UNDERMINING PROGRESS

Something is working.

ROBERT LANDRY ILLUSTRATION

I am beginning to understand why Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas earns so much money – about $300,000 with housing expenses, which by the way is a lot less than he made in Philadelphia.

 Just like politicians and banking honchos, school administrators always manage to pull down vastly higher salaries than the people actually doing the work. Perhaps the overall salary disparity between teachers and administrators is justifiable, but in Vallas’ case, I no longer need to be convinced. He is taking heat, not for failing, but for showing results.

 He promised to improve “failing” New Orleans schools, and test scores show he’s delivering. It is a slow, fragile process, but considering what he had to work with, he’s well on his way to accomplishing his goal. The problem is no one wants to give him credit for it.

“We are always having to defend the (test score) increases,” Vallas says. “It’s a constant bashing.”

The event that led Vallas to say these words was a spat he had with Brett Bonin, a New Orleans School Board member who had just criticized the organizers of an education symposium. Bonin wanted to know why forum presenters failed to note that OPSB schools posted a higher 2009 student performance growth score than Vallas’ RSD schools. After Bonin had repeated his point several times in front of an audience of about 100, Vallas lost his patience.

 “Brett, accept the fact that the scores are getting better,” he said. “(U. S. Secretary of Education) Arne Duncan is coming back in November. Why? Because of the very reforms we’ve implemented here. That’s why we have 10 applicants for every slot. I think the RSD will be successful. We are off to a good start.”

The RSD’s performance isn’t the only aspect of education reform that’s under scrutiny. Every change that has led to improvements in Orleans Parish schools since Hurricane Katrina is under attack by some group or another.

In response to all the claims of success and counter claims of reform failure, the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University recently tried to determine the reasons for increasing test scores. After gathering realms of data, the institute finally concluded that there is no clear evidence that recent education reforms are working.

The report’s conclusions were discussed at an October forum entitled “Reconstructing Education in New Orleans Post Katrina” held at Loyola University School of Law.

 “Advocates and public officials already know what they want, and the decentralization of the school system dilutes responsibility for understanding the whole picture,” the report says. “Many of the claims made by advocates and public officials are based on shaky evidence.”

The report’s “shaky evidence” included student performance statistics released from the Department of Education showing that between 2007 and ’09 Orleans Parish students’ performance grew between 9 and 25 percent in English and between 8 and 16 percent in math. Across the board, New Orleans schools are showing gains, but the biggest gain was in Vallas’ RSD-run schools in English. In 2007, only 18.6 percent of fourth graders in RSD-run schools scored basic or above in English. In ’09, 43.7 percent achieved basic or above.

Granted, more than half are still not scoring even average, but a 25.1 percent increase in two years is remarkable progress. To put it in bottom-line terms, this dry statistic means that 25 percent more students – a large number of real kids – have a better chance to successfully navigate middle school and high school because they can read.

Something is working.

Some of the questionable “reforms” include the state’s takeover of most of New Orleans’ public schools because a large majority of students were failing standardized tests. As a result, the state-run Recovery School District took over the supervision of all but a handful of schools. The Orleans Parish School Board got the easy job – running the higher performing schools, most of which had selective admissions. This led to the “decentralized” system that the report casts doubt upon.

In an effort to get schools up and running as soon as possible in the aftermath of Katrina, both districts – state run and OPSB run – granted charters to some schools, which allow them to operate independently. Charters don’t report to either district directly because they have their own governing boards and principals make all the day-to-day management decisions.

Here is the rub: Charter schools now outnumber traditional schools and many of them are showing the biggest gains in test scores. Overall parish statistics don’t reflect the sterling results that some charters have achieved. As a result, charters have become the darlings of the reform movement and, in some quarters, they are hailed as the answer to New Orleans’ long-standing educational failures. Vallas is such a fan that he is gradually turning over some of the lowest performing RSD schools to successful charter operators.

The problem is that not all charters are successful. More important, the success stories in New Orleans run counter to national trends. In other states, studies show that charter schools are no better and, in some cases, actually worse than traditional schools. This anomaly raises questions about the long term validity of their local success.

Opponents say New Orleans charters are getting the “good” students – the ones who have motivated parents. They also say that charters are pushing “special needs” students to the RSD-run schools. The end result, they say, is an unfair system that funnels the most at-risk students to the so-called “bad” RSD schools.

The Cowen Institute report tries to make sense of all the conflicting claims with no result. The report says that it’s important for the state to get clearer answers to what is working and what is only hype, because the day will come when all the extra federal and private money that has been pouring in to support the reforms will dry up. When that day comes, the improvements could dry up, too, the report says.

Looking ahead is a good idea, but considering New Orleans’ education history, the improvements produced by the “reformed” schools are gifts to be celebrated, not disparaged.

As Vallas says, “The jury is still out, but the arrow is pointing in the right direction.”
 

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