New Orleans Education Reform: Pass or Fail?By Jill Anderson
Do the numbers on New Orleans schools lie? It depends on who you ask.
At a heated Askwith Forum, “New Orleans Education Reform: Pass or Fail?” participants went head-to-head debating issues like academic achievement, special education, teacher firings and unions, and governance. Time columnist and EduWonk blogger Andy Rotherham moderated the discussion between Sarah Newell Usdin, founder and CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, and Kristen Buras, assistant professor of urban educational policy at Georgia State University.
One of the only things upon which the participants could agree was that, prior to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans schools were abysmal with a history of mass disinvestment. The city had some of the worst schools in the nation, rapid superintendent turnover, and a human resources and financial crisis leaving over $3 million in salary and benefits being paid to deceased employees.
Although some education reforms like the development of the state-run Recovery School District (RSD) began before Hurricane Katrina, the storm fueled the development of new mandates and forced a redefininition of the school system in an effort to reopen schools as quickly as possible. A point of contention for many in education, including Buras, Usdin, and the New Orleans community, remains the manner in which this occurred. To date, there are class action lawsuits pending in areas of teacher firings and unions, and an onslaught of new charter school openings that have left many wondering whether New Orleans schools have truly seen improvement.
According to Usdin, the schools have seen the “most dramatic gains in a school system in a short amount of time,” with 56 percent of students performing on grade level compared with 35 percent before Katrina. Yet Buras contended that those numbers are not an accurate portrayal of what was really happening in schools, particularly in the RSD. “RSD schools are a complete failure,” Buras said. “A vast majority of the schools are still failing.” She noted that the standards that were passed in 2004–2005 changed the definition of failing public schools and continue to bealtered in order to make it appear as though the schools are performing better than they actually are.
“The success of the New Orleans charter school movement has been legislatively defined,” Buras said. “If you treat standards of what constitutes status of failure like a ping pong ball and continuously move it, then you can generate success or failure by shifting the definition.”
The standard in 2005 was a score 87.4. In 2009, the state lowered it to 75 and, in 2010, lowered it even further to 60, she said. In 2012, the number stands at 75. “You can’t use one standard to take over and then ratchet up the standard,” Buras added. “The absolute numbers are dismal.”
Rotherham, visibly baffled by the difference in numbers and percentages, quipped, “I’m still completely confused.”
Usdin clarified that the standards are increasing, but that still means that 56 percent of students are on level and that percentage is rising. “We’ve cut the gap between the state and the city,” she said, noting the RSD was on track to outperform the state in the next few years.
In the area of special education, Buras accused the RSD of not evenly distributing the numbers of special education students among schools and a negligence among New Orleans schools to properly educate these students.
Usdin didn’t deny a need for improvement in special education efforts on all fronts. “It’s a persistent, prevalent problem,” she said, admitting there was still a long way to go but also pointing out that most urban schools in the country are not doing a “good job” with special education.
In addition to those issues of contention, Buras raised conspiracy theories in which she accused other hands at work – mainly the government – of eyeing New Orleans as the “charter school experiment of the nation.”
Buras said that several mandates alluded to New Orleans schools being “subject to charterization” and, if they didn’t, then disaster aid would be withheld.
Usdin flatly denied Buras’ theories. She said that many schools had made efforts to secede from the school district and gain charters prior to the hurricane, and there was nothing being urged by the federal government. “There was never any mention of the Heritage Foundation or anything coming from the White House,” she said.
Following the hurricane, a declaration made by the New Orleans governor stating that it could take upward of a year for schools to reopen prompted the creation of charters by many educators, Usdin said, in an effort just to get schools open again.
In closing, Rotherham asked Buras and Usdin if there had been any improvements at all to New Orleans schools. “Not much,” Buras quickly responded. But Usdin insisted that improvements had been made and will continue into the future.