In the five years from 2006 to 2011, I visited New Orleans at least twice a year. I have been baffled since that time by the one-sided research created to paint the transformation of the city’s schools as a sort of miracle. The reality is very troubling and far more complicated. I recommend Gary Rivlin’s extraordinary new book, Katrina: After the Flood, because Rivlin’s stories of real people’s return or failure to return—their hard work and their despair—their financial losses—and their courage to keep on keeping on—create a real sense of the depth of the struggle, particularly for African American families in Gentilly and New Orleans East. But Rivlin doesn’t really cover the transformation of the schools. For an authoritative summary of what has happened since all of the teachers and staff were laid off in the fall of 2005 and the schools progressively turned into a mass of privately managed charter schools, one must read the new brief by Frank Adamson, Channa Cook-Harvey, and Linda Darling-Hammond from the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, Whose Choice? Student Experiences and Outcomes in the New Orleans School Marketplace. (If you want to read further, a much longer report on the research is provided.) All references in this post are to the shorter research brief.
While the schools of New Orleans are now virtually all charter schools, some schools that were high-performing prior to the hurricane and were not seized by the state remain under the control of the old Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB). The research brief calls these Tier I schools. Another tier of schools are three kinds of schools authorized by the Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD)—charter, stand-alone, and direct run. Then there is a third tier made up of alternative schools, those students volunteer to attend and those to which some students are assigned. “It is clear that the organization of schools in New Orleans is highly stratified: The school tiers sort students by race, income, and special education status, with the most advantaged students at the top and the least advantaged at the bottom. Only the top two sub-tiers within Tier 1 have any appreciable number of white and Asian students and any noticeable number of students who are non-poor.” The authors remind us that, “Louisiana’s charter law explicitly allows some schools to engage in selective enrollment practices that resemble those of private schools—for example, requiring minimum grade point averages and standardized test scores….”
The authors describe how the enrollment process actually works for students: “Because schools at the top of the hierarchy (the OPSB schools) largely choose their student body, few students actually have the option to attend these schools, while those schools at the bottom are assigned students who are not chosen elsewhere or who are pushed out of schools further up the hierarchy. The RSD usually places expelled students in the Tier-3 alternative charter schools.” “Fully 89 percent of white students and 73 percent of Asian students in New Orleans attend Tier I (OPSB) schools. However, only 23.5 percent of African American students have access to these schools. And whereas 60 percent of students who are above the poverty line (i.e. those who can pay for their school lunch) attend Tier I schools, only 21.5 percent of students whose family income is low enough to be eligible to receive free lunch have access to these schools.”
The study’s authors note that, “The top schools not only have selective enrollment criteria, they are also permitted to ask students who do not maintain a certain grade point average to leave. Similarly, they are allowed to determine which and how many special needs students they admit… The students identified as ‘special education’ in the highest performing schools are generally designated as ‘gifted’ or ‘talented,’ and rarely include the kinds of disabilities found in lower tier schools.” The students’ characteristics are reflected in the schools aggregate test scores: “Not only do Tier I schools rank as the best in the city, they consistently rank among the best schools in the state of Louisiana.” Of course schools that can choose to accept the highest scoring students and can push out low-scoring students are likely to rank high in a state that grades schools on their students’ standardized test scores.
New Orleans has bragged about its new OneApp application system that has made it easier for students to apply for schools and has replaced a school-by-school application system, but the authors of the Stanford research brief explain that OneApp has not really increased opportunity for the majority of students: “A parent’s desire to send his or her child to a particular school does not result in the child going there. Admission to that school is predicated on a host of factors that are out of the parent’s control, such as the neighborhood, the availability of spots, the lottery number if the student is on a waiting list, and the child’s academic and behavioral record or special needs. The desirability of the school available to a family is closely related to the desirability of the child from the perspective of the school, including the likelihood that the child will behave well, work hard, and perform well on state tests that… will determine the school’s reputation and ongoing survival.”
The researchers note the high number of charter school closures in New Orleans—15 percent of all schools in 2013 alone. “And because the school hierarchy serves students of different income and achievement levels in different tiers, the neediest students are by definition most likely to be in schools that are closed due to low test scores… An RSD representative voiced her concern that the district had no safeguards to ensure that students would not get assigned from one failing school to another, or even lost from the system entirely.”
A primary challenge for a fragmented set of independently run charters has been the provision of services for children needing special education services. While a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2010 challenged the Recovery School District for failure to provide services for students with special needs, the authors of the new research brief point out that these concerns have not been resolved. “The Cowen Institute’s 2013 report on the State of Public Education in New Orleans, also noted that, ‘No single entity is responsible for ensuring students with special education needs are served, making it difficult to track students across schools.'”
The Louisiana Recovery School district is frequently held up as a model for other states to try, and such state takeovers are being implemented in many states including Michigan, Tennessee, Arkansas, Wisconsin and Ohio. The Stanford researchers warn about accepting at face value glowing reports about the New Orleans transformation after Hurricane Katrina: “A constantly changing set of metrics in terms of how student scores are reported (with recent changes in cut scores and content) and how school ratings are reported (with several sets of changes to the school ranking system) have contributed to competing narratives about the effectiveness of reforms in the years since Katrina. So has the fact that the state allows schools that are brand new, have been closed, or have accepted students from a closing school to be exempted from the accountability ratings for a period of time. Thus, in 2013, when 9 schools opened and 9 closed, and another set of schools accepted students from those being shut down, more than one-third of New Orleans RSD schools, disproportionately lower-performing, were exempted from the ratings. In that year the district’s improved ranking (from an ‘F’ to a ‘C’) occurred substantially because of these exemptions… When looked at separately from OPSB, which was not the subject of state takeover and did not include a system-wide conversion to charter schools, New Orleans RSD schools demonstrate very low outcomes.”
The report’s authors conclude: “Ultimately, successful system reform must be designed to promote high quality school experiences for all students in settings that safeguard children’s rights of access to supportive learning opportunities. In the context of a school portfolio, such a successful reform must also support school improvement in ways that ultimately create a set of schools that are worth choosing, in which every child will chose and be chosen by the schools that meet their needs. That system has not yet been created in New Orleans.”