THE NEW YEAR BRINGS MUCH TO CELEBRATE
about New Orleans schools. In less than five years, the city’s reputation as an educational backwater has given way to a new reality.
The state’s push to remake New Orleans schools, accelerated by Hurricane Katrina’s near destruction of them, has led to a vibrant rebirth of some schools and a slow but consistent regeneration of others. The reforms that have fertilized this burst of growth are being recognized nationwide. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited New Orleans twice in 2009 and praised what he saw. “In places like this, there’s phenomenal innovation going on,” he said in a meeting with Times-Picayune editors.
Here are 10 successes that educators and parents can celebrate:
•Rising test scores
•Increases in high school graduation rates
•The number of schools classified as “unacceptable” has dropped 20 percent
•Improvement in the preparation of elementary school children for higher grades
•The proliferation of charter school systems
•An infusion of well trained teachers and principals
•An expansion of individual charter schools
•The initiation of a new school building program
•A fighting chance for winning some of the $5 billion in federal grants to be awarded this year
The foremost success is improved test scores. Improvements began before Katrina changed everything, but since the state took over New Orleans’ troubled schools, state standardized test scores have improved even more.
Scores improved in 2009 in most grade levels. Both fourth and eighth graders improved their passage rate by five points over ’08. Fourth graders moved from a passage rate of 55 to 60 percent, and eighth graders jumped from 43 to 48 percent. The passage rate on the state’s Graduate Exit Exam, or GEE, also increased, especially in math.
Also more students are graduating from high school. In the Recovery School District’s nine high schools, which serve the bulk of New Orleans’ most at-risk students, 81 percent of eligible seniors graduated, compared to only 50 percent in 2006-’07. An increased of 31 percent in only two years is worth at least one toast.
The number of schools classified by the state as “unacceptable” has dropped as well. Last year, 42 percent of the city’s public schools remained on the state’s “unacceptable” list, compared to 2005 when the percentage was 63 percent. Most of the schools that have navigated their way out of the unacceptable category are charter schools, with most of the RSD’s traditional schools still failing. RSD schools are showing progress, however.
Elementary schools are the stars, and that’s good news for the future: The earlier students master reading and math the better. Many high school principals report that they are struggling to play catch up with 15 to 18-year-olds who are reading at second grade levels. Students who can’t read can’t graduate, and can’t find decent jobs.
Language arts test scores in the lower grades have been steadily increasing since 2003, but the greatest gains occurred between ’07 and ’09, when 12 percent more fourth graders scored basic and above on LEAP tests. More than 60 percent passed the language arts portion in ’09, compared to less than 50 percent in ’07.
Some of the most successful charters are part of systems that allow schools to share administrative support. They operate as hybrids of two polar opposite educational operating methods, something between the former centralized system and the new decentralized method, in which individual schools go their own way with limited input from state education officials.
Take the Algiers Charter Association as an example. Early in 2009, six of the association’s nine schools were recognized by the state for outstanding student performance progress. William J. Fischer Accelerated Academy, a school once connected to the former Fischer Housing Development, was one of them.
The teacher shortage that plagued the RSD district just two years ago is history. RSD Superintendent Paul Vallas told an audience last year that he receives 10 applications for every teaching slot. These teachers are often inexperienced, but a state study shows that teachers trained by an alternative certification program are as effective as veteran teachers.
Perhaps even more important are the training programs for principals. New Leaders for New Schools, a national nonprofit, places new recruits with proven principals to learn from the best. The School Leadership Center of Greater New Orleans provides additional training for existing principals. One study showed greater performance growth for schools led by SLC principals.
Three years of test scores show that charters are outperforming non-charters. As a result, officials are encouraging their growth, despite criticism from activists who question their test results. Charters in some states are not as successful as the schools here, but a recent study by Stanford University showed that New York City charter students performed better than those who attended traditional schools. The study tracked students who had won seats in charters by lottery and compared them to students who had failed to secure seats through lotteries.
The Stanford study indicates that charters are indeed capable of closing the achievement gap between affluent and low-income students. The study determined that students who attend charters from kindergarten to eighth grade would nearly match the performance of students attending affluent suburban communities in math by the time they reach high school.
Critics insist that charters skim the best public school students from the student population, and that’s why their scores are higher. They say that students who get into charters through lotteries have more motivated parents. The Stanford study debunks this theory because it compares lottery winners to lottery losers. In other words, each group of parents is equally motivated.
Some charter schools’ test scores in New Orleans are phenomenal considering past history. Sophie B. Wright Charter, for example, was tagged a “failing” school by state standards before the storm. The school’s performance score, which measures test scores and other factors, jumped from 26.9 in 2001 to 74.6 in ’08, state figures show. In that year, 75 percent of the school’s fourth graders scored basic or above in language arts and 92 percent scored basic or above in math.
Another success to celebrate is the opening of the city’s first new school since Katrina. Langston Hughes Academy, a state-of-the-art structure on Trafalgar Street, is the first of 19 new schools to be constructed with FEMA recovery funds in the $700 million first phase of a school master plan.
Leadership is the most important ingredient for good schools, and the lack of it led to the downfall of the former system. Perhaps the best success of all is the marriage between RSD Superintendent Paul Vallas and State Superintendent Paul Pastorek. The two Pauls have doggedly pursued reform, even though they take a good deal of heat from reform bashers.
Under Vallas’ supervision, with Pastorek’s support, the “failing” schools are getting better. Student performance statistics show that between 2007 and ’09 the biggest gain in test scores in New Orleans schools was in RSD-run schools in English. In ’07, only 18.6 percent of fourth graders in RSD schools scored basic or above in English. In ’09, 44 percent scored basic or above.
Observers of these accomplishments are cautious in their estimates of what they mean for the future. These achievements carry an enormous price, and the money that fueled them in many cases came from one-time sources. Because of state revenue woes, officials are scrambling to secure some of the $5 billion in federal grants that will be awarded this year to reform-minded states.
When Duncan visited New Orleans, he said Louisiana was in a “unique” position to receive grants, but since then, the Louisiana Legislature passed legislation that’s considered anti-reform. Winning Race to the Top grants is vital to maintaining momentum, and educators can only hope that state educators can convince Washington that Louisiana is still committed to shaking up the status quo.