Louisiana educators push ahead with Common Core amid legal drama

La Supt. of Education John White; La. Gov. Bobby Jindal Show caption
La Supt. of Education John White; La. Gov. Bobby Jindal

As battle continues, educators start school with national rigor in place

A new school year is beginning across Louisiana under the shadow of a legal and political duel over the new Common Core academic standards and the tests that go with them. It is a fight being waged by the state superintendent of education, the governor and advocacy groups of every stripe.

But for the educators who actually run the state’s public schools and teach the children, the debate is largely ended, and Common Core is now firmly entrenched in Louisiana’s classrooms.

“All of our classroom resources are oriented toward the Common Core,” said Mickey Landry, the head of a New Orleans charter-school group called the Choice Foundation. “All of our professional development and teaching is oriented around the Common Core, our assessments. We’re not changing that. We’re already into the school year.”

Indeed, administrators like Landry have been preparing for the transition to the new standards for years. They have poured resources into training and classroom materials. And they say that whatever tests their students end up taking, the Common Core approach should give them the skills they need to pass.

The result is a good deal of uncertainty about exactly what the testing season will bring at the end of this academic year but little doubt about how educators are preparing for it.

Meanwhile, even as 700,000 students head back to classrooms statewide, legal maneuvering over Common Core continues. Lawsuits for and against the overhaul are pending in the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge; hearings are scheduled for Tuesday, Friday and Aug. 18.

The key dispute involves what standardized tests will be given to students in the spring.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and state Superintendent of Education John White contend that the choice of exams is up to BESE, and they want a judge to say that.

Gov. Bobby Jindal and his allies are trying to derail BESE’s plans to use tests aligned to Common Core and crafted by a consortium of states, and they want a judge to rule that way.

The legal fight means that students, teachers and parents are starting classes without a key cog in their plans for the school year: the nature of the tests that help shape promotions, public schools’ letter grades and all-important teacher job evaluations.

“If people are given some definitive information about what that assessment is going to be, it will release a lot of the teacher tension,” said Debbie Schum, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Principals and a former teacher.

White, in a written message to superintendents last week, said those answers will be provided by Aug. 31.

He noted that state law requires that assessments this school year be linked to nationally recognized content standards.

“In keeping with this legal mandate, 2014-15 test questions will be aligned to the Common Core State Standards in English and math,” White wrote.

The new academic goals in reading, writing and math have set off a national debate, including heated arguments in Louisiana during the past year.

Backers say the new standards will improve student achievement by offering more depth to key topics, and in some cases, topics will be presented a grade earlier than in the past.

How schools meet the standards, they say, is up to local officials who determine each district’s exact curriculum.

Critics contend the standards are top-heavy with federal influence, will drive decisions on the curriculum and often include inappropriate materials.

Yet school administrators say Common Core is unlikely to go away, whatever questions remain over the tests that students will take at the end of this school year.

Not that the uncertainty over testing hasn’t created headaches.

In Jefferson Parish, Superintendent James Meza said the legal dispute hasn’t changed the district’s plans to move ahead this year with a curriculum that is tailored for the Common Core, though it has complicated how the district is preparing for it.

Officials with the national consortium that has been developing Common Core assessments for Louisiana and other states — known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers — had scheduled training sessions with Jefferson officials over the summer, but those were canceled because of uncertainty over whether Louisiana would actually end up buying the PARCC exams.

Also, as in the rest of the state, there is now uncertainty over how Jefferson Parish will take the measure of its teachers. The switch to Common Core was always going to complicate the state’s new teacher evaluations, which rate teachers in part by comparing test scores from one year with the next. New tests would mean those comparisons would be apples-to-oranges after the transition. Now it’s unclear when Louisiana finally will have a settled testing regime on which to base evaluations.

“You can’t have high-stakes testing with invalid tests,” Meza said. “Hopefully, by the end of the month, we’ll have a better understanding of what we need to do.”

Teachers are feeling the uncertainty as well, even as they press ahead with adopting the new standards in their classrooms.

Meghan Johnson, a first-grade teacher at Morris Jeff Community School in New Orleans, is a fan of the Common Core approach. She worries schools and teachers aren’t being given the resources — both training and classroom materials — they need to make the transition. But she is even more concerned that the state will abandon Common Core before anyone has a chance to succeed with it.

Just beginning her third year as a teacher, Johnson faces the possibility that she will have to master a whole new approach for the third time.

“A new curriculum each year makes it hard to learn your craft and become a better teacher,” she said. “I don’t see how Louisiana can just choose not to be a part of this. It seems kind of unrealistic.”

Staff writer Jeff Adelson contributed reporting.