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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Straight Up Conversation: Louisiana Schools Chief Paul Pastorek Reflects on RTT

By Rick Hess — August 27, 2010 5 min read
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Less than a month ago, our earnest Secretary of Education described Louisiana as “leading the way” with data systems that monitor teacher preparation programs and student performance. Louisiana has been ranked a top-ten state for teacher policy, data systems, and charter schooling by the National Council on Teacher Quality, the Data Quality Campaign, and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. (And, for what it’s worth, in my new Fordham Institute study published this week, New Orleans graded out as the nation’s most vibrant city when it comes to school reform.) All of this makes Louisiana’s failure to win one of the dozen Race to the Top billets more than a little controversial. Louisiana’s reformers are frustrated and wondering what to make of the results. Penny Dastugue, a member of the Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said she was “absolutely shocked... We were confident that we would prevail in round two, and we had strengthened our application after the first round... There’s no rational explanation... We’re all shaking our heads.”

On Wednesday, I chatted with Louisiana’s heralded state chief Paul Pastorek about the results. The ever-gracious Pastorek still ardently backs the program and took pains to avoid zinging winning states, the RTT process, or the Department. (Of course, given the resources and bully pulpit at ED’s disposal, only in Texas do we find state leaders eager to openly cross swords with Secretary Duncan.)

Reflecting on the big picture, Pastorek said, “Creating a competitive fund of money for people who want to do the right thing has already proven to be effective. People have changed their laws and changed their mindsets. While we were working on passing a value-added law prior to RTT, the competitive grant incentivized us to accelerate our push.”

He wonders, though, whether the Department of Education and too many states have been insufficiently attuned to the implementation challenges. He said, “I personally think implementing some of the components of these plans is going to be extremely challenging... There are states, like Louisiana, that have effectively implemented these reform strategies. But having done so, I can attest to the fact that it takes a lot of work to get there. And I think some may be underestimating the resources and energy that these kinds of initiatives require.”

Pastorek expressed reservations about the push for states to include as many districts as possible in their reform proposals: “I said this many times, in the [finalist] interview and publicly, that I didn’t think we could handle more districts than we were trying to include and yet achieve the objectives we were trying to achieve... Implementation at the scale the federal government has proposed, at ninety percent, which is implicitly what they’ve required, is going to be immensely difficult.”

While Louisiana’s proposal seems to have been dinged by reviewers for not including enough districts, Pastorek said, “We intentionally limited the scope of our effort in Louisiana because I did not want to be overly ambitious and end up with failure. At the end of the day, you can say what you want to say about our proposal--and a lot of people have been critical of our proposal for not being inclusive enough--but if you’re going to be this ambitious, you have to make choices. You’ve got to have focus. And you’ve got to make sure the state and the districts have the ability to do what’s needed.”

He continued, “One reason I think states are going to have a tough time implementing their plans is that state Departments of Education are not designed to implement these programs. We’ve spent a year redesigning our Department around our reform initiatives. If you look at our organization today, it’s a radical change in how we’ve been doing business. It’s revolutionary. And I don’t think that Louisiana’s [RTT] score reflected the capacity we’ve created in doing so.”

He noted the irony of states that have learned from Louisiana racking up RTT dollars, while Louisiana is on the outside looking in. Pastorek noted, “We were the guinea pig. We’ve created a Superintendent’s Delivery Unit to improve academic outcomes, and it’s been operational for a year. One of the Race to the Top winners has been here sitting with my lead guy in our Delivery Unit for two days, and they spent a week in Louisiana studying our Recovery School District. And [three other states] have approached us about borrowing our value-added software, which we are allowing them to do.”

He said, “We are sharing our work and our resources with education leaders and states... We will continue collaborating with them because we will all be better for it. But it’s only human nature to question how some of these states who are relying on our models to implement their RTTT plan were selected for funding, while Louisiana wasn’t. But dwelling on this won’t change the outcome. And the fact of the matter is that we’re all in this together.”

Pastorek remains upbeat about the potential of RTT and thinks it a powerful and promising approach to reform. “I think it was a brilliant idea to not say, ‘Here’s the money, here’s what you need to do with it,’ but to ask states to come forward with their reforms. In fact, we ran all of our school improvement money through a competitive grant program. We mirrored it on RTT, completely. We asked people to come to the table and put their best foot forward.”

He said, “While we ultimately didn’t secure any funding, we can’t lose sight of these ideas... Louisiana has been advancing many of these reforms long before Race to the Top... So while the outcome of this competition may prevent us from pursuing a more aggressive timeline, we remain committed to the same course.”

Pastorek’s final thought? “I do think Arne [Duncan] would observe that the process is good but can improve. But I don’t think it’s fundamentally flawed. I think we need to give them credit for setting up a very good program. And I don’t think we ought to try to convince them it can be a better process, because I don’t think that’s what’s important to them. I think what they care about is whether you can drive change in schooling all the way down into schools through policy. I think that we’ve seen that you can, but that it [comes down to] a question of focus and implementation.”

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.