The Case for Reform: Jefferson Parish Edition
Education leaders implemented bold changes and the results are impressive
The Jefferson Parish Public School System (JPPSS) is benefiting from a remarkable initiative for accountability and reform within the school district. Beginning in 2010 with the election of new school board members, support from the local business community, and culminating with the appointment of Dr. James Meza as interim superintendent, the JPPSS has been reshaped under new leadership. As school board member Michael Delesdernier notes: “The 2010 elections were significant in that the community, namely the business community, made it known that public education was important in Jefferson Parish and that the performance of the system up to 2010 was unsatisfactory.”
Significant changes have been made in the district and performance expectations have increased. Under the board’s leadership, the JPPSS has essentially ended the longstanding collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the district and the local union affiliate of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. Instead, the JPPSS has opted to promote the autonomy of teachers and administrators and introduce a more robust program of accountability. As Delesdernier notes, “The cornerstone initial policy was to shift authority and accountability to the principals. The principals had to be the leaders of their school. The primary directive to the principals was to advance student achievement by putting students first. This means to make sure that all teachers are effective.” In terms of policy, the JPPSS has been on the forefront of both piloting and implementing Louisiana’s new educator evaluation system, COMPASS, which places considerable focus on the measureable growth of students during the school year.
Effective Educators Drive Improvement
Jefferson parish educators, empowered and supported by their district leaders, are making significant progress on multiple, varying measures of student success. To provide context to the following measurements, it should be noted that Jefferson Parish is considered both an urban and high-poverty district. Some would use the district’s 77% poverty rate among its students, which is 10% higher than the statewide district average, as an excuse to maintain the status quo or excuse poor academic performance. However, the new leadership of the JPSS has avoided this defeatist attitude.
Achievement data is often criticized for not taking into account factors external to the school environment. Opponents of educational progress have argued that a child’s success is largely out of control of a school’s efforts. However, the JPPSS has made strides in combating this mindset. Now, four Jefferson schools have been recognized as “High Performing/ High Poverty Schools” (HPHP). HPHP schools are schools that rank in the highest category of state rankings, while also having high levels of poverty amongst their student populations. Two of these Jefferson schools recognized for their exceptional performance have more than 80% of their students facing a daily battle with poverty. Compared to other districts, the JPSS has more HPHP schools than similar districts, such as Lafayette and East Baton Rouge. The JPPSS is showing the entire state what can be achieved in a challenging environment.
Scores on standardized tests, specifically the LEAP/iLEAP exams, have continued to increase in the district. From 2012 to 2013, the passage rate for the district increased from 64% to 66%. This 2% increase is a substantial growth as the majority of Louisiana school districts showed less progress on this exam series. Adding to the importance of this showing, since the tests increase in difficulty with each year, many districts in the state actually showed a decrease in their passage rates. The JPPSS showed an increase regardless of whether the vast majority of its students face poverty or the difficulty increased on the exams.
When it comes to growth data, which tracks the individual progress made by each student across grade levels, the JPPSS is now consistently outperforming its peers. Growth data is heralded by educational researchers as it mathematically controls for poverty and other external factors. As an example, if a student in poverty is tested in August, they will more than likely still be in poverty when they are tested in December. The progress that a student makes between August and December shows whether or not they have learned new material. Even if a child in poverty starts school academically behind their peers, all students can learn and they deserve an opportunity to progress.
A total of 27 schools have been recognized by the state as “Top Gain Schools”, which signifies their ability to foster substantial gains in learning, regardless of the socio-economic status of the attending students. Compared to the rest of the state, the JPPSS has more “Top Gain Schools” than any other school district. This success can be attributed, in part, to the district leadership’s commitment to identifying, retaining, and rewarding exceptional educators, through policies such as merit pay and intensive assistance programs to assist underperforming educators. These efforts have also increased the quality of teachers in the district. During the statewide pilot of Louisiana’s Value Added Measure (VAM), a statistical tool used to evaluate teacher effectiveness at fostering student growth, Jefferson Parish teachers outperformed their peers. The results of this statistical analysis revealed that only 3% of Jefferson Parish teachers are ranked as ineffective, while 17% are ranked as highly effective. The VAM imposes statistical norms so that 10% of teachers statewide are categorized as ineffective or highly effective in comparison to other teachers. In other words, only 3% of Jefferson Parish teachers are amongst the worst 10% in the state, while 17% are ranked among the top 10% of teachers statewide.
Role of District Leadership
When analyzing public policy it can be difficult to connect changes in political leadership to improved outcomes. But the data cited in this article demonstrates that significant achievement and academic growth has occurred after the monumental school board elections of 2010. Especially noteworthy is the sharp increase that occurred after Dr. Meza assumed leadership of the district. The JPPSS grew 11 points in its district performance score during the 2011-2012 school year. This growth is meaningful and demonstrates the successful leadership of Dr. Meza, particularly in light of the fact that the district performance score only grew 14.7 points during the three years before he assumed his initial role as interim superintendent.
Clearly, the new leadership in the district, both on the school board and in the superintendent’s office, has benefited the students and families of Jefferson Parish.
Jefferson at the Crossroads: Commitment or Capitulation?
Following the continued success of the district under his tenure, Superintendent Meza’s position status was moved from interim to permanent after nearly 15 months in the superintendent’s office. Despite the recent successes, the JPPSS now stands at a crossroads. Unions are seeking a return to collective bargaining agreements, which could actually hinder Jefferson educators in their pursuit of excellence. Union contracts are restrictive to the point of mandating the amount of time a principal is allowed to request from a teacher, even for necessary safety roles such as the monitoring of students waiting awaiting a ride home after class. It is difficult, if not impossible, for a principal to ensure student safety or prepare their faculty for upcoming curriculum and assessment changes if they cannot require that teachers stay after school past the final bell.
Fortunately there are other options on the horizon for the JPPSS. If the district remains free from the union’s grip and continues to demand excellence from its employees, the impressive achievements and growth of the district should continue. The JPPSS is on the verge of becoming a national success story, and its leadership should be urged to stay the course.