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For District Leaders Considering Adopting the New Orleans “Miracle” Model

September 20, 2013

New Orleans’ Recovery School District (RSD) is being promoted nationwide as a model of corporate reform “turnaround.”  Thus, numerous legislatures, superintendents and school boards across the country are facing the question of whether or not to emulate RSD.

In this post, I address school officials who are tempted to believe and adopt the RSD “miracle.”  RSD success is a lie.  I have written extensively on the RSD façade. All of my posts are well documented; I am a trained researcher, and I know the value of supporting my assertions with evidence. I realize that elected and appointed officials also need documentation to support critical education decisions.  Read my work. You will be well informed.

As for the state-run schools in New Orleans: There is no miracle. The show is being staged.

Jindal et. al Are Selling an Image

In this post, I examine several points worthy of serious consideration by those with the power to hand their districts over to the New Orleans veneer of reform.  The first issue concerns Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s ability to sell an illusion. As Louisiana blogger Cenlamar observes regarding Louisiana’s failed voucher program:

Even though Jindal’s voucher school program has lost all credibility in Louisiana, it could still appeal nationally, as a concept, because while Bobby Jindal may not be good at implementing policies, he’s always been good at talking about ideology.

Cenlamar makes an excellent point: Jindal’s goal is to sell his reform ideology. In order to do so, he must present the image of reform success. Reform reality is beside the point.

In concert with Jindal, other Louisiana reformers are also in the market to sell the Louisiana reform package, including State Superintendent John White, State Board of Education (BESE) President Chas Roemer, former BESE member Leslie Jacobs, and Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools (LAPCS) founder and director Caroline Roemer-Shirley (sister of the BESE president).

Be wary of those in leadership positions and whose bias is toward the reforms. They will never tell you, “This is not working.”

2005 RSD Was a Hostile Takeover

RSD existed since 2003 (pre-Hurricane Katrina). However, it was not until post-Katrina that RSD became a large district. Prior to the hurricane, only a handful of schools met the definition of “failing.” Following Katrina, the legislature altered the definition to include all schools scoring below average on the pre-Katrina school performance scores. Thus, the legislature raised the score substantially from 60 to 87.4.  By doing so, the state now had control of an additional 94 schools formerly belonging to Orleans Parish. (In Louisiana, we have parishes, not counties).

Yet image is everything. Consider this reform-friendly account of RSD history from a Cowen Institute report:

Initially conceived as the mechanism for the takeover of individual low-performing schools, the RSD eventually became the instrument for the complete overhaul of the public school system in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. After broad legislation was passed immediately following the storm in late 2005, BESE was able to take over and give the RSD control of more than 100 of New Orleans’ schools, leaving the local Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) with only 17 schools.

Now, for a bit of “image removal”:  In short, the legislature took advantage of the distress of a city almost completely destroyed by a major natural disaster.  It was a coup that left Orleans Parish teachers suddenly (and wrongfully) unemployed. Several teachers sued for wrongful dismissal (and won in 2012 — there is an appeal). As part of the litigation process, those who were involved in the RSD coup were deposed as part of the discovery process in the wrongful dismissal suit.  In these depositions, the crafty, self-serving plans of those responsible for the deliberate creation of a sizeable RSD have come to light. For one, the true goal was to completely obliterate the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) and hand it over to the state for privatizing. To the chagrin (and rage) of late Louisiana State Superintendent Cecil Picard, handing over all of OPSB for privatization would have required a Louisiana constitutional amendment. That is why a token OPSB still exists.

For more information on the contents of these depositions, one can contact Dr. Raynard Sanders of the New Orleans Imperative.

Declared Purpose of RSD

In order to determine whether RSD is a success, one must consider the declared purpose of RSD in the Cowen report:

Intended as a mechanism for restructuring and reform, the RSD was never meant to be a permanent part of the public school governance landscape in New Orleans. Instead, the RSD was meant to take control of and turn around chronically failing schools for an initial period of five years. After that time, and assuming adequate school improvement, schools would be released from the jurisdiction of the RSD and returned to their local school board.  [Emphasis added.]

A number of observations here. First, post-Katrina RSD has been in operation for eight years, yet no schools taken over and turned into charters have been released to their original districts and restored as traditional public schools. Second, pro-privatizers like Jindal, White, Jacobs, and RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard parade “RSD improvement” before the media while ignoring the glaring fact that this touted improvement somehow is not enough to return even the very first RSD school, Pierre Capdau, to its district. Thus, their message is, “RSD is succeeding because it is improving, but pay no attention to the fact that if RSD were truly successful it should be growing smaller as schools are returned to districts.” Third, instead of “turning around” and releasing schools from RSD jurisdiction, John White is purchasing property in order to expand RSD.

Bottom line: Regardless of the supposed, stated purpose of RSD, its real purpose is to establish a firm and permanent, under-regulated charter stronghold in Louisiana public education.

Actual Purpose of RSD: Under-regulated Charter Breeding Ground

The true purpose of RSD is to create a major privatizer-favoring, under-regulated charter school district. As previously mentioned, no RSD charter has ever been returned to OBSP to be run as a traditional public school. Conversion of the traditional school into a charter is an RSD one-way street. There is no going back. If the under-regulated charter operator is eventually dismissed, another under-regulated charter operator steps in. This “charter churn” produces constant instability in schools– which can lead to lapses in accreditation and the potential for worthless high school diplomas. John White refuses to regulate Louisiana charters; BESE President Chas Roemer continues to promote them, and his sister, Caroline Roemer-Shirley, continues to benefit.

Mismanaged Data: The Key to Assuring a Successful RSD Façade

The vehicle for manipulating RSD/charter “success” involves unstable, chaotic measurement. The evidence for mismanaged LDOE data is substantial. For one, the “data” released on RSD is never complete; it is never comprehensive; it is never immediately and readily available for public viewing or third-party analysis.  On the contrary, RSD “data” is always delayed, nebulous, and piecemeal– and readily released only to likeminded reformers. For example, the national, reformer-supported Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) study favors charters and includes Louisiana in its “study,” yet the entire report is devoid of actual mean scores and corresponding standard deviations.  This allows CREDO to present “significant” findings without any viewer scrutiny of their practical value.  In turn. LAPCS President Caroline Roemer Shirley cites this CREDO study as proof of charter superiority;  she additionally offers manipulated graphs to “prove” her point. Finally, John White and his Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) are fond of reporting percentages instead of actual categorical counts; this prevents researchers from verifying calculations and performing their own studies of charter outcomes using LDOE data.

(It is easy to hide behind use of percentages in categorical reporting. For example, if I note that a group being tested is comprised of a certain number of members and I report results in percentage form alone, I can deceive the reader into believing that I tested all members– when perhaps I am actually reporting on 100% of those members actually tested and not the entire group. Thus, I can manipulate the testing outcome by “ghosting” members whose test results would pull down the mean score.)

Second, LDOE “measurement” is not consistent. The rules are constantly changing, including the measurement scale for school performance scores and the formulas for calculating such scores. The measurement instruments are in constant flux. And in the end, it is White himself who decides what is “suitable” measurement.

Without stability in the measurement formulas, instruments, and scale, “measured performance” is capricious. It means nothing, neither as a single measure, nor as “improvements” measured over time.

Third, White refuses to release the names and credentials of those LDOE employees who are calculating high-stakes numbers such as school performance scores.  All is secret. This allows for a huge cloud surrounding RSD “success.”

Fourth, there are documented situations of cheating associated with RSD standardized tests, the most prevalent of which appears to be teachers’ assisting students during exams. Indeed, the constant (and most pronounced) climb of RSD Louisiana Education Assessment Program (LEAP) scores despite a statewide flatness of score results underscores the need for increased security during (and further investigation of) RSD standardized testing.

What Would a Successful RSD Look Like?

In order to detect the fraud, it is important to understand what one would experience by way of a successful RSD. To begin with, a successful RSD would not have been the result of a hostile coup. It would have been born of open negotiation involving currently-ignored stakeholders– namely, teachers and parents. In addition, a successful RSD would have abided by its mission– to “turn around” schools in order to return such schools to their districts– schools run as the community schools they were when they were taken. In short, there would be no covert privatization agenda to convert former community schools into under-regulated, privatizer-benefiting charters. Furthermore, complete, researcher-usable data collected regarding RSD progress would be readily and regularly available on the district or state website, with third-party research and analysis encouraged. Next, for meeting its mission of turning around and returning schools to districts, RSD by nature would be a small district. Finally, a successful RSD would not continually promote itself as being in competition to show itself as “better” than other districts in the state. In contrast, a successful RSD would celebrate the success as other districts as proof of its own contribution to statewide education improvement. Such an RSD could say, “District X is now better because we helped improve and return School X to their community.”

The successful RSD described above does not exist in Louisiana. It never has.

Beware of the RSD Potemkin Village

Given the vast number of RSD charters coupled with the tendency of profit-driven charter schools to do just that–turn a profit– it would be easy to present a face of charter school success to a camera crew or documentarian looking for such evidence. Bottom line: An administrator wanting to impress a visitor knows which schools and which classrooms within schools offer the best image for occasions when “company comes.” Troublesome students could be temporarily relocated to other classrooms “until company leaves.” The “right” community leaders and parents could be “brought in” in order to complete the picture.

Gaming the system is not reserved for data manipulation alone.

It is helpful to reformers if those documenting RSD success are already of the mindset, “Anything is better than what New Orleans schools used to be.” Let me remind readers that “what New Orleans schools used to be” was destroyed with Hurricane Katrina and that the privatizers who moved in squandered the millions in federal aid available after the storm. Dr. Raynard Sanders has written on post-Katrina fiscal and property mismanagement, as has Louisiana blogger Tom Aswell.

I realize that gaining access to the authentic, unstaged experiences of a community can be more difficult if those in power are working to defend their profit-driven, privatization motives. However, it is possible. In the case of RSD, one might contact BESE member Dr. Lottie Beebe for an earful of the real-life stories she hears from teachers, parents, and students who are being subjected to uninvited RSD privatization.

One additional authentic RSD experience is the following youtube posting of my hour-long radio interview with Dr. Raynard Sanders of the New Orleans Imperative. Community members were allowed to phone the station with their questions and comments. Please consider listening:

Wrapping It Up

Please consider carefully what I have written before buying into the superficial sparkle and shine that is RSD “success.” This post alone includes over 40 links (a few are duplicates). Do examine the evidence. When Jindal et al. come calling in order to promote the New Orleans “miracle,” ask them some pointed questions informed by the contents of this post.

Don’t be fooled by the RSD Potemkin Village.

8 Comments
  1. Reblogged this on Parents of PVMS and commented:
    The RSD is the model Louisiana used in its RTTT application. This is what they want for all of Louisiana.

  2. George Buzzetti permalink

    Mercedes, as usual, your work is impeccable. It is refreshing to read work like yours. It gives me ideas and understanding. This is how you win. If you do not understand you cannot win except by accident and that is not to be relied upon.

  3. The OPSB is divided because it is half reform. Had the reformer takeover of OPSB last election been successful (i.e., a “rubber stamp” like BESE is to John White), then OPSB would have been in the position to do what Picard wanted originally– make Orleans Parish schools into a complete reform district: Get the likes of Usdin as the majority and hand OPSB completely over to reform. But it didn’t work, and the reformer “why can’t everyone just get along” line will not work for OPSB because those resisting know where it will lead– charter churn for all Orleans Parish schools.

    The current problem with OPSB is the reformer foothold. There’s your dissention.

    RSD has no plans to return schools to a truly community-school favoring board. Just watch.

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