New Orleans Schools Are Improving

Yet some people are unhappy about that

John Dibert Community School

BRYAN TARNOWSKI PHOTOGRAPH

"Statistics can be made up to prove anything – even the truth.”

Of all the amusing quotes I’ve seen about statistics, this one seems to best sum up the ongoing controversy about the turnaround of New Orleans schools. A website called the “Quote Garden” says the author of this witticism is unknown, but whoever came up with it must have faced similar circumstances.

No matter how many statistics come from the Louisiana Department of Education showing the substantial gains in student achievement in New Orleans schools since 2005, there’s a stubborn knot of naysayers who insist that the stats are the result of a conspiracy by a dishonest government and power-hungry reformers.

They seem to mourn the chaotic, inept, even corrupt system of schools that existed before Katrina finally gave state officials an excuse to seize most of them.

Last spring, for example, Leslie Jacobs, a former local and state school board member, went on WBOK radio to discuss school improvements. She says she spent most of the program defending good news to a disbelieving audience. These same opponents protest school system changes in front of her house from time to time.

“Critics don’t believe the statistics,” she says. But each year the statistics get better and better and “it’s getting harder and harder to deny the improvement.”

The DOE’s latest press release, for example, says that in New Orleans “only 5.7 percent of students now attend a failing school – down from 65 percent in 2005.”
Everyone in the state should be rejoicing, but soon after the news came out, Jason France* began discrediting it in a blog he calls the Crazy Crawfish.

In the blog, he questions Jacobs’ published analysis of DOE figures, claims state Superintendent of Education John White is hiding data that would discredit DOE’s statistical results and further clouds the issue with his own clever and but apparently tongue-in-cheek reasoning. Of the three, the latter could prove the most effective way of providing fodder to the doubters, whether he intends it or not.

The heading on one of his blogs is: “New Orleans SPS [school performance score] reveals 69 percent of students now attend ‘failing schools’ according to Bobby Jindal (compared to 62 percent in 2005).”

A reader must read a long way down to discover that the “69 percent” failing rate is a satirical reference to Gov. Jindal’s signature voucher program, which allows low-income students once attending “C,” “D” and “F” rated public schools to attend non-public schools with public funds. France’s satire points out that if “C” and “D” schools are bad enough to warrant giving students a free ride at taxpayer expense to a private school, then those schools are the same as “F” schools in Jindal’s political world view.

In other words, France uses Jindal’s political definition for a “failing” school, not the DOE’s definition.

The point is a funny jibe. The problem is, many people aren’t informed enough to understand his joke, and even those who would understand aren’t likely to wade through all the charts and graphs he offers to get to the comedy. Many will take the satire in the headline as fact.

France contends the complexity and changes are a ruse to manipulate the data for nefarious reasons and to cover up embarrassing details about the academic results of Jindal’s voucher program.

France once worked in data management for the DOE, his blog says, so maybe he knows something outsiders don’t. It is certainly true that John White was Jindal’s handpicked superintendent, and he has occasionally shown suspicious devotion to Jindal’s political agenda. However, even if White’s DOE is hiding inconvenient facts, there is collaborating evidence that New Orleans schools are significantly better than they were in 2005.

Tulane University’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, a think-tank that has been keeping tabs on local school reform, issues an annual report on New Orleans’ schools. As a major research university, Tulane’s reports are based on numerous national and state statistical sources. The institute’s reports over the years have analyzed a variety of factors, including enrollment, levels of student poverty, test scores and nationally administered college entrance scores, and its conclusions have typically been cautious about the effectiveness of the state’s 2005 takeover of most New Orleans schools. In fact, an early report said that data hadn’t yet revealed a clear picture about the effectiveness of the state’s Recovery School District’s schools.

 The Cowen Institute’s 2012-’13 report, however, was no longer guarded.

“Improved academic performance of students in New Orleans continue to demonstrate notable gains on critical performance measures, including state standardized tests, the ACT and cohort graduation rates,” the Cowen report said. “New Orleans’ average performance on these indicators has improved each year since Katrina, and indeed New Orleans’ District Performance Score is the most improved in the state since 2005.

“2011 marked the first time that the percentage of African-American students passing state standardized tests in New Orleans (53 percent) outpaced the state’s African-American passage rate (51 percent), and, in 2013, RSD’s test scores in New Orleans grew faster than any other public school system in Louisiana. Though schools in New Orleans remain among the lowest performing in the state, the significant academic gains made in recent years should be recognized.”

While it’s true that Tulane’s analysis is heavily reliant on DOE data, Cowen’s scholarly, highly trained researchers aren’t likely to be fooled by any data manipulation that may or may not be happening at the state level. The institution has a reputation to protect.

The bottom line is this: Before 2005, most children attending New Orleans schools left them with little chance for any kind of real future because they couldn’t read and write well enough to qualify for skilled jobs. Today, more of them have the basic skills they need to escape the poverty and violence that have depressed New Orleans’ economy for decades.


*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated Jason France was a fired DOE employee. France was not fired. France also worked in data management, not accountability. We apologize for these errors.


 

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Reader Comments:
Dec 19, 2013 04:58 pm
 Posted by  crazycrawfish

Dawn,

Please contact me at crazycrawfish@yahoo.com. Your article is filled with libelous inaccuracies. I have contacted the senior editor directly already to alert him. I find it amusing that you are complaining about my analysis while posting this fabricated garbage in a sad attempt to discredit me and my work.

Incidentally, John White, head of LDOE, also used this terminology for describing failing schools both before and after releasing these reports. The reports and data were pre-released to Leslie and her allies to produce their misleading reports. You obviously did not read my entire article or are choosing to ignore the flaws in her logic.

No researcher can identify false data created at the source. If White and company were truly proud of their achievements they would release their data to all researchers, not select ones. Instead they fight anyone else getting a look at data they release to others that are favorable of their reforms. When you can cherry pick your own evaluator you do not have valid oversight.

I was never fired. I found another job, put in my two week notice, and started my blog when I was legally allowed to. State workers can be fired for exercising free speech. My only avenue was to leave state service to speak out.

I put in over 1000 hours every year in uncompensated time, I also fund my sites, travel and research from my own private funds.

I was never in the accountability section, nor will you find information stating that I was on my blog. I was in data management. I collected and reported on most of the data in the department and worked with accountability, finance and the program areas as well as oversaw the creation and validation of the department's LEDRS warehouse which contains most of their data from around 30 data systems

What, may I ask, is your expertise in this matter to speak so ill of me an my analysis which covered ~10 years at LDOE and around 20 years in the data validation and analysis field?

Dec 23, 2013 09:19 am
 Posted by  killcommoncore.com

"While it’s true that Tulane’s analysis is heavily reliant on DOE data, Cowen’s scholarly, highly trained researchers aren’t likely to be fooled by any data manipulation that may or may not be happening at the state level. The institution has a reputation to protect."
I suspect the LDOE and the BESE board also have "reputations to protect".
The institution of Tulane is dependent upon State funds these 'officials' have input to, so they had better toe the line and protect the rep of their erstwhile financial avenues in order to keep the Status Quo of their support.

To dismiss out of hand the investigations of field experts and whistleblowers to "protect the reputation" of people who are teaching Children to Cheat as a way of life is not a proper response, nor is it a legal defense. If the allegations of cheating and corruption are in fact found to be true, will you still protect these reputations?

Or will you Protect the Truth?

If Common Core Lives, Freedom Dies.

http://www.killcommoncore.com

Jan 2, 2014 11:55 am
 Posted by  Stephanie Anders

Just created an account for long enough to say that I will no longer read this magazine because of this ridiculously inaccurate article. This is apparently not MY New Orleans. You might need to do some actual research for your stories, rather than just interviewing people that benefit from the story being told in certain ways. Usually, when people are railing on your framing of the "successes" of the current educational system here on a radio show, that should be an opportunity for reflection and actual LISTENING. Why not interview students from Carver or Clark? You can also go to researchonreforms.org and see some real INDEPENDENT research debunking this false narrative perpetrated by those who stand to gain from it. Silencing voices of those who are actually affected by this system, in deference to those who are controlling it (but oddly enough, don't enroll their own kids in the system) makes this article laughable. No, the system was not good before Katrina, because it was controlled by a few in power. . However, at least those folks had kids in the system, and had a lot less money to squander. Now the numerous SYSTEMS just have different people in charge, coincidentally mostly white and young and from somewhere else, with NO kids of their own in the system, with very little experience in education, and a LOT more money to squander on ridiculous administrative bureaucracy. But who cares about nurturing children, cooperation, communities, or democracy, when there's money to be made?

Jan 2, 2014 12:46 pm
 Posted by  Geauxteacher

"While it’s true that Tulane’s analysis is heavily reliant on DOE data, Cowen’s scholarly, highly trained researchers aren’t likely to be fooled by any data manipulation that may or may not be happening at the state level. The institution has a reputation to protect." - Seriously? Not the kind of comment a real journalist would make, especially one who didn't bother to check the research him/herself (or does not have the expertise to do that statistical analysis).

I could recommend any number of highly trained researchers who can and have debunked some of the "analysis" of the Cowen Institute's "researchers" but offer a couple of local resources you may want to contact for a follow up story: Dr. Mercedes Schneider, deutsch29.wordpress.com, or Dr. Barbara Ferguson, Researchonreforms.org

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