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Living in Dialogue: SPED Shenanigans Highlight Trouble with NOLA Charter Data

There are so many reasons why anyone interested in public education should read Marta Jewson’s latest expose of the high profile New Orleans SciTech Academy’s shenanigans when providing – and not providing – special education services. Readers should follow Jewson’s links and read The Lens’ entire series on the charter school. I’d particularly recommend her report on mid-year transfers of special education students, and ask whether it calls into question the latest research that supposedly indicates that better accountability systems can deter destructive practices of charters in New Orleans and elsewhere.

Jewson explains that the Louisiana Department of Education has found that one of NOLA’s largest charter operators, ReNEW Schools, inflated its special education needs in the 2014-15 school year, and denied students the specialized services that they deserved. The state investigation thus “found that ReNEW SciTech Academy had inflated how much extra attention it would provide to certain students, and then didn’t provide the extra help to those who really needed it.”

The state “report includes a sample of 52 education plans that were incomplete or inadequate,” and tracked down 62 kids who didn’t receive the extra instruction they needed. The state discovered that “SciTech employees planned to push as many students as they could through special-education evaluations in January 2015 ‘because school leadership had communicated that “thousands of dollars are on the line.”’”

In other words, the charter would be reimbursed for services for students who signed up by February 1, but it would not be obligated to serve those students if they then transferred. It’s no surprise that charters will enroll students before a deadline (most typically in the fall) and get paid for the entire year for students who they do not retain. However, the chronology which Jewson documents is especially important, and it should be a warning to researchers who do not adequately analyze data in a longitudinal context.

The Education Research Association’s “What Effect Did the Post-Katrina Reforms Have on Student Outcomes?,” by Doug Harris and Matthew Larsen, showed that New Orleans test score growth increased up by more than .2 standard deviations between 2007 and 2010. This was the time, however, when its reformers had great freedom in terms of suspending and pushing out students who interfered with their mission to dramatically raise test scores. They also had thousands of additional dollars, per student. Growth then slowed and in the next two years’ test gains were almost the same as the two years preceding the hurricane, about .1 standard deviation.

Then, as Jewson recalls:

Critics have said charter schools cherry-pick students, and a third of principals surveyed admitted they tried to enroll high achievers.

In 2010, 10 families filed a lawsuit against the Orleans Parish School Boardand the Louisiana Department of Education. They claimed students with disabilities were subject to enrollment discrimination and they didn’t receive legally required services. The landmark settlement put the district under a consent decree that requires close monitoring of the city’s charter schools.

In 2014, Lagniappe Academy and SciTech were both up for charter renewals and, in 2015, Lagniappe was closed due to its special education violations. Its fate “was not far from the minds of SciTech staff.” An educator who became a whistle-blower, who had been stifled by the school’s “culture of fear and loyalty,” hoped that SciTech would respond in the way that true believers in accountability desired, and clean up its own act with special education students. After all, “The network’s contract with the state-run Recovery School District requires it to immediately notify the RSD if it suspects such problems.” Instead, the charter “sat on special-ed complaints.”

Documents dating back to January 31, 2015 proved that “ReNEW Schools’ top administrators and current CEO knew about unethical and possibly illegal special-education practices at one of their charter schools months before alerting the state Department of Education.” Four months later, ReNEW SciTech’s two top leaders “abruptly resigned … amid questions about internal testing procedures without explanation.” On the other hand, the school was quick to delete the reference to one administrator’s selection as Louisiana Principal of the Year semi-finalist.

In January, 2016, ReNEW received a warning from the Department of Education for special-education and state-testing violations. The network replied that “ReNEW immediately took action when they discovered issues at SciTech ‘in the spring of 2015.’” It also announced, “The moment we discovered the issues at SciTech Academy — which have been outlined in this report — we took immediate and decisive action.”

Jewson observes, “That timeline doesn’t fit with the email received a year earlier.”

Fast forward to the fall of 2016 and consider the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans’ release of “a study showing school closures and charter takeovers benefited students when they ended up in a better school and the move took place with minimal disruption.” This conclusion is based on the assumption that data patterns indicate that a) reported test score increases actually mean that more learning is occurring and b) that accountability can deter the pushing out of students who make it harder to increase test scores.

However, in the report that I believe needs special praise, Jewson explains that NOLA has just begun to track “how many students transfer schools in the middle of the year due to special-education needs.” This is a factor that the ERA did not study before concluding that test score increases were not due to under-the-gun charters pushing kids out.

The lessons from Jewson’s great research should be obvious. First, unless the ERA and other researchers conduct intensive qualitative investigations of real-life school operations, they shouldn’t conclude that increases in test scores are evidence of increased learning. During the years from 2007 to 2010, when charters were flush with money and free to exclude whoever students wanted, test scores increased. When opportunities for juking the stats decreased, those gains shrunk back to the norm. Second, neither should reformers believe that accountability systems are likely to get in front of the most likely explanations for dramatic test score increases – the statistical game-playing and the excluding of students. And cleaning up after abuses is a long and hard process.

Third, in an era of test-driven, competition-driven reform, otherwise sincere, but under-the-gun educators can be capable of sinking to new lows in terms of sacrificing some students so they can someday, possibly, produce transformative change.

It’s no secret that systems have always been preoccupied by cutoff dates (in my experience, they tended to be in October) and other cutoff statistics (such as absenteeism which crosses the point which determines whether students’ test scores are counted or not) that allow schools to jack up their accountability metrics. But, in my experience, systems were more likely to play games with the numbers in order to provide more, not fewer, services to students. And, in my district, we were bluntly warned that the failure to provide special education services could result in the revocation of teaching certificates. I’ve seen some amazing things, but I’ve rarely witnessed anything like the ReNew charter’s abuses.

What do you think? Without the great investigative reporting of reporters like Marta Jewson, will accountability metrics ever be meaningful? Would it be possible for accountability hawks to conduct such time-consuming studies of more than a negligible number of charter schools?

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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 n...