The Truth About The New Orleans School Reform Model

Jeff Bryant

Anyone who saw the remarkable HBO series “The Wire” remembers the scene in the fourth season, focused on Baltimore public schools, where the term “juking the stats” defined how corporate-driven re-engineering of the public sphere has distorted institutions so they no longer serve ordinary people.

An anniversary post for The Atlantic described that memorable moment thus:

Historical pressures push teachers in season 4 as President George Bush’s No Child Left Behind education plan casts a real-life shadow. When a new city teacher, formerly of the Baltimore police, hears how his school will teach test questions, the young man immediately recognizes the dilemma: “Juking the stats … Making robberies into larcenies. Making rapes disappear. You juke the stats, and majors become colonels. I’ve been here before.”

Juking the stats is a practice now so ingrained in the way education solutions are posed to the public that examples are rampant.

But anyone who wants to have a genuinely honest discussion about education policy based on the real facts of the matter – and not statistical distortions achieved through gross manipulation and “policy speak” that covers up realities on the ground – needs to constantly question what policy leaders and their scribes in the press are foisting off as “information.” There are better sources to turn to, and the Internet makes that search remarkably easy.

No Way To Talk About NOLA

An especially egregious example of “juking the stats” is the way school administration in New Orleans – where, basically, the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina was used as an opportunity to summarily fire school teachers and turn over the majority of schools to privately managed charter school operators from out of town – is now being marketed to the entire country as a “solution” for public education everywhere.

As I pointed out in a recent piece for Salon, “In the most recent presidential election, both candidates hailed the New Orleans charter-dominated system as a model for other states to follow. It has been touted by think tanks on the center left and the far right as “what should come next” for “transforming” the nation’s schools.”

I went on to explain that although this model of “reform” was being touted by politicians and in the press, “There’s no evidence anywhere that the NOLA model of school reform has ‘improved education.’”

This prompted a letter to my Salon editor from an official of the Recovery School District in New Orleans (RSD NO) – the administrative apparatus put in charge of most of New Orleans schools post-Katrina – that there were “several inaccuracies regarding the Recovery School District and the state of public schools in New Orleans.”

I post the exchange that ensued not just to take readers deep into the weeds of understanding why the NOLA model for running schools should be avoided at all costs, but also to exemplify why and how to contest the “solutions” for education policy constantly being marketed to us by a disingenuous campaign that distorts data to serve its generally hidden ends.

Call…

“Jeffrey [sic] Bryant states “There’s no evidence anywhere that the NOLA model of school reform has ‘improved education’.” The percentage of RSD students performing at grade level on state assessments has more than doubled from 2007-2013 from 23% to 57%. RSD has been first in the state of Louisiana in performance growth each year since 2007. Also, the percentage of all New Orleans public school students attending a failing school has decreased from 65% in 2005 to 5.7% in 2013. 67% of all public school students in New Orleans attend A, B, or C schools, up from 20% in 2005.

“Jeffrey states “Any comparisons of academic achievement of current NOLA students to achievement levels before Katrina should be discredited because the student population has been so transformed.”

The proportion of African-American students has decreased since Katrina, but only by 7 percentage points; and the proportion of free and reduced lunch students has actually increased by 6 percentage points.

Pre-Katrina – 04-05 New Orleans public school students:

  • 94% African-American; 3% White; 3% Other
  • 77% eligible for Free and Reduced School Lunch
  • Post-Katrina – 12-13 New Orleans public school students:
  • 87% African-American; 7% White; 6% Other
  • 83% eligible for Free and Reduced School Lunch

“Jeffrey states “despite reform efforts, the NOLA Recovery School District has many of the lowest performing schools in Louisiana.” To say this, clearly indicates that Jeffrey does not have the context needed to explain what the RSD is and what we were created to do. The RSD is not a typical school district. Back in 2003, the Louisiana legislature created the RSD to transform the state’s lowest performing schools. A school has to fail for four consecutive years to be RSD eligible. So, only the lowest performing schools are eligible to be in the RSD and as you can see from the growth data, we are improving these schools and will continue to make progress to ensure they are high performing.

“Jeffrey states “You’re not allowed to choose the best performing schools in the city – those that make up the Orleans Parish School Board – because those are selective enrollment only. You’re not going to get priority based on proximity, even if there is a school across the street from your home.”

“OneApp, New Orleans’s central enrollment system, was created by the RSD and the Orleans Parish School Board to provide students and families with the opportunity to choose a school anywhere in the city that suits their interests and needs. Of the 85 public schools, 75 are part of the enrollment system. These 75 schools, are all RSD schools and the schools that Orleans Parish School Board directly operates. In 2012, OPSB passed a policy that states that the remaining ten OPSB schools will join when their charters are up for renewal or they can volunteer to join now. RSD has been vocal about the need for all schools to join now voluntarily and some have chosen to do so already.

“As far as the priority based on proximity comment, we do offer geographic priority for 50% of the available seats in a school. We did this in an effort to allow for families who want to send their children close to home, while also ensuring that students from outside of a school’s neighborhood have access.

“I am writing to request that accurate context and facts be sought prior to posting articles pertaining to our organization and public schools in New Orleans. I am also requesting that Jeffrey correct the article or allow us to publish a response to his piece. Thank you for your time and consideration.”

Zoey Reed
Executive Director of Communications, External Affairs
Recovery School District

.. and Response

Dear Ms. Reed,

Thanks so much for reading my Salon piece “Look out, Chris Christie: The new war on public schools just might be defeated” and taking time to write a thoughtful reply.

In your letter to my Salon editor, you contend that my article contained “several inaccuracies regarding the Recovery School District and the state of public schools in New Orleans.” I want to respond specifically to each of your points and use this exchange as an opportunity to go into more depth about the record of achievement for RSD-NO.

As I stated in my article, public school policies implemented in New Orleans following Katrina are being held up as a “reform” model for troubled school systems around the country, and it is important that we have clear understandings of what this model has actually accomplished.

Your first point of difference with me was that I’ve misread the “evidence” of the NOLA model’s school performance record. While I stated that evidence of improvement is practically nonexistent, you counter, “The percentage of RSD students performing at grade level on state assessments has more than doubled from 2007-2013 [and] the percentage of all New Orleans public school students attending a failing school has decreased from 65% in 2005 to 5.7% in 2013.”

Although these statistics certainly sound impressive, there is much more to the story behind these numbers. As Louisiana math teacher Mercedes Schneider has pointed out on her blog (http://deutsch29.wordpress.com), the main reason RSD has made such great strides in grade level performance is that from 2012 to 2013 the state changed the formula and scale for measuring school performance, which artificially inflated RSD’s scores.

Schneider, who also authored the book “A Chronicle of Echoes,” wrote on her blog, “Of the 37 RSD-NO schools with complete 2012 and 2013 SPS/letter grade information, 26 increased a letter grade as an artifact of [state superintendent] John White’s changes to the scoring system … In other words, had the same rules applied in 2013 as were applied in 2012 to grading RSD schools, then 15 schools would have received a ‘D’ instead of a ‘C,’ five would have received an ‘F’ instead of a ‘D,’ and five would have received a ‘C’ instead of a ‘B.’ Had consistent criteria been used in grading RSD-NO from 2012 to 2013, its district letter grade would have remained a ‘D.'”

RSD-NO scores were further inflated due to the fact that of the 63 schools in the 2012-2013 ratings, only 49 have complete data for both years, and only 37 have letter grades other than “T” for both years. As you know, “T” schools have no letter grades because they are considered to be in “turnaround” state and are exempt for two years. Thus, of the 64 RSD-NO schools in the 2012-2013 ratings, only 37 have the data that any school outside of RSD is expected to have for a two-year period.

Despite how state reports on RSD-NO performance have been able to “juke the stats” in the district’s favor, those schools continue to show little if any academic gains. As Louisiana teacher Mike Deshotels recently reported on his blog (louisianaeducator.blogspot.com) the Louisiana Department of education has just released the results of the state accountability testing called LEAP and ILEAP for the Spring of 2014. The report includes a percentile ranking of each of the public school systems in the state according to the performance of their students in math, and English language arts. Deshotels, who taught Chemistry and Physics at Zachary High School near Baton Rouge and served as Research Director for the Louisiana Association of Educators, noted, “This official LDOE report now ranks the New Orleans Recovery District at the 17th percentile among all Louisiana public school districts in student performance … this means that 83 percent of the state’s school districts provide their students a better opportunity for learning than do the schools in New Orleans… This 17th percentile ranking places the New Orleans takeover schools just about where they were before the takeover.”

As Deshotels pointed out, “Dramatic improvements in the LEAP measure of grade level performance for math and ELA” has coincided with “very little improvement for Louisiana students” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAPE). He concluded, “This discrepancy is a strong indication of score inflation for the state’s accountability testing. Either the tests got easier or students learned how to perform better on the state tests without significantly improving their English and math skills.”

Your next point of contention is with my statement, “Any comparisons of academic achievement of current NOLA students to achievement levels before Katrina should be discredited because the student population has been so transformed.”

My statement merely echoes advice from respected education researchers. Independent, peer-reviewed studies generally agree – as research experts at the National Education Policy Center recently did, in comments regarding a study of RSD-NO charter schools – “Right after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans experienced immediate and dramatic shifts in the school population, with a quick enrollment decline from about 68,000 to 32,000 students – slowly climbing back to 42,000 by 2011 … making well-founded conclusions becomes exceptionally problematic in a city with such fundamental changes and such potentially strong selection effects.”

Your next complaint is with my finding that, “despite reform efforts, the NOLA Recovery School District has many of the lowest performing schools in Louisiana,” which you contend, indicates I do “not have the context needed to explain what the RSD is and what we were created to do.”

As Louisiana Weekly recently reported, the whole intentions behind creation of RSD-NO have been murky from the beginning. As the analysis stated, “Before Hurricane Katrina, the RSD (created in 2003) could only take over a school with a performance score less than 60, and which had already gone through four years of corrective action. To legally justify taking the majority of New Orleans schools and then privatizing them, the state changed the failing benchmark from 60 to just under the state average of 87.4. The constant changing of grading scales and benchmarks has continued since, and has become an often scoffed at trademark of Superintendent John White’s dissemination of annual data.”

In fact, the whole “context” for RSD’s existence has changed since its inception. As the Louisiana Weekly article reported, “According to a study by Tulane University’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives:

‘Intended as a mechanism for restructuring and reform, the RSD was never meant to be a permanent part of the public school governance landscape in New Orleans. Instead, the RSD was meant to take control of and turn around chronically failing schools for an initial period of five years. After that time, and assuming adequate school improvement, schools would be released from the jurisdiction of the RSD and returned to their local school board. ‘

But that didn’t happen.”

As the article pointed out, the charters that constitute RSD-NO have been given the power to choose whether or not they want to return to the OPSB. But all those eligible thus far have said, “No,” because they would then be subjected to a higher level of scrutiny that characterizes OPSB management.

Your last point of contention is with how I’ve portrayed the OneApp process parents have to do go through to find placement for their children in NOLA schools. You state that the process was created “to provide students and families with the opportunity to choose a school anywhere in the city that suits their interests and needs.”

A recent article by Jessica Williams for The Lens described what the OneApp process means for most parents and how well they fare as they seek to find a school “that suits their interests and needs.” Williams looked at the probable trajectory of students whose “failing” schools were being closed down by the district and found, “the vast majority … are headed to other substandard schools next year.”

Williams reported that parents needed to relocate their students were given a list of choices by the district, and “of the 17 schools listed with grades C or better, nine had seats open in only one or two grades. Five others had no vacancies.”

As Williams reported in another article, “Parents have few options when moving kids from failing public schools” in the RSD-NO system. She found, “More than seven years into the New Orleans choice experiment, documents and interviews reveal the schools are so academically anemic that the RSD fell short in its attempts to comply with federal policy requiring school districts to offer higher quality alternatives to students in failing schools.”

Mercedes Schneider has gone into greater depth on the messy, confusing nature of the OneApp process. On her blog, she recently wrote, “enrollment is no longer based upon students residing in a given area and automatically attending a community school. Thus, the ‘parental choice’ of selecting a school by moving to the neighborhood is moot. That choice exists no more. Now, parents must apply to the schools they would have their children attend – even if they live right next to the school.”

Further complicating matters, the process “involves a detailed application process, with one application necessary per child within RSD and OPSB direct-run schools, and a different consolidated application (no guarantees here) for some (not all) OPSB charter schools. And even though the RSD/OPSB direct-run application notes that siblings are given priority for attending the same schools, there are no guarantees there, either.”

For years, parent activist Karran Harper Royal has struggled to place her children in schools she feels would be best for them and has concluded that what RSD-NO provides to parents isn’t real “choice” at all. She has written, that instead of providing real choice, “students only have the choice to apply to over 70 schools; many students end up in lotteries for the higher performing schools. Students not selected in the lottery don’t have a choice; they have to attend schools where available seats remain.” Even the higher performing charter schools, Harper Royal noted, are routinely “not offered as options for the lowest performing students in New Orleans.”

For these reasons and others, Harper Royal has joined with other civil rights activists in filing a civil rights complaint against RSD-NO.

To conclude, one point we agree on is, “The RSD is not a typical school district.”

Let’s also agree to keep it that way.

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