-- Opinion --
Karran Harper Royal / Contributing opinion writer
Measuring education reform in New Orleans 7 years later
I’ve been asked if things are better in New Orleans since the state takeover of the vast majority of New Orleans’ public schools. My answer depends on perspective - better for whom?
If you are a former highly qualified and state certified veteran New Orleans Public School teacher who were fired after Katrina, things are not better. If you are one of the many young Teach for America replacements brought from out of state, you might say yes because we " put children first" and don’t see poverty as an excuse for them not learning.
If you are a New Orleans Public School parent, you may have a mixed reaction. Some are very disappointed that after trying school after school they have yet to find this miracle of success that they have heard so much about. Some parents have left the public system in search of private school vouchers and the elusive promise of a better opportunity, while some have left New Orleans all together. Other parents, many of middle class, have found that charter schools with admissions criteria offer a better school environment than the open admissions traditional and charter school. They feel they can get an exclusive private school experience without having to pay for it.
Then there are the thousands of citizens with no children in public schools and no connection to public education who "believe" things are better based on glowing accounts of test score "gains."
The important question really is, are our schools really better because our children are learning more?
The current grading system that the Louisiana Department of Education uses to determine the performance of schools is ever changing and is very much flawed.
In his most recent study, Herbert W. Bassett poses the question, “Are the gains in the High School Performance Scores due to actual improvement in the schools, or are there other factors that explain the unusual gains?”
The many changes in the system over the years make it impossible to use School Performance Scores to measure schools. In addition to a flawed grading system using one high stakes standardized test as the basis, there are too many variables that affect the post-state takeover results that make it impossible to do an apples to apples comparison. I believe that it is educational malpractice for the State of Louisiana to embark upon such a grand experiment without coming up with an adequate measuring tool that determines if the children in the experiment are better served than children who have not participated in the experiment.
Over the last 7 years we’ve seen a combination of closing schools, co-locating schools, increased focus on testing students and the constant moving around of students from school to school.
We’ve been convinced that closing a school is a school improvement strategy, without asking about the effects on children who must now find new schools to attend.
We haven’t demanded that our education officials to guarantee that those students will not be placed in equally poor performing school facilities.
We’ve been led to believe that giving parents the choice to choose schools would cause all schools to perform better so as to attract more students and continue to be viable. We never stopped to notice that parents are forced to choose failing schools or those near failing because the reform movement has not produced enough high quality successful schools from which to choose.
We have failed to notice that some of the charter schools often touted as a success, didn’t actually take over a failing school. Schools like Sci Academy are actually new start up charter schools that had the opportunity to attract students from all over the city whose parents were the most motivated and only had glossy brochures of promises not a proven track record of success. Dr. Charles Hatfield of Research on Reforms found that “79% of the 48 RSD–NO charter schools were assigned a 2012 Baseline SPS that was equaled to a “D” or “F” in his most recent paper: Recovery School District in New Orleans: National Model for Reform or District in Academic Crisis.
We failed to notice that when results of schools like this are posted, they fail to tell you that the school only graduated 55 students, when it started 4 years earlier with 83. We can’t compare such a school to a pre-takeover school of over 1000 students where there was no option to attract only the most motivated parents. To properly measure the success or lack thereof, we must use measurement tools that produce a true apples to apples comparison. Perhaps we should get a way from measuring schools and measure students in a longitudinal way so we are able to see if the exact same student is improving his or her own academic performance over time. We should follow that student over time to get a better measure of the quality of education that the student experienced.
Based on our current measuring tools we will not be able to measure success in terms of test scores or school performance scores. We must measure the success in terms of a higher quality of life and the ability to participate in society. The reforms that are needed to get us there must involve a focus on learning and not testing. We must demand that our lowest performing students are given all of the support that research has shown leads to better outcomes for students. Supports like access to high quality preschool programs, small class sizes, wrap around supports for families living in poverty and financial support for college tuition and living expenses for graduating seniors.
It does our children and our society a disservice to continue to use tools that don’t measure the quality of the education we are providing.
Karran Harper Royal is a public school parent and advocate for students with special needs. She's a founding member of Parents Across America and blogs at Education Talk NOLA. To read more, visit her blog, Education Talk New Orleans, follow her on Twitter and on Facebook, Parents Across America NOLA and parentsacrossnola.org.