Like so many other Americans, I watched in horror as the waters rose in Orleans Parish and other nearby communities. It’s been hard even to imagine the anguish felt by Louisianans as they lose their homes and their jobs, not to mention members of their families. And the educator in me cannot help but wonder about the trauma of this catastrophe for the children and about how—and when—educators in Louisiana will be able to reopen the schools that serve those children in so many ways.
What separates this state from others that face similar challenges is its guts and its understanding that small changes just aren’t enough.
Many observers may shake their heads at the possibility that this state—already at the bottom on so many economic and child-welfare indicators—will ever recover. But I know differently. Over the past several years, I have gotten to know Louisiana and its leaders up close and personal. My advice: Don’t count them out.
A decade ago, the state faced an enormous challenge. As described in the inaugural edition of Education Week’s 50-state report Quality Counts, “Public education has never been a priority in Louisiana, and educators will have to struggle to change that.” Indeed, the report ranked Louisiana among the bottom half of the states on policies related to standards and accountability and efforts to improve teacher quality.
But Louisiana is blessed with extraordinary leadership. Citizen leaders like Glenny Lee Buquet, Leslie Jacobs, and Linda Johnson on the state board of elementary and secondary education—and Frances Henry on the board of regents. Education leaders like Cecil Picard, Jeanne Burns, Joe Savoie, Jimmy Clarke, and Sally Clausen. Legislative leaders like state Sen. Gerald J. Theunissen and state Rep. Carl N. Crane.
And Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco is bringing the same spirit and tenacity she has displayed during rescue efforts to the push to improve the state’s high schools.
These leaders have worked hard and—most unusually—they have worked together. Across the pre-K-12 system and higher education. Across parties. Across races. And across the gulf that normally separates a state’s professional education leadership from the citizen leadership on its governing boards.
Their work has paid off.
• This past January, Quality Counts 2005ranked Louisiana No. 2 in the nation for its “well-established and comprehensive” system of standards and accountability.
• The same edition of the report also proclaimed Louisiana “the top-scoring state in [another] category, receiving the only solid A for its efforts to improve teacher quality.”
• Last September, the Southern Regional Education Board rated Louisiana the only state in the region to have made “promising progress” over the last few years in five of six areas related to improving leadership preparation.
• And this July, the National Governors Association awarded Louisiana one of 10 “Honor State” grants to help in its high school reform efforts.
More important, though, these results are paying off for students. Not only are results improving on the state’s own assessments, but Louisiana students have racked up the big improvements on external measures of learning as well. Among ACT states, for example, Louisiana students tied for third in gains since 2000—with a whopping 85 percent of all students taking the test.
Over the last decade, Louisiana 4th graders racked up the third-biggest gains in the country on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in mathematics, while the state’s 8th graders ranked second in overall growth on NAEP in math, and fourth in growth for African-Americans. Progress in mathematics was even greater during the past three years, with African-American 8th graders in Louisiana tying Virginia for the largest gains in the country on NAEP, while the state’s low-income students posted the second-largest gains.
Are they yet where they want, or need, to be? Not even close.
But what separates this state from others that face similar challenges is its guts and its understanding that small changes just aren’t enough. As one state leader said to me years ago, “Our challenges are so steep that anything less than a very bold agenda will not suffice.”
So count them down—farther, still, than they were a few weeks ago. But by no means count these folks out.
And while you’re at it, send one of the aid efforts a check. They need a hand from all of us.
A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 2005 edition of Education Week as Don’t Count Them Out