These videos are extremely instructive about the whole issue of school takeover. They effectively expose the myth of "amazing transformation" and "dramatic progress" in educating the at risk children in New Orleans.
Right after the devastation of hurricane Katrina, a whole new group of education entrepreneurs were encouraged by our Louisiana Department of Education to take over any school that was rated as performing below the state average. These charter school developers were given school buildings and almost Cart Blanche to do innovative stuff to close the achievement gap of the mostly poor and at risk student population in New Orleans students. Most of the leaders of this movement adopted a "no excuses" policy for driving up student performance. They diagnosed the problem in New Orleans schools as one of corrupt school management, lazy, uncaring teachers and administrators and low expectations of students. Their remedy was to not rehire the 7,000 educators that were laid off as a result of the destruction of schools by Katrina. Instead, the new charter schools were encouraged to hire many untrained recent college graduates who would not carry all of the baggage of "low expectations" and who would encourage students to achieve at their true potential. They said you could overcome poverty with innovation and good teaching.
Several large foundations chipped in millions of dollars to help start charter schools. In addition, the rebuilding funds provided by the federal government as a result of Katrina provided the average new start up charter with close to $20,000 per student for the first few years after Katrina. It was double the regular funding of schools and the most lavish funding of a major educational experiment implemented on such a large scale.
That was more than eight years ago, and the results we can review today are dismal. After all that money and after all the national accolades including glowing praise by US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and numerous national media, the New Orleans Recovery District has barely made a dent in improving student performance.
This blog has reviewed the latest testing results of students in the New Orleans Recovery District and found them to be ranking at the 17th percentile compared to the state average. Some might say that at least that's an improvement from almost the bottom, but when we consider that many of the schools taken over were rated near the state average, the average performance in the bottom quartile is still dismal. When we also consider that the state average performance on the NAPE tests places Louisiana about 49 out of the 50 states, that 17 percentile ranking does not look like a great model for the country in closing the achievement gap.
But here is another disturbing fact: When the new charter schools were formed, the entrepreneurs sold the parents and the news media on the idea that students in New Orleans would finally be prepared for college with "no excuses" accepted about why any child could not attend an Ivy League school. So now when we review the latest results of ACT testing and see an average for the New Orleans Recovery District of 16.3, (just about the lowest in the state) we know that these kids are not Ivy league bound. They are not even qualified to attend community or technical colleges. At the urging of the LDOE, a growing number of RSD students have been taking Advanced Placement courses which should qualify students to receive college credit for those courses. The only problem was that students are required to take a credit exam at the end of the course. Those results indicate that only about 5% of the students taking these advanced courses were eligible to get college credit.
The other big criticism was that before Katrina corrupt school officials were using public education dollars to line their pockets. Well that may have been true but now even though the LDOE seldom investigates charges of corruption, false reporting, grade fixing, and funds mismanagement, there is plenty of evidence of corruption. This editorial shows that the main difference is that now the opportunities for mismanagement of public money are greater because of lack of oversight and the many more slick operators that are handling the funds.
So why do I insist on rehashing all this sad news about New Orleans schools? Only because we can't move forward in school reform based on a big PR campaign that tells a lie about the reforms. The truth is that the amazing success of the New Orleans Recovery District is a myth created by those who like the new status quo of entrepreneurs who make money on the backs of at risk children. Only when the truth is told can we implement real reform.
A Personal Opinion About Reform: While I do not believe there is a magic formula that would dramatically close the achievement gap, I believe there are tried and true measures that can be taken to steadily improve student performance and give a lot of kids a really good chance of rising out of poverty:
- Most educators are well aware that during the 3 months of summer many students regress and actually lose some of the gains made in the basic skills. That's because often the poverty environment does not continue to reinforce important academic areas. Such students really need a strong summer enrichment program that would provide them with fun learning activities such as reading (with rewards for books read), math camps, and job shadowing or internships for older students.
- Instead of constantly hiring new TFA corps members to work with the most disadvantaged kids, why not provide incentives for experienced and proven teachers of color to teach in the most challenging schools. These teachers would need to be respected as professionals and not constantly threatened with test based firing.
- Go back to providing a full spectrum of exciting educational opportunities to disadvantaged kids, including music, art, drama and field trips to local industries with great job opportunities.
- A major effort must be made to encourage black male role models to donate time for mentoring and motivating inner city youths who may have a minimum of good male role models.
- Every high school should have both an excellent college prep program and an exciting career training program with opportunities for older students to do internship in exciting professions.
- We must free all of our students and teachers from the tyranny of standardized testing overkill. Many children are blessed with great talents that are not measured by standardized testing.