Monday, December 5, 2011

White: "Charters Are the Answer"

Former state superintendent Paul Pastorek at least gave lip service to the idea that some traditional schools could be acceptable to the State Department of Education. Incoming superintendent White by contrast is a "one trick pony". He plans to tell the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board ( I suggest educators read this revealing Advocate article very carefully) that the one solution to improving schools is to convert as many low performing schools as possible into charters. Charters in White's mind are the be-all and end-all for improving schools. According to the Advocate article, he wants to bring "the New Orleans strategy" to Baton Rouge and other school districts with low performing schools. He would like to convince the local school boards to convert all low performing public schools into independently run charters. The only problem with that solution is that if they follow the New Orleans strategy, the Baton Rouge schools would be adopting an inferior system!

The truth is that even though the RSD has had control of three fourths of the student population in New Orleans for five and a half years, that school system is still performing below all school systems in the state except for St. Helena (which is already partially controlled by the Recovery District). If all RSD schools (some do not have scores yet because of reorganizations or new start ups) would be given an SPS score, over 50% of the New Orleans Recovery District schools would be rated as "F" by the state's new letter grading system. (The official percentage receiving F is 46.5%) The average ACT score for RSD graduates is below 16, indicating that very few such grads have a chance of getting a college education. The only "success" here is a slick public relations spin pulled off on the news media and much of the general public by the charter school promoters.

Just how did so many elected leaders and some of the major news media come to believe that the New Orleans Recovery District and its charter schools had "saved" the troubled New Orleans public school system? Some of it is wishful thinking. Everyone wants to believe that by simply teaching smarter and harder, and just letting competition and the free enterprise system work, any population of underperfoming students can experience success.  Unfortunately most of the perceived success of RSD and its charter schools is a cruel hoax. How was it done?

Much of the false perception, is caused by focusing on a small minority of the charters that have demonstrated pretty good performance by recruiting the best students in the Recovery District. The New Orleans Recovery District is different from other Recovery schools because the special law forming it allowed it to take in some higher performing schools and student populations. These few "successful" schools have then been marketed by the charter advocates as typical of the success that can be obtained by charters. The problem is that this handful of schools has no more of a typical student population than the magnet schools found in most large school systems. So out of the 71 RSD schools that have been assigned scores, only 5 schools or 7% of the total have qualified for a "B" on the new letter grading system. There are no schools in the Recovery District that qualify for an A. Those 5 "B" schools are succeeding at the expense of many of the direct run RSD schools and other charters that have to take the lower performing and discipline problem students rejected by the high performing charters. As a result, approximately 50% of all the other schools in the New Orleans RSD are rated as "F" and another 40% are rated as "D".

The second strategy used by the charter school supporters to claim dramatic success is the use of percentage improvements in the School Performance Scores (SPS) compared to other public schools. By using percentage improvements instead of point increases, the RSD schools which started with low base scores are able to artificially magnify their progress. For example, if we compare a school in the Recovery District with an initial SPS score of 50 to one in EBR for example, with an initial score of 100, and both schools are able to improve their SPS by 10 points, the percentage improvement calculation makes it appear that the RSD school had double the success of the EBR school. That's because going from 50 to 60 SPS seems to be a gain of 20% while going from 100 to 110 SPS seems to be a gain of only 10%. Never mind the fact that the EBR school was already performing at double the rating of the RSD school when the comparison started. Many educators believe it is a greater accomplishment to take a school from an SPS of 100 to an SPS of 110 than for the 50 SPS school to gain 10 points. Average scores in low performing schools can be increased dramatically just by getting students to guess at questions on the LEAP that they normally would not have bothered to answer! That's why it makes no sense to compare schools using percentage improvements rather than actual performance.

John White is quoted as saying that some of the charter management organizations would  like to expand to Baton Rouge because they are running out of "real estate" in New Orleans. That's not true. There are a number of schools in New Orleans that have no charter managers and are still run directly by the RSD and there are plenty of low performing charters. Those represent much "real estate" available for chartering. The truth is that the charter organizations do not want to charter these schools because they are filled with the low performing students they have already rejected. What the charters are looking for is virgin "real estate" where they can use their marketing budget (funded with taxpayer dollars) to draw the best students away from the regular public schools. Most public schools don't get to use marketing to draw  the best students that are motivated and have supportive parents. Public schools are expected to serve the educational needs of all students.  I believe part of the reason the Advance Baton Rouge charters failed was because their managers sincerely attempted to serve the same at risk student population inherited from the previous schools instead of trying to attract mostly high performers. (Also as I have stated before in this blog, they didn't have a clue about how to run a school)

There is a much fairer way to way to compare the East Baton Rouge system to the New Orleans Recovery District schools: A recent demographic study determined that East Baton Rouge Parish now has the greatest concentration of high poverty citizens in the state. Yes, even more poverty than New Orleans. (Don't forget that after Katrina, many of the highest poverty citizens from New Orleans settled in Baton Rouge instead of returning.) What does that have to do with schools? Well it turns out that a measure of poverty of students using the percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch is the most reliable indicator of school performance.  So if we want to compare the performance of students in New Orleans with those in Baton Rouge, it makes sense to compare their performance according to poverty. Also, since most of the schools in the New Orleans Recovery District were taken over five-and-a half years ago, a direct comparison seems reasonable.  Here are the results from the State Department website. The average SPS for free or reduced lunch students in EBR was 76.6 compared to 69.1 for RSD students. Using the percentage method, that's a 10 percent advantage for EBR. The SPS for paid lunch (non-poverty) students for EBR averages 118. For the New Orleans Recovery District, that number is 81. This is a 46% advantage for EBR! A comparison of Black and White students in the two districts yields basically the same results with EBR outperforming RSD by a large margin. So EBR students outperform all categories of students in the New Orleans Recovery District by a large margin using the percentage comparisons of SPS.

East Baton Rouge has a higher poverty concentration than New Orleans, yet 14.5% of its schools are still rated as A or B schools by the state, while the New Orleans Recovery District has only 7% of its schools rated as B, and no schools rated as A.  Why would EBR School Board members want to adopt the New Orleans model anyway?

This is the kind of leadership we can expect from John White when Jindal rams through his appointment as State Superintendent. He does not need a deep understanding of the principles of education or even knowledge of what it takes to run a successful school. His basic approach will be to invite all the charter operators to come in and grab as many public schools as they care to manage. He will then just sit back and pull their charters if they can't produce the minimum SPS, and start a new round of bidding by new charter managers.  Pretty soon, most schools will be segregated into high poverty and low poverty, with very little opportunity for the high poverty students to break out of the cycle of low performance.

 I believe public schools could do much better than this if we let real professional educators concentrate our best practices and solutions on the schools that need the most help. Unfortunately it may take years of mismanagement of our schools before we wake up.

Correction added 12/8/11. Upon double checking the schools in RSD for the comparison above, I found that I had inadvertently included three schools that are run by the Dept. of Corrections instead of the RSD. Also the comparison with EBR included all the RSD schools, not just the New Orleans RSD. Making the necessary changes would change the percentage of D and F schools a little but if we consider that there are several previously failing schools in New Orleans that do not have reported SPS scores but are likely still failing, the percentages would remain basically the same.