Another Top Piece by Jeff Bryant: Juking the Stats in New Orleans

In the summer of 2006, not quite a year after Hurricane Katrina, I traveled for a week to New Orleans.  At the Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ, I wrote an annual autumn publication for our churches on an issue of racial or economic justice in public schools that we hoped to highlight for them in that particular school year.  I planned to write the 2007 UCC Message on Public Education (released in fall 2006) on what had happened to the public schools in New Orleans after the 2005 hurricane—the subsequent layoff of all the teachers, and the beginning of the charter experiment seeded by huge grants from the U.S. Department of Education, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others.

With a good map and a rental car, I made my way to a mass of interviews I had set up with parents, former teachers, the former president of the teachers’ union, parent advocates, a civil rights attorney, a member of the Orleans Parish School Board, members of Beecher United Church of Christ, and public education advocates who had been identified to me.  My trip changed me.  New Orleans was still completely devastated, and the implications for the city’s poorest citizens were catastrophic.  I did not want to believe that in the United States, politicians would use a situation of massive devastation to undertake an education governance experiment on poor families and their children.

Most of the people I spoke with were still numb with shock.  Many were working during the day and returning at night to pull the walls apart in their houses—to “gut them out” as it was called—so they could begin rebuilding, but almost nobody had reached the rebuilding stage.  One elementary school I saw in New Orleans East remained windowless, with weeds so high they tangled wildly over the roof.  Some public schools that had not even been seriously damaged were shut down without being repaired. Fortier High School, an historic neighborhood high school, had been taken over by Tulane and other universities and turned into Lusher Charter High School, a place where the children of faculty at the area’s universities got preferred entry and most neighborhood adolescents were no longer welcome.  There were a lot of questions about the new Algiers Charter School District.  Few people could cut through all the deals going on to figure out what was really happening, but everybody felt they had lost the institutions they counted on to stabilize life for their children at a time when adults and children alike needed such institutions to cling to.

In the years since that summer I have done my best to keep up with ensuing changes in the schools of New Orleans, but the rhetoric and the manipulation of data by the Recovery School District (RSD) and the Louisiana state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education have made it incredibly difficult to get any sense at all really, apart from anecdotal evidence, of the ongoing reality for the children of New Orleans and their parents.

In a new piece published yesterday in the weekly newsletter of the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant describes what has become a serious issue not only in New Orleans but also in public education policy generally in the United States:  “Juking the stats is a practice now so ingrained in the way education solutions are posed to the public that examples are rampant.  But anyone who wants to have a genuinely honest discussion about education policy based on the real facts of the matter—and not statistical distortions achieved through gross manipulation and ‘policy speak’ that covers up realities on the ground—needs to constantly question what policy leaders and their scribes in the press are foisting off as ‘information.’  An especially egregious example of ‘juking the stats’ is the way school administration in New Orleans—where, basically, the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina was used as an opportunity to summarily fire school teachers and turn over the majority of schools to privately managed charter school operators from out of town—is now being marketed to the entire country as a ‘solution’ for public education everywhere.”

This summer, 2014, as the Recovery School District becomes almost entirely charterized without any traditional public neighborhood schools left this fall, there has been considerable press but—again—not much solid information.  Lots of promoters of school choice want everyone to believe New Orleans is the model for the rest of the country—a fully charterized mass of schools from which parents can choose. Finding and assembling hard information has, however, been virtually impossible.

In The Truth about the New Orleans School Model, Bryant  explains just how those in charge have been “juking the stats.”  Quite recently Bryant wrote a piece about New Orleans, only to have his publisher receive a letter from Zoey Reed, Executive Director of Communications and External Affairs at the New Orleans Recovery School District.  Ms. Reed demanded corrections to what she alleges were errors in the piece Bryant had published.

In yesterday’s article, Bryant publishes Ms. Reed’s demand for corrections followed by his own response to her.  His careful response to each of her demands comprises just the sort of analysis I’ve been looking for for a couple of years.  Bryant patches together data from several sources to confront the  lies being disseminated to create the myth that New Orleans has become a model for Detroit and Chicago and Milwaukee.

Bryant points out that one reason it appears that students’ academic achievement has improved is “that from 2012 to 2013 the state changed the formula and scale for measuring school performance, which artificially inflated RSD’s scores.”  Second, many of New Orleans’ charters have submitted inadequate data to be rated or are recently opened and not rated because they are new. That means that boasts about overall school improvement do not include data from more than half of New Orleans’ current charter schools.  Third, scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have not risen significantly.  Fourth, an “official LDOE (Louisiana Department of Education) report now ranks the New Orleans Recovery District at the 17th percentile among all Louisiana public school districts in student performance.”  And finally the school district declined in enrollment in 2005 from 68,000 students to 32,000 students.  It has now climbed up to 42,000, but the group of children being tested is not the same as before the hurricane.  Bryant also criticizes the application process for school choice, which he contends does not provide real choice for the majority of families.

It is a complicated story, but I urge you to read Bryant’s important piece.   If you like, skip the reprinting of the letter from Zoey Reed of the Recovery School District.  Then read Bryant’s response very carefully.  The goal is not for you to remember all the details about how data has been manipulated to make it appear that school achievement is soaring in New Orleans.  It is, however, important to recognize that creating a mass of charter schools—each reporting to its own board—and laying off all the experienced teachers in New Orleans has been neither a solution for the challenges being experienced by children living in concentrated poverty nor a quick fix for their schools.  Bryant has pulled together enough hard information about what’s happening in New Orleans to remind us all that we shouldn’t believe everything we are being told by the ideologues who are juking the stats.

Rachel Maddow on Michigan Schools—An Extra This Morning

I regularly follow Michigan’s Eclectablog, because it is a place to learn about the very difficult and complex issues around Michigan’s public schools, now in many cases privatized. This morning Electablog referred me to a video clip from Rachel Maddow on MSNBC covering the story of the closing of a school she has been tracking for several years, Catherine Ferguson Academy, a school that will close on June 30.

To provide context for her story on Catherine Ferguson Academy, Maddow fills in much of the history of what has been happening in Michigan’s schools.  The emergency managers.  The fact that when the citizens of Michigan voted to overturn the state’s emergency manager law, the legislature came right back with another one that is referendum-proof.  The charter management organizations running whole school districts—and the one that is giving up this June because it can’t make a profit.  The only thing Maddow doesn’t cover is that Michigan has been closing whole school districts—by state fiat—when they are broke and unsuccessful.

The problem with covering school news in Michigan is that it’s hard to make it clear or believable.  The school news in Michigan’s poorest communities of color is such a perversion of what tax supported public education is supposed to be that it cannot be normalized enough to make it seem real to most of us.  And the details are tangled and murky.

Here is an extra blog post on this Friday morning.  I urge you to watch Rachel Maddow’s coverage.  Maddow is clear.  She is concise.  She is accurate.  The story is tragic.

Zombie Ideas and Conventional Wisdom: Why NYC’s School “Reform” Matters to the Rest of Us

Paul Krugman, the Princeton University economist and NY Times columnist, wrote a column earlier this week about myths in economics.  He calls them “zombie ideas.”  Here is how Krugman defines a zombie idea: “one of those things that everyone important knows must be true, because everyone they know says it’s true.”   Back in 1958 in a famous book, The Affluent Society, another economist John Kenneth Galbraith called such ideas “the conventional wisdom” —“the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability.”  Galbraith continued: “The conventional wisdom is not the property of any political group…. the consensus is exceedingly broad.  Nothing much divides those who are liberals by common political designation from those who are conservatives.”

Zombie ideas.  The conventional wisdom.  Bipartisan consensus based on not much evidence and maybe even contrary to the evidence.  Sounds like today’s wave of so-called public education “reform.”

Gene V. Glass, one of the authors of a fine new book on the facts and the evidence about what’s needed to improve public schools, 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, recently commented on the conventional wisdom–zombie ideas that dominate today’s theories of school “reform”:

“One narrative prominent these days — the Crisis Narrative — holds that our nation is at risk because our children are dumber than Finland, because our teachers are tools of greedy unions, because incompetent ‘ed-school’ trained administrators are incapable of delivering first-rate education.  And — this narrative goes on — what public education needs is total reform: higher standards, more tests, brighter teachers uncorrupted by the wishy washy ‘education school’ ideologies and above all, choice and competition.  This narrative serves a set of private interests that want to reform our schools.  About ten years ago, Rupert Murdoch — the billionaire owner of Fox News — called public education a ‘$600 billion sector in the U.S. that is waiting desperately to be transformed.’  He might have more honestly said, ‘Public education is a half trillion dollar plum waiting to be picked.’… The purveyors of the mythology have been created by corporations and ideological interests that stand to gain from the coming great reformation.  Enter the Koch brothers, Eli Broad, the Kaufmanns, Bill Gates, and their richly endowed ilk.”

The prevalence of the “zombie conventional wisdom” (ideas that should have been killed by evidence, but refuse to die) about school choice and the superiority of privatizing education has been particularly evident this week in New York’s state budget agreement that will preserve such theories just as they were instituted in the city’s schools during the three terms of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  New York City’s new Mayor Bill de Blasio had intended to prioritize the needs of the 94 percent of NYC’s children in traditional public schools rather than the needs of the 6 percent of children attending charter schools, but the state legislature and New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo have clung to Bloomberg’s policies. (Cuomo and the Assembly lean Democratic and the Senate is Republican, but remember: the conventional wisdom is bipartisan.)  The legislature and the governor have agreed on a state budget law that will require the city to find space for charter schools inside public school buildings or pay the cost of leasing space for them in privately owned buildings.  The state budget agreement also prohibits the city from charging rent to charter schools when they are co-located in public school spaces.

New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo is a big supporter of the conventional wisdom about charters. The NY Times quotes Cuomo on the new budget agreement: “We want to protect and grow and support that charter school movement, and this budget does that.” (This blog has tracked the huge investment in Cuomo’s political campaigns by supporters of privatization, charter operators and wealthy members of their boards here and here.)

Mayor de Blasio had resisted New York City’s tradition of accommodating charter schools (funded with public money and in New York endowed additionally by wealthy financiers) with rent-free space in public buildings. While he approved the majority of requests for new space from charter schools in February (the charter school co-locations had been pre-approved by Mayor Bloomberg before he left office), Mayor de Blasio attempted to cancel plans for three schools affiliated with a network known as Success Academy Charter Schools.  Two of the schools would have moved very young children into high schools, a situation de Blasio believed created safety issues.  A third would have threatened space currently housing physical therapy and other special services for disabled students. (This blog covered the NY budget deal here.)

How dare Mayor de Blasio challenge the bipartisan conventional wisdom—the zombie idea—that charters are the answer to the biggest problems for the schools in New York City!  In recent weeks powerful forces have rallied behind celebrity Eva Moskowitz—the politically connected charter operator who runs Success Academy Charters , who is paid $475,000 in annual salary, and who closed 22 schools for the day and bused the children and their parents to a political rally in Albany.  Her friends, board members, and supporters funded a $3.5 million  television ad campaign portraying darling children who claimed they would have no place to go to school if Mayor de Blasio were permitted to deny space for the three schools in question.  These friends have also invested in perpetuating the conventional wisdom by donating over $800,000 in campaign contributions to Governor Cuomo.  Glitz—celebrity—a lot of money—all the “right” people, and voila: the conventional wisdom.

But what if we look at the facts and realities that the conventional wisdom doesn’t acknowledge?   Al Baker, writing for the NY Times on March 31, remembers a speech a couple of weeks ago on the floor of the New York state legislature in the midst of the political fight over charters, an address by Sheldon Silver, speaker of New York’s Assembly: “There are children that are learning in trailers today; nobody has taken up their cause, to get them a permanent seat and a permanent school.”  According to Baker, Silver was unsuccessful  in his effort to secure funds in the state budget deal to rid the city of temporary classrooms in aging trailers, many of them now located on playgrounds next to over-crowded traditional schools in Queens in neighborhoods where immigrants have settled.  According to Baker’s investigation, despite a promise by former Mayor Bloomberg that he would rid NYC of  portable classrooms by 2012, today such supposedly temporary trailers house 7,158 children every day. “Though the Bloomberg administration spent billions of dollars buying land and building new schools, it managed only a modest reduction in the number of school trailers: to 352 today from 371 when he took office.”

Baker points out the obvious: “And the state budget deal reached last week is quite likely to make the task even harder, since it compels the city to find room in public school buildings for new charter schools, or help pay for their space costs.”  One fact that the prevailing conventional wisdom about the rights of charter operators ignores is the scale of the issues in NYC’s schools, which serve 1.1 million children.  In NYC, while 66,000 children are enrolled in charter schools, 1,034,000 children attend NYC’s traditional public schools.   Despite that the the conventional wisdom among New York’s power brokers doesn’t accord traditional public schools nearly so much attention, Mayor de Blasio deserves support as he tries to address the needs of the schools that serve the majority—and the schools most likely to serve the vulnerable.

Federal Register Notice Spells Out Arne Duncan’s Priorities

Have you, by chance, found yourself wondering if it can really be true that the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama is actively supporting school privatization through the expansion of charter schools?  Maybe it isn’t true, you thought.

To help you sort out the role that Arne Duncan’s Department of Education is playing in privatization of public education, I’ll share the little blurb that caught my eye in the December 3, 2013 e-news blast on public education from Politico:

TODAY’S FEDERAL REGISTER: PRIORITIES FOR CHARTER SCHOOL GRANTS: The Education Department is pondering whether grants to nonprofit organizations that run charter school projects should be weighted based on whether they improve efficiency through economies of scale, improve accountability, recruit and serve students with disabilities and English-language learners more effectively and combine technology-based instruction with classroom teaching. There are other proposed definitions relating to graduation rate and student achievement. Weigh in during the next 30 days. http://1.usa.gov/IDkgmy

Yup.  Right there in the Federal Register it says the Department of Education is making grants to nonprofit organizations that run charter schools.  And then Politico provides a kind of laundry list of possible priorities for the granting: make charters more efficient? more accountable? more inclusive of English language learners and children with disabilities? more technology-based?  Much as the Federal Register is not my favorite periodical for casual reading, I followed the link to try to untangle how the Department of Education plans to spend our tax money and what are the issues on which we all have a chance to weigh in during the next 30 days.

The Department’s notice in the Federal Register makes it very clear that the Department of Education actively supports the expansion of charter schools.  Charter Schools Program (CSP) Grants, says the notice, are designed “to increase national understanding of the charter school model by… providing financial assistance for the planning, program design, and initial implementation of charter schools; evaluating the effects of charter schools… expanding the number of high-quality charter schools available to students across the Nation; and encouraging the States to provide support to charter schools for facilities financing….”  Because the program being described in yesterday’s Federal Register notice is for CSP National Leadership Activities, the blurb describes this particular initiative: “The purpose of the CSP Grants for National Leadership Activities is to support efforts by eligible entities to improve the quality of charter schools by providing technical assistance and other types of support on issues of national significance and scope.”

Yesterday’s Federal Register notice is not a request for proposals, but is instead to announce proposed “priorities, requirements, and definitions” that will apply when the Department of Education actually launches the competition.  “The Department most recently conducted competitions for CSP(Charter School Program) Grants for National Leadership Activities in FYs 2006 and 2010.  In those competitions, we invited applications for projects designed to improve stakeholder capacity to support high-quality charter schools but did not require or give competitive preference to particular types of projects… To ensure that projects funded with CSP Grants for National Leadership Activities in future years address key policy issues facing charter schools on a national scale, the Department proposes the priorities in this notice.”  They are:

Improving Efficiency through Economies of Scale: “Compared to charter schools, traditional public schools tend to have higher student enrollment, which may result in lower average costs per student…” says the notice.  Grant applicants are asked to join in consortia to design “projects of national significance and scope that promote shared systems for acquiring goods or services to achieve efficiencies….”

Improving Accountability: “While there are many high-performing charter schools across the nation, charter school performance varies significantly and too many persistently low-performing charter schools are not held accountable for their results.”  Grant seekers would be expected to create “projects of national significance and scope to improve authorized public chartering agencies’ capacity to conduct rigorous application reviews, monitor and oversee charter schools… close underperforming schools, replicate and expand high-performing schools, maintain a portfolio of high-quality charter schools, and evaluate and communicate the performance of that portfolio…”

Serving Students with Disabilities: “As public schools, it is essential that charter schools provide equitable access and appropriate educational services to all students, regardless of disability, as set forth in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)…”  Grant seekers would propose “projects of national significance and scope that are designed to increase access to charter schools for students with disabilities…”

Serving English Learners: “From 2001 to 2010 the number of students identified as English Learners increased significantly, growing from approximately 3,700,000 to 4,660,275 nationwide…” “This proposed priority is for projects of national significance and scope that are designed to increase access to charter schools for English Learners….”

Personalized Technology-Enabled Learning: “Learning models that blend traditional, classroom-based teaching and learning with virtual, online, or digital delivery of personalized instructional content offer the potential to transform public education….”  Grant applicants would be proposing “projects of national significance and scope that are designed to improve achievement and attainment outcomes for high-need students through the development and implementation in charter schools  of technology-enabled instructional models….”

As I read all this, of course, my first thought is about what I am not being asked to comment on.  Is investing tax money in charter schools that are privately operated a good idea?  Is the Department’s assumption correct that such schools are more innovative than traditional public schools?  Despite this program’s goal of creating “projects of national significance and scope,” haven’t the larger “national” Charter Management Organizations been unable to demonstrate that they are on the whole better than traditional public schools?

And what might be my response to the five priorities, beginning with the first priority: creating economies of scale? One question comes to mind: instead of creating huge consortia of privatized charter schools, wouldn’t we be better able to realize such economies by returning our focus to improving traditional public schools in which economies of scale are a natural part of the system?  Why create a whole other infrastructure when we have a relatively workable system already?

My experience here in Cleveland makes me wonder about the political feasibility of the second priority—granting money to encourage states and non-profits to regulate charters.  Charters are usually created and operated in state law, and despite that our Cleveland mayor created  just the sort of regulatory capacity the Department is proposing in this priority—a Transformation Alliance to oversee charters and to close those that are failing our children or stealing the state’s money—when it came time for the Ohio legislature to embed the Cleveland mayor’s regulatory plan into law, legislators in the pocket of William Lager (Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow) and David Brennan (White Hat Management Company) ensured that the the statute they passed lacked the teeth that would have enabled the Transformation Alliance to close the bad schools.

The third and fourth priorities are deeply troubling because they suggest that the Department of Education has somehow drifted from its important role as a protector of children’s civil rights.  The federal role in education has historically been to expand opportunity and access to education for children in groups who have been under-served.  Title I has provided federal dollars for schools serving a large number or high concentration of children in poverty.  IDEA guarantees and funds services for children with disabilities.  Other regulations and funding streams support the education of immigrant and migrant children and children learning English.  That the Department of Education is proposing to make grants to develop programs to encourage charters to begin serving these children seems bizarre, when the same Department of Education has an Office of Civil Rights whose function is to enforce that all publicly funded schools will provide appropriate services for these children as their right.  Why is the Department offering grant money to encourage provision of the services that the same Department is legally responsible for ensuring that these schools have already been providing?

This is not a new issue.  In 2011, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued the Recovery School District in New Orleans, because the mass charterization of the schools after Hurricane Katrina left students with disabilities poorly served.  According to SPLC:  “The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), requires that New Orleans public school students with disabilities receive equal access to educational services and are not unlawfully barred from the classroom. This law applies to both charter schools and publicly operated schools. The law specifically requires that students with disabilities are identified so that they can receive needed services — including an individualized education plan and services to ensure that children with disabilities can transition productively into adulthood. These students have a federal right to receive counseling, social work and other related services that are necessary to ensure that these youth obtain an education…  Despite this federal law, some students with disabilities in New Orleans public schools have been completely denied enrollment as a result of their disability, forced to attend schools lacking the resources necessary to serve them and punished with suspensions in record numbers. Still, other students’ disabilities are being completely overlooked due to a failure to identify them.”

The fifth priority seeks to promote controversial on-line learning.  We know that the virtual, e-charters—K-12 being the largest and most notorious—have the worst academic record of  any kind of school and that they are known to suck millions of dollars out of state public school budgets.  And the idea of blended learning—larger classes, fewer teachers, and more computers—is being questioned as a pedagogical theory, while it is known to cut costs for personnel.

What we can confirm by reading yesterday’s Federal Register is that Arne Duncan’s Department of Education is squarely behind charters.  It is also fully engaged in the practice of competitive grant funding.  I3 money—money for the Office of Innovation and Improvement—is proposed in the President’s 2014 budget at $150 million.  I would personally prefer to see this money put into the long-underfunded, Title I Formula program to improve the public schools in the poorest communities where families struggle and state school funding lags across virtually all the states.  These are the communities now subject to punitive sanctions like school closures.

New Orleans Charter Experiment Leaves Behind Poorest and Disabled

The Great Charter Tryout: Are New Orleans’s Schools a Model for the Nation—or a Cautionary Tale? asks reporter Andrea Gabor. You are likely to remember that after Hurricane Katrina deluged the city on Labor Day weekend of 2005, the schools in New Orleans underwent a city-wide charter school experiment with encouragement and funding from Margaret Spellings, who was then U.S. Secretary of Education, and huge grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Naomi Klein described the mass layoff of New Orleans’ public school teachers and the subsequent rush to charterize the district as the defining metaphor for her 2007 best seller The Shock Doctrine:  “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision… I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.'”

One could wonder how it would all work out in the years immediately following the hurricane, but now, eight years after the New Orleans charter school experiment began, Gabor helps us take a hard look at the evidence: “Figuring out what has taken place in the New Orleans schools is not just a matter of interest to local residents.  From cities like New York to towns like Muskegon Heights, Michigan, market-style reforms have been widely touted as the answer to America’s educational woes… New Orleans tells us a lot about what these reforms look like in practice.  And the current reality of the city’s schools should be enough to give pause to even the most passionate charter supporters.”

Gabor reports that the mass layoff of local teachers in 2005 has led to importing of many young, short-termers.  In 2011, 42 percent of teachers in the Recovery School District had less than two years of experience—22 percent, one year or less in the classroom.  “In part to help with this lack of experience, charter schools train teachers in highly regimented routines that help them keep control of their classrooms.” Describing Sci Academy, one of New Orleans’ most successful charters, Gabor reports: “Each morning at 8 AM the teachers, almost all white and in their 20s, gather for a rousing thigh-slapping, hand-clapping, rap-chanting staff revival meeting, the beginning of what will be, for most, a 14-16-hour workday.” At Sci Academy, students are expected to “SPARK check!” on command.  “The acronym stands for sit straight; pencil to paper (or place hands folded in front); ask and answer questions; respect; and keep tracking the speaker.” Anthony Recasner, a child psychologist who was deeply involved with another of New Orleans charters before he left to manage a local child advocacy organization, now questions the behaviorist culture the competitive charters have created: “The typical charter school in New Orleans is not sustainable for the adults, not fun for kids… Is that really what we want for the nation’s poor children?”

Gabor critiques Louisiana’s accountability system, which focuses relentlessly on the college matriculation rate of each high school’s graduating class as the one factor that matters most in a high school’s state ranking.  What about the children who barely get accepted at a college?  Although many are likely to drop out of college, they will have accrued college loans they’ll never be able to pay off.

Will students who struggle and students with special needs get enough attention when the primary focus of many schools is graduating kids who are accepted at a college?  The high school dropout–pushout rates are telling. “Indeed, behind Sci Academy’s impressive college-acceptance rate were some troubling numbers.  The school’s first graduating class was 37 percent smaller than the same class had been in the ninth grade—even though some students came to the school after freshman year and filled seats left vacant by departing students.  The attrition rate has improved; the class of 2013 was 28 percent smaller than it had been in the ninth grade.”

Gabor reflects: “In the 1990s, the city’s first charter school, New Orleans Charter Middle School, was built on a progressive curriculum that used experiential projects and electives… to foster a love of learning…  The progressive roots of the charter movement have been swamped by the new realities of a competitive charter marketplace.”