Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

The Myth of the New Orleans School Makeover

Ohanian Comment: This is from the Sunday Review. At last someone at the New York Times is calling Paul Vallas--and many of the rest of the New Orleans 'miracle' promoters liars.

Of interst, neither Gates nor Broad funds Measure of America.

Reminder: Read Paul Tough on post-Katrina schools in the New York Times Magazine, salivating over Vallas the detail man, Pastorek the deep thinker, who produced this:

[I]n every school, principals and teachers are being trained in the "best practicesĆ¢€¯ of the country's leading charter schools. One of Vallas's first acts as superintendent was to offer a prominent position to Gary Robichaux, a Louisiana native who, two weeks before Katrina, opened the first charter in New Orleans associated with the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools, the best-known and arguably the most successful network of charter schools in the country.

And where are Pastorek & Callas now? Both got out of education, reform or otherwise.

As Ralph Adamo pointed out six years ago in NOLA's Failed Education Experiment: Privatization runs amok in the post-Katrina New Orleans school system:

What is already clear, however, is that the news media in New Orleans, focused as always on leading the cheer for the next savior, has allowed the failures of an entire year of public education at the expense of thousands of children to be forgotten, to quietly disappear as though it just takes a year of abject incompetence and remorseless failure to get the engine of public education re-started. For education to work here for the least prepared, the least motivated, and the most impoverished children, the entire community has to stand together in one place and agree on some basic human concerns. So far, all the privatizers and their enablers and accomplices have managed to do is create the illusion of the "buy-in," their telling phrase for such community-building. Many have been paid handsomely for their service in this cause; little or no difference has been made by their efforts.

Certainly it wasn't just the media in New Orleans leading the cheer.

By Andrea Gabor

WAS Hurricane Katrina "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans," as Education Secretary Arne Duncan once said? Nearly 10 years after the disaster, this has become a dominant narrative among a number of school reformers and education scholars.

Before the storm, the New Orleans public school system had suffered from white flight, neglect, mismanagement and corruption, which left the schools in a state of disrepair. The hurricane almost literally wiped out the schools: Only 16 of 128 buildings were relatively unscathed. As of 2013 the student population was still under 45,000, compared with 65,000 students before the storm. Following the storm, some 7,500 unionized teachers and other school employees were put on unpaid leave, and eventually dismissed.

Two years before the storm, the State of Louisiana had set up a so-called Recovery School District to take over individual failing schools. After Katrina, the district eventually took over about 60 local schools; about 20 well-performing schools remained in the Orleans Parish School Board, creating, in essence, a two-tier system. Nearly all the schools in both parts of the system have since been converted to charters.

Last year, 63 percent of children in local elementary and middle schools were proficient on state tests, up from 37 percent in 2005. New research by Tulane UniversityĆ¢€™s Education Research Alliance shows that the gains were largely because of the charter-school reforms, according to Douglas N. Harris, the allianceĆ¢€™s director. Graduation and college entry rates also increased over pre-Katrina levels.

But the New Orleans miracle is not all it seems. Louisiana state standards are among the lowest in the nation. The new research also says little about high school performance. And the average composite ACT score for the Recovery School District was just 16.4 in 2014, well below the minimum score required for admission to a four-year public university in Louisiana.

There is also growing evidence that the reforms have come at the expense of the city's most disadvantaged children, who often disappear from school entirely and, thus, are no longer included in the data.

"We don't want to replicate a lot of the things that took place to get here," said Andre Perry, who was one of the few black charter-school leaders in the city. "There were some pretty nefarious things done in the pursuit of academic gain," Mr. Perry acknowledged, including "suspensions, pushouts, skimming, counseling out, and not handling special needs kids well."

At a time when states and municipalities nationwide are looking to New Orleans, the first virtually all-charter urban district, as a model, it is more important than ever to accurately assess the results, the costs and the continuing challenges.

New Orleans has been trying to make the system more fair. It replaced its confusing and decentralized school application process with one in which most schools accept a single application. In response to a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of special education students, the courts recently tightened oversight of charter schools.

But stark problems remain. A recent report by the Education Research Alliance confirmed that principals engage in widespread "creaming"-- selecting, or counseling out, students based on their expected performance on standardized tests. In a forthcoming study, the alliance expects to show that lowest-scoring students are less likely to move to higher-performing schools.

The rhetoric of reform often fails to match the reality. For example, Paul G. Vallas, the superintendent of the Recovery School District from 2007 to 2011, boasted recently that only 7 percent of the city's students attend failing schools today, down from 62 percent before Katrina, a feat accomplished "with no displacement of children." This was simply false.

Consider Joseph S. Clark Preparatory High School, one of the city's last traditional public schools to be "taken over." Most of its 366 students declined to re-enroll when it reopened under new management in the fall of 2011. During its first year under FirstLine, a charter management organization, Clark had only 117 "persisters," or returning students, according to a study by Stanford UniversityĆ¢€™s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, known as Credo. FirstLine could not account for where the students went after they left Clark. However, Jay Altman, its chief executive, told me in an email that before FirstLine took over, a similarly low proportion of students, about 35 percent, were returning. (The school district did not respond to my queries about Clark.)

One problem is that in the decentralized charter system, no agency is responsible for keeping track of all kids. Two years ago the Recovery School District, acknowledging that it was "worried" about high school attrition, began assigning counselors to help relocate students from schools it was closing. LouisianaĆ¢€™s official dropout rates are unreliable, but a new report by Measure of America, a project of the Social Science Research Council, using Census Bureau survey data from 2013, found that over 26,000 people in the metropolitan area between the ages of 16 and 24 are counted as "disconnected," because they are neither working nor in school.

Ironically, schools like Clark actually feed the New Orleans success narrative because when bad schools are taken over their "F" grades automatically convert to a "T" --for a turnaround. Thus, in the 2013-14 school year, the four schools with "T" grades wouldn't be counted as "failing" schools, nor would the 16 schools that received a "D" grade. About 40 percent of Recovery School District schools were graded "D," "T" or "F" that year.

Adding to the difficulty of assessing the New Orleans experiment is the fact that Louisiana education data has been doled out selectively, mostly to pro-charter researchers, and much of the research has been flawed. Last fall, the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives was forced to retract a study that concluded that most New Orleans schools were posting higher-than-expected graduation rates and test scores.

Last spring, Credo produced a study of 41 urban charter districts, including New Orleans, that purported to show that charters outperformed urban public schools on standardized test scores; but this study was also highly flawed. The methodology was based on comparing each charter student to a virtual "twin," a composite of as many as seven public-school kids who attend "feeder" schools and who match the charter students on demographics and test scores. The problem in New Orleans was that there are virtually no local feeders left from which to draw comparisons.

Andrew E. Maul, an assistant professor of research methodology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, found that Credo's report "cannot be regarded as compelling evidence of the greater effectiveness of charter schools compared with traditional public schools."

Meanwhile, black charter advocates charge that the local charter "club" leaves little room for African-American leadership. Howard L. Fuller, a former Milwaukee superintendent, said the charter movement won't have "any type of long-term sustainability" without meaningful participation from the black community.

A few school leaders agree that the model needs major change. For example, a new open-enrollment charter school, Morris Jeff, is working to integrate both the student body and its teaching force, and even backed a unionization effort -- one of the city's first since the hurricane.

A key part of the New Orleans narrative is that firing the unionized, mostly black teachers after Katrina cleared the way for young, idealistic (mostly white) educators who are willing to work 12- to 14-hour days. Patricia Perkins, Morris Jeff's principal, says the schools need the "wisdom" of veteran black educators.

Morris Jeff is benefiting from one of the most important post-Katrina reforms: a big increase in both government and philanthropic funding. It recently moved into a new bright, air-conditioned building.

For outsiders, the biggest lesson of New Orleans is this: It is wiser to invest in improving existing education systems than to start from scratch. Privatization may improve outcomes for some students, but it has hurt the most disadvantaged pupils.

Andrea Gabor is a professor of business journalism at Baruch College, the City University of New York.

— Andrea Gabor with Ohanian comment
New York Times





This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.