There’s talk of a new education “reform” initiative directed at Milwaukee Public Schools, based on the experience of what’s been done in New Orleans. We are being told it’s a miracle — a claim we should take with a large dose of skepticism.
For the past two years, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce has been talking about introducing a New Orleans-style Recovery School District (RSD). Recently, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute proposed the same idea in a report titled “Pathway to success for Milwaukee schools.”
WPRI’s proposal describes this as an independent school district, made up of schools identified as underperforming, chartered directly by the state and answering to an independent superintendent, who would in turn report to the state Department of Public Instruction.
The WPRI claims huge success over the past 10 years for the Louisiana Recovery School District. The data I’ve reviewed shows a different picture.
Academic performance for Louisiana schools is based on School Performance Scores (SPS) that lead to a letter grade for each school from the Department of Public Instruction. The RSD saw a one-year improvement in its SPS scores. But progress looks very different if one goes by the grade given to each school, based on the SPS scores. None of the 72 RSD schools received an A this year. All but 10 received an F or a D. Five got a B, and four a C. One was not given a grade.
Before last year, the RSD was 70th out of the 70 Louisiana school districts. It moved to 69 last year. This year saw a jump of six SPS points.
For those of us who follow education policy, the lack of clear incremental improvements since the RSD’s inception in 2003, and the individual school grades co-existing with the one-year jump for the district overall, is always a moment for caution.
Take what happened in Chicago when test scores increased significantly under Arne Duncan on Illinois standardized tests. The results from students taking the NAEP test (a test generated by the U.S. Department of Education) showed no improvement over the same period of time. The reason for the improvement in state testing? A change in the state test itself; it had been dumbed down. The same thing happened in New York. A more recent example occurred in Atlanta, where significant test improvements were the product of out-and-out cheating.
To claim that a “miracle” is occurring in New Orleans is, to say the least, premature. Even if this year’s jump in scores is verifiable and valid, it is wrong to claim victory just because there is a yardage gain. There has not been enough of a track record with the Recovery School District to take the show on the road.
The New Orleans education landscape is mired in questionable practices and outcomes. Critics point to the lack of transparency. A watchdog group called Research on Reforms has filed a lawsuit just to be able to get reliable raw data from the RSD and the Louisiana Department of Education.
In 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class action suit against the Louisiana Department of Education and the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education for failure to provide appropriate access to special education students. Charters in New Orleans have been accused of “counseling out” special education students both to save money and to increase high-stakes test scores.
The rate of suspension for the 2008 school year for the RSD was twice the state average and four times the national rate. In that same year, the expulsion rate was twice the statewide rate and 10 times the national rate. Such harsh discipline creates the impression that increases in student achievement are accomplished in part by forcing out low achievers.
Much criticism has been raised about what appears to be exorbitant amounts of money spent on security, consultant fees and property mismanagement. The New Orleans Inspector General recently said the Louisiana Department of Education wasted nearly $33 million in taxpayer money by overpaying the company overseeing the city’s $1.8 billion school building master plan, largely serving the RSD.
In 2011, a coterie of wealthy national contributors and supporters of the RSD turned the races for unpaid positions on the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education into the most expensive in the state’s history. Seven “reform” candidates for the BESE spent $2,386,768, more than 10 times their opponents’ spending ($199,878).
There has been no shortage of money spent to make the Recovery School District appear as a model for success. But the only way that many of the national charter schools can show sustained academic progress is through a large infusion of dollars and clear access to a system of selection/de-selection and the ability to “counsel out” low-performing, special ed and students with behavioral problems. Many critics on the ground in New Orleans are arguing that both are true there.
The New Orleans education experiment with thousands of children from low-income families and communities has a lot more to prove before anyone should suggest that it become a model for education reform.
Larry Miller is a Milwaukee School Board member.