NEW ORLEANS -- Good news seems hard to find these days, but New Orleans has plenty right now. The most recent test scores for the city's schools show students steadily improving. Widely considered one of the nation's worst school districts for years, New Orleans' schools have been showing remarkable gains.
The most recent data on school performance in the 9-year Recovery School District (RSD) (that was designed to take underperforming schools and transform them into places for children to learn) indicate a 28% performance increase in students testing at the "basic" level since 2007. "Basic" is the minimum standard acceptable for passage to the next grade. Graduation rates have also gone up according to state data -- from 49.7% in 2009-2010 to 57.3 in 2010-2011.
Not everyone in Louisiana is convinced, however, that the improved test scores represent the whole picture about New Orleans public schools. Debra Vaughan, the assistant director of Tulane University's Cowen Institute on Public Education Initiatives, maintains that the "basic" measure "[is] just a low bar."
"I also think it's important to measure gains, individual student gains, in a value-added measure, which we don't have," Vaughan added, describing a "value-added measure" as something that would show how much improvement a student made over the course of the year. "Are schools better?" she asked rhetorically, adding: "I don't know until I see a value-added score. Because that's how I know schools are making a difference."
Vaughan's concern is that some students may actually be making significant gains, and yet, still falling short of their grade-level target. In such a scenario, the student, teacher and school get no credit for the improvements made, something that has serious implications while judging a student.
Under the state's new education reform laws, test scores also impact teacher tenure. One provision in the new law allows students enrolled in a failing public school to apply for a state voucher to transfer to a private school.
Another area of concern for education and juvenile justice advocates relates to disciplinary policies. They point out that all too often students are being pushed out of schools and into the streets. Dana Kaplan of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana told New America Media that "the National Economic and Social Rights initiative released a report a couple of years ago that looked at the discipline rate, [which was] higher than the national average, and the (rate at) the Recovery School District was even higher than that."
"Pushed Out," the 2010 report Kaplan cited, states that "1 out of every 4 students in district-run public schools is suspended out of school at least once each year, more than twice the statewide rate and four times the national rate."
One belief among education progressives in New Orleans is that higher scores are the result of fewer children with disciplinary challenges taking the test. Kaplan sustains that frequent disciplinary experiences such as suspension tend to push children out of school, but the data on the state's Department of Education web site shows that dropout rates have held fairly steady or have decreased.
Carol Kolinchak, legal director at the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, explained this phenomenon thus: "A lot of times, what we've seen is [the school will] recommend for expulsion, but then they'll say, 'OK, if you voluntarily withdraw from the school, we'll take the expulsion off your record.'"
This solution gives the student an incentive to leave "voluntarily," but does not penalize the school for losing a student. In the upcoming school year, the city will, for the first time, have a centralized enrollment system. Until now, this meant that students who withdrew could fall through the cracks, not enrolling in another school or being counted as dropouts. Additionally, to ensure that there is oversight of discipline, the Recovery School District recently unveiled a centralized disciplinary process.
Researcher André Perry offered another critique. He maintained that not enough attention was being focused on the effect of poverty on education. Perry pointed out that endemic poverty is one of the underlying causes for what he sees as academic stagnation.
"We've said (as a society) that not all children can or should be educated, and we've expressed it clearly through (the high rates of) suspensions, expulsions, entry into criminal justice system," he said.
It's a paradigm that Perry insisted is being challenged in New Orleans, where schools are expanding the pool of children who they are "willing to work with."
Although Perry's claim that record numbers of youth are entering the criminal justice system is debatable, the state does lead the world in per capita incarceration rates. The Annie E. Casey Foundation reported that the state's juvenile justice system supervised 4,264 youth in 2010 [http://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/bystate/StateLanding.aspx?state=LA].
In spite of all this criticism, proponents of the current system point to rising test scores and falling dropout rates. Leslie Jacobs is a prominent charter-school proponent in New Orleans. She said that the issue is actually much simpler than some make it out to be. "Your academic achievement is not because you've pushed all these kids out of the data base. The academic achievement is up because you're academic achievement is up."
The Louisiana State Department of Education also affirmed that small gains in national test results represent a significant shift. "[College aptitude test] scores are actually going up in Louisiana faster than in the rest of the country," Rene Greer, spokesperson for the Department of Education, said. "ACT scores across the country are going up point one, and ours are going up point six."
"Even moving the score up a tenth of a point is big," she said.
Last summer, the Vietnamese-American Youth Leadership Association (VAYLA) issued a report prepared from survey data collected by the organization's members at six different New Orleans public schools in both the Recovery School District and Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) district. Their research found that 60% of the high school juniors and seniors interviewed felt that their schools are not preparing them for college. Three-fifths of those surveyed reported doing one hour or less of homework each night, and one-fifth reported doing no homework at all. And 70% of the Asian and
Latino students interviewed reported being placed in an English-as-a-Second Language class that did not "challenge them, or fit their needs."
The sample included both direct-run and charter schools, and the report's executive summary points out that " . . . . students from the OPSB charter school – the only school in our sample with a significant white population, as well as a significant medium- to high-income population – reported a markedly higher quality of education across nearly every dimension of schooling in our study."
Zoe Sullivan is a regular contributor to the Louisiana Weekly and has produced for Marketplace and Radio France International, among other outlets.