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School Reform, New Orleans Style

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In this post, Jack Schneider and Mercedes Schneider (no relation) discuss school reform efforts in New Orleans, with particular focus on the work of the Recovery School District.

Jack Schneider: New Orleans has been a hotbed of educational reform efforts for the past decade. Particularly with regard to the nature of school governance. Although the traditional school district still exists, it controls a tiny minority of schools. And the statewide Recovery School District, which was set up in the wake of Katrina, oversees several dozen charter schools—all of which operate independently.

Supporters of this shift argue that schools now have the autonomy they need to succeed, and that parents are no longer bound to send their children to possibly failing local schools. They argue that the New Orleans schools have been "jolted from a decades-long coma."

You're a critic of this reform movement. Maybe you can tell me your top gripe with what has transpired in New Orleans over the past ten years.

Mercedes Schneider: Narrowing my criticisms of the New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD) to a "top gripe" presents an undeniable challenge.

I had to choose among a number of serious concerns. But if I must choose one, here it is: RSD is being marketed nationwide as a successful alternative to traditional, board-run, community-centered school districts. Yet Louisiana superintendent John White must be sued—and sued again—to get data on those "superior" charters into the hands of researchers unlikely to shape a success narrative of RSD based on ideological (or other) grounds.

From 2005 to 2009, LDOE supplied de-identified student data on RSD to Louisiana-based Research on Reforms (ROR). ROR is critical of RSD "superiority" and has produced a number of research reports that contradict the LDOE success narrative for RSD.

So, as of 2010, LDOE refused to provide ROR with RSD data—but it still provided the Stanford University-based Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) with RSD data.

This is the data that ROR sued for and in March 2015 gained access to on appeal.

If state-run RSD (now all charter) is superior to traditional public schools, then there should be no qualms about openly offering decoded RSD data for analysis by interested research entities. The data should speak for itself.

Unless John White and LDOE are trying to create a hologram of RSD success.

Holograms do not do well under scrutiny. The lack of substance is obvious.

John White will hide data if the outcomes reflect poorly on the "charter school superiority" narrative. For example, White refused to release the Class of 2014 ACT scores in 2014. I wrote about his withholding this information from the public, and a contact in higher education who has access to the ACT information system forwarded the scores to me for RSD and also for the entire state of Louisiana.

I verified firsthand that the scores came from the ACT information system.

In January 2015, I released all Class of 2014 ACT score composites for all Louisiana high schools to the public.

New Orleans RSD Class of 2014 ACT composite was 15.7.

An ACT composite of 15.7 eight years after Hurricane Katrina is not a selling point for marketing state-run New Orleans RSD.

Four days after I released the Class of 2014 ACT composite scores for RSD, John White released his version: an overall New Orleans RSD composite of 16.4.

That was the best he could do, and the most damning issue was that his score release did not happen until mine did.

If state-run RSD were superior to traditional, board-run community school, there would be no hiding of ACT scores from the public. However, RSD is not superior, and in order to continue to sell it as such to unsuspecting districts nationwide, White and LDOE must hide data.

That is my "top gripe."

Jack Schneider: There are three comments I'd like to respond to here, and I'll begin with the least complicated: ACT scores. The ACT is increasingly aligned with the Common Core standards. But even if we assume perfect alignment, it's still just a test. Additionally, unless we know the scores of non RSD students, as well as the demographic backgrounds of RSD and non-RSD students, the data doesn't tell us a tremendous amount.

Next, there's an implication in your discussion that board-run school districts are a superior model. But as much as I'm in favor of democracy and elections, there isn't much evidence—at least that I'm aware of—that they function any more effectively than, say, mayoral control districts. Now, maybe that doesn't matter. Maybe the fundamental value of public control is enough. Still, I have questions about the capacity of elected school boards.

Finally, you seem to be arguing in favor of total data transparency. But I wonder about that. How much data should be out there? All of it? Even if we aren't sure of its value? Even if the public may not have the tools and support to process it?

Mercedes Schneider: I agree that test scores do not tell one much. However, the takeover of schools is based on test scores. The state set the rules, so let the state live by its own rules. The state is selling the message that privatization is superior to board-run schools. Let them release the test scores to prove it.

Mayoral control places too much control in the hands of one person. If that person is bent on privatizing a district with no thought to implementing an accountability system for charters, then the public money will be siphoned away to a system that values good test-takers over other students.

I have seen no evidence to support mayoral control over board-run schools.

The advantage of board-run education is that it is not profit-driven. Also, school districts based on residency prevent the pushing-out of some students in favor of others, which some RSD principals admitted doing in a study just released by Education Research Alliance (ERA) of New Orleans.

As to data transparency, if the state boasts that charters outperform traditional schools, they not only need to provide the data for analysis, but they also need to do so without trying to filter out research agencies not sympathetic to the privatization agenda.

The public is a sitting duck when the state (that has its own vested interest in privatizing public education) gets to decide what research organizations have access to the data.

Jack Schneider: I want to pick up the "privatization" argument in our next conversation. But before we shift to that, I want to make two points.

The first is that you're right—research does not identify mayoral control as a better form of governance than school board control. But the research cuts both ways. There's no reason to think that school boards are any better at governance. Additionally, while elected school boards are theoretically more democratic, anemic turnout for elections means that school boards don't really end up realizing whatever greater potential there is for representation.

The second point is about the danger of mayors privatizing schools. Yes, if a mayor is hell-bent on turning schools over to for-profit charter providers (who, by the way, are not the majority of charter providers—only 13 percent of charters are operated by for-profit companies), then she can do that. But the same would be true of a school board. And remember: mayors are elected, too. So mayors are just as accountable to the public as school boards are.

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