"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.