Louisiana Education Reforms Offer Lessons to Other States

Over the last several years, Louisiana has been a national leader in enacting major structural reforms in education. Now, as a new research briefing from RAND suggests, there are some positive lessons to be learned from the Louisiana experience.

It is no secret that the education story in Louisiana for many years was one of low student achievement, high dropout rates, and education attainment levels that held our citizens back. This was particularly true for economically-disadvantaged students and students of color.

Louisiana was not alone in this situation and, indeed, other poor, particularly southern states languished at the bottom right along with us. But unlike most of these states, Louisiana embarked on a major overhaul of many of its education policies over the last two decades.

“What Other States Can Learn from Louisiana’s Ambitious Efforts to Reshape its Education System” looks at four major areas where Louisiana has made sweeping changes: early childhood education, K-12 education, teacher preparation, and graduation pathways to college and work.

The report says Louisiana has not been taking baby steps, calling the state’s efforts “bold strides toward making systemic shifts in the state’s education system…with one goal in mind: to improve outcomes for all Louisiana public school students.”

Over that time, we have seen some significant improvements, with student performance rising, graduation rates reaching record levels, more students earning TOPS scholarships, and more graduates enrolling in college. The report makes clear that it’s difficult to draw definitive conclusions about the impacts of Louisiana’s reforms at this time. It notes that major policy shifts take time to implement and that many of our strategies “have just begun to take hold in school systems” and will likely require more time to “trickle down into the classroom and lead to real change in teaching and learning.”

But from CABL’s perspective it does point to two significant takeaways. One is that the state worked closely with educators throughout the implementation of the changes and they support the direction we’re going. As Julia Kaufman, a co-author of the report told the education website The 74, “despite the fact that these changes were really big in scale, the data we got from our interviews (with educators) suggests that there was lots of buy-in.”

That’s not the message one typically hears at the Legislature where a small but vocal contingent has worked for years to push back against almost any and all change.

The other important point is that our state has had a period of stability in terms of education policy leadership and that “has enabled Louisiana to stay on track with its reform vision and efforts.” That is no small feat. The challenge in making systemic change is twofold. First you have to enact the policies, but second, and just as importantly, you have to maintain those changes in the face of threats from stakeholders of the status quo.

In fact, CABL is working with the Public Affairs Research Council and the Committee of 100 for Economic Development on an election initiative called RESET Louisiana’s Future. One of the key planks of our education platform is that Louisiana must continue to maintain our strong education policies that are working, protect them from political attacks, and build on them for the future. This election year that’s critical, given the large turnover coming in the Legislature due to term limits.

While the RAND report makes clear Louisiana still faces challenges, it should also reassure us. It tells us that Louisiana has undertaken a monumental effort to improve student performance and the educators in our state embrace the direction we are going and feel confident in it. It also suggests that while we must address the challenges that will inevitably arise, we should also give our policies the time they need to truly take root.

“Great works,” the writer Samuel Johnson said, “are performed not by strength, but perseverance.” The same can be said for making real improvements in education.

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