Our Views: A new high, for a while

If there is one thing that the business world can teach public education, it is the mantra of “continuous improvement.”

That is going to be difficult for public schools next year, despite — and also, because of — some good news in school and district performance scores reported in October.

More than a third of public schools were graded A or B. New Orleans, once in the cellar of public education performance in the nation as well as the state, continues its comeback under a post-Katrina framework of public charter schools.

Some districts moved up a grade, from C to B in Lafayette Parish’s case. This is the second year letter grades were assigned to individual schools and districts, in addition to the numerical score, under a change pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal and backed by lawmakers in 2010.

Even though the number of schools getting an F grade expanded, that was because the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education made the grading scale tougher, so that it is harder to scrape up to the D grade.

Nevertheless, many schools and districts serving poorer families reported gains — some schools with this year’s F grade might have better scores than schools in last year’s D class. Out of nearly 1,300 public schools, 983 had higher performance scores, about 76 percent.

All over the state, though, the growth in scores was led by high schools, with middle and elementary schools not improving so much. That is significant, as high schools last spring replaced the Graduate Exit Exam with a series of end-of-course tests in major subjects.

Leslie Jacobs, head of the nonprofit Educate Now! in New Orleans, said the higher test scores for high schools suggested a bit of “grade inflation.”

But one of the tenets of continuous improvement as a goal for public schools is that last year’s scores can and should be improved upon, and sets the target higher for next spring’s tests. About a third of schools, 440 of them, improved enough to be designated a “Top Gains” school, which means they’ll split up a $4 million pool of reward money for their educational use.

Those rewards may be harder to come by next year: John White, the state superintendent of education, said that end-of-course tests in high schools will be more rigorous in this school year. The state will also factor in student scores on the ACT college admissions test, for the first time to be administered to all students.

“Schools will have to continue to up their game if they are going to maintain this level of high performance,” White said of the scores.

He is right. We support the state’s initiatives in pushing for more rigorous preparation of students.

Yes, a big jump in scores is unusual, particularly since the rule is that one usually sees only incremental gains in public education: The harsh reality is that too many children start out behind, because of deep-seated effects of poverty and educational neglect in our state. Children are not widgets, and education is not a manufacturing process.

The challenge before public education is not to use poverty as an excuse for poor performance, but to inspire and support a culture of achievement in schools.

Louisiana still has a long way to go in putting together all the pieces, whether directly in the classroom or supports that might range from after-school tutoring to school nurses and health clinics. All can be part of educational strategies in poorer neighborhoods or districts.

The best news, then, in October’s data may not be the big gains in the averages, but that schools and districts continue to find ways to improve, even if it’s scratching out just a few more points to go from grade F to grade D.

As White observed, that will require that every district and every school up its game.