Cowen Institute Retracts Major Report That Bragged About New Orleans Charters

Here is a statement, very recently posted, from John Ayers, the executive director of the Cowen Institute for Education Initiatives, located at Tulane University:

Statement from the Executive Director

The Cowen Institute has withdrawn its recent report Beating the Odds, which indicated that some public high schools in New Orleans, especially those that serve the most vulnerable youth, are performing better than predicted.

After its release, officials determined the report’s methodology was flawed, making its conclusions inaccurate.  The report will not be reissued.

As a result of this incident, the Cowen Institute will thoroughly examine and strengthen its internal protocols to ensure it adheres to the highest standards of review and accuracy in its research and in future reports.

We apologize for this mistake.

John Ayers, Executive Director

The Times-Picayune’s story on the retraction of the Cowan Institute’s latest report notes that already, “the report had leaped to prominence in some New Orleans education circles, touted by everyone from state Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard to Leslie Jacobs, a former member of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and a driving force behind the state’s education reforms of the past 20 years.”

 In an analysis last summer for the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant described the many ways in which the New Orleans Recovery School District has distorted the data to make it appear that student achievement has significantly improved since Hurricane Katrina and the state’s takeover of the schools in New Orleans, while the reality is less glowing.  Bryant points out: “from 2012 to 2013 the state changed the formula and scale for measuring school performance, which artificially inflated RSD’s scores.” Since 2005, scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have not risen significantly.  According to Bryant, 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.”  In addition many of New Orleans’ charters have submitted inadequate data to be rated; some have been only very recently opened and have not been rated because they are new. Hence boasts about overall school improvement do not include data from more than half of New Orleans’ current charter schools.  Bryant adds that the school district’s enrollment dropped after the hurricane in 2005 from 68,000 students to 32,000 students. While families have moved back to the city slowly over time with enrollment now climbing to over 40,000, the group of children being tested is not the same as before the hurricane.

Here is how the Cowen Institute, on its website, describes its own founding and its mission:

“Immediately following Hurricane Katrina in 2006, then-Tulane President Scott Cowen emerged as one of the few civic leaders in the city to serve as a leader in the recovery. He quickly realized the unique opportunity that New Orleans had to transform its public schools, rather than returning to the old way of running schools. Dr. Cowen, now President Emeritus, recognized that the University’s long-term survival depended on the revival of the entire city, and that without a strong K-12 education system the city would never become a true urban center with economic development opportunities for its citizens. In December 2006, his commitment and passion were recognized by one of the University’s trustees who presented him with a generous grant to create the infrastructure to leverage Tulane’s resources for the transformation of public education.  Named in his honor, the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives (commonly called the “Cowen Institute”) opened its doors in March 2007…  The Cowen Institute aspires to be the premier university-based entity where individuals and communities learn about best practices for programs, partnerships, and policies for transforming K-12 public school systems.”

It is worth pointing out that such institutes—housed at major universities but formed around a particular school “reform”agenda that very likely conforms to the philosophy of the donors who provide independent funding—may well be producing so-called research that affirms the mission they were established to endorse.