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Guest Commentary: Pastorek Brought Improvement; Let’s Hope It Continues

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The man went against the grain of mediocrity, and for that alone he merits appreciation

The polarizing Paul Pastorek, state superintendent of education in Louisiana, shortly will leave the building. He will also leave the state’s elementary and secondary education system better off and with promise that necessary reforms may continue under his successor.

Many in the system, frankly, hated Pastorek’s guts. That’s because he broke the mold – a mold of professional educrats and politicians who for decades through their fidelity to mediocrity, trendiness, politics, patronage, and good-old-boy/girl networks consistently delivered an educational product over which any self-aware Louisianan should have blanched with shame. Year after year the state scraped the bottom of the educational barrel while these figures kept finding every excuse imaginable for their poor performance. Anything but the most incremental change was doomed to failure, they claimed, when they themselves spectacularly and persistently failed students, families, and taxpayers.

And they caterwauled as Pastorek kept the momentum going with reform efforts first implemented a decade before his arrival – although he had played an important role in them as a member of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education – and continued to expand on them, backed most of his tenure by Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Charter schools, a proven success in the state, went from their infancy to growing success and importance. Dabbling in voucher-like scholarships and merit pay followed, recently adding teacher evaluation based more of actual performance, and the pedal never was taken off the gas in raising standards and expectations.

Meanwhile, many in the establishment howled when they found challenge to their past policies: allowing teachers without mastery in the subject areas in which they taught (regardless of whether they were “certified” in it); tolerating school bureaucracies that spewed functional illiterates into bleak futures; letting seniority and who someone knew be the primary factors in staffing; looking the other way as discipline problems escalated; cooperating with unions whose sole function is to transfer as many taxpayer dollars to their members for as little work by their membership as possible; and resisting every form of accountability based upon what students actually knew and could do with that knowledge.

Under Pastorek’s leadership, some of these pathologies began reversing, while at best limited progress was made with others. But, as a whole, as noted by generally rising test scores and fewer troubled schools, things improved.

Perhaps Pastorek’s single-mindedness and irritability were necessary to buck this deadweight, which had other negatives. He arrogantly asked for – and got – a salary worth more than the job he performed, and maybe the promise of an even bigger one finally encouraged him to leave. But with all of the resistance he had to face and the negativity that came with this job from the establishment and its entrenched interests, it almost was worth it.

Signs are that a majority of BESE (if maintaining its current majority after fall elections) will back a replacement (most certainly not Deputy Superintendent Ollie Tyler who in the past dragged her feet on reform) who will continue this momentum. Hopefully, he or she will be ready for measures such as abolishment of tenure and implementation of full-scale merit pay systems, regular testing of teachers for subject area knowledge, pedagogical skill, and student progression, increased emphasis on discipline, and expanded market-based options to encourage quality and innovation.

That Pastorek could help set the stage for a true and long-overdue revolution for a Louisiana suffering chronic educational shortchanging merits our thanks.

Jeffrey Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University, Shreveport. The original version of this article first appeared on Sadow’s blog, “Between the Lines.” You can also follow him on twitter.

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