Bernard Taylor came into East Baton Rouge Parish as the new superintendent of schools officially in June. He arrived amidst a wave of state education reforms, for which the parish is arguably ground zero.
Roughly a third of Baton Rouge public schools, threatened with state takeover, face new competition from private school vouchers and independent charter schools.
Accountability measures for teachers and administrators are adding to the pressure.
Speaking with WRKF's Amy Jeffries, Taylor does not mince words in his critique of state reforms or the potential of East Baton Rouge public schools.
JEFFRIES: There's calls for a massive turnaround coming from pretty much every side. Even in your contract - as part of the education reforms that got passed - is a provision setting student performance goals for you, and they're ambitious - that each and every school in the district improve by at least 3 points on the achievement index over the coming school year, which would be roughly twice the pace of improvement that the school district has been seeing in recent years.
TAYLOR: It's probably (twice) what the state has been seeing too. Look, the bottom line is this, is every school going to make a 3-point performance score gain? I can probably say that the answer to that may be no. I mean, there are going to be some - our alternative schools for example, we're going to improve the condition of them. But, again, given the transience of students in and out of there, that (3-point gain) may not be a realistic goal. But, will there be improvement? Sure. And I think we're going to work dutifully to make sure that that happens.
But let me say this too about schools, all of our schools are not failing. There are students that attend our schools that are not progressing at a rate that we would like to see, that their parents would like to see, or that others would like to see. But in that very same school, there are children who are moving through academically in the way that anybody would want to see a child move. We've got to get more targeted about that. This notion that an entire school is failing is a misnomer.
What I hope people will recognize is that the district has improved its condition. One thing that I think is notable, if you look at the average ACT score, which is 19.7, for minority students in this district, that exceeds the state and the national average.
So, there are things that the district is doing well and doing right that it will continue to do, and the things that we know we can do better we will.
JEFFRIES: What are the things that you really want to make sure that you accomplish in your first year -- tangibly the things that students and parents are going to notice?
TAYLOR: One thing that we're going to focus on is the curriculum, the implementation of the curriculum, how we use assessment data - both classroom assessment data and standardized test data - to inform instruction and inform the support for instruction.
The other piece that's really important to me, is that we help teachers to feel more empowered about being able to be a better teacher. With the kind of accountability that teachers are going to experience here with the "Value Added" model in mind and with establishing student learning targets, that could seem to be very very daunting, and to be perfectly honest, frightening.
JEFFRIES: Explain for those who don't know what the "Value Added" model is and what it does exactly.
TAYLOR: The Value Added piece is to ascertain the extent to which the teacher's efforts have helped a student to attain proficiency at a level commensurate with one year of growth in terms of academic achievement. So it really means that the teacher would have to first of all know exactly what it is that that student should be able to master in that given year.
JEFFRIES: Bernard Taylor, you came here from Grand Rapids. You were the superintendent there for five years?
TAYLOR: Six years.
JEFFRIES: Michigan also recently passed some changes to its tenure rules and rules for evaluating teachers that maybe are not as rigorous as what's been passed in Louisiana, but similar in nature.
TAYLOR: Mm hmm.
JEFFRIES: You were quoted in the media in Michigan saying that if those changes in Michigan had been in place, you might not have resigned from the job you had there in Grand Rapids.
TAYLOR: Mm hmm.
JEFFRIES: So I just wonder if that makes you a fan of those specific reforms in Louisiana.
TAYLOR: Yes. I'll be perfectly honest with you, those were legislative changes that I as superintendent advocated. I believe that our district and many other districts around the state can support teachers through professional development so that they can continuously grow the achievement levels of their students and consequently demonstrate the effectiveness of individual teachers.
JEFFRIES: You have had experience in a number of challenged districts. I wonder what drew you in particular to Baton Rouge and to this job as the superintendent of the East Baton Rouge Parish public school district.
TAYLOR: I enjoy this type of work with this type of demographic. But it's also an opportunity to be innovative, to be creative.
I think that it's time for the district to engage in maybe a different level of discourse around innovation and reform.
I am not anti-charter school. However, I am one who believes that charter schools can and should be co-located on the grounds of with a "traditional" public school. Because what I want to see is parents not have to go hither and yon to find a school, but go to the school that's closest to them in proximity to where they live, and choose the door that best meets their child's needs. And that's one of the things that we're going to attempt to do for the 2013-2014 school year, is to look at this concept of micro-charters.
The opportunity to be that exploratory, to look at new instructional designs and new school designs is also something that makes this place a very attractive school district for me to work in.