The 'It’s Just Not Fair to Expect PowerPoints to Be Based on Evidence' Award

To Achievement School District and Recovery School District for Building the Possible: The Achievement School District’s Presentation in Milwaukee & The Recovery School District’s Presentation in Milwaukee

The “It’s Just Not Fair to Expect PowerPoints to Be Based on Evidence” Award goes to Elliot Smalley of Tennessee’s Achievement School District and Patrick Dobard of the Louisiana Recovery School District.

For years, Jeb Bush’s “Florida Miracle” has been unmatched as the most bountiful wellspring of misleading education reform information. But Florida and Jeb have now been overtaken by the Louisiana Recovery School District, which serves the nation as the premier incubator of spurious claims about education reform and, in particular, the performance of “recovery school districts,” take-overs, portfolio districts, and charter schools.

Superintendent Patrick Dobard has taken his suitcase of PowerPoints on the road, touting the Recovery School District’s performance.  Nothing has stood in his way. Not the dramatic post-Katrina change in student composition. Not the manipulation of student achievement standards in ways that inflate performance outcomes. Not the unique influx of major funds from foundations, the federal government and billionaires. And not the unaccounted-for effects of a plethora of other relevant factors.

But Dobard is not alone.  Elliot Smalley, the chief of staff for the Achievement School District in Memphis, flexed his PowerPoints to show his school district’s “Level 5 Growth.” This certainly sounds impressive—substantially more impressive, for instance, than, say, Level 3 Growth. But this growth scale is unfortunately not explained in the PowerPoint itself. What we can say is that a particular school picked by Smalley to demonstrate the district’s positive reform effects may not have been a good choice, since the overall reading and math scores at that school went down. Picky researchers might also argue that more than seven schools should be studied for more than two years before shouting “Hosannah!”

As was the case with the Florida Miracle, the Bunkum Award here is not for the policy itself—serious researchers are very interested in understanding the reform processes and outcomes in these places. Rather, the Bunkum is found in the slick sales jobs being perpetrated with only a veneer of evidence and little substance backing the claims made.