It’s been nearly two years since Louisiana’s Legislature passed a package of highly-controversial education reforms. Since then, there has been confusion at the local school level and angst for teachers -- especially over changes to teacher pay and tenure under a new evaluation process. Courts have ruled some of the reforms violate the state constitution. Many are now saying the upcoming legislative session is the opportune time for a “do-over” on education reform.
Billie Smith teaches English at McKinley High School in Baton Rouge. A 26-year veteran of the classroom, she is a named plaintiff in one of the lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the 2012’s Act 1, the so-called “Teacher Tenure” law. And while Smith and her fellow plaintiffs have been winning the courtroom battles, Gov. Jindal calls her — and others involved in the lawsuits — the “coalition of the status quo”, and he urges them to give up and give in.
“My message, my advice to the coalition of the status quo is that it’s time for them to stop fighting us in court,” Jindal told reporters last month, immediately following the latest court ruling that found Act I “entirely unconstitutional”. He added, “It’s time for them to stop the lawsuits and go to work with us to help improve education for our kids.”
Steve Monaghan, union president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, says the governor is blind to reality.
“If we admit that it’s broken, and we don’t point fingers, and we move forward to fix it – that’s in the best interest of Louisiana - children, parents, everyone else,” Monaghan says.
Billie Smith bristles at the governor’s label, and says her objections to Act 1 are not about the fact of teacher evaluations. They’re about the methods being used to evaluate teacher performance and determine teacher pay.
“So that I’m not accused of being part of the status quo, let me say, clearly, that I am not opposed to assessment. Assessment and evaluation, that’s what I do for a living,” Smith states. “I assess students all the time. I evaluate their performance all the time. I am not opposed to having MY performance evaluated, but it has to be a meaningful tool. It has to have input from real educators.”
Smith notes that most teachers were locked out of the entire process of developing these new assessments, which she feels end up putting much of the power in students’ hands. For example, half of a teacher’s evaluation is based on how well students do on tests that Smith calls “inconsistent”, in both design and application.
“It’s based on a host of different pre- and post-tests that vary widely subject to subject, school to school and district to district. Like, how do you measure success in P.E., the same way you measure success in Algebra 1?” Smith asks. “So, you have not just apples and oranges. You have apples, oranges, pears and grapes all being compared to each other.”
The other half of a teacher’s evaluation is based on observing the teacher in action in the the classroom. Smith says the rules allow administrators to come in and view just a single class, on a single day.
“And my entire career is going to rest on that one snapshot of that day’s performance that relies heavily on a group of teenagers who may – or may not – be in the frame to cooperate on that given day,” she says, adding, “Every cook has a cake that falls flat. Every teacher has a lesson that falls flat.”
Smith teaches gifted and Advanced Placement students, but they are teens - and they do cut up in class. She’s very concerned that her pay is now contingent on how her students behave, and whether she scores a “4” (highly effective) or a “1” (ineffective) on her annual evaluation.
“There will never be a cost-of-living increase again for teachers,” Smith says. “And the only way to earn a pay raise is to get a 4 – which they’ve already said only about ten percent of teachers should get a 4 – so that means 90 percent of us will go with no pay raise?”
Several bills were filed for last year’s session, attempting to correct some of the problems with the teacher evaluation process. Not one of those bills made it out of committee. Smith says lawmakers need to try again.
“It is definitely time for a do-over, and I think the courts have spoken loudly and clearly that they should go back and look at these laws.”
Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, believes there is now more consensus among lawmakers that it should be fixed.
“Do I think that everything’s going to get fixed this legislative session? Absolutely not,” Richard states. “But I do think there’s going to be more willingness amongst legislators to help resolve many of the issues that have caused a great deal of frustration.”
The pre-filing deadline for the session that begins March 10 is February 28, and no bills addressing the 2012 education reforms have yet been filed. The teachers’ unions and the School Boards Association say they’ve been working with lawmakers on drafting legislation, but aren’t yet ready to reveal what fixes may be proposed, or by whom. Jindal’s allies will likely be ready with bills of their own, in order to re-enact the parts of the governor’s education reforms that have gotten the ax in court.