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Are New Orleans Charter Schools a Model?

New Orleans is not an all-charter school system, as many believe, but it still remains the focus of intense scrutiny because of claims made about the progress of schools since Katrina devastated the city.  Trying to get to the truth about what has actually transpired, however, is tricky ("The Myth of the New Orleans School Makeover," The New York Times, Aug. 22).

In a letter to the editor, the Louisiana state superintendent of education argued that the facts provide support for taking great pride in what has been accomplished ("New Orleans Schools, After Katrina,"The New York Times, Aug. 27). He cited several commendable examples: an increase in the city's high-school graduate rate from 54 percent in 2005 to 73 percent last year; an increase in the percentage of seniors attending college to more than half today from little more than a third a decade ago; and the average ACT score for black students that exceeds the national average. 

But there is another side of the story that merits attention. Louisiana state standards are among the lowest in the country. The Recovery School District, which took over chronically failing schools two years before Katrina and about 60 more afterward and is the first all-charter school district in the nation, posted an average composite ACT score of 16.4 last year, well below the minimum for admission to a four-year public university in the state. Moreover, the most disadvantaged students in New Orleans have vanished, which makes the data look better than it would if they were included.

Which side is right? Each cites outside confirmation of its success. The state superintendent points to a peer-reviewed study by Tulane economists who concluded: "We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time." In contrast, a recent report by the Education Research Alliance said that principals in the district selected or counseled out students based on their expected performance on standardized tests. Further, when failing schools are taken over, their "F" grades automatically become a "T." For example, in the 2013-14 school year four schools with "T" were in reality "F." Sixteen schools with "D" were suddenly "T." In my opinion, this is educational accounting legerdemain.

Moreover, a study conducted by University of Arizona researchers for the Network for Public Education found that on 8th-grade reading and math tests, charter-school students in Louisiana (the majority of which are in New Orleans) performed worse than their public-school counterparts by 2 to 3 standard deviations, which is significant ("10 Years After Katrina, New Orleans' All-Charter School System Has Proven a Failure," In These Times, Aug. 28).

I'm always open to evidence that miracles can indeed occur.  But so far from what I've seen New Orleans is not Lourdes.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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