The Governor’s Education Summit last week in Jackson offered substantive food for thought and thoughtfully developed information to hundreds of teachers, administrators and trustees from up and down Mississippi.
The most provocative information arguably came with the luncheon speaker, Louisiana Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek. Pastorek, a lawyer, is a gubernatorially appointed executive, previously from the private sector, and with long lay experience in public education.
Pastorek’s work, in addition to the usual oversight of regular public school districts, also involves Louisiana’s Recovery School District, which encompasses failing or chronically under-achieving schools statewide, but is concentrated in metro New Orleans. The New Orleans system was physically ravished by Hurricane Katrina, but it was deeply troubled internally before the 2005 storm.
Afterward, chiefly under Pastorek’s leadership and fully under authority of state law, the New Orleans system largely has been systematically, radically restructured under Louisiana’s plan that allows an intervention model relying on charter and charter-like schools set up as autonomous single schools headed by principals.
The plan is controversial – hated by teacher’s unions and scorned by some boards of education – but embraced by the larger business community and quietly by a growing number of administrators. It transparently admits that the status quo has not worked in particular schools.
Pastorek, illustrating Louisiana’s problems and challenges, rattled off a litany of woes that’s painfully familiar to Mississippians seeking successful public education:
n Of 650,000 students, 65 percent are poor, which is a root cause of under-achievement.
n Too few schools perform at the levels deemed necessary in statewide accountability testing.
n School boards often base hiring decisions on political connections and blood relationships.
n Chronic certified teacher shortages plague many districts.
Louisiana has aggressively responded outside the box in seeking to turn around failing schools, a method we believe is always essential in dealing with chronic failure.
Mississippi, lacking charter school authority like Louisiana, has in place authority to take radical steps, but the precise procedures are in process of deliberation.
Louisiana’s experience isn’t complete, but Pastorek’s and the trustees’ commitment to using innovative methods to address old problems is impressive. Among the decisions is the hiring of an independent agency, the New Teacher Project, to recruit certified teachers (alternate tracks) to work in Louisiana. The effort has produced 13,000 applications, with a list at one time narrowed to 6,000 serious inquirers.
The program has brought in energetic, intellectually gifted young people in the Teach for America program, and their work, especially in New Orleans, has gained national note.
The difference between Pastorek and any applicant like him in Mississippi is that he could not be hired in our state because he is not a professional educator with the credentials required in state law.
We remain committed to the idea that if teachers can move successfully, as many do, from teaching into other fields, the opposite can be true. Talent and even genius are not confined by categories.
We hope Mississippi closely, thoroughly examines Louisiana’s methods and results before it reflexively dismisses them as bad ideas.
NEMS Daily Journal