Nobody Said It Would Be Easy: Raising Standards in Baton Rouge

“Why you tryin’ to teach us ratios and half of us in here can’t even do long division properly?” One of my sixth-grade students emphatically asked this question during class in my first year teaching in North Baton Rouge. Her question took me by surprise on two fronts. First, I was in the middle of unpacking the skills needed to solve questions covered by the sixth-grade Common Core standards around ratios. Secondly and most importantly, the level of frustration and disappointment in her voice was palpable. As an F-rated school by the state of Louisiana, my school was in the midst of transition. The nature of this transition was not entirely clear however. Were we going to be chartered out? If so, to which charter management organization? Would we be phased out gradually or would it be more reminiscent of the post-Katrina reform efforts for our neighbor to the southeast?

Giving It Time to Work

One certain shift that administrators, teachers and students alike could expect was the shift from the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP) to the Common Core standards and the PARCC assessment that came with it. In fact, the 2013-14 school year was the last year of a three-year pilot phase where students in Louisiana’s public schools were increasingly introduced to Common Core while still taking the original state exam. (That changed this year, when 5 million Louisiana students took the new PARCC exam. Results released this fall revealed that between 30 to 40 percent of Louisiana students showed a “mastery” command of English and math skills.) The purpose of the pilot phase was to give the standards time to work. By exposing students to more rigorous standards and objectives the state was taking a step in the right direction of providing all students with a quality education. By allowing students to take the old LEAP assessment, teachers and administrators were given a bit of a buffer on accountability for their students’ scores on what would be a brand new assessment this year.

The Skeptics

But not everyone saw it this way. Veteran teachers, especially those who had worked in other failing schools in Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD), were skeptical. And with good reason too. In the past decade, Louisiana educators have have experienced seismic shifts within public education and especially with the discourse surrounding how so-called “reformers” spoke about them. One veteran teacher was adamant about the ways in which the emphasis on new testing was part of a larger scheme to keep poor communities of color “in our place.” “Why do you think they keep changing up the assessments every three to four years?” he asked me. “Every time our kids begin to finally get a hang of these state tests, they bring a new one along. It’s by design, I tell you.” But the LEAP assessment had been in place since 2006, meaning it had been administered for seven years by the time I arrived in the fall of 2013. I had countless conversations like these with many teachers working in our most underserved communities in southern Louisiana and each time was more sobering than the next. These conversations and experience in the deepest part of the American South reinforced for me just how wide the gulf often is between those who create educational policy and those who encounter it on the ground. As an idealistic 22-year-old college grad, I had underestimated the depth and scope of the challenges facing public education in our nation.

The Standards Aren't the Problem

But certainly, objectively higher standards cannot be the problem in and of themselves. It cannot be the case that expecting and wanting more for and from our students in communities under duress is a somehow ignoble goal. Yes, the suspicion of teachers is understandable, given the uneven rollout of Common Core. And yes, as educators we need sustained support to learn how to bridge the learning gaps between the old and new standards. I had to figure out how to help my frustrated sixth graders who needed to learn ratios while they were still struggling with long division. Just because we struggled—students and teachers alike—doesn’t mean we should lower the bar in Louisiana, or keep administering a lower-skills test that can be gamed because it’s been given so many years. My students, and their parents, need a more accurate barometer to measure their preparedness for higher education and an increasingly competitive 21st century economy.  
An earlier version of this post appeared on SecondLine Blog. Photo by Pasco County Schools, CC-licensed.
Ebenezer Gyasi is a native of Newark, New Jersey who spent time teaching in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He currently serves as an alumni counselor at Pritzker College Prep, a campus of the Noble Network of Charter Schools.

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