Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Big Uneasy

“The best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina”

Arne Duncan

As mentioned before, a lot of people in New Orleans -- parents, educators and students -- are very unhappy with the direction of the city's schools. They complain of draconian policies, firing of popular teachers and discipline policies that border on brutal.
The case that still breaks my heart involved a 14-year-old who kept getting demerits because his uniform shirt was too small and came untucked basically every time he moved. His mother was a veteran, well-educated, and had sold real estate but got divorced and ended up losing her job, and became homeless. They were living with friends and really struggling. The school expelled the child because he’d had three suspensions—the last one for selling candy to try to raise enough money to buy a new shoes and a new uniform shirt. I felt that if the mother went and told her story that the school would understand and wouldn’t hold up the expulsion. She didn’t want the school to know how impoverished she was but I convinced her to do it, so she came and told all of these people what she was going through—about her struggles. I thought for sure the board would overturn the expulsion, not just because her story was so compelling, but because there wasn’t actually anything in the school’s discipline book about selling candy. But they upheld it and it broke my heart that this kid was being put out of school because he was poor.
On the other of the debate, supporters (including the highly respected John Merrow) argue that New Orleans is a model of reform that gets results. They acknowledge that the programs are tough but they point to improving metrics and argue the pain is worth the gain. If we stop here, this would appear to be a classic good-of-the-many argument. Some kids suffer under the new system but if most are better, the system is certainly defensible.

But what if the rest aren't better off, at least not due to the reforms in the system? For years, we've been discussing the ways excessive discipline can distort the results from educational research and Bruce Baker has long questioned just how impressive the test results were. Now Jason France, a well-respected blogger and former analyst with the Louisiana State Department of Education, has made a pretty good case that some of those impressive statistics were the result of large scale fraud.

You see, under Paul Pastorek, Louisiana’s first Reformer de jour of a few years back, Louisiana stopped investigating and auditing data . . . especially data coming from charter schools and RSD [the New Orleans Recovery School District -- MP]. At the department we knew full well that the data was both crappy in quality and dreadful in composition. Incidentally Paul Pastorek is back in Louisiana to start a new education endeavor. At the Department we knew him as Little PP (he’s like 5 feet tall) to Paul Vallas’s Big P (Vallas is 6’5″) or sometimes as LDOE’s Napoleon due to his small stature and imperious nature.
When Bobby Jindal met John White I’m told Jindal thought he would have a more pliable and less volatile and willful minion than Paul Pastorek and almost immediately gave PP his walking papers. Fortunately PP went to school with Sean O’Keefe who is the current CEO of Airbus (they went to school together) and Paul was able to land on his feet as a useless random lawyer at EADS, a subsidiary of a European aerospace company.

So what does all this have to with dropouts you might ask? Well Paul had stopped auditing data during his tenure and he left under less than friendly terms. It’s quite likely he did not reveal all the skeletons shoved into LDOE closets. It appears that John White and his staff unwittingly stumbled across a walk-in closet loaded with them.
Recently LDOE did a partial audit of exit codes. In particular they were looking at some of the codes often used to hide “dropouts.” In practical terms, a student that does not graduate and stops going to school is a dropout. However, if the student, let’s say, transfers out of state, to a non-public school, goes the homeschool route, or dies. . .well we can’t really hold that school or any school we collect data on responsible for that, can we?

Exit codes were designed for schools to tell the state one of these situations has taken place. When this happens legitimately and is reported to the state in the form of an exit code, the state would no longer keep that student in the numerator or denominator. They are not a dropout. They are also not a graduate. They are a “legitimate leaver” in education parlance. When these legitimate leaver situations take place, records and documentation should take place. When a student transfers to a non-public school or homeschool the parents should fill out some withdrawal papers and the non-public school should make a “request for records.” Homeschooled students and parents also generate subsequent records, and students are required to take tests and provide updates about students’ progress. When a student transfers out of state the “receiving school” should have a record of the student, and that receiving school should make a request for records. These items go in students’ permanent files . . . if those documents are indeed generated, and really exist.

What often happens is this does not take place. What often happens is schools will “fix” their dropouts by simply coding all their dropouts as transferring out of state. They don’t graduate, although some districts simply code students with a graduate code too which really helps them out, but they don’t count against schools. Schools wanting to improve their images or escape accountability sanctions can freely “up code” their students from dropout to even graduates if they really want too, although the most common practice is to simply code them as “transferring out of state.” Historically this wasn’t a major issue, but as accountability has become more important, and as graduate cohort and dropout rates have become factored into as much as 25% of a school’s SPS score the incentive for up coding is enormous, the risk of getting caught or sanctioned very low, and this solution is easy breezy to do with plenty of people along the way able to claim ignorance and protected by plausible deniability if they ever do get caught.

What has happened to Louisiana and especially in RSD and probably charter schools and probably some traditional schools is that more and more schools have discovered the up coding secret and have used it to their advantage more and more every year. John White and LDOE made the mistake of actually doing a preliminary audit of these numbers and publishing them. Their “Reforms” are failures and their success is built upon lies. One of the metrics used to annually evaluate John White is the graduation cohort rate. Once LDOE realized just how bad this audit was his folks knew better than to turn over any more stones. But enough teasing, just how bad was it do you ask?

Try a 100% failure rate for RSD on for size.
I’m not kidding.

I think LDOE really felt all they needed to do was make the point that all direct run RSD schools will be closed this school year so it would finally be okay to release this type of info. Like, “hey, we know this is bad but we’ve released this report after closing them so there’s really nothing anyone can do and you should not waste your time worrying about them anymore.”

Believe me, this is not a one off, this is what all RSD info and stats look like when not masked or filtered. You might think hiding 14 dropout students is not a big deal, and you’re right in a sense. Of course LDOE should consider all students important, but RSD served thousands of students a year. . .what’s 14 out of 1400? The problem is this is just a very small sample that encountered 100% error rate. This is a small fraction of how many student RSD coded as transferring out of state without any documentation from this cohort. What’s more, this was done to make themselves look better than they were for many years, every year they were in existence, and they were always just about the worst in the state even with this help and the numerous instances of cheating I’ve gotten reports of and written about. Feel free to search my blog for examples.

If you have a chance, check out the full post.

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