New Orleans rebuilds with charter schools

PBS looks at New Orleans’ charter schools. 

New Orleans: Traditional public schools close

Akili Academy first-grader Kyron Bourgeois, 6, raises his hand in the class of Hannah Bunis on May 27, 2014 in New Orleans. Akili Academy in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans will be absorbing some students from the city's closing public schools.Akili Academy first-grader Kyron Bourgeois, 6, raises his hand. The New Orleans charter school will take some students from closing schools. (Edmund D. Fountain/For The Washington Post)

New Orleans schools won’t all be charters next year, but the post-Katrina state agency that controls most of the city’s public schools has closed its last traditional school, reports the Washington Post. Recovery School District students will use OneApp, a computerized lottery, to find a place in one of 58 charter schools. The city’s old school board, the Orleans Parish Board, also runs six schools and has chartered 14 more.

Critics of the all-charter New Orleans model say it is undemocratic, because leaders of charter schools are not accountable to voters. They also say the system is challenging for parents, who have to figure out logistics that were not an issue when their children walked to neighborhood schools. . . . Advocates say the all-charter model empowers parents. “We’ve reinvented how schools run,” said Neerav Kingsland of New Schools for New Orleans, which promotes and supports charter schools. . .  “If I am unhappy with service I’m getting in a school, I can pull my kid out and go to another school tomorrow. I don’t have to wait four years for an election cycle so I can vote for one member of a seven-member board that historically has been corrupt.”

Before the hurricane, New Orleans was one of the worst school districts in the nation. The Orleans Parish Board was “bankrupt and couldn’t account for about $71 million in federal money, reports the Post. After Katrina, the school board was left in control of a small number of magnet and selective-admissions schools. Activists complain the board’s admissions policies limit black enrollment, though a very high proportion of OPB — and RSD — students are black. The state’s Recovery School District seized 102 low-performing schools. The schools have improved significantly, “although it’s difficult to make direct comparisons” because many students never returned to New Orleans, reports the Post.

Before the storm, the city’s high school graduation rate was 54.4 percent. In 2013, the rate for the Recovery School District was 77.6 percent. On average, 57 percent of students performed at grade level in math and reading in 2013, up from 23?percent in 2007, according to the state.

“The difference between now and pre-Katrina is that we’re replacing schools that are not performing well,” (RSD Superintendent Patrick) Dobard said. “We don’t let children languish in chronically poor performing neighborhood schools.”

Credit recovery goes online

As high schools struggle to raise graduation rates, many have turned to online credit recovery programs, writes Hechinger’s Sarah Carr on Education Next. Are students learning — or just being moved along? It’s not clear, but many are dubious.

“There’s a political motivation,” says David Bloomfield, professor of educational leadership, law, and policy at Brooklyn College. “It’s an end run around higher standards.”

Oceanside Unified in California improved graduation rates after opening three centers that offer online credit recovery. Superintendent Larry Perondi believes “the centers have improved the life prospects of students who would have dropped out otherwise, including young parents and teens battling drug addiction.”

Perondi “encourages the district’s best teachers to work” in the centers and assigns extra counselors and social workers to support students.

Three New Orleans charters enroll only students who’ve fallen behind in coursework.

Their supporters argue that the schools provide a much-needed safety valve for students who don’t work well in conventional settings and prefer to move through courses at their own pace; critics worry about the quality of the online courses and fear they take the onus off of traditional high schools to meet the needs of all students.

At the Jefferson Chamber Foundation Academy, the average student is an 18-year-old sophomore. “Some of the students failed the same classes multiple times; others dropped out for a period of months, or years,” writes Carr. “The school supplements the online courses with in-person tutorials and small-group instruction.”

The NET, another charter for high-risk students, combines online courses with traditional in-person classes and “advisories.”

Students and teachers say the online courses have some universal benefits: the teenagers can move at their own pace and get instant feedback on how they are doing.

. . . The biggest drawback, however, is that many of the courses are either too easy or too hard. . . . stronger schools and teachers are increasingly figuring out how to use the online courses as a jumping-off point to address individual students’ needs, supplementing easy courses with more challenging material, for instance, or harder courses with extra in-person tutorials.

But some schools rely exclusively on the online courses.

New Orleans is #1 choice city

The Ticket is a new documentary on school choice.

New Orleans and New York City are the friendliest places for school choice and competition, according to Brookings’ new school choice index.

“School choice is under attack in the very places that top this year’s rankings,” said Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the House Majority Leader, at a Brookings conference. 

Cantor criticized the U.S. Department of Justice’s lawsuit against Louisiana’s voucher program, which Cantor said has “brought hope and opportunity to thousands of students.”

And he hit Bill de Blasio, a Democrat and New York’s new mayor, for considering a change to school-facility regulations that allow charter schools to share space with regular public schools, saving them big cash in the city’s pricey real-estate market.

“School choice is a threat to the status quo,” Cantor said. “School choice protects families and children, not bureaucracies.”

As urban charters grow, where’s the tip?

Urban students are choosing charters in growing numbers, according to a new report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Nationwide, one in 20 students now attend charter schools. In post-Katrina New Orleans, 79 percent of students attend charter schools. Detroit has hit 51 percent. Washington D.C. is at 43 percent. Flint, Mich., Kansas City, Mo. and Gary, Ind. each have 30 percent or more of students in a charter school. More than 10 percent of students are enrolled in charters in Philadelphia and New York City.

But charter competition hasn’t had the effect once expected, points out Andy Smarick, a former Bush administration official who now works at Bellwether Education Partners.

Ten years ago, he recalls, proponents of the nascent charter school movement came to a consensus: If charter schools could reach 10 percent of market share in big cities, the movement would reach a tipping point and create enough pressure to spur public schools to improve in order to compete for students.

“That tipping-point pressure never materialized the way I expected,” he said. “We have not seen districts drastically improve even when charter school market share gets to 25 percent.”

In the face of fierce opposition, charter schools”are proving to be the toughest, most enduring of all education reforms,” writes Paul Peterson on Ed Next.  “Charter schools are gaining in respect, numbers, and political adherents, mainly because they are digging deep roots in local communities.”

Transformed

REBIRTH: New Orleans, a Learning Matters docmentary on the post-Katrina transformation of New Orleans public schools, is now available on Netflix.

Do vouchers help students succeed?

Vouchers don’t do much for students, argues Stephanie Simon on Politico. Voucher programs now cost $1 billion nationwide.

In Milwaukee, just 13 percent of voucher students scored proficient in math and 11 percent made the bar in reading this spring. That’s worse on both counts than students in the city’s public schools. In Cleveland, voucher students in most grades performed worse than their peers in public schools in math, though they did better in reading.

In New Orleans, voucher students who struggle academically haven’t advanced to grade-level work any faster over the past two years than students in the public schools, many of which are rated D or F, state data show.

Vouchers improve student outcomes, according to high-quality research studies, responds Adam Emerson in Education Gadfly.

Consider, for instance, the work of Patrick Wolf at the University of Arkansas, who has examined the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship and found that it led to improved reading achievement among participants while also increasing a student’s chance of graduating high school by 21 percentage points. Consider, too, that random-assignment studies of privately funded voucher programs in New YorkDayton and Charlotte found higher achievement levels on standardized tests or higher college-going rates, or both, particularly for black students. Other empirical studies led to findings that range from the positive competitive effects vouchers have on public schools to the heightened level of achievement that comes from greater accountability (this last comes from Milwaukee, where Simon noted that snapshot test scores of voucher students look poorly but where a longitudinal analysis of the voucher program reports more positive results).

But a single literature review from Greg Forster at the Friedman Foundation is perhaps most revealing: eleven of twelve random-assignment studies have showed improved academic outcomes of students who participated in voucher programs. The one study that didn’t found no visible impact on students one way or the other.

Research supports voucher benefits, agrees Rick Hess. He quotes himself, and eight others, in an Education Week commentary last year:

Among voucher programs, random-assignment studies generally find modest improvements in reading or math scores, or both. Achievement gains are typically small in each year, but cumulative over time. Graduation rates have been studied less often, but the available evidence indicates a substantial positive impact. None of these studies has found a negative impact. . . . Other research questions regarding voucher program participants have included student safety, parent satisfaction, racial integration, services for students with disabilities, and outcomes related to civic participation and values. Results from these studies are consistently positive.

That $1 billion for vouchers “amounts to less than one-fifth of one percent of K–12 spending,” Hess points out.  “We spend north of $600 billion a year on K–12 schooling in the U.S., including tens of billions on employee health care and retirement benefits.”

Charters adopt common applications

Applying to charter schools is getting easier in some cities, reports Education Week. Charter schools are adopting universal enrollment systems and common applications, so parents can apply to multiple charter schools at the same time.

• Denver launched a centralized enrollment system called SchoolChoice in 2010 for all district-run and charter schools in the 85,000-student system.

• In New Orleans, the Louisiana Recovery School District, in partnership with the Orleans Parish School Board, debuted a universal enrollment system called OneApp for charter and district-run schools in February 2012 and is now entering its third year of a unified lottery system serving the city’s 44,000 students.

• The Newark and District of Columbia school systems are making plans to implement universal enrollment systems for their district-run and charter schools for the 2014-15 school year.

Before OneApp, New Orleans parents had to deal with multiple applications, deadlines and lotteries. Now they apply once for both district-run and charter schools, ranking their choices in order of preference. Each student gets one “best offer.”

College rah rah bah

“Millions of young people will never attend four-year colleges,” writes Sarah Carr in the Wilson Quarterly. “America must do more to equip them to secure good jobs and live fulfilling lives.”

From President Obama on down, “college for all” is seen as the solution to poverty, writes Carr. In New Orleans, the city of Carr’s book, Hope Against Hope, reformers created college-prep charter schools for low-income, black students.

At schools that have embraced the college-for-all aspiration, career and technical education is seen as being as outdated as chalkboards and cursive handwriting. Instead, the (mostly poor and mostly minority) students are endlessly drilled and prepped in the core humanities and sciences—lessons their (mostly middle- or upper-income and mostly white) teachers hope will enable the teenagers to rack up high scores on the ACT, SAT, and Advanced Placement exams and go on to attend the four-year college of their dreams (although it’s not always clear whose dreams we’re talking about).

Idealism should be tempered with pragmatism, Carr writes. Only one-third of low-income college students earn bachelor’s degrees by their mid-20s. Drop-outs may be thousands of dollars in debt.

A 2011 Harvard report, Pathways to Prosperity, described strong demand for “middle-skill” workers with vocational certificates or associate degrees. For example, electricians average $53,030, dental hygienists  $70,700 and construction managers $90,960, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“College for all” isn’t a smart state or national education policy, but can make sense as the mission of a single school, responds Michael Goldstein, founder of MATCH, a high-performing charter school in Boston.

In Boston, many traditional high schools describe themselves as college prep, but they’re sort of half-hearted about it. Few alums actually graduate from college. College rah-rah is absent. But so is career rah-rah. There is no rah-rah. I’m not sure how Carr thinks about such schools.

College is the dream of low-income black and Hispanic parents, Goldstein writes. When a large, open-admissions high school in Boston surveyed parents — mostly black or Hispanic single mothers without a degree — more than 80 percent wanted their son or daughter to go on to college.

I’m not sure I agree that educators in urban college prep charters, see career and technical education as “outdated.”

. . . I think more typically — there’s a perception that the vo-tech offerings themselves are terrible, with really bad track record of actually connecting kids to the right jobs, the air-conditioning repair jobs that Carr writes about.

Boston’s vo-tech high school is considered by far the worst public school in the city.

MATCH has considered launching an “excellent” vocational charter school, then measuring how graduates do in the job market, he writes.

I think everyone wants their kids to go to college because everyone thinks it’s the only way to get a good job. A high-quality school focused on qualifying graduates to train as electricians, mechanics, welders, dental hygienists, X-ray techs, etc. would be very popular.

No credential, no job for Vallas

Once superintendent in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans, reformer Paul Vallas is unqualified to lead the Bridgeport, Connecticut school district, because he lacks an administrative credential, a Superior Court judge ruled. She said Vallas can’t stay in the job while appealing.

The state board of education created an independent study program for Vallas to meet the credential requirements, which normally require 13 months of study at a Connecticut college or university. The judge rejected the board’s alternative.

Like a number of urban superintendents, Vallas isn’t a professional educator. “A longtime state legislative aide and budget director for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, he took over the job of running the Chicago schools in 1997 after the state put them under Daley’s control,” notes Governing. Narrowly defeated in the Democratic primary for governor of Illinois in 2002,” he was hired to run Philadelphia schools after Pennsylvania took them over. Then he went to New Orleans to run the Recovery School District.

“I think it’s bizarre that we’d allow paper credentials from programs with lackluster reputations disqualify a candidate with an extensive track record,” writes Rick Hess. “Seems to me like it makes a lot more sense to just judge Vallas on what he’s done, his skills, and his temperament. I think Vallas is an impressive guy and that it’d be a bad thing if he were actually pushed out of office.”

Normally hostile to reformers, Diane Ravitch published a defense of Vallas by a commenter who worked for him in Chicago.