Researcher Q&A: Promising Practices of the Louisiana Department of Education

A RAND Education study team recently found that Louisiana education leaders have developed strategies that effectively support teachers as they adopt Louisiana state standards in their classrooms. The research team assessed teacher data from across the United States and found that Louisiana teachers reported thinking and teaching in ways that are more aligned with their state standards.

Below, policy researcher Julia Kaufman discusses the goals of the study, highlights some of the promising practices in effect at the Louisiana Department of Education, and talks about how other states might consider adoption of these practices.

What did you and your team set out to examine?

We have been studying teachers’ implementation of K–12 state standards through a project funded by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. We asked teachers from across the country to provide their perspectives on what we see as three key areas related to implementation of state standards:

  • use of instructional materials aligned with standards
  • teachers' understanding of approaches and practices that are aligned with their standards
  • teachers' classroom practices.

Early on in our analysis of the survey data, we saw some big differences in reports of implementation of standards among teachers in Louisiana and teachers in other states with similar standards. The differences intrigued us. They suggested to us that something positive was happening at the state level. So we decided to dig deeper in this area. We wanted to know more precisely how the Louisiana Department of Education was supporting what teachers think and do.

Would you say more about this survey?

We rely a lot on teacher survey data we're gathering through RAND's American Teacher Panel (ATP). This is a nationally representative sample of K–12 teachers who have agreed to respond to periodic surveys on education policy and practice. The ATP also includes state-representative samples in several states: New York, California, Louisiana, and New Mexico

Did you use any other data?

Yes. To investigate Louisiana Department of Education strategies, we conducted interviews with key staff doing anything that could conceivably touch teachers' instruction or lead to improvements in what teachers do. We qualitatively coded the interviews to identify key themes and strategies, and we supplemented that work with analysis of documents available on the department's website for districts and educators.

What suggested to you that Louisiana was doing something different?

We were surprised initially when teachers in Louisiana reported that they were taking advantage of standard-related instructional resources more than teachers in other states. This really showed in Louisiana teachers’ thoughts about the ways their approaches aligned with state English language arts standards. More Louisiana teachers indicated that their standards advocated for use of complex, grade-level texts and instruction that centered on texts. These are approaches that are aligned with their state standards. Other teachers in states with standards similar to Louisiana’s are less likely to embrace those approaches.

What can other state educational systems learn from the Louisiana case?

Three key state strategies stood out to us as ones that could be supporting teachers’ implementation of their standards:

  • a persistent focus on coherence and quality across the K–12 academic system
  • transparent and regular communication about academics
  • support for local decisionmaking.

We know that states are very different from one another, but we also know that these strategies are ones reflected in decades of education research and likely can support academic improvement in all regions. At the least, states could assess all their policies and practices to consider whether any strategies in Louisiana could be adapted to the work they are doing.

In our report, we suggest that the department of education in each state prioritize two areas that have a good chance of directly supporting teachers: curricula and professional development. These are areas in which school districts typically invest a great deal of time and energy. If states could provide curricular and professional development tools that are aligned with standards, districts could utilize those tools instead of continually reinventing the wheel to help students meet learning goals.

This study also highlighted the usefulness of transparent and regular communication with educators. States might also wish to examine the clarity and frequency of their communication—both within their departments of education and with educators and other stakeholders across their states—and reflect on what they can do to ensure that everyone across the state is receiving the same messages and support.

What are RAND researchers doing next to continue this work?

We are continuing to gather perspectives of teachers and school leaders in across the United States about their work in schools. We intend to provide additional findings from these surveys alongside other research across the United States over the next several years. We'll be able to offer more guidance to school districts and states on the policies and practices with the greatest chance of supporting high-quality teaching and learning.