[This interview was originally featured in Innovators in Action 2009.]
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana’s school system—which had languished at the bottom of national rankings for years—and more than 100 public schools were closed, displacing approximately 118,000 school-age children throughout the state. The state stepped in to reopen schools, encouraging school choice by facilitating charters and giving administrators broad leeway to get schools operational.
Their innovations succeeded. Under the leadership of Superintendent Paul Pastorek, Louisiana’s burgeoning school choice movement is using transparency, standards, and accountability to improve student achievement and turn around low-performing schools. Today in New Orleans, nearly 60 percent of the city’s estimated 26,000 students are in charter schools, and test scores have risen dramatically since 2005. The proportion of fourth-graders who meet or exceed grade-level work in English rose from 44 percent in 2005 to 59 percent this year, a gain of one-third. Eighth-graders improved even more, jumping from 26 percent to 42 percent. High school scores have also shown marked gains, particularly in math, with 58 percent meeting or exceeding state standards this year compared with 38 percent in 2005. In January 2009, Education Week gave Louisiana an “A” grade in the category of “standards, assessment, and accountability.”
Reason Foundation’s Director of Education Policy Lisa Snell interviewed Superintendent Pastorek in September 2009 on turning around low-performing schools, the role of charter schools, and the challenges and future plans for school improvement in Louisiana.
Lisa Snell, Reason: What path have you taken to reform education and make schools better in Louisiana?
Paul Pastorek, Louisiana State Superintendent of Education: We’re really proceeding through two focused approaches. One is through the Recovery School District, taking chronically failed schools and radically restructuring them. The second is a broader approach to the remain—der of the schools in the state.
We have about 1,300 schools that are in our accountability system, and we have about 113 schools in 14 districts that are currently under the direct jurisdiction or indirect oversight of the Recovery School District, not just in New Orleans, but stretching across the state. We have two different approaches to those schools. We have a complete takeover where we take the money and take the building. But then we have a second approach—and that is what we call the supervisory memorandum of understanding (MOU) where the district keeps the money and the building, but we assume a level of control over the direction of the school. These agreements give us a level of control around decisions such as the school leader, faculty, academic strategy and the use of financial resources. And if the district fails to consider and react appropriately to address our concerns, then the school can be placed under the direct oversight of the Recovery School District.
Generally, what we’ve done in the case of urban schools is exercised the authority to place schools in the Recovery School District. And in rural areas, we’ve relied heavily on the supervisory MOUs—because you have to have a different strategy in the rural communities for a lot of different reasons. The politics, finances and economies of scale are very different in rural areas, so we’re taking a different approach there as we attempt to transform these chronically low-performing schools.
Now, if you were to look at Louisiana schools, it would come as no surprise that we’re in the bottom ten states in most of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) categories. In fact, we’re 50th in 4th grade English Language Arts. It wouldn’t surprise you if I told you that the School Performance Score for more than 400 Louisiana schools is below an 80. That means that in more than a third of our schools about 40 percent of their students are performing below grade level. So when you look at the universe of schools that are in serious trouble— we declare about 5 percent of our schools Academically Unacceptable—we really have a much larger number of schools than are in fact failing a large percentage of their students. So we’re trying to build strategies to go after restructuring and remediating those schools.
The biggest challenge I think that we have out there is that a large percentage of our students live in poverty. In Louisiana, we’re one or two in any given year with the highest percentage of poor children that attend public schools. At the same time, we haven’t given our teachers the kind of training they need to effectively teach these children.
What we’ve embarked on for the general approach to schools is our Ensuring Literacy and Numeracy for All initiative. We’ve modeled this initiative after the approach Michael Fullan utilized in Ontario and in Toronto—and it centers on capacity building. It’s really about taking people who are in the classroom and working with them to make them better, to show them how to use literacy and math strategies and provide technical support, particularly around reading and math. So our large-scale effort has been around this literacy and numeracy strategy, and we’ve been able to pull in some very high caliber people to help us lead and implement this initiative.
Dr. Reid Lyon has helped us on the reading side. We’ve actually completely copied the Alabama strategy on reading capacity building. On the mathematics side, we’ve worked with Uri Treisman, from the Dana Center at the University of Texas. Dr, Treisman has provided us with strategic advice around the mathematics piece, and so we’re implementing with their recommendations in mind.
While we are confident that this initiative will result in high impact outcomes, at the same time we realize that we cannot possibly make a difference in a lot of our schools with just a capacity building strategy around literacy and numeracy. We don’t have enough money. We don’t have enough time. We don’t have enough human capital to be able to do that. So we are reorganizing the Department of Education—and overall, I think this is probably the most exciting part of our efforts.
We’re looking at transforming the entire Department of Education into a capacity-building and a human capital pipeline enterprise. On the one hand, we can work to build capacity, but on the other hand, we need to find people who are willing to go into a lot of these challenged schools. The Department of Education, though, has historically been an enterprise that focuses on bureaucratic tasks, in allocating and administering funding, collecting reports—really just making sure that everybody colors within the lines and keeps their head down while they’re coloring. If so many of our districts don’t really have the capacity to draw human capital into their schools, they’re going to constantly tell me what they have been telling me—”I’d like to get rid of these teachers, but I don’t have anybody to replace them.”
Well, that is a very, very dysfunctional situation, so the Department is responding by establishing this human capital pipeline, which is largely a recruiting effort that parallels and supports our capacity building effort.
This year, for the first time, the Recovery School District took the lead around this issue. For all schools that were going to come under the jurisdiction of the Recovery School District, the RSD went out and recruited teachers for those schools. And the result of that is very impressive when we consider that the RSD recruited, screened, matched and delivered about 2,300 teacher resumes and candidates who were willing to go anywhere in the state of Louisiana we needed them. And we were successful at placing teachers in districts where people were convinced that we could never get a reasonable, sane person to go teach.
Now that the districts understand that the opportunity exists, I think we’re going to see more and more take advantage of this resource. So now the state has moved from just checking the boxes—being bureaucratic and managing programs—to becoming a valuable resource.
At the same time, we’re looking to outsource a lot of these kinds of activities. The state doesn’t need to be hiring a lot of civil servants who increase agency costs. In fact, the Department is probably one of the biggest users of services provided by The New Teacher Project services. We’re contracting out for professional development. We’re contracting out for recruiting. We’re contracting out for all these types of things.
When you look at it from the broader scheme, we’re placing a heavy focus on the Recovery School District in transforming the worst of the worst schools, and we’re focusing on a human capital strategy—those are our two big central strategies.
Snell: On the opposite side, did you have to do some kind of personnel reform to allow districts to discharge non-performing teachers? Or is it a case where they’re just replacing vacancies as they come in?
Pastorek: Well, that’s an interesting question. In the Recovery School District, we are able to discharge the teachers, but the districts still have an obligation to retain the teachers. So one of the real difficult parts of the Recovery School District that doesn’t work well is how we can deal with the teacher who is performing so poorly that we don’t want to hire them into the new school. We actually have a district right now that would like to convert all of its schools to charter schools. There aren’t very many districts that want to do that, but the problem that we have is that we can’t figure out how we’re going to deal with those teachers. So we have a fundamental flaw right now that we’ve got to work through, and it’s going to require some legislation. This is the same problem that Joel Klein has in New York City.
Snell: Everyone does.
Pastorek: Everyone does, and we really haven’t solved that problem. Now, I heard a really interesting approach that I’m told [U.S. Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan took in Chicago. He basically was able to remove these folks and give them a one-year soft landing, but not more than one year. Whereas on the other hand, Joel Klein has to keep them interminably.
So we’re taking a good hard look at what people are trying to do in that regard, because we’re not going to really make good progress until we solve that problem. If you can’t get rid of people or if all you’re going to do is foist them off on another part of the system, then you’re sort of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
Snell: Can you talk a little more about the role of the charter schools in Louisiana and in New Orleans?
Pastorek: Charter schools can come up in a number of different ways. Up until this legislative session, there was a limit on the number of charters that could operate in the state outside the Recovery School District. That changed, largely because of Race to the Top, the federal fund that will provide competitive grants to encourage and reward states that are creating conditions for education innovation and reform. There were also some financial restraints. But we’ve eliminated the cap and we’ve eliminated the financial restraints, so now charter schools can proliferate more in the external environment. Within the Recovery School District, however, we’re unlimited. We’re unlimited by finances and we’re unlimited by numbers, so what you’ve seen is a strong preference from the perspective of the Recovery School District, which the state controls, to convert those schools to charter schools. And the reason is fairly obvious.
I think if a state is going to take over schools, it is unwise for the state to actually try and run those schools. While we’ve seen a number of state takeovers in the past—and we’ve seen them hire out to for-profits or we’ve seen states try to take over in a traditional strategy—none of those has really worked very well. So we’re looking at a real distribution of people who will run those charter schools, so that there’s no one who has the whole collection. Although we have networks of charter schools, such as KIPP, which now has five schools in New Orleans. We hope they’ll go to ten schools.
We have another cluster called the Algiers Charter School District, and we’re looking for these smaller clusters. We think the smaller clusters can give us economies of scale. We don’t put all of our eggs in one basket, because it’s easier for us to deal with failure. If there is a failure, we can put them out of business.
There was an article I recently read titled, “Try, Try Again.” I think it epitomizes our strategy. We’ll give a school to a charter operator. We’ll let them work it. If they fail, we’ll bring in another charter operator and if they fail, we’ll bring in another charter operator until they get it right. That strategy is appropriate when we try to restructure businesses, and we don’t always succeed in restructuring businesses. Likewise, when we try and restructure schools, we don’t always succeed, but I would rather give an organization outside the state an opportunity to be successful. If they’re not successful, we’ll take them out of business and bring somebody else in.
I think one of the interesting features of charter schools in New Orleans is that we’ve created an incubator for charter schools. And we’ve actually replicated that model and launched an incubator in Baton Rouge. This ensures that we aren’t putting all our eggs into the national charter operator basket.
We want to bring in small operators. We want to offer real opportunity for creativity and innovation, and so we’re trying to cultivate a charter landscape that involves a healthy mix of experienced charter providers as well as people who don’t have experience or a track record operating charters.
By the way, no w that the state is in its second year of awarding charters in the Baton Rouge area, we’ll see an influx of more experienced charters come to the Baton Rouge area. We’re seeing some really high quality people express an interest in Baton Rouge—and they are coming with very creative ideas and options.
I’m very optimistic about our efforts around charters in the Recovery School District, because I don’t think the strategy of a state takeover, where we try and run schools using the traditional district command-and-control will work anywhere. And frankly, that approach doesn’t and can’t effectively deal with low achieving schools. So if we can avoid the command-and-control approach and utilize charters for our low-performing schools, I think we will achieve a better outcome.
Stanford University came out with its CREDO National Charter School Study this summer, and in that report, it found that while nationally charter schools do not perform better on average than traditional public schools, that is not the case in Louisiana. Traditional schools are outperformed in 17 out of 18 criteria, so we’ve done better.
We’ve centered our strategy on carefully selecting the schools and charters that we’ll authorize in the first place. Even though we take more risks because we don’t limit authorizations to just those applicants who have track records, we carefully evaluate those risks. And then if we find that charters aren’t doing what they’re sup—posed to do, we take them out of business pretty quickly. In fact, we’ve had one operator voluntarily surrender its charter this past year, and we expect another one to do the same thing in the near future. So it’s a very nice charter climate, especially in the Recovery School District, and that is our predominant and prevailing view for operating these schools.
Snell: If you have three future goals and three future wishes of your toughest problems to solve, what would they be?
Pastorek: I think the toughest problem right now is dealing with the teachers who don’t meet the competitive demand of principal selection.
I think our second toughest problem—in a state like Louisiana—is trying to convince people that we can be successful with poor kids. We’ve got a tremendous amount of evidence that shows that poor kids who come from difficult circumstances don’t succeed. Trying to convince people that they can succeed is a daunting challenge, so we’ve actually spent quite a bit of time researching our data in Louisiana. We’ve identified what we call 20 high-poverty/high-performing schools in the state. They’re in the top 25 percent of schools in terms of their performance, and yet they have high levels of students living in poverty. They have high minority concentrations and yet, they succeed. So we’re trying real hard to promote the idea that just because kids come from difficult circumstances, it doesn’t mean they can’t succeed. Schools have demonstrated that it can happen. Now, trying to scale that up, of course, is the $64,000 question. We’re certainly not there yet, but we’re spending a lot of time thinking about that.
I think the third challenge is getting the education community to be innovative. There’s such a resistance to change in the education community. It’s startling to me. I’m a lawyer and have worked with many businesses over the years. I did a lot of bankruptcy work, and I saw a lot of businesses that failed and that succeeded—and I saw and appreciated the real need for people to have to adapt and change. When you go into bankruptcy, if you want to get out, you have to completely and radically change your enterprise—or you’re liquidated.
And there’s simply very little pressure to embrace that kind of perspective in public education. There is a monopoly, and monopolies don’t like change. They don’t like to adapt, and they don’t like to be innovative. If you couple low expectations with a monopoly circumstance, then people don’t ever believe it can be better because by definition, it hasn’t ever been better.
If I could go to a fourth, I’d say that there is a huge capacity cap in our state. One thing that Louisiana is doing very well though, and that we have become the model for other states, is that we are effectively measuring our state’s colleges of education and our alternative teacher certification programs. And now that we’re measuring these things, what we’re finding is the alternative certification programs are doing a much, much better job at preparing our teachers than the regular education programs. The result is that our education programs are changing, and districts and schools are really scrutinizing graduates prior to hiring them.
I can tell you that in a particular alternative certification program, they’ve produced teachers who in their first year are better than our veteran teachers in Louisiana. Now, that tells you that either our veteran teachers are seriously deficient or our certification program is outstanding.
Our plan is to scale up the value-added model for implementation statewide. Starting next year, in September 2010, we’re going to be piloting the program, and then in September 2011, we’re going to go full scale throughout the entire state. Whether value added is used for accountability purposes or not, it’s going to give us tremendous insight into who’s doing what. When you begin to identify who’s doing what in classrooms, then people can change their behaviors. So we’re looking for other hooks that we can create to take advantage of the value-added model. The potential for this tool is very promising.
Paul Pastorek was appointed Louisiana’s State Superintendent of Education in March 2007 by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) and was re-appointed to that position in January 2008. Mr. Pastorek served on BESE from 1996-2004, including the last three years as President of the Board. After stepping down from the Board in 2004, Mr. Pastorek formed Next Horizon, a non-profit organization that serves as a statewide think tank to connect Louisiana’s leadership—education, government, business and community—as a force supporting school improvement.
Mr. Pastorek is an attorney and was licensed by Louisiana to practice law in 1979. In February 2002, Mr. Pastorek was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve as General Counsel to NASA. He served as both the chief legal official for the agency and as a trusted advisor to then NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe. In addition, he served on and led several senior management and leadership committees, including leading the team that developed NASA’s 2004 “transformational” reorganization plan.