Back-to-school panel in BR focuses on new education standards

The rollout — and fallout — of new educational standards and the development of a new teacher evaluation system dominated a discussion at a back-to-school panel Thursday on public education in Baton Rouge.

“Students are being exposed to concepts in fourth and fifth grade that they haven’t been exposed to in the past until the eight and ninth grades,” East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Bernard Taylor said.

That exposure is coming from standards taking effect in 45 states across the country, including Louisiana, known as Common Core. Public school teachers in Louisiana began to teach to these standards when the 2013-14 school year began earlier this month.

The goal is to better prepare students for college or a job.

“We think this is going to be a huge for business,” said Liz Cooke Smith, policy and research member with the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.

Smith said that Common Core not only raises the bar for what students need to learn, but means that schools here can be more accurately compared with schools elsewhere, something business leaders have long sought.

Warren Drake was the third member of the panel, organized by the nonprofit group Volunteers in Public Schools.

A longtime teacher and principal in Baton Rouge, Drake spent 10 years as superintendent of the new Zachary school district. He now works for the Louisiana Department of Education, leading one of five networks of school districts implementing Common Core and a new teacher evaluation system known as Compass.

The department has described Common Core and Compass as their top two instructional priorities.

“I don’t know if I could be a teacher today,” Drake said candidly.

As a history teacher, Drake said, he liked to tell stories. The standards force teachers to compile multiple sources and to have students do more work to pull meaning from their reading, he said.

“It’s a process,” Drake said.

Taylor said teachers will need lots of help to adjust to this new way of teaching. Taylor challenged the idea that schools have many teachers who can write curricula that align with the Common Core standards or train others in how to use them

“There aren’t multitudes of these people,” Taylor said. “There are a handful.”

He added that the proper expertise to handle the work might lie outside of Louisiana.

In July, after encountering resistance from some School Board members, Taylor halted plans to hire an outside group based at the University of Pittsburgh to train teachers in Baton Rouge in Common Core at a cost of up to $2.7 million over four years. Instead, Taylor issued a request for proposals and said he hopes to be able to hire an outside group by October.

Taylor, Smith and Drake also took questions from the audience of about 35 people who attended the luncheon panel held at Juban’s Restaurant.

Belinda Davis, a parent, said she’s struggling to make sense of the new standards.

“They’re not calling things what they used to call them,” Davis said. “Study guides are now guided notes. So we need help too.”

Rachel Dicharry echoed Davis. She said she has a child in elementary, middle and high school and she can see changes at all levels this year, especially in the homework children bring home.

Several of the audience questions expressed skepticism of the new Compass teacher evaluation system, particularly its use of what’s known as value-added measurement, or VAM.

Drake admitted that VAM employs a complicated formula — “it would probably take a Philadelphia lawyer to figure it all out” — but urged patience.

“As we work our way through this process, there will be changes to make it better,” Drake said. “Nothing’s ever perfect.”