Doug Harris comments on the upward achievement trend in New Orleans schools.
“The increasing trend in scores is not all achievement.… You’re learning how to adjust the curriculum, teach to the test. When I first pointed that out, I got this quizzical look. People were taking these scores as gospel. They had completely bought into the idea that scores equal learning.”
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THE END OF NEIGHBORHOOD SCHOOLS: NEW ORLEANS IS HOME TO THE NATION’S FIRST ALL-CHARTER DISTRICT. IS THIS THE FUTURE OF EDUCATION?
WAITING IN LINE Bright and early one hot Wednesday morning in July, Nathlynn Dellande went to choose a new school for her grandchildren. Chloe, 7, was heading into the second grade, and her brother, Ashton Jr., 5, was starting kindergarten. Dellande lives in historically black, middle-class New Orleans East. She at first assumed Chloe and Ashton Jr. would go to Lake Forest Charter Elementary, a well-regarded local school, alongside the neighbors she calls “my kids”: “They play ball outside and I keep freeze pops for them,” she says. “When I go to the grocery, they all run and help me bring everything in.” It’s what nearly every family looks for: a quality neighborhood school, in a neighborhood that’s worked hard to come back. This area flooded badly during Hurricane Katrina, and there are still abandoned homes on Dellande’s block.
But in New Orleans, there are no more neighborhood schools. Instead, parents must choose — a charter school, private school, or one of six remaining traditional public schools. This fall, more than 9 in 10 New Orleans students will attend charters. Parents apply through an open admissions lottery. They request their top choices, and then a computer makes assignments. The district set aside one day in July for last-minute enrollment. It expected about 300 parents. More than 2,000 showed up in the next few days, and eventually almost 7,000 students would be assigned to new school seats. Some had missed the spring deadline. Others, like the Dellandes, were unhappy with the lottery’s match. Ashton Jr. was placed at a French-immersion charter in Uptown, more than 13 miles from home, while Chloe was supposed to be attending Arthur Ashe, a B-rated charter school featuring a vegetable garden and a blended learning program. The family wanted both children in the same school, preferably one not too far away. We speak sitting on a leather couch in Dellande’s immaculately restored home. She is perfectly manicured and has several rose and butterfly tattoos. She shows me a video she took that morning on her smartphone, jabbing the screen with a finger. “Ludicrous,” she is muttering into the camera. She found herself standing in the stifling heat, in a long line that snaked around the building and down the street. The crowd grew restless. TV news cameras showed up.
It was just the latest upheaval in a city that has become the crucible for the biggest education reform ideas of the past decade. Right now in New Orleans, there are virtually no teachers unions. Hundreds of teachers have alternative certifications, including many from Teach for America. Donors have poured in millions of dollars — and a lot of outside influence. There is a huge emphasis on data and testing, along with roiling controversies over special education, discipline and English-language learners. And a state-level political fight over the Common Core. Amid all of this, in the past five years, the city has posted the largest, fastest improvement in test scores ever produced in an urban public school system. But do those results mean that universal school choice should be the universal school choice? Just over half of New Orleans voters polled in May said they believed choice is having a positive impact on the city. Yet many of the parents I spoke with — even those who are thrilled with their own kids’ schools — deplore the system. “It wasn’t a choice,” says Dellande. “You take what they give you. That’s not choice.” After four hours of waiting in line that morning, she was given a number and told to report to a different temporary center the next day, only to be informed there that there was nothing to be done. So she put her 25 years as an executive secretary at Tulane Medical School to use, peppering officials with daily phone calls and emails, cc’ing a state senator and the mayor. When the district suggested that spaces might be found across the Mississippi River in Algiers, an hour and 45 minute bus ride away, Dellande hit the roof. Holding out her smartphone, she shows me this email: “I would have to have MY TWO PRECIOUS grandchildren waiting at some Carrollton shopping center only to be put on a school bus by 6 am. Do YOU really think that’s a good idea? LET’S PRETEND MY GRANDKIDS WERE WHITE WITH BLOND HAIR, DO YOU THINK THEN I WOULD HAVE HAD TO WAIT IN A LINE THAT WAS SURELY HELL BOUND THAT MORNING.” Patrick Dobard is the superintendent of the Recovery School District. By far the larger of the city’s two districts, the RSD closed its last five direct-run schools last spring and is 100 percent charter as of this fall. “We’ve seen significant success with the all-charter portfolio,” he says. “We’ve seen phenomenal growth with the hardest to serve, underperforming students.” A lifelong New Orleanian himself and an African-American, he particularly highlights the progress made by black children compared with the state average. Dobard declines to comment on specific cases, but he calls the “massive influx” of parents in July a glitch that was quickly resolved. He points out that with the district’s OneApp application process, 80 percent of families got one of their top three choices. Indeed, 10 days after Dellande sent that final irate email, the family got word that a second spot had opened up at Arthur Ashe, 6 miles away. I talked to Chloe about her orientation. “It was fun! We danced and did exercises and played sports. There was a garden with orange bugs on the flowers!”
What Dobard calls “significant success” and “phenomenal growth” come down to one number: RSD students from grades three through eight who scored at least a “basic” on the state accountability test. In 2009, it was 37 percent. In 2014, it was 57 percent. “I think we’re starting to see that ZIP code doesn’t equal destiny,” says Michael Stone, co-CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit that incubates and funds charter schools. “Prior to the storm, the majority of parents in New Orleans had their kids assigned to a failing school. And now that’s not true.” The story of failing New Orleans schools is a familiar one, dating back decades: court-ordered desegregation. White flight to nearby suburbs. Corruption and mismanagement. There were bright spots. My sister and I attended several of the handful of high-performing, selective-admissions public schools that excelled in the arts, especially music, and sent students to Duke, Emory and the Ivy League. Leslie Jacobs was an executive in her family’s insurance business in the mid-1990s when she was asked to read applications for a scholarship program. She was horrified by the “functional illiteracy” of high school students with perfect transcripts. “I could not have hired them for an entry-level position,” she recalls. Jacobs’ idea was to take over failing schools from the Orleans Parish School Board and bring in charter operators to manage them under state supervision. The legislation she wrote passed in 2003. By the time Katrina made landfall, the “Recovery School District” had authorized five charters. After the storm, an ad hoc coalition of elected leaders and nationally known charter advocates formed. A series of quick decisions dramatically remade the school landscape. By November 2005, all school employees had been fired and the vast majority of the city’s schools handed over to the RSD. The few elite schools were reconstituted under the Orleans Parish School Board and allowed to maintain their selective admissions. The federal government chipped in $44 million in 2005-2006 specifically for New Orleans charter schools. Over the next several years, charters and related organizations got tens of millions more in private donations from groups such as the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Kellogg Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. (The Gates Foundation and Walton Family Foundation also support NPR.) Nine years later, “We’ve gone from an F to a C,” Jacobs and Stone both, separately, tell me. The implication: The schools are no longer failures, but neither are they unqualified successes. The 57 percent passing figure, after all, compares with 69 percent statewide. The state, in turn, consistently ranks near the very bottom on national tests like the NAEP. Put another way, there are 18,500 seats open in New Orleans schools rated A and B by the state. And there are 45,000 New Orleans students vying to get into them.
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER On a hot August morning, the entryway of KIPP Central City Primary School is silent, no children running in the hall or giggling at the water fountain. To walk down the halls you’d think it was still summer vacation, but this school, a battered two-story structure in the shadow of the Superdome, has been in session for three days. KIPP, or Knowledge Is Power Program, a national network of charter schools, has been lauded for its focus on the success of the most disadvantaged students. This spring, the nonprofit reported that 44 percent of its former eighth-graders had graduated from college 10 years later. More than four times the average for students from low-income communities. Today, KIPP New Orleans is the second-largest of the city’s 42 separate charter operators. At the KIPP school I visited, Central City Primary, 66 percent of third-graders scored at the two highest levels on the state math tests, placing it among the best schools in the city. “We are here to say we can have open-enrollment schools that serve kids at a high level,” says Jonathan Bertsch, a spokesman for KIPP New Orleans. “This is the new paradigm for a good school.” The main elements of the KIPP paradigm become clear on a walk around the school with Principal Korbin Johnson, a New Mexico native with a ruddy complexion and brush-cut hair. He and his wife, a New Orleanian, have 11-month-old twins — Preston and Mary Alice — who attend an on-site day care center. In each classroom I see hand-drawn posters that illustrate the preferred position for a KIPP “scholar”: back straight, hands folded, feet on floor, mouth closed, eyes constantly on the speaker. Call-and-response, and immediate obedience, are emphasized.
“We’re learning a new vocabulary word,” says a fourth-grade teacher. “Say ‘integration,’” she says. The students shout, “INTEGRATION!” “Say ‘integration.’” “INTEGRATION!” “Integration is the opposite of segregation. I love how I have all eyes following me.” Johnson and I visit a phys ed class taught by a burly former high school football coach. “One, two, three, eyes on me!” The tiny children reply: “One, two, eyes on you!” One boy silently winks at me. An irony that many have noted is that rather than charters being a venue for experimentation, universal choice in New Orleans has produced a portfolio of KIPP-like schools. Many were founded from scratch in the past seven years using similar ingredients. They got startup money and training from New Schools for New Orleans; principals from New Leaders; teachers from teachNOLA and Teach for America; help with data and testing from the Achievement Network. All of these organizations, in turn, have been backed by a short list of funders. Moreover, they all compete on student achievement. The state’s letter-grade system for primary schools is based entirely on scores on the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program, or LEAP test. For high schools, the grades also factor in graduation rates, advanced courses and student ACT scores.
The RSD charters stay open, are taken over or closed based on these grades. They are key in family decision-making. Dellande, for one, quickly learned their importance, writing in an email, “I don’t want to take Ashton out of a B school to attend a C school.” But if the schools here are to make that journey from a C to an A, there may be a catch. Douglas Harris is an education economist at Tulane University with a national reputation. Originally from the Midwest, he has a nose for controversial research topics like value-added teacher evaluations, test-based accountability and school choice. With pale skin and a pouf of dark-brown hair, he calls to mind an ‘80s TV star.
Harris founded the brand-new Education Research Alliance for New Orleans. His team of newly minted Ph.D.s shares a bare, beige-carpeted downtown office space with a fraternity of New Orleans choice backers. But the goal of the Education Research Alliance, Harris says, isn’t necessarily to promote charter schools or choice. “We’re here to do deeper research, and to do that it’s important to be a neutral party,” he says. In fact, Harris has some bad news for RSD schools. He says that, statistically, the pattern of test scores they’ve seen so far — several years of swift improvement, followed by a plateau this past year — points to something more than just great learning going on. “The increasing trend in scores is not all achievement,” he says, leaning back in his chair with his arms folded behind his head. Harris isn’t talking about outright cheating — though more than a third of the city’s schools were flagged by the state between 2010 and 2012 for cases of plagiarism, suspicious levels of erasures, and similar indicators. He means something subtler: a distortion of the curriculum and teaching practice. “You’re learning how to adjust the curriculum, teach to the test. When I first pointed that out, I got this quizzical look. People were taking these scores as gospel. They had completely bought into the idea that scores equal learning.” Beth Sondel, a professor at North Carolina State University, spent five months observing and interviewing teachers at both a KIPP and a “KIPP-like” charter school in New Orleans for her doctoral dissertation at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “The curriculum is really characterized by a narrow interpretation of state standards. There aren’t many projects, discussions, or kids reading literature. They are really teaching what will be tested at the exclusion of all other materials. I had a science teacher tell me that if there was an earthquake in New Orleans, she wouldn’t have the time to cover it if it weren’t on the test.” She says the test-focused curriculum necessitates intense discipline. “There is extreme effort to control, rather than engage, students in the classroom,” she says.
Rebecca Radding was a Teach For America corps member in New Orleans. She left her school in part because she objected to what she saw as “contrary to child development, and culturally insensitive” discipline and teaching to the test. “Eliminating play and drilling 4-year-olds,” she says. “That’s where it started, in my pre-K classroom.” She joined a group called New Teachers’ Roundtable, composed mostly of young newcomers to the city who speak out against “no excuses” charter schools. The phrase comes from the title of a 2000 book published by the Heritage Foundation about building high-performing schools for high-poverty populations. But the original meaning — that students’ circumstances should be “no excuse” for lowering expectations — takes on a connotation of rigidity in the mouths of critics. I met a woman named Cheneta Compton at KIPP Central City Primary who would probably place herself on the other side of the “no excuses” debate. She compares the school to “a family” and calls herself a “KIPPster for life.” On the day we spoke she had just found out that her grandson Damaiyuran had made “basic” on the LEAP test after summer school and would be officially promoted to the fifth grade. “Damaiyuran struggles with reading,” she says. “There are two teachers in each classroom, so he gets a lot of attention. They got him help and he was given a longer time to take certain tests.” Compton, who grew up in the Calliope housing projects, has seven grandchildren, plus grandnieces and nephews and godchildren, attending KIPP schools. Wearing an oversize T-shirt, and long dreadlocks, she has a hug and a smile for seemingly everyone at the school. “The discipline? I love it,” she says. “The snapping, the clapping — it’s wonderful. The classroom is quiet and pleasant. They can reflect and grow.”
Johnson, the principal, says, “I’ve never used the phrase ‘no excuses’ discipline here.” While he acknowledges that “there used to be a certain relentlessness about compliance,” he adds that, “in eight years here, I’ve seen a clear and strong evolution from punishment to character-building.”
Asked how much he prioritizes tests, Johnson says, “It’s tough on teachers and leaders to find that balance. This is the lives of students — it’s a year of their life” if they don’t make the cutoff for passing into the next grade. Tulane’s Harris acknowledges that anecdotal and statistical evidence of teaching to the test doesn’t necessarily mean that students aren’t making real gains. “Some of that improvement is real. How much is real and how much is not is a big part of our task, and we’re spending a lot of time on that now,” he says. Tied up with this debate over testing is a larger unresolved question. An unsavory way that a school’s scores can be improved is by systematically “counseling out” or “pushing out” students with learning disabilities or special needs, or encouraging low-performing students to get GEDs. Critics allege that all of the above is going on in New Orleans, without centralized oversight to ensure that all students are served. This past spring, 30 students and families filed a civil rights complaint against Collegiate Academies, a group of three high schools that then had the highest suspension rates in the city. The complaint alleged that harsh discipline was being used to target kids with disabilities. The nonprofit said in response, “We work in partnership with our families to create a school culture and academic program that will help students reach their potential.” “There’s been a gap in funding for students with disabilities,” acknowledges Dobard, the RSD superintendent. He said that the city has simply lacked any out-of-school mental health settings to serve those students who have issues that cause them to repeatedly disrupt class. The RSD is piloting such a setting, he says, but not until the 2015-2016 school year.
FROM A C TO AN A? Rochelle Wilcox used to run a child care out of her home in the Lower 9th Ward. After Katrina, she and her husband built the business into a highly regarded day care and preschool in Mid-City. Their cheerful office is cluttered with snapshots of kids. Wilcox has two older sons, Winston Wilcox V and Zion, whose educational sagas include a pre-Katrina public school, a KIPP school, another charter school, a year and a half of home schooling, and now Catholic school. (Some 25 percent of students in New Orleans attend private schools.) Her youngest boy, Ethan, will be a kindergartner this year. She wasn’t impressed with most of the eight schools she visited on his behalf.
“It’s all just a lot of rigor,” she says. “They tell you, ‘Be ready, because you’re coming home with two hours of homework.’ That’s not, for my child, developmentally appropriate in kindergarten.” Instead, Wilcox chose a new charter school, Bricolage Academy. The school took form with the help of an incubator called 4.0 Schools. The nonprofit fosters projects that bring new ideas to the New Orleans education scene. Its founder, Matt Candler, who formerly led New Schools for New Orleans, habitually wears an orange “4.0” sweatband holding back his sandy hair. He builds electric motorcycles in his spare time. Candler says this city — and the nation — need fresh education ideas to continue to make progress. “What got us from an F to C is not what’s going to get us to A,” he said. “More than any experience yet in the last 20 years, New Orleans has enlightened us that market-based strategies are not sufficient in and of themselves.” On a Monday night, Bricolage is holding its first-grade open house. The school borrows space from the 19th century Touro Synagogue on St. Charles Avenue, a wide street lined with live oaks. Streetcars rumble by. It’s about 3 miles southwest of KIPP Central City, but a world away, educationally speaking. The families munching cookies and baby carrots and chatting about the parents association and school bus routes are white, black, Hispanic and Asian. For those who agree with the notion that diversity improves the educational experience for everyone, New Orleans presents a major challenge. Eighty-five percent of students overall are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. The youth population is 73 percent black, while the public schools as a whole are 85 percent black. (The gap is a sign of families with means opting for private and parochial schools in large numbers.) Dozens of schools, like KIPP Central City Primary, are over 95 percent black.
In an open-enrollment lottery system, racial and economic diversity can come only from a wider range of families opting back into the system. That is what Josh Densen, Bricolage’s founder, wants to see. Densen is tall with linebacker shoulders, a quick smile and graying hair. At the open house, he invokes the school’s core values: empathy, integrity and innovation. When a parent jokes about “paddling” students, he grins nervously in my direction. Densen worked at a KIPP school in Harlem before coming to New Orleans. He founded Bricolage, in part, inspired by KIPP’s mission-driven approach and strong school culture. At the same time, he says, he wants school to be about more than test scores. “For well-educated, middle-class families, test scores are one data point of many. But for kids living in poverty it tends to be the only data point we focus on. What that says to me is, what’s good for other people’s children is not good enough for my kids.” Densen’s son, Max, attends Bricolage, which currently has a kindergarten and first grade and plans to expand up to eighth. Pitrina Messina’s daughter Stella is in first grade. She says, “Bricolage is real world learning beyond the classroom. The kids have ownership over their learning and problem-solving. I see my daughter Stella using those skills.” For example, she says, “We were at a playground and I heard her say to a little boy, ‘Can you express to me in words how you’re feeling and not push me?’ ”
Wilcox, the early-learning specialist, saw exactly what she was looking for in a school for her son Ethan: “Play, critical thinking, investigating, kids doing studies, communicating with each other, coming up with a hypothesis. You have to learn your alphabet and 1,2,3, but it’s not about rote memorization. It’s about understanding. He’ll fit right in.” Bricolage is brand-new, small, and has no track record. But it’s an experiment being watched closely by all sides. This is a good time for some fresh ideas. RSD Superintendent Dobard says that to address “complex problems of equity,” the district is adapting and responding. And that has meant assuming some responsibilities that previously had been decentralized. For example, the district introduced a centralized expulsion-review board to guard against the “push-out” problem. The Orleans Parish School Board has just entered into an agreement with the RSD to govern issues like special education, truancy and the maintenance and physical plant of school buildings. However, if New Orleans is going to go from a C to an A, it will likely have to pull itself up by its own bootstraps. The changes made thus far rode in on a wave of outside funds. At the peak, in the 2007-2008 school year, New Orleans schools spent $15,557 per pupil — 56 percent more than the state average. Today, the state average is up slightly. But the citywide average was $12,797 last year and dropping. And a big bill may be coming due. A court found in January that the city’s teachers were wrongfully terminated. If the ruling is upheld, the city could owe $1.5 billion in back pay. Not helping matters, Louisiana is in the throes of a dispute between State Superintendent John White, who supports the Common Core, and Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is pushing the state to drop it. That means no one in the city quite knows which tests students will be taking come spring. Despite the continuing challenges, Dobard says the vision for the district is clear: “95 to 100 percent scoring at proficiency.” If they make it even halfway toward this goal, this urban school system will be a success story for the ages. Families like the Dellandes, the Wilcoxes and the Comptons are demanding no less. “Until you have equity amongst all schools, we’re all vying for those same five schools,” Wilcox says. “I’m talking about sleepless nights until I get the acceptance letter. Oh my gosh, it’s a week away; it’s tomorrow. When will I find out?” While she has the means to choose a private school, she says, others do not. “These children deserve to have all public schools be worthy of them. It shouldn’t be for the select few, the ones who got the golden ticket. Our children deserve better. Our families deserve better.”
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