Districts plan to stay the course

Gov. Bobby Jindal may have decided to pull the plug in Louisiana on controversial new academic standards known as the Common Core, which have ignited fierce debate across the country. But local school districts said Wednesday that they plan to stay the course as Jindal goes to battle on the issue with his own hand-picked state education superintendent, John White — who says the governor cannot unilaterally abandon the new standards and seems to have the state’s top school board siding with him.

Broadly speaking, parish superintendents and other administrators said Wednesday that backing away from the Common Core now would mean abandoning expensive, years-long efforts to prepare teachers and students for the transition.

And even if the governor succeeds in blocking Louisiana from purchasing the same Common Core-aligned tests that other states will be using, as he has vowed to do, administrators say they expect whatever tests Louisiana uses will reflect the new standards anyway. So even if Louisiana could not compare its scores with the rest of the country, one of the main goals of the Common Core, the governor’s move may not immediately alter what teachers do in the classroom.

In any case, the uncertainty has brought frustration.

“To change course now would mean all of the hard work put into implementing (the Common Core state standards) … was for nothing,” St. John Parish Superintendent Kevin George said in a statement. “We need a plan. We need to stick with that plan, and we need to stop creating uncertainty for our educators and parents, especially less than two months before the start of the school year. Politics should not play a part in something as important as the education of the children of the state of Louisiana.”

Jindal is attempting to pull out of the Common Core in Louisiana by blocking the state from buying new tests from a consortium known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

The move comes as the Common Core attracts growing criticism. Tea party groups and others on the conservative end of the spectrum argue the Common Core amounts to federal control over local schools. Teacher unions and left-leaning critics say teachers haven’t gotten enough help in shifting to new classroom techniques.

For districts, the issue is as much one of pragmatism as it is of politics. Education officials and teachers have spent years implementing the curriculum needed to prepare their students for tests that had been scheduled to begin in the next school year, including big investments in training and computers.

“It’s certainly frustrating because we have been working on this for a long period of time, moving in that direction,” Interim Orleans Parish Superintendent Stan Smith said, noting that the district would continue moving forward with Common Core-aligned programs. “We’ve certainly been supportive of it and to now have someone pull the rug out from under our feet would certainly be a concern.”

That support has been strong among some school administrators, who argued Wednesday that Common Core has led to more rigorous standards and better results.

“Jefferson Parish Public Schools are home to incredible students who deserve high standards and expectations,” Jefferson Parish Schools Chief Academic Officer Michelle Blouin-Williams said. “We have been implementing the Common Core state standards since they were adopted by the state, and the implementation of these standards has resulted in higher achievement across our district and higher performance from our students.”

Rachel Allemand, assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and assessment in St. Charles Parish, said she was concerned about how a test selected by competitive bidding, which the governor has called for, will “align with the content and the skills that we would’ve taught all year long.”

“It could be a period of months before we would know which assessment is selected,” Allemand said. She added: “We really don’t know what the impact of that assessment will be until we know which assessment is selected.”

But whatever test would replace Common Core if Jindal prevails would likely have similar requirements and standards to those assessments. Which means staying the course would still move districts in the correct direction, some officials said.

Both the Recovery School District and the Archdiocese of New Orleans also said they will continue to move forward with the intention of meeting the standards laid out in Common Core, as will schools in St. Bernard.

“We have already been writing the curriculum and putting this in place, and training our teachers,” St. Bernard Parish Superintendent Doris Voitier said. “So whether we have PARCC assessments or another assessment which meets these rigorous standards, I think our students will be well-prepared.”

Also at issue is the amount districts have already invested in the program, such as training teachers for the standards.

Jefferson Parish Schools have already spent about $10 million implementing Common Core, including the costs of training and other considerations. The district is now moving forward with purchasing computers and other technology needed to conduct the tests themselves.

A spokeswoman for St. Tammany Parish Public Schools said it was impossible to quantify how much time and money had been devoted to developing curriculum to go with the standards, but that it was considerable.

In St. Tammany Parish, where public opposition to the standards has been passionate and the School Board passed an anti-Common Core resolution in October, school officials reacted with caution to Wednesday’s announcements.

“All of what was discussed in Baton Rouge today is going to require us to analyze the situation before commenting on exactly how it could impact our school system,” Superintendent W.L. “Trey” Folse said.

Folse said the St. Tammany Parish School System would work hard to maintain those high standards regardless of whether the Common Core state standards were implemented.

In the fall, St. Tammany was a center of Common Core heat as opponents packed board meetings, angrily denouncing the standards and their associated tests. The standards themselves used anti-American and anti-Christian materials and the tests would require the collection of data on students that violated their privacy rights, opponents alleged.

The School Board eventually sided with the opponents and passed a resolution opposing the standards.

Staff writers Richard Thompson and Faimon Roberts contributed to this report.