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Thompson: Fact Checking the New Orleans Reformers' Spin

When I first read the Education Research Alliance (ERA) report on the effectiveness of the competition-driven New Orleans model of reform, it was clear that true believers in "relinquishment" and market-driven reform would be disappointed by its findings. However, they have still spun the mixed results from the NOLA corporate reform model as a great success.

I have left the fact checking of the ERA's methodology and data to the experts. I've mostly limited myself to fact checking the reformers' spin - the soundbites they use to put the NOLA record in the best possible light, and to use its model to break unions and extend test-driven reform across the nation.

I admit to being surprised that analyses such as those of the NEPC, Andrea Gabor, The International Business Times, In These Times, Julian Vasquez Heilig, Mercedes Schneider, Gary Rubenstein, and others have found so many problems with the ERA research. I still remain most shocked by the soundbite of the respected researcher Douglas Harris who has contributed to headlines asserting that the reforms "worked."

At first, I assumed Harris was just being diplomatic when he said that the "typical elementary- or middle-school student's scores rose by 8 to 15 percentage points," and that "We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time." 

In fact, I'm not aware of many districts that haven't made dramatic increases in bubble-in test scores over a short time, and then saw those illusory gains disappear.

It is hard to believe that any scholar would be so quick to trust bubble-in data after reading Is the No Child Left Behind Act Working? by Bruce Fuller, Kathryn Gesicki, Erin Kang, Joseph Wright. Fuller et. al assemble a much greater batch of test score growth claims by entire states, not just a district with an unflinching focus on bubble-in accountability.

How could scholars forget the New Jersey Miracle, where 4th grade reading scores increased 7.9 points per year for nearly as long as NOLA produced gains? NOLA can't hold a candle to Arkansas's miracle where 4th grade reading scores increased by 19 points between 2001 and 2002, and where there was nearly a 75% increase in those scores in four years.  In fact, Fuller et. al calculate an average of the average of gains in fourteen states and find  2.6 and 2.7 points per year for the decade preceding NCLB! 

Rereading Fuller, I was even more dismayed that Harris seems to have joined the corporate reform spinsters. The ERA seems to be assisting the test, sort, reward, and punish crowd in pushing one type of claim that is indefensible in the light of Fuller's findings. It is nearly as duplicitous as the output-driven reformers' last soundbite that was refuted by Fuller but that is now twisted in an intellectually dishonest manner.  

After Is No Child Left Behind Is Working, one would think that any researchers would require a great deal of qualitative study before concluding that gains in test scores actually mean gains in learning. In the wake of NCLB, reading test scores of the fourteen states went up nearly 2 points per year. On the reliable NAEP test, those scores declined .2% per year.  California state reading scores went up 3 points per year as its NAEP scores increased by 0. Washington state's reading scores went up by 4.6 points per year, as its NAEP scores increased by .3.

And that brings us back to the latest reform Big Lie, and whether NOLA will produce a 2.0 version of it. The data clearly shows that NAEP growth slowed after NCLB passed. Even Ross Wiener at the pro-NCLB Education Trust was cited by Fuller, saying, "There’s a question as to whether No Child is slowing down our progress nationwide.” Back then, Weiner admitted, “There’s been a discernible slowdown in progress since ’03.”  

As we forget this history, however, reformers claim that the gains of 1999 should be attributed to the NCLB Act of 2001!

This teleological logic seems to now be reemerging in terms of NOLA gains. At the ERA conference, reformers seemed to be offering a mea culpa for pushing out harder-to-educate students as they focused on test score growth. In recent years, they claim to have seen the light and seek to rectify previous abuses. But, how can they claim that pre-2010 scores are not inflated by push-outs based on subsequent promises to not inflate test score growth in such a manner?-JT(@drjohnthompson) 




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