EdWeek gets a failing grade for shady article on takeover districts

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On Wednesday, Education Week published a commentary criticizing plans to create state takeover districts in Georgia and Pennsylvania. The piece – “A Failing Grade for K-12 State Takeovers” – was written by Kent McGuire and Katherine Dunn of the Southern Education Foundation and Kate Shaw and Adam Schott from Research For Action in Philadelphia.

The Southern Education Foundation has long ties to the teachers’ unions, so their imprimatur on this wasn’t necessarily surprising. Research For Action, on the other hand, holds itself up as “an independent, trusted source for accessible, timely education research.” However, the fact that Shaw and Schott would put their names on this piece, which paints a very skewed picture of Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD) and Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) to bolster their argument against state takeovers, casts serious doubt on their credibility.

For example, when it comes to the RSD, the authors rehash a litany of well-worn (and largely baseless) assertions made by education reform critics:

“A decade later, New Orleans still reports some of the nation’s lowest achievement scores and graduation rates. Beyond poor academic outcomes, recent research from Stanford University found a host of negative consequences, with a majority of families reporting long commutes to school, overcrowding, a bewildering gantlet [sic] of enrollment procedures, high rates of pushout, and difficulty finding schools able to serve students with special needs (including that the most vulnerable are the least likely to receive needed supports).”

It’s interesting to note that the “research from Stanford University” they cite isn’t from CREDO, which published a study in 2013 that found that New Orleans’ charter schools were outperforming traditional schools across Louisiana. Instead, they’re referring to an October report from Frank Adamson, Channa Cook-Harvey, and (of course) Linda Darling-Hammond entitled, “Whose Choice? Student Experiences and Outcomes in the New Orleans School Marketplace.”

While the study claims that New Orleans’ post-Katrina reforms have produced “poor academic outcomes,” there’s an important detail that is curiously left out of the report. One of its co-authors,Channa Cook-Harvey, was the founder of a New Orleans charter school – Sojourner Truth Academy – that was actually shutdown by the RSD in 2012.

As the Times-Picayune reported back in November 2011, the RSD decided to pull Sojourner Truth’s charter after years of dismal academic performance:

“Its 2010 school performance score was 53.5 on a scale of about 200, while the state considers anything below a 65 to be ‘failing.’ This past year its score dropped to 48.7, meaning fewer than 30 percent of its students scored at grade level or better on state exams.”

In fact, things were so bad at the school that Cook-Harvey was fired by Sojourner Truth’s board of directors in the summer of 2011. Moreover, the RSD subsequently launched an investigation into whether school leaders had improperly suspended students with special needs.

RSD shut down her charter school, but I’m sure she doesn’t have an axe to grind.

Seems like a reputable source, no? I mean, more so than say, CREDO or the Education Research Alliance at Tulane, whose in-depth study on the effect of the New Orleans takeover stated:

“For New Orleans, the news on average student outcomes is quite positive by just about any measure. The reforms seem to have moved the average student up by 0.2 to 0.4 standard deviations and boosted rates of high school graduation and college entry. We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time.”

McGuire, Dunn, Shaw, and Schott selectively omit evidence and facts like this when it comes to the ASD as well, but their assessment also reveals they fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the reform efforts in Tennessee and the role of the Achievement School District.

The authors claim that opposition to the ASD is growing “in the wake of evidence that iZones — locally controlled improvement models — are posting ‘positive, statistically significant, and substantively meaningful effects on student achievement across all subjects.’”

It’s true that a recent Vanderbilt study showed that iZone schools in Memphis have shown growth – and that should be celebrated and continued – but the impetus behind the iZone effort came not from the ground up, but the top down. The iZones were presented as an opportunity for districts to avoid the takeover of their lowest performing schools by the ASD. Plus, those “locally controlled models” were thoroughly vetted and approved by the Tennessee Department of Education before they were launched.1

Moreover, the author of the Vanderbilt study made clear he didn’t believe the Achievement School District should be closed since it was “premature to pass definitive judgment on the ASD schools or priority schools more generally.” McGuire, Dunn, Shaw, and Schott never acknowledge this fact and present the Vanderbilt report as simply evidence of the ASD’s failure.

The author of a recent Vanderbilt study on the ASD has said the district shouldn’t be closed.

But our friends from the Southern Education Foundation and Research For Action most clearly reveal their biases when they turn to the topic of charter schools, saying:

“[A] growing body of independent investigations shows that the preferred strategies of closing and chartering schools in takeover districts open the public treasury to fraud, waste, and abuse. Much of this fraud goes undetected, since even when stronger rules are instituted, most states have little capacity to monitor how private operators profit from public funds.”

The study they link to as evidence comes from the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, whose website features blog posts from the likes of Diane Ravitch, P.L. Thomas, and Jeff Bryant, and which received $300,000 in funding from AFT and NEA last year. You know, credible.

The one thing the authors are right about is that folks in Georgia and Pennsylvania need to carefully consider whether to move forward with plans to create state takeover districts, but those conversations should be rooted in actual facts, not biased opinions passed off as such. From this perspective, McGuire, Dunn, Shaw, and Schott added nothing to the debate.

Pete Cook is former NOLA educator and current bird-dogger of anti-reformers. This post is republished from petercook.com.

AFT Doesn’t Want To Export New Orleans’ Reforms, But They’ll Export Its Critics

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It’s clear that the American Federation of Teachers doesn’t want New Orleans-style education reform to spread. After all, the teachers union has poured millions of dollars into the Bayou State to fight Louisiana’s reform efforts over the past twelve months. Plus, they’ve also waged a considerable public relations campaign aimed at discrediting the academic progress witnessed in the Crescent City over the past decade.

On the other hand, AFT hasn’t shied away from exporting critics of New Orleans’ reforms to the union’s other battlegrounds across the country. I was reminded of this while reading an article in The Progressive on a recent protest held by the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) at the opening of the Broad Museum in downtown L.A. UTLA is all in a huff about the recent revelation that the Broad Foundation is backing a plan to enroll half of the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) in charter schools by 2023.

A recent UTLA flyer attacking Eli Broad.

A recent UTLA flyer attacking Eli Broad. Charming, right?

While I expected a recounting of UTLA’s usual protest tactics in the article (i.e., UTLA President, Alex Caputo-Pearl, going on and on about “philanthrocapitalism” and the threat posed by “unregulated” charter schools), I was surprised to see a video of none other than New Orleans’ own Karran Harper Royal at the event screaming into a megaphone about the evils of Teach For America and the Recovery School District. Apparently, AFT saw an opportunity to advance two of their objectives – blocking charter expansion in Los Angeles and denying New Orleans’ academic progress – and decided to fly Royal out to “cry wolf” about charter schools.

However, outside of the echo chamber of reform critics and their union supporters, Royal’s admonitions about New Orleans’ charter schools ring hollow. As Tulane’s Doug Harris recently noted in an essay in Education Week, “There is not much debate that the New Orleans’ school reforms improved student outcomes. The evidence on that point is strong.” Likewise, UTLA’s warnings about the dangers of charter schools don’t seem to carry much weight with LAUSD parents either. As Catherine Suitor, chief development and communications officer for Alliance College Ready Public Schools, noted earlier this spring: “Every year, we have more applications than available seats.”

So if charter schools are benefitting low-income students in places like New Orleans, and parents in Los Angeles are flocking to enroll their children in charters, why is AFT fighting against them? Good question. Perhaps it’s something you can ask Karran when AFT sends her to protest in a city near you.

No, Poverty Isn’t Destiny…Or An Excuse

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by Pete Cook

When the Democratic candidate for Governor, John Bel Edwards, met with the Editorial Board of Lafayette’s Daily Advertiser on Tuesday to explain how “things would be different in an Edwards administration,” the two-term State Representative had a lot to say about the state of public education in Louisiana.

Some of the points he made were commendable, like his support for a stable higher education funding model that would avoid the fiscal nightmare our state’s public universities suffered through earlier this spring. However, as we’ve seen recently, when the subject turned to K-12 education, Edwards – who believes he’s “the engineer who can put the engine back on the tracks” – instead went off the rails. For example, The Advertiser reported:

“Edwards said he embraces the state’s push for higher standards for K-12 education, but not the process the state has chosen to pursue them. He said he’s for accountability, but believes letter grades are unfair to schools with high percentages of impoverished children. Teachers are too often compelled to teach to the test, he said, and who can blame them? Their jobs depend on it.”

While Edwards’ equivocal positions on high academic standards and accountability pose a problem, I was more disappointed that he proceeded to trot out the old “poverty trumps education” argument, one of the teachers unions’ favorite talking points:

“For example, he said, his own son’s school, where his wife teaches music, drew an ‘F’ letter grade from the state, but he said poverty, not teachers, was what undermined that public school. Teachers there were ‘fine,’ he said, but most of the students came from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

In effect, Edwards is saying we we should lower our expectations for certain children just because they happen to come from poor families.

Let’s examine John Bel Edwards’ statement for a moment. It’s true that Amite Elementary Magnet School, where his wife Donna worked until recently, does serve a high proportion of low-income students. In 2014, over 95% of the school’s students were eligible for free or reduced lunch. On the other hand, Amite Elementary received a “D” in 2013-14 (S.Y. 2014-15 haven’t been issued yet) and a School Performance Score (SPS) of 54.7 (out of 150) – i.e., the school is not designated as failing as Edwards claims.

However, the more important question is whether a “D” grade and a SPS of 54.7 is the most we should expect from a school where the students are nearly all low-income. To test that, I decided to look at 2014 data of New Orleans public schools where 95% of students were free/reduced lunch eligible. Here’s what I found:

LEA School %FRPL 2014 Grade 2014 SPS 2013 Grade 2013 SPS
Tangipahoa Amite Elementary Magnet School >95% D 54.7 F 49.6
RSD KIPP Central City Academy >95% B 95.2 B 96.9
OPSB Mary Bethune Elementary >95% B 93.7 B 88.1
OPSB Mahalia Jackson Elementary School >95% B 93.7 B 88.1
RSD Martin Behrman Elementary School >95% B 93.3 B 92.1
OPSB Robert Russa Moton Charter School >95% B 86.7 D 61.9
RSD Esperanza Charter School >95% B 85.6 C 75.3
RSD Lagniappe Academy of New Orleans >95% C 82.3 B 85
RSD Lafayette Academy >95% C 81.7 C 79.7
RSD ReNew SciTech Academy at Laurel >95% C 81.6 C 75
RSD Arthur Ashe Charter School >95% C 81.2 B 90.2
RSD James M. Singleton Charter School >95% C 80.8 D 56.9
RSD Akili Academy of New Orleans >95% C 80 C 71.6
RSD KIPP Central City Primary >95% C 78 C 75.2
RSD Langston Hughes Charter Academy >95% C 77.6 C 81.3
RSD Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence >95% C 75.9 D 64.1
RSD Samuel J. Green Charter School >95% C 74 C 78.4
RSD Sophie B. Wright Learning Academy >95% C 73.9 B 88.5
RSD Cohen College Prep >95% C 72.9 D 63.5
RSD Mary D. Coghill Charter School >95% C 69.7 NA NA
RSD Nelson Elementary School >95% D 67.3 C 79.5
RSD McDonogh City Park Academy >95% D 66.4 C 77.6
RSD Lawrence D. Crocker College Prep >95% T 66.1 NA NA
RSD Fannie C. Williams Charter School >95% D 64.8 T 75.7
RSD McDonogh #32 Elementary School >95% D 64.4 C 70.9
RSD Harriet Tubman Charter School >95% D 63 T 72.7
RSD ReNew Dolores T. Aaron Elementary >95% D 62.5 T 64.4
RSD Arise Academy >95% D 58.3 C 72.5
RSD McDonogh 42 Charter School >95% T 58.3 T 39.4
RSD William J. Fischer Elementary School >95% D 56.8 C 76
RSD ReNew Schaumburg Elementary >95% T 55.7 NA NA
RSD ReNew Cultural Arts Academy at Live Oak >95% D 55 D 60.1

In short, there were 31 public schools in New Orleans that scored higher than Amite Elementary in 2014, even though nearly all of their kids were low-income. What’s more, some schools in New Orleans, like Mary Bethune Elementary, are knocking the cover off the ball. Nearly 80% of Bethune students were performing at or above grade level in 2014, as opposed to only 46% of students at Amite Elementary.

Schools like Mary Bethune refute the “poverty trumps education” argument.

Now, I’m not raising these facts to denigrate the hard work of Donna Edwards or her former colleagues at Amite Elementary Magnet School. I’m also not saying that poverty doesn’t present considerable challenges for educators – as a former teacher in New Orleans’ public schools, I’ve faced those very challenges.

Nevertheless, it’s clear there are many public schools in Louisiana’s low-income communities where students are beating John Bel Edwards’ low expectations hands down. We live in a state with one of the highest levels of child poverty in the country and we can’t allow our politicians to simply those write those kids off because it’s politically expedient.

This post was originally published on PE+CO on September 17, 2015.

It Worked. Case Closed.

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by Pete Cook

With the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaching, the nation’s attention is once again turning to New Orleans, seeking lessons from city’s rebuilding efforts, and in particular, from the revolutionary transformation of its public school system.

After a decade of increasing academic performance, including significant jumps in both high school graduation and college acceptance rates, it is long past time to put any lingering doubts about the reforms to rest. By now it should be clear that the decentralized, charter-based model we’ve created in New Orleans is a vast improvement over the perennially failing and corrupt system it replaced.

Nevertheless, for the past 10 years, a small but vocal group of critics have incessantly called into question whether the academic gains we’ve witnessed in New Orleans are real. As would be expected, many of these dissenters are those who saw their positions of power and influence disappear with the takeover of schools by the RSD. More recently, however, their voices have joined by a motley group of academics, armchair activists, and Johnny-come-latelies whose preconceived notions and ideological impulses tend to warp their perception of the district’s post-Katrina transformation.

Their message is usually some variation of the same old tired lie: the reform movement in New Orleans is a conspiracy by [insert: corporations, privatizers, neo-liberals, Teach For America, carpetbaggers, or any combination thereof] to disenfranchise the community and enrich private interests at the expense of the public good. Furthermore, they adamantly refuse to concede that our schools have improved since Katrina, in spite of overwhelming evidence to support that conclusion. As a result, these critics have been able to raise doubts in the minds of many about whether the reforms were effective…

…that is, until today.

This morning, Education Next published the results of a study conducted by the Education Research Alliance (ERA) at Tulane University which sought to definitively answer the question of whether New Orleans’ post-Katrina reforms led to higher academic achievement.

What did they find? In short, the reforms worked, no matter how you slice it.

As ERA’s Director, Doug Harris, states in today’s Education Next article, “Good News For New Orleans”:

“For New Orleans, the news on average student outcomes is quite positive by just about any measure. The reforms seem to have moved the average student up by 0.2 to 0.4 standard deviations and boosted rates of high school graduation and college entry. We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time.”

Graphic from Education Next.

Graphic from Education Next.

Moreover, the study controlled for many of the variables that critics have speculated could account for the increases in performance, including population changes, interim school effects, and test-based accountability distortions. Harris even finds that, “effects are also large compared with other completely different strategies for school improvement, such as class-size reduction and intensive preschool.”

You can read the entire article online here, or download it below.

This post originally appeared on PE+CO on August 4, 2015.