Frustrated with stagnant reading and math scores, Louisiana education officials are planning to introduce a statewide improvement program in those subjects for as many as 100 schools by next fall, building on a 30-school model that they say has shown promising results.
Paul G. Pastorek, Louisiana’s schools chief, said that while the state often receives high marks for its school accountability program, student achievement has been mired near the bottom of national scores for years.
“We are tired of being 50th in the country in 4th grade reading,” Mr. Pastorek said in an interview, referring to Louisiana’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Mr. Pastorek said he has hired a former superintendent of the Concordia Parish schools, Kerry P. Laster, to head up the initiative for the state department of education. The department will play a central role in offering technical assistance to schools in which mathematics and reading achievement is lagging, he said.
Schools that want to participate in the state’s improvement efforts,Mr. Pastorek said, would likely be chosen through a competitive process. The superintendent said he will request state funding in the fiscal 2009 budget, which is being prepared.
“What we end up doing will probably really target the K-4 arena,” he said.
Mr. Pastorek said that G. Reid Lyon, one of the main architects of the federal Reading First program, will be a consultant on the reading side of the plan, as will Katherine A. Mitchell, who recently retired from her post as Alabama’s top reading official and who serves on the federal advisory panel for Reading First. The superintendent said the state is looking for an adviser on the math side.
In deciding which improvement strategies to use, Mr. Pastorek also said that he and his team will look most closely at models in Alabama and Ontario, Canada.
“In Alabama, they have been on this journey for a number of years, and I think probably the most compelling statistic is that they have moved from the very bottom of [NAEP] scores to being 35th in the country, which is no mean feat,”Mr. Pastorek said.
Ontario,Mr. Pastorek said, has shown steady growth in reading and math skills across its system of schools under its achievement strategies. (“Ontario Pins Hopes on Practices, Not Testing, to Achieve” Oct. 24, 2007.)
During a trip to Ontario planned for this week, Mr. Pastorek said his team would discuss its ideas and seek advice from Michael Fullan. The internationally recognized expert on educational change is a special adviser to Ontario’s premier and its minister of education.
Mr. Pastorek said the planned Louisiana reading and math initiative will build on a literacy-improvement pilot program that started in fall 2006 and now includes about 30 schools in 10 parishes.
In those schools that started the program that year, the scores for state reading tests given the following spring rose in most grade levels over the previous year. And, in most cases, the growth shown by the pilot schools was more robust than it was statewide, said Gary J. Asmus, a researcher studying the literacy pilot.
“The results are what I would consider promising,” said Mr. Asmus, the principal investigator of the program for the Cecil J. Picard Center for Child Development, based at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
“We are not in a position to say that the differences are attributable to the program, … but something positive was happening in those districts, particularly in contrast with other parts of the state,” Mr. Asmus said.
In St. Bernard Parish, where Hurricane Katrina wiped out all 15 schools, the four that have reopened since the storm are taking part, said Beverly Lawrason, the assistant superintendent in the district, which now has about 3,000 students. Before the hurricane, the district had embarked on its own literacy- improvement plans, but those were halted when Katrina hit.
“We had begun to notice a slight decline in our reading scores, which disturbed us,” said Ms. Lawrason. “We wanted to know what we could do to get students who were behind to move to grade level, and what we could do to move students who were at grade level to go even further.”
When the state rolled out the pilot program, St. Bernard applied and was selected. Since fall 2006, parish teachers have used regular reading assessments to identify which students are behind and in what skills they need extra help. Interventions include one-on-one coaching and assigning children to small learning groups where they get extra help from reading specialists. A reading coach was hired for every school, Ms. Lawrason said.
The district’s results on state reading tests last spring were “not what we would have liked them to be,” she said. “But we were still in a recovery mode, so we actually experienced a dip in our test scores anyway from what we were used to prior to the storm.”
Now, in the program’s second year, students’ reading progress, Ms. Lawrason said, has been “much more encouraging.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2008 edition of Education Week as Louisiana Chief Plans Math, Reading Initiative