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31.5.09

Scores show charter schools vastly superior in Orleans

In the debate about the future of New Orleans’ elementary and secondary education, as various arguments are bandied about as to how the presence of the Recovery School District existing beside the Orleans Parish School District and utilization of charter schools by both is affecting educational quality, something very basic is being missed, something that answers definitively the future strategy of education there and elsewhere in Louisiana.

With state testing results out, this debate has intensified because of the present success of the RSD compared to the Orleans past, and because of the success of charter schools, leading supporters of the present path to point to these successes. They are challenged by opponents who argue a variety of mitigating factors explains the progress, not the presence of the state nor having charter schools. Yet these questions, whether state presence and charter school functioning in the main explain the progress, are not very difficult to try to answer using quantitative data which neither supporters nor opponents seem to have done.

So I did. Theoretically, if these things are making a difference, then taking substantially equal populations among them (a pretty solid assumption within the RSD and Orleans categories, but obviously not the case between those two) and reviewing their outcomes – scores on the 4th grade and 8th grade LEAP exams and on the Graduate Exit Exam for high schools – assuming they have equivalent resources (more about that below), then differences observed in scores must be as a result of the qualities of education being delivered varying by the governance structures. I segregated the data into five school categories – RSD regular schools, RSD charter schools, Orleans regular schools, Orleans charter schools, and Orleans magnet schools – and computed means for each of the three levels in each of the four tested areas (English and Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social Studies) for each of the five levels of achievement reported by percentage of students in those categories for each school (Advanced, Mastery, Basic, Approaching Basic, and Unacceptable). In addition, I created a mean of the four areas for each kinf od school where 100 scored as everybody scoring in the highest category and 0 meant everybody scored in the lowest, and then a grand mean of the four categories.

Reported here will be the grand means, after some minor adjustments (for example, a few schools don’t test in all areas, and alternative schools were excluded). They include comparisons between the same kinds of schools in different districts, and different schools within the same district, to demonstrate whether the RSD outperformed Orleans, and whether charter schools outperformed regular schools, for each grade level.

The results were unambiguous (rounding up to tenths). Among 4th graders, RSD regular schools averaged on the 0-100 scale 27.2, RSD charter schools averaged 34.9, Orleans charter schools averaged 54.8, and Orleans magnet schools averaged 52.9 (there being no Orleans 4th graders left in regular schools, all being in charters or the RSD). Among 8th graders, RSD regular schools averaged 20.2, RSD charter schools averaged 28.4, Orleans regular schools averaged 37.6, and Orleans charter schools averaged 53.7. Among 11th graders, RSD regular schools averaged 17.3, RSD charter schools averaged 39 (but this being partial scores from just one school), Orleans regular schools averaged 33.1, Orleans charter schools averaged 50.5, and Orleans magnet schools (being Benjamin Franklin High School) averaged 81.1.

Naturally, the RSD schools which are there because they were troubled in performance in the past lag their Orleans counterparts, so the argument there turns more on would they have been better off staying under local control. Trends of the past are just that, trends of the past that very unreliably can be extrapolated to the present, so it’s hard to judge, as well as the RSD schools are getting substantially more resources than the Orleans schools (because they supposedly need more to turn things around). So this question remains much in debate.

But the effect of charter schools cannot be. Simply, their students are doing substantially better than their peers in districts (most astoundingly, the typical 4th grader in Orleans charter schools scores better than the typical 4th grader in Orleans magnet schools). A few more years of these results, and the debate is over: charter schools simply do a much better job of educating than the old, on-sixe-fits-all bureaucratic, union-centric model of public education – and usually at a lower cost per pupil.

Therefore, going forward it does not seem to be a bad idea to usher low-performing schools in Orleans into the RSD, as there is no evidence that it does a worse job than such schools governed by Orleans. However, any school that is designated as unacceptable for several years regardless of who governs it should be converted into a charter schools as their deceased centralization brings superior results. And it’s a model that should be extended to failing schools across the state.

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