Last Sunday, The New York Times ran my OpEd “The Myth of the New Orleans School Makeover” in which I acknowledge some of the accomplishments of the city’s education reforms, but also cautioned that the charter revolution is not all that it seems. Specifically, the OpEd argues that while the reforms have benefited some students, they have put the neediest kids at a disadvantage. For outsiders, I argue, the biggest lesson of New Orleans is that it may be wiser to invest in improving existing education systems than to start from scratch.
While the OpEd won cudos in many circles, it came under almost immediate attack. Some members of the New Orleans charter establishment impugned both my research and integrity. Because charters and privatization are at the center of important education policy debates throughout the country, I thought it would be useful to detail some of my research and related materials. Note of caution: Please read the OpEd first; what follows won’t make much sense unless you do!
First a little background: I’ve spent months in New Orleans over the past several years researching New Orleans charter schools and published a lengthy investigation, “Post-Katrina, the Great New Orleans Charter Tryout” in Newsweek in 2013. I’m also working on a book on education reform, including a chapter on New Orleans. However, much of the impetus for the OpEd came from what I heard and saw at The Urban Education Future conference, held by the Educational Research Alliance at Tulane University this June. It included a Who’s Who of experts on New Orleans and education reform as well as leading local educators and community leaders; I attended because I suspected, rightly, that it would be a unique opportunity to talk to key people—some of whom hadn’t returned my earlier calls.
At the conference, ERA offered a sneak preview of research it has just started to publish and that many education-reformers point to as evidence of the city’s positive results. However, it is important to know that most of the ERA data covers the years before 2012, i.e. the period during which the worst charter excesses, including creaming, special-education abuses, and sky high suspension and expulsion rates took place. More than one of the ERA conference panelists in June noted that it’s questionable whether the numbers would look as good as they do if it hadn’t been for those practices.
This was also the period before adoption of common core-aligned curricula was supposed to increase standards, so the elementary and middle-school test results presented by ERA, as several experts at the conference noted, were based on Louisiana’s older, very low-level standards.
For years, the ed-reform establishment claimed there were no abuses—no creaming, no special-education abuses—in New Orleans. Now, they are saying: In 2012 we fixed all that, so it’s not fair to reference the problems. Except that we don’t yet have evidence of if/how the new safeguards are working.
Here’s what we do know:
1) There are major governance/oversight problem in New Orleans. In 2013, a report by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor found that the “LDOE no longer conducts on-site audits or reviews that help ensure the electronic data in its systems is accurate.” The audit also found significant discrepancies in the data on attendance, dropout rates and graduation rates reported by the charters.
2) Louisiana Department of Education doles out data selectively, mostly to charter-friendly researchers
Last spring, a Louisiana appeals court ruled that the State of Louisiana, which had given a trove of student data to CREDO, but withheld it from other researchers, had violated public-records laws. So much for transparency.
Here is my critique of CREDO’s analysis in which I found major flaws in its analysis of charter school performance, especially in New Orleans. Here is CREDO’s acknowledgement of some of those problems.
Anyone interested in understanding how Louisiana data is manipulated may wish to take a look at the work of three intrepid Louisiana bloggers, Mike Deshotel, Jason France aka Crazy Crawfish and Mercedes Schneider. Deshotel and France each wrote recent posts on how Louisiana manipulates education data. Here Deshotel notes how Lousiana test scores are manipulated: “the number of correct answers required for a passing score (or a level of basic) was significantly reduced for three out of four categories.” Here France shows a number of other problems.
3) Kids are falling between the cracks. Because of the aforementioned oversight problems and lack of transparency, the data is all over the map regarding the number of drop outs. That’s one reason I used the report from Measure of America, a project of the Social Science Research Council, which was based on Census Bureau survey data from 2013, as a proxy in my OpEd. However, as is evident from several webcasts at the ERA conference, almost everyone except Paul Vallas acknowledges that kids are falling between the cracks, including Dana Peterson who was representing the Recovery School District at the conference.
I had the opportunity to ask several experts at the ERA conference questions about governance/oversight problems in New Orleans and about the kids who “slip between the cracks”. The exchanges were captured on the webcasts below.
To see the startling discussion about governance/oversight problems and the impact on kids during the panel discussion of the “Role of Communities in Schools” go to the 1-hour-and-12-minute mark of the following webcast and listen for three or four minutes: http://educationresearchalliancenola.org/sessions/2015/6/19/role-of-communities-in-schools
Deirdre Burel, executive director of the Orleans Public Education Network and the panel moderator: “There’s common agreement, we know for a fact that kids have slipped through the cracks because of the (school) closures.”
When an audience member asks: “The RSD doesn’t know who’s in the system?”
And again later: “Who’s responsible for the whole?”
Burel answers: “There is no whole. That’s a governance conversation. There is no single entity responsible for all children.”
I asked a similar question during a panel on “Test-Based Accountability Effects of School Closure” on school closings, their impacts on high school students, and received the response below from Dana Peterson of the RSD and Whitney Ruble, the ERA researcher who was presenting her findings on school closures. Two points of note: First, Ruble’s/ERA results on the effects of school closures said nothing about the impacts on high school kids who are most at risk of dropping out. You had to look and listen very carefully to realize that all the data was about elementary and middle-school effects. However, Ruble acknowledged that “A lot of students disappear from the data.”
This at about the 1-hour-two-minute mark of the following webcast:
Dana Peterson of the RSD, a few minutes later: “We’re more worried at the high school level than the elementary level. Its true some kids do leave and fall out of the system.” That’s why, he said, the RSD started hiring couselors specifically for high school kids two years ago to try to make sure they didn’t disappear from the system.
When I asked whether he knew how many kids fall between the cracks, Peterson acknowledged: “I don’t know the total number. I don’t.”
After the panel, I asked whether there was anyone at the RSD who could get me that data. He said there was and he promised to get me the information. He never responded to subsequent emails and phone calls.
4) Young, white and mostly inexperienced teachers replaced thousands of mostly middle-aged black women educators.
Some critics, including John White, the Louisiana superintendent of education, have taken issue with my assertion that the mostly black teaching force was replaced by young idealistic (mostly white) educators. According to a new ERA report, “Significant Changes in the New Orleans Teacher Force,” the number of black teachers in New Orleans dropped from 71 percent before the storm to 49 percent in 2013/2014. White teachers, by contrast, made up just a little over 20 percent of the teachers in NOLA before the storm and were close to 50 percent in 2013/14. See p. 3 of the report.
The ERA report also notes that the number of local teachers has dropped substantially. And among new teachers in New Orleans, in 2013/14 the racial disparities are starker–57 percent of new teachers were white and 37 percent were black; whereas in 2003/04, 66 percent of new teachers were black and 29 percent were white.
In my Newsweek piece, I wrote that within the RSD, in 2011, 42 percent of teachers had less than three years of experience; 22 percent have spent just one year or less in the classroom.
I should note that I’ve visited over half-a-dozen charter schools in New Orleans. With two exceptions, I barely saw a single African-American face among any of the educators.
5) Leading black educators are surprisingly critical of how the reforms were implemented, a fact that none of the critics of my piece have been willing to acknowledge.
See the searing comments of Howard L. Fuller, a former Milwaukee superintendent and advocate of charters and vouchers, about how the New Orleans reforms were “done to black people, not with black people.” His comments begin at the 35-minute mark of this webcast: http://educationresearchalliancenola.org/sessions/2015/6/20/plenary-5-what-does-the-new-orleans-experience-mean-for-new-orleans-for-louisiana-for-everyone:
Here are the highlights:
“I do believe things are better for a large number of kids than before Katrina. But I don’t want to be put in the position of saying: pre-Katrina was all bad, post-Katrina is all good. When we set it up that way, we’re negating anything that was positive before Katrina. What that tends to negate is the capacity of black people to do anything of excellence.
“The firing of those teachers is a wound that will never be closed, never be righted. I understand the issue of urgency. But a part of this quite frankly has to do with the fact that I do not believe that black people are respected. I don’t believe that our institutions are respected. And I don’t believe that our capacity to help our own people is respected…
“Its hard for me, because I do support the reforms and think there are some great things that have happened. I do have to ask the same question as Randi (Weingarten)—at what cost?
“Even if you talk to black people who drank the Kool-aide: The issue still is– this was done to us not with us. That feeling is deep. It can’t be ignored. It speaks to any type of long-term sustainability of what’s happening in New Orleans.
“When black people came out of slavery, we came out with a clear understanding of the connection between education and liberation. Two groups of white people descended upon us—the missionaries and the industrialists. They both had their view of what type of education we needed to make our new-born freedom realized. During this period there’s an analogy—I’ve said this to all my friends in Kipp And TFA. During this period two groups of white people descended on us the industrialists and the missionaries. And each one of them have their own view of what kind of education we need.
“What people have never grasped is that we want to be helped, we don’t want to be controlled. In this process, we wanted to be a critical part of defining what role education should play in our continuing struggle to truly realize freedom in America. That’s the thing that’s truly unsettled in my soul. How do I make that happen, when I’m swimming with sharks on the left and on the right. And trying to find an independent course that speaks to the pain that my people experience every single day.”