Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Post-Katrina Education Reform Results Exaggerated

A recent report from Public Impact and New Schools for New Orleans, Ten Years in New Orleans: Public School Resurgence and the Path Ahead, reviews the 10 years of education reform following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and the creation of a “portfolio model” of school governance. Claiming the reform is an “unquestioned success,” the authors argue that it should be duplicated by other cities.

Adrienne D. Dixson, associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, reviewed the report for the Think Twice think tank review project at the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Education.

She finds that the report does little to accurately inform the lay public or scholars about the viability of “portfolio” districts or the current state and future of public education in New Orleans.

The report is organized into six themes: governance, schools, talent, equity, community, and funders. It lays out a grand vision for the future of public education in New Orleans, which it describes as “America’s first great urban public school system.” Professor Dixson, however, identifies multiple weaknesses that limit the usefulness of the report.

In particular, Dixson’s review describes how the report exaggerates improvements in the schools while downplaying the ways in which the enacted reforms exacerbated inequities in New Orleans. She also notes that the report erroneously presents the reforms as a result of a neutral, logical and apolitical process.

In reviewing the validity of the findings, Dixson says, “The report does not present original or empirical research but bases its claims on advocacy publications that have not been peer-reviewed, and newspaper articles that primarily accept the claims made by vested interest reformers.”

Dixson further finds fault with the data referenced in the report, which was limited under the guise of protecting student information. The report overstates its claims of post-Katrina academic gains in New Orleans, due to the scant evidence and significant limitations, particularly because of the repeated changes in test-score standards across the decade.

In her conclusion, Dixson highlights the omission of research from the report as a serious concern, writing that the excluded research “tells a different and far more troubling story about the reforms in New Orleans.”

Research about the New Orleans school reforms has been troubling more generally, even beyond this recent report. Calling to mind the parable of the elephant being examined by people in the dark, researchers and advocates trumpet their favored findings to the exclusion of other important evidence. In this case, moreover, people are deliberately ignoring parts of the elephant they’d rather not see; and parts of the elephant are being deliberately hidden from some researchers. A full and honest understanding of these reforms will only come about when key data sets are truly made available to researchers and when all involved are willing to consider the reforms as a whole—including benefits and harms

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