The Cowen Institute just released a report: Beating the Odds. It is well worth a read.
What I find striking is this: there appears to be a correlation between performing well academically and being sued by civil rights activists.
At the end of the piece, I’ll try to explore why this might be. But first the data.
Beating the Odds
See below for two charts that show which high schools are “beating the odds.”
Note: there is much more data in the actual report that is worth exploring. I chose to look at end of course exams because all high schools take these tests (while high schools that have not fully grown to serve 12th grade might not have ACT or graduation scores).
The analysis is based on analyzing the at-risk nature of a school’s student body (% 9th grade over age, % 9th grade previously failed test takers, % FRL, % special education) – and determining if the school is outperforming its predicted level of achievement.
Who is Serving the Most At-Risk Students?
As the chart below details, schools in the Recovery School District are clearly serving the hardest to serve student populations.
Who is Beating the Odds on the End of Course Exam Performance?
The data is pretty clear: high schools in the RSD are serving a very at-risk population, and many of the schools in the RSD are beating the odds with these students.
In particular, six RSD high schools score significantly above their predicted performance: Cohen College Prep, Sci Academy, Carver Collegiate, Carver Preparatory Academy, Landry-Walker, and KIPP Renaissance.
Collegiate Academies operates three of these “beating the odds” schools (Sci Academy, Carver Collegiate, and Carver Preparatory).
As it happens, the Souther Poverty Law Center is currently spearheading a civil rights complaint against Collegiate Academies. Unions and civil rights advocates also filed a civil rights complaint against the Recovery School District for closing traditional schools and replacing them with charter schools. Two of the high schools in the complaint, Carver and Cohen, have been replaced by “beating the odds” schools above.
To date, no civil rights complaints have been filed against schools that are not beating the odds.
What is Going On?
I’m an ardent civil rights activist. Outside of waiting tables in the French Quarter, most of my adult life has been spent working on civil rights issues. My father is African-American and grew up in an era where he was constantly discriminated against because of his race. My mother is an Indian immigrant whose family had to flee what is now Pakistan because of religious persecution. I went to perhaps the most liberal law school in the country to, in part, be surrounded by likeminded activists.
So it is difficult for me to continue to be on the opposite side of lawsuits being filed by the likes of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU, and the NAACP.
In law school, these organizations were my heroes.
So what is going on?
Clearly a lot – and I’m not sure if I have a full grasp on the situation…
First, it’s obvious that the “beating the odds” schools are not perfect. They are doing incredible work for very at-risk students, students that were often completely failed by the old system. Yet, if you’re looking to find flaws in the schools, you will find them. Instruction is not yet rigorous enough. There is an ongoing tension between the need for strict discipline and goal of empowering students to own their learning. Many students graduate not fully ready for career and college.
Second, the civil rights movement has often been connected to the labor movement, and teachers unions do not support the New Orleans education reform movement. To the extent civil rights advocates are taking their cues from labor, they will continue to attack charter schools that beat the odds, especially if these schools draw from a younger, non-unionized teaching force.
Third, civil rights activists seem much more concerned with discipline practices than they do with academic outcomes. Activists sue schools for high suspension rates. Activists do not sue schools for low graduation rates.
This, in my mind, is their greatest failure.
The Road Ahead
I’m really not sure. While I think reports like “Beating the Odds” are important, I don’t think the issue at hand is solely one of data.
Mostly, it’s one of trust, relationships, and community.
The most vocal advocates on either side are fairly hardened in their positions. This is not surprising given the emotional intensity of the debates.
However, there is a younger generation of leaders, perhaps in the 16-30 range, that are still forming their opinions on the issue.
Locally, it is these New Orleanians that will determine the future direction of public education in New Orleans.
My hope is this: that they recognize the incredible work being done by the “beating the odds” schools; that when they see flaws in these schools they partner with the schools, or actually work at the schools, to make the schools better; and that they reserve their lawsuits for the schools that are constantly failing students academically.
And of course my greater hope is this: there will be no failing schools in New Orleans for them to sue.