The New Orleans charter school paradox

It’s hard to understand the reaction of residents of New Orleans to the Recovery School District, which was created after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the city’s public schools (“Charter schools’ progressive promise for the future of US education,” New York Post, Jul. 4).

Prior to the creation of the state-controlled entity, the city’s schools were among the worst in the nation.  Since taking over all but a handful of city schools, the Recovery School District has improved student performance.  In 2017, for example, 59 percent of public high school students there graduated in four years.  That compares with just 54 percent in 2004, an improvement rate almost three times as fast as the state’ average.

Yet many New Orleans residents have resented the Recovery School District from the very start.  Black residents in particular, who constitute the majority of the population, don’t think the schools are better after Katrina.  Perhaps that is because the black teaching force decreased from about 71 percent to less than 50 percent.  Moreover, over 7,000 other school employees lost their jobs, and 60 percent of the charter board members are white.

Attitudes about schools anywhere are dependent on so many factors that can’t be quantified.  New Orleans is no different in that regard.  At first glance, I would have thought residents would be pleased with the improvements there.  But that is not the case.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

4 Replies to “The New Orleans charter school paradox”

  1. Several caveats re the NO charter experiment.

    Most importantly, the demographics of the post-Katrina students are different than the demographics of the pre-Katrina students. The lower-SES families who left NO during Katrina were much less likely to return to NO than the higher-SES families. As a result, the post-Katrina students are, on average, higher-SES than the pre-Katrina students.

    The statistics re the post-Katrina test scores and graduation rates are suspect. The school system, the NO city govt and the LA state govt all have a strong political incentive to make the NO charter experiment look good. There is no governmental unit providing a check on possible cheating or manipulation of statistics. Remember also that the NO Times-Picayune, the main NO daily newspaper, itself was badly crippled by Katrina, has stopped publishing a daily newspaper and has laid off many reporters — so, its ability to investigate cheating and statistics manipulation is limited. And, the Bush II, Obama and Trump administrations have each been strongly pro-charter — so, the federal Dept of Ed has been inclined to look favorably on the NO charter experiment rather than to closely examine its claimed successes.

    Finally, other than substituting charter schools for traditional neighborhood public schools, the NO charter experiment has not implemented any major changes in educational strategies. If we ask, “why are the test scores and graduation rates rising?”, we get macro-level blather re the advantages of charters over “bureaucratic school systems” rather than specifics re what the charters are doing differently than the neighborhood schools. Absent such specifics, there is little/no reason to believe the NO charters are providing any better educational experiences than the neighborhood public schools would be providing.

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  2. Labor Lawyer: It’s important to take with a healthy dose of skepticism the gains made under the Recovery School District precisely for the reasons you state. Today’s New York Times published a column by David Leonhardt (“A Better Way to Run Schools”) that lauded events there. Taxpayer satisfaction with public schools is dependent on factors beyond test scores. I don’t think we’ve heard the last about what really happened in New Orleans.

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  3. Labor Lawyer: As a public school teacher I am always looking for the “specifics about what the charters are doing differently than the neighborhood schools”. I’m still looking. A trend I’ve found on my own is the use of Learning Management Systems (LAUSD uses Schoology) and “personalized learning”. It’s easy to dismiss these as the quest for magic algorithms and “scalability” to replace most live teachers and control the rest. Teachers are under a tremendous amount of pressure to revamp practically everything about how they do their job.

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    1. Although you directed your post to Labor Lawyer, I hope you don’t mind my jumping in. Charter schools are not a panacea for the ills afflicting education in this country. But that is something for parents alone to decide. Unfortunately, the issue has become so emotional that I doubt it will ever be fully settled.

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