Lessons To Be Learned From New Orleans-Style Education Reform

Jeff Bryant

As the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, you can count on seeing a lot of glowing stories about the great education progress made in New Orleans since a natural disaster killed nearly 2,000 people, emptied a beloved city, and gave public school reformers what they always wanted: a “clean slate” to have their way unencumbered by the messiness of school boards, local politics, and the voices of teachers and parents.

It really was the “best thing that could have happened,” to use Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s now infamous quote, if you were a fan of creating something that would have little to no consequence for your family.

You’ll also hear many more politicians and pundits touting the NOLA model of education reform for school districts everywhere else.

You should be very suspicious of this marketing campaign.

Advocates for the NOLA model claim it has gotten “results,” but what passes for results is subject to a mad game of interpreting data in a way to make a case rather that to reveal any real truth. Reform advocates like to say they’ve created a better system, but it is a system that seems void of democracy and deaf to the voices of teachers, parents, and students who have to live with the system. And to those people who initially backed the plan for NOLA school reform – but who demurred from becoming blatant propagandists for it – there now appears to be a sense of frustration and disappointment with a realization that there’s a long way to go before this product should go to market.

A Top-Down “Solution”

First, a refresher …

After Katrina, as NPR reported recently, “an ad hoc coalition of elected leaders and nationally known charter advocates formed,” and in “a series of quick decisions,” all school employees were fired and the vast majority of the city’s schools were handed over to a state entity called the “Recovery School District” which is governed by unelected officials. Only a “few elite schools were … allowed to maintain their selective admissions schools.”

One reason this action was able to take place so quickly is because it was planned in the immediate aftermath of the storm while the city was in complete disarray. As an article in The Times-Picayune reports, a “lost bit of history” recently surfaced revealing a hidden chain of events that sealed the fate of New Orleans public schools.

After the storm, Mayor Ray Nagin was reluctant to open schools “anytime soon,” and the state education department told local school officials there would be no state funding available for locally run schools.

This essentially made charter schools the only early option, which then-Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu could help make possible with federal funds. The U.S. Department of Education had money to start charter schools, but nothing to reopen traditional schools. So, the School Board opened the first charter schools, and by the beginning of 2006, “the structure that still holds today was set,” with an elite group of selected admission schools, privately operated independent charter schools, and the vast remainder of schools operated by the state-run Recovery School District, which would convert those schools to charter management.

What’s wrong with this, of course, is that the people of New Orleans – especially those most chronically disempowered and underserved – had little voice in the remaking of their schools and are still virtually without democratic representation in their schools today.

As NOLA public school parent activist Karran Harper Royal explains, in an interview with the journal Rethinking Schools, “I’m no defender of the status quo; before Katrina we had problems, but there were also successes. Having an elected school board created ways for the public to participate. When Katrina hit, I was serving on the search committee for a new superintendent. For years I served on the disciplinary review committee. … Charters purport to give parents and teachers greater power … But you have little real voice.”

This is where advocates for the NOLA education model interrupt to say, “But this is about the kids … Look at the results!”

Data Obscura

In addition to the glowing rhetoric about “progress” in New Orleans since the storm, you should get ready to be hit by an onslaught of data, lots and lots of data, “proving” the case.

But engaging in an analytic discussion about that data can be like arguing with your teenager about whether or not he cleaned his room – it depends on how you look at it.

On any given day in the ongoing narrative about New Orleans schools, you see a headline “New Orleans school changes worked” alongside another “The New Orleans Model: Praised But Unproven.” Often such contrasting articles will make their case using the very same statistics.

When you get past the headlines though, you find you’re lost in a maze of evidence that could lead to multiple conclusions. For instance, in the article praising what’s happened in New Orleans, you learn that student demographics in the city have changed, significant amounts of critical data have been left out, and huge gaps in achievement between low-income kids and their more well-to-do peers remain.

The second, more skeptical appraisal finds “there are positive signs,” but at the expense of some really disturbing outcomes, including a recent report that “found one-third of principals acknowledged trying to exclude certain students and woo others to boost test scores.”

Engaging with a NOLA RSD official, as I have, can be an excruciating exercise in disassembling a Rube Goldberg contraption to see if you can refit the parts into something that goes straight from point A to B.

For instance, claims about increases in percentages of students on grade level in NOLA RSD have to be held in light of the fact the state changed the formula and scale for measuring grade-level performance from 2012-2013, which artificially inflated the district’s performance. Declarations about the schools scoring better on state A-F report cards should be recast with the understanding that State Superintendent John White changed the scoring system to help engineer that “improvement.”

Classroom teacher and historian John Thompson goes through this frustrating exercise as well on the popular blog site Alexander Russo’s This Week in Education. Responding to the article “How New Orleans Made Charter Schools Work” for Washington Monthly, Thompson calls out the article’s claims that charter schools in the district receive less per student funding. Turns out, what they failed to include in their calculation is the “additional $3,500 per student funding provided for post-Katrina schools.”

Even a statistic as seemingly simple as high school graduation rates becomes a slippery eel in the hands of NOLA-style reform propagandists, as researcher Adam Johnson found when he looked into the matter. On his blog, he painstakingly recounts his personal quest to find the source of an often-cited “fact” that NOLA RSD graduation rates improved 50 percent, from 54.4 percent to 77.8 percent, from 2004-2013. His search led him to the discovery that “graduation rates date back to 2005 only.” The 54 percent is a complete fabrication that got passed around, like in a game of telephone, from a dubious source through a series of politicians and media folks wanting to tell their version of the New Orleans story.

Louisiana schoolteacher and author Mercedes Schneider took this search further. She finds, that the “50 percent improvement in graduation rate,” based on the erroneous pre-Katrina metric, masks the fact New Orleans RSD graduation rates experienced a steep drop between 2011-12 and 2012-13. Further, the gap between graduation rates for NOLA RSD and Louisiana in general is widening.

Don’t Buy It

In the Politico article cited above, reporter Caitlin Emma finds, “Mayors and governors from Nevada to Tennessee have sought to replicate the New Orleans model by converting struggling public schools into privately run charters.”

The latest state to buy the NOLA snake oil is Georgia, where Governor Nathan Deal has pushed through an initiative to create a new state agency to take over struggling school districts and do to them what Louisiana did to New Orleans. An op-ed in a Georgia news outlet sounds a word of caution about this.

J. Celeste Lay, an associate professor of political science at Tulane University, explains that the great sucking sound you hear from NOLA is the siphoning up of public tax dollars into private pockets. “The principal at my nearby charter school makes over $300,000 per year, a 246 percent increase from her salary before the school was chartered. For-profit management companies charge schools 15-20 percent of school revenue. Taxpayer dollars go into hefty administrator salaries and corporate profits instead of reducing class sizes, upgrading facilities, or recruiting and maintaining high-quality teachers.”

And about those “great results?” “The average ACT score of NOLA RSD’s class of 2014 was 15.7,” she notes, “far lower than the minimum entrance requirements at LSU and other public universities. Reform advocates tout growth in these scores, but such growth is neither entirely linear nor significant.”

“Education reform in New Orleans,” she concludes, “provides more of a model of what not to do.”

Other cautious observers of the NOLA model highlight the pitfalls of a top-down takeover model that too often leaves the interest of poor and working class families behind.

Speaking at a recent conclave for researchers and policy mavens focused on the New Orleans education story, Marquette University professor and school choice advocate Howard Fuller remarks (on video) that the “positive things” that have happened have “happened at a cost.” The “cost” he describes includes a general sense of community disempowerment in which parents and kids feel they lack control over some decisions being made about their education destinies. “There’s no uniform opinion,” he states, about what has been accomplished in New Orleans and how the schools district should go forward from here.

Another school choice advocate and former New Orleans charter school operator, professor Andre Perry, who had some involvement in forming the New Orleans school district we see today, is harsher in his assessment. In an interview with freelance writer and education commentator Jennifer Berkshire, he says, “The improvements – and I do think there are some improvements – are so marginal when you consider the investment … And by the way, the improvements may not even necessarily be because of the reforms.”

Perry also sees the “many nefarious ways” that advocates for the NOLA model present their case for closing gaps and showing gains, and he questions whether those statistical measures are overemphasized compared to other important values – including community empowerment, democratic engagement, inclusion, and racial diversity.

His conclusion is, “You don’t ever want to oversell something … When you’re constantly saying ‘now is better than the past,’ or ‘now is worse for the future,’ it’s just not a helpful argument if you’re really sincere about making change.”

So what are the lessons to be learned from New Orleans-style education reform?

When even the most ardent school choice advocates are disappointed with what’s been accomplished in the American school system offering the ultimate in choice, you have to be skeptical about making choice a remedy for education problems.

When you realize the many ways statistics such as test score results, school grades, and graduation rates can be bent and distorted to make an ideological argument, you have to wonder whether those data points are adequate, even worthwhile, measures of something as complex as children’s educational development.

When you see a way of doing school impressed on a community by strident outsiders, you have to be concerned whether the cost of usurping democracy is worth whatever gains are being promised.

And when someone comes to your community to sell you on the education reform model created for New Orleans, don’t buy it.

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