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Thompson: Washington Monthly Spins NOLA School Reform Impact

The safest summary of evidence on the effectiveness of New Orleans school reforms is Politico's Caitlin Emma.  Emma's The New Orleans Model: Praised but Unproven explains that "mayors and governors from Nevada to Tennessee have sought to replicate the New Orleans model by converting struggling public schools into privately run charters and giving principals unprecedented autonomy to run their own staffs, budgets and curricula — as long as they deliver better test scores." But, she adds, "behind all the enthusiasm is an unsettling truth: There’s no proof it works."

Emma further notes that there have been "similarly mixed signals in other places where the New Orleans model has been tried." As we wait for better evidence, a newcomer to education, such as the Washington Monthly's David Osborne, could have contributed to the discussion on the lessons of New Orleans, but he would have had to have written an article that was far different than his How New Orleans Made Charters Work.

Osborne starts with the dubious claim by the pro-charter CREDO that charters receive less per student funding, but he did not mention the additional $3,500 per student funding provided for post-Katrina schools. He cites the objective researcher, Douglas Harris, who says that NOLA undertook “the most radical overhaul of any type in any school district in at least a century.” 

But, Osborne cites no evidence by Harris or anyone else that the New Orleans radicalism can work in a sustainable manner or that it could be scaled up. Instead, he devotes almost all of his article to praising true believers in unproven theories on school improvement.

Had Osborne dug deeper into Harris's research, he would have seen that the scholar's first report on NOLA strikes at the heart of reformers' claims that high-performing charters serve the same students as lower-performing neighborhood schools.  Neither does Osborne ask whether the test score evidence he cites is meaningful or not. But, Osborne's greatest failing was ducking an opportunity to consider his daughter's experience as a lens for evaluating policy issues. 

Osborne's daughter was a Teach for America teacher at a charter that faced closure if it did not raise scores dramatically. The school "pulled out all the stops on remediation and test prep. Its scores soared, the state raised its grade from an F to a C, and BESE renewed its charter. But the school continued to struggle with student discipline, and the next year it fell back to a D."

Improved test scores in such schools might or might not be meaningful. In a situation like that, is there any reason to believe that increased test scores mean that more learning occurs when all stops are pulled from test prep in a C school, as opposed to a D or F school? Rounds of such remediation are bound to improve metrics important to adults, but do they help or hurt the children who endure them? 

That brings us back to the reason why we should wait for Douglas Harris's Education Research Alliance (ERA) to complete its research before claiming that New Orleans shows that charter schools can systematically overcome poverty. I certainly plan to withhold judgment on New Orleans until Harris's final study is released, even though the first two ERA reports should undermine Osborne's faith that choice can improve schools that aren't selective. Preliminary studies show that parents of lower-income students are "less likely to choose schools with high test scores," and a third of New Orleans principals admitted to the selectivity that is known as "creaming" the easier to educate students.

The ERA's Huriya Jabbar  found that school leaders "selected or excluded students by, for example, counseling students who were not thought to be a good fit to transfer to another school, holding invitation only events to advertise the school, or not reporting open seats." Jabbar heard rationales such as “Every kid is money,” “Enrollment runs the budget; the budget runs the enrollment,” and “We all want our [student] numbers up so we can get more money, more funding.”

In other words, both studies call into question the relevance of higher-performing charter outcomes to the discussion of how we can systematically improve schools that serve everyone. But, Osborne completely buys the assumptions of test driven reformers - get rid of teachers' due process rights and you can fire your way to the top. He cites one who claims, “If we can keep an accountability system and say, ‘Here’s the bar, and it’s set high, and if you can’t meet it, someone else is going to run your school,’ New Orleans could become the only city in the country where every kid goes to a good school.”

Osborne doesn't acknowledge the much more likely scenario. Under such a Social Darwinian system, survival will go to the best of the test score fabricators. Market-driven reformers will do what they have done best since NCLB imposed primitive bubble-in accountability. They will treat children as test scores. Or worse, they will treat them as dollar signs. Either way, competition-driven reform will likely continue to damage the poorest children of color.

More selective charters might or might not try to offer a holistic education to the more motivated students. Those that do will be showcased to spin corporate reform with a more human face. Charters with the most challenging students will continue to do what it takes to survive, and twist the facts to non-education reporters and politicians.

In the meantime, New Orleans has the nation's 3rd highest percentage of student-aged young people who are not in school or working, and the fragmented nature of its system, as well as its motivation to push out struggling kids, are likely to be two reasons why those teens have fallen through the cracks. (Memphis, which has adopted much of the New Orleans model, is #1 in that tragic metric.) The increased-spending on post-Katrina reforms is coming to an end as the state dramatically cuts education spending. Even so, the evidence-free opinions of true believers in accountability-driven reform will be spun to mayors and governors as a supposedly cost-effective panacea.-JT(@drjohnthompson)  


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The Washington Monthly did a head-spinningly screwy analysis of California community colleges a while ago, by a reporter who was truly lost in a fog of confusion. My take is that it's cluelessness rather than willful deception, but either way, the Monthly's attempts at education reporting are quite an embarrassment to the field.

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