Living in Dialogue: Questions Persist About New Orleans Test Score Gains

The New Orleans charter mentality of "my way or the highway" is not the path toward building learning communities, and breaking the cycles of poverty.

Teachers have other things to do rather than criticize reforms that help students. For instance, we welcome the extra counselors who helped raise graduation rates across the nation. Educators oppose the hastily implemented silver bullets that have backfired, damaged public schools, undermined our profession and, above all, hurt a lot of students.

Personally, I’ve never criticized the accomplishments of the Gates-funded New York City Small Schools, but I oppose the way that reformers gave those favored schools a boost by dumping high-challenge students on targeted neighborhood schools, turning the most disadvantaged youth into collateral damage in the assault on teachers and unions.

Similarly, a project as massive as the multi-billion dollar School Improvement Grants (SIG) was bound to produce a lot of successful pilot programs. What teachers oppose is the way that SIG rules encouraged the mass dismissal of teachers and the turning of schools into test-prep factories, actually driving down student performance in about 1/3rd of those already low-performing schools.

The New Orleans market-driven experiment was destined to do good for some students. It was incredibly well-financed. During the early years, an additional $8000 per student was invested and it still receives an extra thousand dollars per student. New Orleans attracted a huge wave of committed, idealistic, and energetic young talent.  The biggest problem was not the individual novices who took over the schools but their test-driven, competition-driven playbook. The second problem is the way that reformers exaggerate those gains as they push their still not-ready-for-prime-time gamble to other cities looking for a quick fix for poverty.

The Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (ERA) marked the ten year anniversary of the New Orleans experiment, which basically produced the nation’s first all-charter school district, with an analysis of its version of the portfolio model. The title of the conference, “The Urban Education of the Future?,” asked whether the hyper-competitive, test-driven New Orleans portfolio can provide a model for other cities.

Not surprisingly, the ERA found that New Orleans’s focus on increasing test scores resulted in large test score gains. Surprisingly, several true believers in competition-driven reforms seemed to acknowledge abuses during the bad old days, or the first seven or eight years after Katrina, but they profess new-found humility. During the last two or three years, they claimed, charter leaders had begun to listen to people who disagree with them and they deserve a chance to prove that the portfolio system is replicable.

Before the failure of so many corporate reforms, the anniversary might have produced headlines about New Orleans test score increases. But, the conference featured panels of scholars who were very articulate in questioning whether those metrics reflect actual learning. When that much money and energy is devoted to increasing a single, primitive metric, those scores can’t be assumed to be a measure of real, enduring, life-changing gains. More likely they also reflect the shamefully low pre-Katrina starting point, post-Katrina demographic shifts, the nation’s 3rd highest rate of young people out of school without a job, curriculum narrowing, and a focus on test prep and remediation that doesn’t prepare kids for college or life.

Scholars Helen “Sunny” Ladd, and Henry Levin questioned whether test score gains represented meaningful increases in learning given the very low Louisiana standards and they emphasized the importance of the increased monetary expenditures. Levin asked why America could not be like the Netherlands where they provide financial incentives for schools to serve disadvantaged students and not exclude them. Ladd also cited the benefits of FEMA rebuilding the schools. Ladd then expressed doubts about both the sustainability of New Orleans gains and the replicability of its model in other urban areas.

Andre Perry explained why families (who deserve their share of the credit for the successes that are typically attributed to outsiders who run their schools) often agree with specific reforms, even though they dislike reformers. Perry recalled the “nefarious” behaviors for excluding poor-performing students that were especially common back when he was a New Orleans school leader. He also explained that students who are expelled from “No Excuses” charter schools learn from the experience. They just learn things that are destructive. (I’d say that the same applies to test score improvements. Some undoubtedly result from learning that is valuable and some reflect in-one-ear-out-the-other drills, as testing also teaches damaging lessons that undermine children’s futures.)

Eden Heilman of the Southern Poverty Law Center described the ways that special education students were disadvantaged by the competition-based model, and how it took a lawsuit to get New Orleans to start to obey disability law. In describing the ways that enrollment processes excluded students, she offered an especially outrageous example. The parents of an enrollee were asked about their criminal background! Pedro Noguera also noted that the lack a centralized system makes it harder to monitor and address chronically truant students.

Noguera and Ladd were notably articulate in explaining why we need schools that serve the collective good, and not just the private interests of individual families and schools. Noguera described the essentially private model of the portfolio and how it treats parents as consumers, not as partners. Trust is necessary for school improvement. The New Orleans charter mentality of “my way or the highway” is not the path toward building learning communities, and breaking the cycles of poverty.

AFT President Randi Weingarten said that she was an outlier to the discussion because she represented the 7,000 predominantly black teachers who were fired in mass. Reformers thus terminated 5% of the city’s black middle class. They “used trauma to create new trauma.” Conservative Howard Fuller agreed, asking whether it would be possible for New Orleans to rectify that abuse. Fuller said that blacks have historically seen education as a path up, but that the first black schools were dominated by industrialists and missionaries. The same applies to New Orleans.

And, Fuller was just getting started. He said that it was just a small number of people who set New Orleans down the portfolio path, and that those in the room knew who they are. Those people drove the New Orleans model partly due to urgency, but partly because they were “tired of talking to those people.” Fellow conservative Rick Hess agreed, saying that the reform train “bolted out of the station.” Families could get on the train – or not.

And that raises the questions that were not asked at the conference.

What do you think? Why do we not read about similar trainloads of teachers rushing to New Orleans in order to blow up that city’s education system? Why do we not routinely hear of teachers making a snap judgment that schools in other parts of the country have it all backwards and need a cadre of like-minded missionaries to set them straight? Why don’t teachers anoint themselves as saviors of parts unknown and launch neo-colonial crusades to tell families who we have never met that their children must be educated according to our preferences?

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John Thompson

John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his neighborhood. He blogs at thisweekineducation.com and is writing a book on 18 years of idealistic politics in the classroom and realistic politics outside. A former oilfield roughneck and...