The NEPC has a completed a review of the "documentation" used by corporatists in New Orleans and Tennessee to justify the takeover and colonization of NOLA and Memphis schools. To say the evidence is slim for such anti-democratic privatization schemes is an understatement. Here is the link to the NEPC site, and below is a clip that focuses on Tennessee's Powerpoint "research" piece:
Presentation on Tennessee’s Achievement School District: “Building the Possible”
The reforms in Memphis are too new to have been adequately studied. The data cited are only from two years, and from only a small sample of seven schools. The ASD claims it will move failing schools to the top, and a chart on one of the slides shows movement of the bottom 5% of schools in Tennessee to the top 25%, but it is unclear how the projections
The presenters laudably claim that it is necessary for portfolio districts to do “careful data analysis,” which should include ruling out rival hypotheses. Regrettably, they did not apply this sound principle.
were determined. Such claims ignore the devastating poverty an d isolation of students’ lives, which would have to be rapidly overcome to move the schools to become competitive with Tennessee’s more affluent public schools. 37 Less than 12 months into the reforms,
they claim “level 5 growth.” But again, nowhere was it e xplained what “level 5 growth” was
or how it was attained. Similarly, it is claimed that expulsion rates were cut in half, from
3.5% to 1.3%, and there is no discussion of how that was achieved.
The presentation shows that the portfolio model has led to te st-score gains in certain subject areas. One chart shows gains in math and science, but a drop in reading and language arts. Like the data from New Orleans, these charts are descriptive, and we cannot know what is driving the changes. As in New Orleans, th ese gains could be due other policy changes, demographic changes, or selection effects. Furthermore, in later slides, the presentation highlights one school’s gains in reading and language arts proficiency, which appears to be cherry-picked given the previous slide’s indication that overall scores in the subject decreased.
The presentation highlights its efforts to recruit “great people” and talent, without explaining what this means or how it is measured. Where these teachers are coming from and their professional qualifications are not defined. One -fifth of the teachers in the program were from Teach for America, an organization that has shown mixed results in other cities.38 Moreover, the slides did not discuss the fact that Memphis only re -hired five of its former teachers and three administrators out of more than 50 teachers and seven administrators from the takeover schools in Memphis; all others were fired, although the district hired 50 replacement teachers from other Memphis public schools. 39 Finding and recruiting qualified teachers may not be feasible or culturally, politically, or economically desirable in cities seeking to adopt a portfolio model.
One of the slides appeals to “freedom,” but the specific autonomies given to schools or parents are not defined. If it means freedom to choose schools, the New York Times reported that ASD schools must accept any student who lives in their zones, 40 so parents outside the attendance zone can gain access only if there is additional capacity. Similarly, the presentation claims that parents and teachers are very satisfied, but does not mention
how these stakeholders were surveyed, the response rates, and the differences in
satisfaction rates from previous years. Again, these pieces of information would probably be addressed more thoroughly in a longer report, but because response rates matter for survey claims and sufficient response rates are difficult to attain, this is an important point.41 The claim of greater satisfaction is an unsubstantiated change.
Unaddressed Issues in the Two Presentations
Finally, we note there are several substantive issues that were not adequately addressed in either report. These include governance, representation, se gregation, and school finance.
The issue of whether RSD schools that are no longer failing will be returned to the locally elected Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) raises important but unaddressed governance issues. Schools may elect whether or not to return to OPSB, yet charter school boards decide this, and the results have been contentious.42 Professor Lance Hill of Tulane, for example, described the perceptions of some local residents who believe they have lost democratic control of the schools. He wrote in a local blog in 2011:
The corporate education forces that advocate a free-market business model have developed a ‘beachhead’ strategy in New Orleans. Taking advantage of the evacuation of 90% of the population after Katrina, they set in motion
educational changes that bypassed the elected school board and destroyed virtually all local democracy and accountability. 43
Some researchers have contended that the charter reforms in New Orleans have resulted in higher levels of racial segregation than would naturally occur in a neighborhood schools system, based on residential patt erns in the city.44 Despite significant time and resources spent on busing students across the city, the portfolio model has not prioritized any type of racial or economic desegregation policy. 45
The question of finance was also under -addressed by the RSD slides. With the exception of a bullet point under “Challenges” that mentions the imperative of finding sustainable funding sources, the amounts provided from outside the public system were not acknowledged. Foundation dollars have supported many aspects of the RSD reforms; administrator salaries in charter schools have been supported by the federal i3 reforms
and the Teacher Incentive Fund grants to New Schools for New Orleans. 46 New Schools for New Orleans estimated that a mid-sized city would need to spend between $25 and $50 million for the first five years of a state reform district, 47 and philanthropy must play a substantial role. Any system considering adoption of a portfolio model needs to consider
its true costs and how the state would pay for the refor ms.
VII. Usefulness of the Report for Guidance of Policy and Practice
Portfolio models and school reconstitution represent po tential strategies for intervention in low-performing schools, and are worthy of attention. However, adoption of th is model
needs to be based on a careful, critical and comprehensive review of the research evidence on both the portfolio concept level as well as of the constituent parts . The evidentiary base presented is very thin for both Louisiana’s and Tennessee’s portfolio districts. There is considerable external evidence on some of the elements but it is not reflected in the presentations. The presenters laudably claim that it is necessary for portfolio districts to do “careful data analysis,” which should include ruling out rival hypotheses. Regrettably, they did not apply this sound principle. The claimed successes of these two portfolio districts are questionable in themselves. But the greater problem is in the ascription of improvements to the presence of portfolio management s tructures. We thus encourage great caution by policymakers at every level of government in making high –stakes decisions based on such presentations.
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