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Thompson: A NOLA Middle Ground

John Merrow, in Deciphering Schooling in New Orleans, Post-Katrina, writes that he hasn’t seen enough people take the middle ground when discussing the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans's school reform. He also remembers the city's schools as so bad, pre-Katrini, that one had to "steal electricity from other buildings and utility poles because its own wiring was inadequate—probably rotted through.  And the schools, many of them, were violent and dangerous places."
I mostly see middle ground in reports on the New Orleans competition-driven reforms, with NPR Marketplace's series on the debate being the latest example. In fact, most of the panelists in the Education Research Alliance conference, where Douglas Harris released research on the test-driven, choice-driven outcomes, were squarely in the middle ground of the discussions. Harris's conclusions were seen as too rosy by many (or most?) of those moderate experts.
But, advocates for the New Orleans model of reform had to be upset by these findings and discussions. Harris, and others who are impressed by much of the New Orleans's outcomes, have hardly found evidence in support of other school systems trying to replicate its market-driven, outcomes-driven approach. 
I wish we could focus on what actually worked in New Orleans and what didn't work, what methods could be improved and what should be rejected, and discuss lessons for systemic improvements of schools and systems. Such a conversation must wait, however, until we educators who oppose corporate reform beat back the well-funded campaign to impose test, sort, reward, and punish across urban America. As long as teacher-bashing organizations like The 74 seek to break our unions and destroy the due process rights of educators, we must concentrate on exposing the falsehoods intertwined in the reformers' spin about the supposed glories of New Orlean's charters.
Teachers have other things to do rather than criticize reforms that help students. For instance, we welcome the extra counselors who helped raise graduation rates across the nation, and that are the likely reason why New Orleans's graduation rates and college-going rates increased. Educators oppose the hastily implemented silver bullets that have backfired, damaged public schools, undermined our profession and, above all, hurt a lot of students.
I’ve never criticized the accomplishments of New York City Small Schools, for instance, but I oppose the way that reformers gave those favored schools a boost by dumping high-challenge students on targeted neighborhood schools, turning the most disadvantaged youth into collateral damage in the assault on teachers and unions.
Similarly, a project as massive as the multi-billion dollar School Improvement Grants (SIG) was bound to produce a lot of successful pilot programs. What teachers oppose is the way that SIG rules encouraged the mass dismissal of teachers and the turning of schools into test-prep factories, actually driving down student performance in about 1/3rd of those already low-performing schools.
The New Orleans market-driven experiment was also destined to do good for some students. It was incredibly well-financed. During the early years, an additional $8000 per student was invested and it still receives an extra thousand dollars per student. New Orleans attracted a huge wave of committed, idealistic, and energetic young talent.  The problem was not the individual novices who took over the schools but their test-driven, competition-driven playbook. The biggest problem is the way that reformers exaggerate those gains, and ignore the damage they have done across the country, as they push their still not-ready-for-prime-time gamble to other cities looking for a quick fix for poverty.
The 74's Matt Barnum, in Fact-checking the Charter Critics Who Snatched Defeat from the Claws of New Orleans Victory, did not mention any of the more intense opponents of the New Orleans model, but he certainly attacked calmer reform critics like Randi Weingarten, Helen Ladd, Jennifer Berkshire, Jeff Bryant, and me. Barnum wrote:
As John Thompson writes in the Hechinger Report:
“If [Harris] was studying a school system that was not totally focused on raising test scores during an era of data-driven competition, there would have been nothing wrong with Harris’s conclusion that New Orleans reforms increased student performance, as measured by test scores, eight to 13 percentile points, which compares favorably with expanding early education. Since No Child Left Behind, however, districts across the nation have reported miraculous increases on bubble-in tests, but test score growth on the reliable NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) test has mostly slowed.”
I stand by my argument, while adding that such a statement would fit easily in the middle ground of a discussion on the reliability of the New Orleans model. Neither did I see in Barnum's post any examples of "charter critics" being factually incorrect or misleading. Barnum simply insisted that our evidence should be read differently, as he cherry-picked Harris's most positive findings. But, again, Barnum's spin would be no big deal if he were not pushing for New Orleans-style policies across the nation.
I must emphasize that I have long admired the scholarship of Douglas Harris, just as I respect New Orleans educators and families who are far more critical of the New Orleans record than I am. I am not qualified to contribute much in their debate; I have mostly limited my disagreement with Harris to a theme that I believe should be obvious to practitioners - NCLB shows how easy it is to raise test scores without increasing learning in a meaningful manner.
I also agree with John Merrow's predictions, even the ones that I hope will not come true. As Merrow anticipates, there will be politicians who "hold up New Orleans as a goal while gradually expanding charter schools. That’s the easy way: start with K-1 and expand one grade at a time, because that allows the grownups in charge to train the kids from age 4 or 5."
I would just add that we must resist those efforts, but not primarily because they may or may not benefit the kids who attend those favored schools. Continuing to take the "easy way" will continue to damage neighborhood schools and will continue to create schools with more intense concentrations of children from generational poverty who have endured extreme poverty.
Merrow also urges districts that turn to charters to do a better job of holding those schools accountable. But, he doubts that such advice will be heeded enough and predicts, "chaos will ensue in many cities, especially where the profiteers are invited to participate."
Finally, I hope policy-makers will listen to Merrow and watch Rebirth: New Orleans, and pay heed to his final warning:
When we were filming “Rebirth,” we learned of an aspiring charter school principal who was determined to open a performing arts school. He envisioned a vibrant building full of talented aspiring musicians, artists, dancer and actors, all given the opportunity to develop their craft.  However, once he realized that the charter review board cared only about test scores, he never even submitted an application.  As long as that’s the prevailing mindset, mediocrity is guaranteed. That’s a shame. - JT(@drjohnthompson)

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Doug Harris walks a thin line and teeters often between truth and fiction when it comes to the "calculations" of success and failure of "New Orleans" schools (one must differentiate between OPSB and RSD). His Louisiana COMPAS (Teacher eval using VAM) is another example of missed opportunity for full disclosure shall we say.

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