Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The “Success” of the Louisiana Recovery District is a Great Big Fraud!

The Louisiana Department of education has just released the results of the state accountability testing called LEAP and ILEAP for the Spring of 2014. The report includes a percentile ranking of each of the public school systems in the state according to the performance of their students in math, and english language arts. The latest student testing results and these percentile rankings demonstrate the appalling academic performance of the Louisiana Recovery District (The RSD results are given near the bottom of the chart).   After more than eight years of state takeover and conversion of public schools in Louisiana into privately run charter schools, even the most ardent promoters of this radical privatization experiment can no longer hide its spectacular failure.

The latest state testing results in this official LDOE report now ranks the New Orleans Recovery District at the 17th percentile among all Louisiana public school districts in student performance. By the state's own calculations, this means that 83 percent of the state's school districts provide their students a better opportunity for learning than do the schools in New Orleans that were taken over and converted into charter schools. Considering the fact that a special law was passed for New Orleans that allowed the state to take over, not just failing schools, but any school performing below the state average at that time, this 17th percentile ranking places the New Orleans takeover schools just about where they were before the takeover. But in addition, the schools taken over by the Recovery District in Baton Rouge and other areas are now ranked at the 2 percentile and 0 percentile levels respectively, after 6 years of state and charter school control. That means that these two portions of the Louisiana Recovery District are absolutely the poorest performers on the state accountability testing. In two of the schools run by the RSD, the academic results and the enrollments had deteriorated so much that the Recovery District has recently given them back to the local school school board systems. This latest move apparently violates the whole premise behind the RSD.

Mercedes Schneider has demonstrated that the true graduation rates of the takeover schools have been obscured in state reports but are also among the lowest in the state. In addition, the ACT scores of the takeover schools are the lowest in the state.

So since there have been no real academic gains, what other benefits have parents and their students gained from the charter privatization scheme? State education officials are trying to explain that parents now have more choice about where to send their children to help them escape so called “failing” schools. But that assertion is also a fraud. It is the higher performing charters that are doing the choosing! First we have the New Orleans Parish system which is composed of the schools not taken over by the state, where most of the schools are now selective admission schools. Only proven high performing students can attend those schools. Then there are the few B rated schools in the Recovery District where “choice” is controlled by a requirement of school volunteer service for parents and a close to zero tolerance discipline policy that allows the removal of disruptive students and low performers. So parents who have now lost their neighborhood schools can only choose once the system has eliminated the majority of students from attending the most highly regarded schools. Most low income students in New Orleans have no escape, because even the newly expanded voucher schools produce extremely low performance.

How has this fraud about the success of the RSD been perpetrated on not just Louisiana but on the whole nation? The privatization proponents have been extremely successful at one major initiative: public relations! The wealthy and influential organizers of this takeover scheme have succeeded in almost totally controlling the message portrayed as one of “amazing gains” (not actual perfromance) by the RSD schools. The Cowen Institute out of Tulane which runs some of the charters has "assisted" in controlling the analysis of RSD performance to focus on distorted gains by utilizing percentage gains in RSD school performance scores. These percentage increases do not at all reflect legitimate comparisons with other public schools in the state, yet the press releases claimed "much greater gains by the RSD". Independent researchers have pointed out that a 10 point gain for a school at the 50 point SPS level on the original 200 point rating system was portrayed as a 20% gain, while a 10 point gain by a school at the 100 point level in the traditional school systems (a gain which is actually more difficult to achieve) was seen as only a 10% gain. But the independent researchers such as Research on Reforms never had the clout with the news media to have their arguments heard.

Another significant factor that produces seemingly amazing gains in student perfromance for the RSD is a major inflation of accountability testing results over a period of years. Over the last ten years, most schools accross the state (not just the RSD schools) have demonstrated dramatic improvements in the LEAP measure of grade level perfromance for  math and ELA. But during the same period, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAPE) showed very little improvement for Louisiana students. Over the last ten year period NAPE results showed approximately a 2.5% total gain in achievement for Louisiana students. This is significantly less than the average gains by all the other states on NAPE. This discrepancy is a strong indication of score inflation for the state's accountability testing. Either the tests got easier or students learned how to perform better on the state tests without significantly improving their English and math skills. My conclusion is that teachers in Louisiana produced what they were expected to produce. Better test scores. But that did not mean that students were significantly better educated. With all the emphsis on drilling and test prep, there has been in my opinion a major neglect of all the other major areas of education that are needed prepare our students for a successful life.

Overall testing inflation and the manipulation of statistics have allowed the promoters of the privatization effort in Louisiana to simulate a story of great success in the Louisiana Recovery District. Many in the media were romanced by the notion of a new innovative system run by bright young people who were not hamstrung by old traditions, by unions, or low expectations. The media elitists were only happy to report that finally there were miracles happening in the schools in New Orleans.  Several times the hosts of the MSNBC Morning Joe program suggested that the New Orleans RSD charter school system should serve as a model for reform of all other struggling systems accross the country. And they have been  taken up on that proposal by some states. 

In addition to generous state and federal funding for these so called miracle schools, millions of dollars rolled into the New Orleans charters from the Gates and the Walton foundations and many others. This lavish funding paid for lavish salaries of the managers of these “non-profit” schools, to run the PR campaigns, and to pay off the many politicians who also supported this transformation. 
The bad joke on the reformers in the rest of the country was that other states were convinced they could replicate the “success” of the Recovery District in Louisiana. So Recovery Districts were hastily adopted in Michigan and Tennessee with disappointing results. That's because these other states were sold a lie. The lie was that you don't have to worry about student poverty, child neglect, child nutrition, a lack of books in the home, and a lack of a stable home life. Just insist on the same high expectations for these at risk students as you have for more advantaged students. You may also want to fire all the experienced teachers and administrators and replace them with young, untrained, high expectation neophytes. Let charter schools take over from traditional schools. Then your state too can have miracle schools! But it did not work in New Orleans and it will not work anywhere else.

Finally there is one small weekly newspaper that is willing to tell the truth about the New Orleans miracle”. See this article in the Louisiana Weekly. Maybe we can get the Washington Post to do a similar story.

But what do we do now that the miracle has not really materialized and we have driven off thousands of dedicated experienced teachers? The Louisiana education reformers are certainly not admitting that the whole thing was a fraud. But do we really expect most TFA'ers to stay in the most difficult classrooms and work on Saturdays and make home visits without pay for more than two years? Do we expect the foundations to keep feeding the monster they have created? I don't think so.