More on New Orleans Charter Schools: The Graduation and College-for-All Myths

Since publishing my OpEd in the New York Times last Sunday, several other articles and research projects have shed much-needed light, during this week marking the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, on the kids who are falling between the cracks of the New Orleans charter experiment. I’m posting some of these below.

It bares repeating that while there are many children who are doing well in New Orleans charter schools and many charter operators who are doing their best to provide a quality education, the system—or really non-system—has a major Achilles heel that, thus far, has gone unacknowledged by the charter industry’s chief promoters, i.e.: Applying unforgiving market economics to education, in which test scores are the key measurement tool used to determine which schools survive—and get much needed philanthropic funding—and which schools are closed or taken over, works against the neediest children. Under this “system”, schools have an incentive to edge out kids who don’t test well—perhaps because they have learning problems, or behavioral problems, or because they live in a home environment bereft of the food, sleep or the support that children need to thrive. Moreover, in a city where virtually every charter is its own district, responsible for providing all services to all kids, many charters struggle to achieve the economies of scale needed to provide adequate services for the neediest kids. At the same time, there is little regulation or oversight of schools.

One stock response of charter promoters to such criticism is that both graduation rates and college-entry rates have risen in New Orleans since before the storm. The following three articles also cast doubt on these assertions.

An excellent International Business Times article, “The Uncounted,” by Owen Davis, explains how New Orleans uses so called “exit codes” to boost graduation rates and mask the number of kids who are dropping out of the system. The exit-code data was compiled by Research on Reform, which had to sue the Louisiana Department of Education to obtain data the state was selectively doling out to pro-charter researchers.

Owen writes in part:

Official graduation rates in the RSD surged from just under 50 percent for the class of 2009 to 68 percent in 2012, before receding back to around 60 percent in 2014.

But as with so much else in New Orleans, graduation rates aren’t what they seem:

A New Orleans public school graduate from a “rough neighborhood,” Baldwin says he joined the RSD in 2009 to bring a local voice to data-driven conversations often dominated by white newcomers. “I wanted to be the person that kept the charters connected to the community,” Baldwin says.

Peering into enrollments over time, he made a disturbing discovery: Schools seemed to be hiding their true dropout figures.

Each student who leaves a Louisiana public school receives a so-called exit code. Some are dropouts. Others, labeled “legitimate leavers,” don’t count against graduation rates. The state could verify most legitimate leavers, like children who move a town over. But it couldn’t check transfers out of Louisiana. There arose a perverse incentive to designate students who disappeared with Exit Code 10: Transferred Out of State.

“It was well-known within the data circles,” Baldwin says.

Other data managers in the RSD recall how missing students received Exit Code 10. “If they said that the child went out of state, it was an easy way out,” says Dena Robateau, who worked at the RSD from 2007 to 2010. “That was the easiest thing to do.”

Christina Long, who was a data manager from 2007 to 2011, says the problem was acute at charter schools. Auditors had direct access to publicly run schools, but charter data were self-reported. “We had no way of knowing their enrollment counts,” says Long, who labels the data from charters as “tainted.”

Former assistant principal Shawon Bernard says it came down to self-preservation: Low performance scores could get a school shuttered. “Part of your grade is based on your dropout rate, so you need to make sure those numbers are good numbers,” says Bernard, who stewarded data at her school.  

Exit Code 10, Bernard says, provided cover. “Those were the children who disappeared.”

Baldwin’s analysis confirmed the data managers’ concerns. He promptly alerted his superiors. “I was one of the people shouting from the rooftops,” Baldwin recalls. “It was a disservice for our population to have charter schools come in, collect money in October, then discard the student for the remainder of the year.” 

Baldwin is reluctant to cry foul on particular schools, saying the practice wasn’t universal. But he demanded in private that the state take up the issue. (In an email, RSD deputy chief of staff Laura Hawkins told International Business Times, “No one from this administration was here in 2010 so we can’t know whether or not that happened.”)

The Education Department issued new guidance for exit codes in 2013, reinstituting audits that had been abandoned in 2008.

The issue was still evident for the class of 2013. For that group, the state audited a random sampling of exit codes throughout Louisiana. In the RSD’s New Orleans schools, all 14 records plucked for review lacked verification — a failure rate of 100 percent, the highest of any district.

Among freshmen entering RSD high schools in 2006, 8 percent were marked as out-of-state transfers over four years, the report says. For students who entered two years later, that proportion nearly doubled. More than 15 percent of students were marked as moving to different states.

For comparison, in the Orleans Parish district — which includes selective schools with higher socioeconomic profiles and lower mobility rates — Exit Code 10 held steady at around 5 percent.

Absent a complete audit, it’s impossible to know exactly how many of the students who left high schools between 2006 and 2012 were legitimate out-of-state transfers and how many had actually dropped out. But the numbers are significant. If half of the Code 10 exits in 2011-2012 were truly dropouts, RSD graduation numbers would be depressed by roughly 7 percent.

“I’m not a bleeding heart, but I’d like to know what has happened to these kids?” says Charles Hatfield, the retired district administrator who analyzed the data.

 See more of Research on Reforms latest data on dropouts and exit-code manipulation here .

Separately, Mercedes Schneider, a Louisiana teacher and blogger, shines a spotlight on the likely magnitude of the drop-out rate by looking at the surprisingly low number of seniors in New Orleans RSD schools–just 1,065 in a district with 30,448 students–who took the ACT. She does this by using a search engine developed by Jessica Williams of and published in July.

Schneider writes in part:

Using the LDOE district enrollment counts for February 2015 and Williams’ ACT-related search engine, I was able to conduct some comparisons of RSD total enrollment vs. number of seniors to those of other Louisiana districts.

For example, Livingston Parish has 25,539 students; 1,451 Class of 2015 seniors took the ACT. (57.9 percent scored 20+; 73.3 percent scored 18+).  Livingston has several thousand fewer students overall, yet it has several hundred more Class of 2015 seniors taking the ACT.

Another example: Ascension Parish has 21,562 students; 1,364 Class of 2015 seniors took the ACT. (56.4 percent scored 20+; 72.8 percent scored 18+). Ascension has almost one-third fewer students than RSD, yet it has 300 more Class of 2015 seniors taking the ACT.

A third example: St. Tammany Parish has 37, 699 students; 2,323 Class of 2015 seniors took the ACT. (63.6 percent scored 20+; 78.1 percent scored 18+). Though it is certainly not more than twice the size of RSD, St. Tammany had well over twice as many seniors taking the ACT.

Finally, another article, “A Ticket Out” in Education Week, by Arianna Prothero, offers a window on the reality behind the charter-industry’s assertion that more New Orleans kids are going to college than ever before. What the charter promoters aren’t saying is that many, if not most, of those college-bound kids are unlikely to ever graduate. And since the ACT scores of most kids in the RSD don’t meet the minimum needed for a scholarship to a state school, they are taking on debt to go to college.

Coincidentally, Prothero’s article provides a heartbreaking coda to the story of one of the young men I profiled in a 2013 Newsweek investigation of charter schools, which focused on Sci Academy–then the city’s leading “miracle school.” I focused on three students who characterized the trajectory of New Orleans charter-school students. These students included:

— Lawrence, the child of a drug addict who has severe behavioral and cognitive problems and who, as a middle-schooler, was the victim of a drive-by shooting; after bouncing around over half-a-dozen RSD schools, Lawrence never completed Sci Academy and is now serving a 10-year prison sentence for armed robbery.

— Trevon, who worked hard, but whose ACT scores were too low to win him a scholarship to a state school; while he once thought he’d enlist in the army, Sci Academy persuaded him to enroll at the Southern University of New Orleans, which has graduation rates in the single digits.

–Eddie, a star Sci Academy student, had the best chance to succeed, I argued, because he had drive, a very supportive mom and because he had thrived in the no-excuses environment at Sci; Eddie did so well, he won a scholarship to Middlebury College in Vermont.

Prothero’s article focuses on J’remi, Eddie’s younger brother, who also attends Sci Academy and who is about to go to another elite college, Grinnell in Iowa. Toward the end of her article, Prothero tells us that Eddie left Middlebury without graduating.

Prothero writes in part:

J’Remi’s also realistic about how tough the transition will be, a lesson he knows from his brother’s experience at Middlebury. He knows the rigors of college might really test him. The workload will be more demanding than high school. He’s worried his little brothers won’t do their homework without him there to prod them. And there will be no week off for Mardi Gras.

J’Remi hears his mom pull into the driveway and shoots up off the couch to help her carry his 4-week-old nephew into the house. Eddie Barnes, J’Remi’s older brother, is the baby’s father. Eddie, who graduated from Sci Academy in 2012, had moved to Vermont to attend Middlebury College on scholarship. But overcome with homesickness, he didn’t last there for long, J’Remi says.

Now, Eddie is working two jobs and living with J’Remi, their mother, and two younger brothers, ages 10 and 13. They don’t see much of their father, even though he lives in New Orleans. Once competitors to be the ‘it’ guy at Sci Academy, the two older brothers have been having a lot of heart-to-hearts lately as J’Remi prepares to leave for Grinnell.

“Yeah, he told me to take advantage of support systems out there,” J’Remi says. “He’s like making mistakes for me. I’m learning from his things. … He’s like, ‘Don’t get me wrong, I love my son, but don’t do what I did.’ ”

If J’Remi makes it at Grinnell, he will be defying the odds painted by national statistics: only about 10 percent of low-income, first-generation college students earn a degree.

Instead of repeating increasingly hollow assertions about graduation and college-entry successes, the New Orleans charter industry should focus on fixing the charter-industry’s structural problems. And, instead of its college-for-all focus, it should work on developing vocational opportunities for kids who are not suited for college, as well as providing better supports for the kids who do go to college.


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