Our State Department of Education keeps telling us (and the rest of the country) what a fabulous success Louisiana has achieved with the Louisiana Recovery District. The RSD was created by the legislature in 2003 for the purpose of taking over and converting so called "failing" schools into successful schools and then returning them to their local school boards. The plan for success was to turn these takeover schools over to charter school operators who would use innovation and lots of enrichment funding to convert them into schools where all students would achieve at a high level.
Somehow the Louisiana Recovery District captured the imagination of the media and elitist education reformers such as Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, and most of the wealthy foundations that have appointed themselves as experts in eduction reform. Education philanthropies and the Federal Government have pumped countless millions of dollars into the RSD charter schools since Hurricane Katrina. Very soon after the school takeovers by the state, glowing reports about the amazing success of the new charter schools were accepted at face value by the media and education philanthropists. The message was that the Louisiana Recovery District had finally cracked the formula for turning around failing schools. The alleged success formula was simple. Just fire all the administrators and most of the teachers and replace them with idealists who truly believe that all students can achieve at a high level. These RSD charter schools would prove once and for all that poverty is not an excuse for failing schools.
For almost 8 years now since the state takeovers of schools in New Orleans and a few schools in several other parishes, the media and public has been told by the DOE PR staff that dramatic progress has been achieved by the RSD. Usually the PR creators avoid giving real comparisons to other schools but point to much greater than average progress in student achievement. So if the RSD schools have been beating the traditional public schools in student progress for 8 years, they surely must have caught up or even surpassed all the traditional schools by now. Right? Well not exactly. Here are the facts.
The recent LDOE report on teacher evaluations attempted to compare the results of the teacher evaluation program with actual student achievement in each of our public schools. Each public school system was compared to all others for student achievement in basic skills and a percentile ranking for each school system was calculated. So now we know how each school system compares to all others in percentage of students that are proficient in the basic skills. But the spin masters at the DOE decided to hide the results of the RSD by including their results as part of their local parishes instead of giving us a result for the RSD as a separate school system (which it is). So the RSD schools in New Orleans were combined with the Orleans Parish School Board schools and the RSD schools in Baton Rouge were combined with the East Baton Rouge Parish school system. This made it difficult to compare RSD schools to traditional schools. It could be that the LDOE was just trying to make the parish schools look a little better by including those high achieving RSD schools with each school system where the RSD schools are located. Right? No, not exactly.
Buried in another section of the report, the RSD also calculated a percentile ranking for all 1300 individual public schools in the state. So it turns out we can still pull out all RSD schools and have Excel calculate an average percentile ranking for RSD schools compared to all public schools in the state. At least that way we will get to see how after 8 years of dramatic improvement these schools compare to the traditional public schools in Louisiana.
There were 68 RSD schools (most of them state approved charters) for which a percentile ranking was reported. If we take the percentile ranking of all those schools and average them, we get a composite percentile ranking of approximately 27 percentile. That means that 73% of all the schools in the state performed better than the average of all the RSD schools.
If we average the RSD schools in the EBR system, their percentile ranking averages only 9 percentile compared to 26th percentile for the EBR parish including the RSD schools. That would be just about the lowest rank any group of schools run by one agency could get. (This is probably the real reason the DOE did not show the ranking of these schools as a separate system) The RSD has had those schools for 5 years and they were low achieving schools when the state took them over and converted them into charters. Now they are extremely low achieving schools. No dramatic improvement here!
What about the New Orleans Recovery District schools? Haven't they done much better as has been reported in the national media? The composite percentile ranking for the entire New Orleans system including the RSD schools (which greatly outnumber the OPSB schools) is at the 40th percentile. If we average the results for only the RSD schools, we get a ranking of 31 percentile for the RSD New Orleans schools listed in the DOE report. So 69 percent of the traditional public schools in the state are doing better than the average for the New Orleans Recovery District schools.
But it still looks like the New Orleans Recovery District schools have improved a lot since they were all "failing" schools before the RSD took them over. Right? Absolutely not! And this is how the media has been fooled into believing that the New Orleans RSD schools have improved dramatically. The fact is that a special law was passed right before Katrina that stipulated that any school in the New Orleans system that was performing below the state average would be taken over by the RSD. This means that 27 out of 107 the schools taken over by the RSD in New Orleans were not failing schools by the standard used in 2005. So if we calculated a percentile ranking for the schools taken over in New Orleans the year before takeover, we would get about the same overall average percentile ranking that we get now. That's because over the 8 years since the takeover, all schools in the state, including the traditional schools have improved dramatically on the state administered tests. My opinion is that all school systems in the state have improved by doing a better job of teaching to the test. It does not mean that we have a dramatic improvement in the actual proficiency of the students in basic skills. There has been some improvement for our public schools as measured by the National Assessment of Education Progress(NAEP tests). If we compare the results for Louisiana on the NAEP test, we get a small improvement in most components but nothing dramatic.
So the facts about the RSD schools demonstrate that there has been no dramatic improvement in the performance of students in the takeover district. In fact compared to all other public schools, they rank near the 27th percentile. That's about where they were before the state takeover. For more information see also this excellent investigative report from Newsweek and the Daily Beast that came out this week.
Yet the highly paid bureaucracy that runs the RSD charter schools and the RSD management have created a niche for themselves and a source of funding for high salaries that they do not intend to give up. Not one RSD school has been returned to the local school system from which it was taken, and the rules of the game have been changed by BESE so that the charter operators, not the public, get to decide what agency will approve their charters. They also get to decide what generous salaries they will pay themselves with the money they save by hiring some of the lowest paid teachers and denying them participation in the teacher's retirement system. They also continue advertising campaigns financed with our tax dollars so that they can try to attract the best students away from the traditional school systems.
The claim that the Louisiana Recovery District and their charter schools are a dramatic way to turn schools around and make failing schools successful is a myth. . . A myth that was created by PR experts and sold to the media and the education philanthropists who were willing to accept that charter schools would be a miracle solution that could transform American education and make it a leader in the world. It is time that we all face the fact that we have been duped by the charter school advocates and the self appointed reformers about their RSD "miracle". The data for this report comes from the following table.