percent. By contrast, five parishes – Ascension, Beauregard, Caldwell, Evangeline and Terrebonne – had high school completion rates exceeding 85 percent in 2005-2009.
The trends in high school graduation rate increases varied widely across Louisiana’s parishes. From 1990 to 2000, 20 parishes saw declines in high school completion rates while 44 parishes saw improvements. In the 1990s, Assumption, Concordia, St. Martin and West Feliciana parishes saw the largest declines in high school completion, while Ascension, East Baton Rouge, Lincoln and St. Tammany parishes saw the largest increases. In the 2000s, Caldwell, Catahoula, Evangeline, Terrebonne and West Feliciana saw large increases of more than 20 percentage points. Bossier and St. Tammany parishes saw more than 10-percentage-point declines in their high school completion rates. Bossier Parish rates fell from 83 percent in 2000 to 68 percent in 2005-2009, and St. Tammany Parish rates fell from 84 percent to 73 percent during the 2000s.
High school completion rates in Louisiana also vary widely by race and gender (Table 1). In 2005-2009, the mean female high school attainment rate for all 64 parishes was higher than the mean rate for males. This “female advantage” is particularly true for Latinos, where the rate for females (73 percent) is 12 percentage points higher than for males (61 percent). However, the relationship between gender and educational attainment is reversed for Asians, where the mean graduation rates are higher for males (81 percent) than for females (73 percent). The Latina Female category provides the most striking comparisons, where 94 percent of Latina Females in Caddo Parish versus only 13 percent of Latina Females in East Feliciana Parish have a high school diploma or equivalency.
Two key areas of focus in attempting to increase education in Louisiana have been school accountability and teacher qualifications.
Louisiana introduced school accountability in 1998, which was expanded when the No Child Left Behind federal law was put into place in 2002. Over the past 10 years, No Child Left Behind has resulted in financial and organizational restructuring.
State school accountability predated No Child Left Behind, and both led to increased expenditures for both administrative and adequacy costs. Administrative costs refer to testing implementation, accountability systems, highly qualified teacher systems and progress monitoring. Adequacy costs refer to funding for tutoring, summer school and supplementary services, and reducing student-teacher ratios. Overall costs increased dramatically as more schools failed to achieve accountability goals. Expenditures centered on bringing the lowest 5 percent of students up to proficiency through lower teacher-student ratios, tutoring and summer school.
Public school enrollment in Louisiana dropped from about 715,000 students in 2001 to 630,000 in 2009 (Figure 2). The big drop in 2005 is due to Hurricane Katrina. Nonetheless, per-student expenditures increased 65 percent from $6,700 to $11,100 during the same period. Spending has also shifted. Budgets for subjects not tested – such as art, music and social sciences – have been cut so that schools can focus on improving test scores.
In Louisiana during the 2002-2009 period, between 60 to 160 schools failed annually to meet adequate yearly progress, a term used in the No Child Left Behind legislation (Figure 3). States were responsible for identifying these schools and developing plans to help them meet accountability requirements or shut down. Strategies included reopening schools as charter schools or turning them over to the state.
Figure 4 shows the growth of charter schools in Louisiana from 1996 to 2010. Charter schools are private organizations that negotiate a five-year contract overseen by the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Charter schools must meet state accountability achievement results. They are more attractive than state takeovers because they are seen as empowering local communities and loosening bureaucratic regulations. Under the No Child Left Behind law, charters have proliferated across the United States. In 2005, New Orleans became the first majority charter school city in the United States.
In connection with accountability, Louisiana has placed a strong emphasis on teacher qualifications. In the late 1990s, the Louisiana Department of Education developed comprehensive plans to try to improve teacher quality in public schools, with the goal of ensuring that all public school courses were taught by highly qualified teachers. Both new and existing teachers had to meet the new requirements.
By 2004, more than 90 percent of courses were being taught by qualified teachers (Figure 5). This rate dipped significantly after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. By 2011, however, the rate was nearly back to the 2003 level of 90 percent.
Figure 6 further shows the exceptional circumstances of the 2004-05 school year. Schools across the state stretched their resources to accommodate students who evacuated after Hurricane Katrina. The strain was particularly difficult for rural parishes; Claiborne, Jefferson, Vernon, Natchitoches and St. John the Baptist parishes all saw more than 25 percent declines in the percent of courses taught by qualified teachers that year.
Before hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, rural and urban percentages of courses taught by highly qualified teachers were similar (Figure 7). However, rural parishes experienced greater declines in the percent of courses taught by highly qualified teachers after the hurricanes, as well as a slower rate of recovery from 2006-2011.
Market-based approaches to improving education continue to be popular in the United States, including Louisiana. Gov. Bobby Jindal’s current education policies include plans to further expand charter schools and vouchers and implement new efforts to improve teacher quality.
Value-Added Teacher Assessment
Gov. Jindal signed into law a value-added teacher assessment for the 2012/2013 school year. Value-added teacher assessment is a relatively new approach to evaluating teacher effectiveness, replacing principal or peer evaluations.
Value-added methods change the incentive structure to hold teachers responsible for the learning of their students. These methods measure each individual student’s learning gains in the current year relative to previous years’ scores, and the teacher is graded based on the aggregate learning of his or her students.
Proponents argue that value-added teacher assessment is fairer to teachers who teach in disadvantaged schools. It gives teachers strong incentives to teach to all ability levels, and it encourages teachers to give individual students attention as opposed to teaching to the class as a group.
Critics argue that value-added teacher assessment cannot accomplish its objective of distinguishing effective from ineffective teachers. They argue that value-added teacher assessment fails to consider the fact that some schools attract more high ability students with more supportive families and more positive neighborhood contexts than other schools. Therefore, the system will continue to reward teachers in those schools.
Louisiana’s value-added teacher assessment methodology takes into consideration many of the pros and cons. Developed by George Noel, professor of psychology at Louisiana State University, the Louisiana system uses a combination of each student’s individual achievement history, along with other key factors, to first predict achievement in the target year and then measure actual achievement against the predicted level, beginning with the fourth grade. It excludes students for whom no prior achievement data is available, as well as those who move during the school year. Teachers are assessed based on the average achievement of all the included students that they taught during the school year.
Louisiana’s two major teachers unions, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Educators, have criticized the new assessment method, preferring a mentoring program known as the Teacher Advancement Program. This program also claims to add value to education not by using standardized tests in an incentive system for rewarding or punishing teachers based on their students’ test performance, but by using student results to help teachers identify areas of strengths and weaknesses, and develop methods for improving the craft of teaching.
Several studies and news stories have documented discontent among teachers about being evaluated solely on the basis of their students’ performance on standardized tests. The value-added teacher assessment approach generally exacerbates this problem, but over time the approach could be integrated into mentoring approaches, like the Teacher Advancement Program, and that might make them more palatable to teachers. However, teachers also want more recognition that they do a lot more than “teach to the test.” Teachers also help students develop reasoning skills and abilities to cooperate with others, which may have even more long-term benefits to individuals and society than improvement on standardized tests.
The value-added teacher assessment program is representative of market-based attempts to instill more accountability in the nation’s public schools. Despite teacher discontent with standardized testing, the trend over the past two decades has been to use test scores to generate more cumulative knowledge of learning outcomes at the student, classroom, school, district and state levels.
Read four additional articles about education and change in Louisiana:
Mark J. Schafer is an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness, and Don Asay and Amanda Cowley are graduate students in the Department of Sociology.
(This article was published in the winter 2013 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.)