Tulane's Cowen Institute retracts New Orleans schools report, apologizes
Senior Research Analyst, Cowen Institute at Tulane University
Analyst at National Council on Teacher Quality
Director of Research, Cowen Institute at Tulane University
Director of Research and Evaluation at the Public Education Foundation
by Jessica Williams
In a high-profile embarrassment, Tulane University's Cowen Institute for Education Initiatives on Friday retracted its widely cited Oct. 1 report on New Orleans public high school performance. The study concluded that most schools are posting higher graduation rates and better test scores than could be expected, given the socio-economic disadvantages of their students.
The institute, launched by former Tulane President Scott Cowen, is the primary group that has examined massive shifts in New Orleans public education since Hurricane Katrina. Its research has been touted by numerous news agencies, charter school support groups and the Louisiana Department of Education.
The repudiated report, "Beating the Odds: Academic Performance and Vulnerable Student Populations in New Orleans Public High Schools," has been removed from the non-profit institute's website. Cowen's executive director, John Ayers, said the research was inaccurate.
"Officials determined the report's methodology was flawed, making its conclusions inaccurate," Ayers said. "The report will not be reissued." The institute plans to "thoroughly examine and strengthen its internal protocols" to ensure its future reports are accurate and have been appropriately reviewed, he said.
"We apologize for this mistake," he added.
The report, which listed Debra Vaughan and Patrick Sims as lead researchers, used what's called a "value-added" formula to predict the performance of students at 25 high schools. Researchers said they considered schools' challenges -- for example, the report analyzed how many students were classified as receiving free or discounted lunch, how many students were over-age for their class and how many failed state standardized tests -- then created performance measures with those factors in mind.
Schools with students who exceeded expected measures were considered to have beaten the odds. Ayers would not say what piece of the methodology was flawed.
Among other high schools, the report highlighted Landry-Walker College & Career Preparatory Academy, George Washington Carver Preparatory Academy and Carver Collegiate Academy for their exemplary performance on end-of-course tests. Other schools, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Charter, McDonogh No. 35 High and Lake Area New Tech Early College High, were showcased for their higher-than-expected graduation rates. NOLA.com published a story on the report the day it was released.
Before the retraction, the report had leaped to prominence in some New Orleans education circles, touted by everyone from state Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard to Leslie Jacobs, a former member of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and a driving force behind the state's education reforms of the past 20 years. It also was highlighted via social media by leaders of the charter management organization Collegiate Academies, which runs Carver Prep and Carver Collegiate, and of the nonprofit charter support group New Schools for New Orleans.
Zoey Reed, a spokeswoman for Collegiate Academies, said Friday that while the Cowen report was "validation" of the schools' success, its retraction doesn't diminish them. "There's just so much great stuff that we already do," she said. "That still holds true with or without the report."
"Value-added" measures are already controversial; many have questioned their calculations. The state Education Department uses a value-added system to measure teacher performance in classrooms, but it seeks to balance the value-added portion of a teacher's evaluation with classroom observations.
Thus far, school performance scores are largely measured by how children score at the end of each year on state standardized tests, as opposed to how far certain cohorts of children have come over time. This appears to be Cowen's first attempt to measure student performance with value-added principles in mind.
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