The Rest of the Story
The good and the bad
Joseph Daniel Fiedler illustration
With 10th anniversary remembrances and hurricane recovery celebrations reaching conclusion, it’s time to focus on “the rest of the story” to borrow the late Paul Harvey’s signature phrase.
Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story” radio show focused on telling the backstory of historical events and synthesizing the past, present and future into a fuller understanding of important issues. When it comes to New Orleans public schooling, the backstory includes some good news and some bad news.
The state’s decision to seize about 100 “failing” New Orleans schools after the storm and place them into the Recovery School District is a major success story that has attracted national recognition. Today, only a few New Orleans schools are deemed failing by state standards.
The RSD deserves much praise for substantial gains in student achievement, but those gains are only celebratory in comparison to the educational failures pre-2005. The bad news is this: The majority of schools in New Orleans in ’15 still lag in comparison to other schools in the state, and Louisiana’s schools in general still trail the nation on most academic measures.
Tulane University’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives says in a recent report that Orleans Parish schools are “now outperforming 25 parishes” in Louisiana compared to only one parish pre-storm. Hallelujah for that, but the flip- side is 39 parishes still perform better, even taking into consideration that some of the highest performing public schools in the state are located here.
It is important to keep in mind that New Orleans now has two school districts: one overseen by the Orleans Parish School Board and one overseen by the RSD. The OPSB system, which contains 18 selective admission schools and non-selective schools, outperforms most of the state’s school districts and significantly outperforms RSD schools. The RSD’s 63 charter schools are open admissions, which means that they are educating the great majority of the city’s low-income students, who are more prone to absenteeism, illness and other kinds of academic disruptions.
The Cowen report highlights the fact that 57 percent of RSD students scored “basic” and above on state standardized tests in 2014. While it’s true that figure is much improved from previous years, it also means that 43 percent are performing below grade level, hundreds of them far below grade level. Moreover, “basic” does not mean students are “well-prepared” for the next grade. Only 12 percent scored high enough in 2014 to be considered “well-prepared” for the next grade according to current state standards, the report says.
The backstory becomes even more troubling for New Orleans and the state as a whole when adding the fact that Louisiana’s public school students in general score near the bottom on national tests. Education Week’s annual report entitled “Quality Counts 2015” gave Louisiana a report card of D+ or 68.5 percent based on a number of factors, including national test scores and state spending on public education.
Louisiana’s schools earned a D- or 59.8 percent for “K-12 achievement.” On the upside, the nation only scored a C overall and a C- for K-12 achievement. Catching up to that uninspiring average appears doable.
Other enlightening statistics are found in National Center for Education Statistics state profiles. Those profiles show that Louisiana’s definitions of grade level have been historically very low in comparison to national definitions. In 2013, for example, Louisiana’s standard for “proficient” for fourth graders in reading equaled “below basic” in the National Assessment of Education Progress scale, a common metric devised to allow equalized student achievement comparisons of the 50 states.
Louisiana recently started the process of gradually increasing the state’s standards for grade level assessment so that they match national standards. That process, however, which is aligned with the Common Core standards, has met fierce resistance from fearful parents, teachers unions and some district superintendents.
The anti-Common Core movement jeopardizes Louisiana’s attempts to improve student performance. The war against Common Core resulted in a legislatively forged compromise this year that could upend all the time-consuming and expensive preparatory work that has been done by teachers since Louisiana committed to raising standards in 2010. The compromise mandates a review of the higher standards by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Legislature and the governor.
If status-quo parents and labor unions succeed in electing opportunistic politicians to turn back the Common Core standards, Louisiana schools will stagnate while most of the country’s schools move forward. Louisiana’s standards could revert to the former, low expectation standards until new ones could be developed. Considering that the national average is an upward moving target, catching up would become even more difficult. Turning back now would waste millions of taxpayer dollars and valuable time that could be spent on classroom preparation.
The terrible irony is this: Any new standards worth the time to develop are likely to mimic the Common Core standards in place now. These national standards are the new normal, no matter what they’re called.
Even worse, and a fact that parents may not understand, any Louisiana student transferring to an advanced state school district would face overwhelming challenges in the classroom, as many New Orleans students discovered when their families fled to Texas after Katrina. Texas spent millions of dollars post-Katrina counteracting New Orleans’ school deficiencies.
The full story is this: More New Orleans high school students are graduating on time and test scores have improved. Praiseworthy gains indeed, but the good news only looks good when comparing the present to the past. In the future, comparisons must focus on national expectations.