By Shaena Johnson, with Titus Lin
Jonathan Swift, a member of the British literary canon, wrote A Modest Proposal For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public as a satirical essay mocking the enslavement of young children and authority of British officials in 1729. Swift suggests in his essay that the impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by experimenting with the act of selling children as food for rich men and women of Ireland.
When I read Louisiana’s Act 35, which provided for the experimentation on New Orleans’ public school children, I thought that I was reading the sequel to “A Modest Proposal,” but quickly remembered that Jonathan Swift had passed away at least 200 years ago. I was immediately frightened, because there was nothing satirical about Act 35’s purpose. Our legislators were dead serious about experimenting on the lives and future of New Orleans’ public school children – playing politics, as it was then – to shift power from an elected board to one person who could be and was controlled for the benefit of the city and state’s budget.
But why use New Orleans public school children as “lab rats” when other cities across the country have developed better mechanisms – Best Practices – for decreasing operating costs while enhancing the quality of public education? While the answer might be daunting, the truth lies in the accepted mediocrity of the abilities of our public officials and the lack of transparency and accountability that enables them to secure their jobs. Greed and the dehumanization of the less fortunate also play major roles in their decision to experiment on our children.
A disturbing number of national school reformers – experts – refer to the transfer of almost the entire New Orleans public school system to the Recovery School District (RSD) in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the conversion of the majority of the city’s public schools into charter schools as an epic experiment in education reform. According to RSD Superintendent Paul Vallas and State Schools Superintendant Paul Pastorek, this experiment has been a resounding success. In the report released by the RSD and the Louisiana Department of Education last month, Pastorek and Vallas claim that the Great New Orleans Experiment has had miraculous results, “dramatically” improving academic performance in failing schools and becoming a model for school turnaround around the nation.
A “success”? “Dramatically improved”? How can an experiment be labeled as a success if the scientific method forbids making conclusions from an experiment prior to the application of a rigorous process or methodology to test the results? Without strict controls (accountability and transparency, in this case), one can formulate – even create results that are at the very least inconsistent, if not inaccurate and misleading.
With this in mind, let’s take a closer – scientific – look at this grand experiment called the RSD. What is their method of experimentation? I am going to attempt to explain this using the Scientific Method as a platform. The Scientific Method is a process for experimentation that is used to answer questions, but does not always provide a definite answer for all questions. The steps of the Scientific Method are as follows:
· Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment
· Analyze Your Data
· Draw a Conclusion
Here’s the caveat: An experiment is used to test theories in order to support them or disprove them. Therefore, there are no “Best Practices” when performing experiments. There are no definite answers, and mistakes are permissible while performing experiments. With this said, is it really morally or ethically appropriate to use children as the subjects of an experiment?
· According to the Louisiana Performance Accountability System, the achievement accountability bar for the Recovery School District has been consistently set below a passing rate of 60%, which means that very little has to be done to show tangible results.
· Recovery School District (RSD) Schools have an average School Performance Score (SPS) of 60.6 while a score of 100 or above is considered “3 Stars,” i.e. where at least 70% of students are performing at their correct grade level.
· The Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) has been riddled with controversy for years prior to the creation of the RSD. This gives rise to a situation where failure and disgrace is the “norm,” and any improvement in our schools, no matter how insignificant, can be seen as a success.
· New Orleans has been the “poster child” for failing public education for decades, giving rise to a “messiah complex” - the thought that a single hero will come and save the day for the public schools in Orleans Parish. Between 1996 and 2005, the district had nine such “messiahs” (better known as superintendents) come in to save the day. Most of these individuals had long records of failing in other school districts that were largely ignored during the hiring process. All of these individuals left OPSB in a worst condition than before their tenure. Furthermore, there was never an effort for a systematic overhaul of the OPSB during this 9-year period, just an exchange of saviors. This dysfunctional complex has continued, but is now channeled through a new incubator mechanism – the Recovery School District.
· Hurricane Katrina provided the perfect environment of disarray to produce an out-of-control mechanism to create charter schools with little to no accountability as a result of being in a district run by the state, and also as a result of being allowed independent school boards.
Given that our government has already failed our students, that even minimal performance can be held out as success, and that little to no public accountability exists, there is huge opportunity to create a system that is wasteful, ineffective, and gives minimal productivity for maximum cash.
3. The Experiment
Here are the steps taken so far by the state in conducting its experiment:
· Reform education law by passing Act 35 to significantly expand the state’s authority to take over “failing” schools. In conjunction, redefine “failing” to include many New Orleans public schools that previously had not met this definition.
· Expand the state-run Recovery School District (RSD) to take control over most New Orleans schools post-Katrina. Operate it side by side with the OPSB as a second, larger school district in the same geographic area, while at the same time significantly reducing the scope of the OPSB.
· Transform the majority of RSD-run schools into charter schools.
· Remove local control and oversight by vesting school management in state agencies and independently selected school boards.
· Hire an inexperienced superintendent (Robin Jarvis) to oversee the turnover. Present her as another of the accepted messiahs, and let her be the first ‘fall guy’ when the initial plan to miscategorize schools fails. Hire another messiah (Paul Vallas) - a man with a history of going in to school districts, providing ‘quick fixes,’ and getting out before things fall apart - to replace the outgoing superintendent.
· Fund the RSD and charter schools through federal assistance and public funds, at the expense of the OPSB. Cut costs by hiring young and inexperienced teachers. Continue to make the argument that the OPSB is not capable of educating students.
· Control data and standards. Never publish the resumes of top administrators and keep information out of the hands of the public. Set low benchmarks for measuring success on the part of the RSD. Set high benchmarks and impose stringent standards on the OPSB.
Analysis of the state’s experiment reveals a number of disturbing trends:
· New Orleans Schools will remain in the RSD for years to come.
According to Pastorek and Vallas, “dramatic” academic progress has been made by RSD schools. However, RSD schools only improved an average of 8 SPS points per school over the past 3 years. This translates to an improvement of only 2.7 SPS points per school per year. With an average SPS of 60.6, it will take the RSD 15 years to bring the schools up to a basic level of “3 Stars,” which is set at SPS 100.
It will take 33 years for the average RSD school to reach the level of “5 Stars” (SPS 150). Under Vallas’ recent proposal, it would take about 6 years to meet the minimum bar required for schools to even have the choice of leaving the RSD (SPS 75).
Furthermore, the new proposal by Pastorek and Vallas calls for stringent and unrealistic requirements to be placed on the OPSB (which makes it very hard for the OPSB to take back schools from the RSD), prevents underperforming schools from leaving (see above), and gives schools the choice of staying in the RSD even after reaching the requirements for leaving. These kinds of academic and administrative hurdles, combined with the extremely slow rate of progress in the present RSD schools, provides for a very sustainable model in which the RSD will continue to exist at its current size far beyond its original 5-year mandate.
· The RSD is very profitable.
Post-Katrina, the RSD has been on the receiving end of massive amounts of funding from federal and state agencies, and private foundations such as Walton and Bill Gates, all with their own agenda for reform, none with real ties to those folks who actually educate their children in the New Orleans Public Schools.
In addition, because more money is made available to charter schools under federal law, the RSD has also been able to receive significant amounts of funding through transforming the majority of its schools into charters (and Paul Vallas wants to convert all RSD schools to charter schools by 2012). At the same time that the RSD is receiving all this money, however, it has also been getting rid of experienced teachers and replacing them with inexperienced teachers to cut costs (which also slows down the rate of progress at individual schools).
All this has resulted in a large amount of money floating around in the RSD, and with top-level administrators being paid large salaries. Paul Vallas is the highest paid superintendent in the state in Louisiana. In 2008, he took in $238,386. Also, in a legislative audit conducted in 2008, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor found significant fiscal mismanagement in the RSD, with former RSD employees being overpaid a total of $427,695 as of September 30, 2007.
The public money going into the RSD is not the only source of profit for Vallas. Prior to coming to Louisiana, Vallas sold the rights of “his” school reform model to consultants at Solomon Consulting Services, a private, for-profit company specializing in education reform services, which was composed in large part by administrators who worked under or with Vallas.
· RSD does a poor job of educating students.
As mentioned above, the average rate of academic progress in RSD schools is shamefully low. In addition, the widespread reliance on charter schools in the RSD has given rise to significant problems regarding disparate or unequal educations. Thus far, the RSD has done little to address this problem. In fact, charter schools are a great way to weed out the children who have been the victims of poor quality education to give the illusion of school improvement, while the other 54% get left behind. This multi-tiered system of education in New Orleans is necessarily creating an intractable bottom tier, that is, schools that are forced to enroll those students no other operator wants and/or expels once realizing the difficulty in providing that child’s complete education services.
Despite the claims to the contrary by Vallas and Pastorek, the grand RSD experiment has not been a success by any reasonable measure. While test scores have improved, they are improving so slowly that New Orleans schools will be stuck in the RSD for years to come. In addition, the few small gains that have occurred have come only at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money. Rather than foster academic achievement in our children, the RSD model seems better suited for creating an insulated, self-perpetuating system that takes control of the schools out of the hands of the community and provides great rewards to a few top administrators for minimum results.
However, as disappointing and shameful as these results are, they do not get to the heart of the matter. The real shame is that, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the children of New Orleans became guinea pigs in an experiment in radical and untested school reform, and that such experimentation was done with the full support of our legislators and politicians. In our children’s greatest moment of need, they were not given time tested medicine. Instead, they were forced to undergo experimental treatment, with no warning as to the side effects. As was mentioned in the beginning of this paper, the point of an experiment isn’t to make anything better or worse. The point of an experiment is just to test a hypothesis. The welfare of the test subject is unimportant, and bad results are just as valuable as good results to the ones conducting the experiment. While this is the way that science is conducted, it is shocking that all too often poor and minority communities are the ones that are forced to play the role of the lab rat.
The RSD is charged with reforming and rehabilitating failing schools, with the ultimate goal that those schools be reintroduced back into their native school districts. Rather than do their job, however, the people in the RSD have chosen to engage in a dangerous experiment in the education and futures of our children. And with the recent release of their proposal, it seems they want to continue the experiment, indefinitely.
Unless we take a step back and take a good, long look at what the RSD has done and what it plans to do, the children of New Orleans will continue to act as guinea pigs in this unrestrained experiment in education reform. Moreover, if nothing is done, this bad joke will only happen time and time again in other communities and, once again, progress will come at the expense of the poor.