New Orleans schools: A nexus of poverty, high expulsion rates, hyper-security and novice teachers
John, an eighth grader at the time, gives another student on school grounds a candy bar. He is spotted by a security guard and told he now faces suspension. Frightened, John runs, getting caught twice and slapped with handcuffs as many times, acquiring bruises along his wrists in the process. A jacket his grandmother purchased is torn during the scuffle with the much larger security personnel.
“Knowing how my dad has been in and out of jail his whole life and always had handcuffs on… I promised myself it would never happen to me,” John says. “I’m a kid, and kids shouldn’t have handcuffs on them. It disgusts me putting kids in handcuffs and jail.”
Another student, identified as Chris, is handcuffed to a radiator in the central office of the school after completing an out-of-school suspension. He’s shackled for three hours, and not even the protestations of a teacher, and finally his mother, lead to the release of the boy.
“They just kept handcuffing me. Even other students got handcuffed,” shares Chris. “One kid was in special-ed and he would holler and cry when they handcuffed him.”
Last December, the Southern Poverty Law Center transcribed these stories of Chris and John, students attending New Orleans schools, along with half a dozen other first-person accounts of the increasing penalization on the playgrounds and hallways throughout the city.
Yet the brute force chronicled speaks to a much larger dissonance affecting New Orleans public education, supplying more ammunition to critics of New Orleans schools that bulk up on young, cheap and inexperienced teachers to educate a community particularly blighted by poverty.
Poverty and punishment explained
The intersection of punishment, student poverty and teacher experience begins, strangely enough, with a paper comparing transfer rates and international test scores in over five dozen countries.
In a study published (PDF) July 6, researchers for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) noted countries that hold students back an additional year or shuffle students out of schools for academic or behavioral problems are more likely to support education systems marked by inequity, low student performance and unnecessarily bloated budgets.
In gathering the data, the writers of the brief collected results from the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 65 member and partner countries, representing a wide spectrum of GDP per capita, and principal surveys from participating schools.
The authors conclude that:
PISA 2009 reveals that countries in which more schools transfer students for the abovementioned reasons show poorer overall performance. In fact, over one-third of the variation in student performance across countries can be explained by the rate at which schools transfer students, regardless of the wealth of the country.
School systems that transfer students more frequently also tend to show a stronger relationship between students’ socio-economic background and performance, and a wider gap in performance between schools, even after accounting for countries’ national income. This suggests that transferring students tends to be associated with socio-economic segregation in school systems, where students from advantaged backgrounds end up in better-performing schools while students from disadvantaged backgrounds end up in poorer-performing schools. However, this does not necessarily mean that if countries abolish their transfer policies, their performance will automatically improve; PISA doesn’t measure cause and effect.
In New Orleans, dismissing students from schools for behavioral infractions or poor academic performance is a common occurrence, and one disproportionately affecting students of color or living in low-income households.
During a conversation with The American Independent, a doctor of education and radio host Raynard Sanders said, “In this city, we have a system where the kids are separated by race and class. Kids that … are expelled are placed into schools that are not close to home, with bad facilities.”
And while the state-managed Recovery School District (RSD) — part of a dramaticdeconstruction of the city’s school system following Hurricane Katrina that resulted in the majority of the schools being taken over by Baton Rouge and turned over to charter schools — is often skewered for a chronically underperforming student body, charter schools are guilty of their own quick-triggered dismissal of students.
The Big Easy is rather breezy with its expulsion rates: As previously reported by The American Independent, the rate of expulsion among RSD students in 2008 was ten times the national average. Suspensions were also extremely high, with 29 percent of RSD students losing at least one instructional day — over four times the national average. The punitive landscape is exacerbated further by the number of security personnel in RSD schools. The year before Katrina, the city-wide school district Orleans Parish School Board spent (according to according to a 2010 report from the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative) $46 per student on security. The first full year of RSD in 2006-2007 saw that number soar to $2,100. And though that figure went down in 2008-2009, it was still nearly $700 per student.
The reasons students are dismissed are often egregious and can have a deleterious effect on a child’s long-term academic prospects. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported on a U.S. Department of Justice study that found abusive punishment inflicted on a student by school authorities increases the child’s risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder five-fold. The SPLC document continued:
An over-reliance on these disciplinary methods can lead to the loss of valuable learning time, while contributing significantly to dropout rates. The Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that Louisiana loses more than $6.9 billion annually in wages as a result of policies that push students out of school before graduation.
The degree to which race and class factor into disciplinary measures is also highlighted by SPLC:
• In RSD schools, 98% of students are African American and 79% of students are low income. RSD students are suspended at a rate that is more than three times the rate of suspension in neighboring, mostly white, affluent school districts.
• In St. Tammany Parish, where only 18.5% of students are African American and 42.5% are low-income, only 8% of students were suspended.
• In St. Charles Parish, where only 36.4% of students are African American and 45.1% are low-income, only 4.1% of students were suspended from school.
Charter schools expel, suspend and fine students for being late or snacking
Charter schools in the city, motivated by a desire to demonstrate high student-proficiency numbers according to state tests, use both selective admissions processes and implement codes of conduct that allow them to dismiss students not making the academic cut, says Lance Hill, a former professor of cultural studies who now heads the Southern Institute for Education and Research.
“Most of the charters enroll students by way of lottery to exclude high-needs, high-costs students,” he begins. “Yet a lot of the selectivity is after the admissions process — they use minor excuses for expulsion in case they enroll low-performing students.”
Research on Reforms (ROR), a collection of education scholars critical of the charter movement, and Learning Matters, an education reporting unit regularly featured on PBS, provided the legal justification and details of New Orleans charter school dismissal policies in a report on the ROR website. What follows is a sampling of their findings, along with original reporting by TAI.
At Lafayette Academy, “Removal of food from cafeteria” “Lying/falsehood,” “Sleeping in class” and “Leaving classroom without teacher’s permission,” along with 48 other infractions are described as risking “an orderly environment for learning” and can lead to suspension or expulsion, according to the school handbook.
Miller-McCoy Academy for Mathematics and Business also warnsstudents and parents cutting class, school, detention and related mandatory school events can lead to suspension or expulsion. Other offenses that warrant out-of-class dismissal include possession of electronics and printed text deemed vulgar or profane. The handbook also states items confiscated can be held by the school permanently, irrespective of costs and fees.
According to the 2010 handbook of the New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy, a child with 12 unexcused absences for the year can lead to the school reporting the parent to the Louisiana Department of Social Services. Hill says the school included the ‘can’ only recently, meaning prior to the switch, the school did report parents to child services.
KIPP Central City Primary appears to be the most draconian: The handbook explains five or more instances of the student being tardy or absent can result in a $250 fine, an official police report, a summons to perform 25 hours of community service by the parent, guardian or child or permanent removal from the school. If a child is missing from school for twenty consecutive days, even with parental notification, that child is automatically withdrawn from the school.
Charles Roemer, an RSD committee chair and member of the Louisiana Board of Early and Secondary Education, said in an early-June public meeting that, “The charter school determines what they can and cannot do autonomously. So that is their decision, their discipline policy, their expulsion policy, their attendance policies, which can be determined at a school by school basis for charter schools.”
In a follow-up question that asked if state law permits that type of autonomy, he said: “It is consistent with the Louisiana Charter School Law. That’s what it is consistent with. It is. Absolutely.”
If more experienced teachers keep students calm — do better test scores follow?
Given the increase in disciplinary punishment meted out in New Orleans schools, what changed after the storm? Some could point to poverty as an excuse for ramping up security in the playgrounds and hallways, but the leading indicator of low-income status in schools, qualifying for reduced lunch programs, hardly changed enough since the antediluvian period to warrant constant surveillance.
In 2004, before the state put the city’s school system through a tectonic shift and wound up with an archipelago comprising dozens of self-governing academies (and the abrupt dissolution of the collective bargaining agreement between teachers and the city,resulting in 8,500 layoffs), 77 percent of Orleans Parish students qualified for the lunch programs; 89 percent of New Orleans public school students are eligible today.
But while poverty increased, the experience level of teachers took a turn in the opposite direction, and with it, a talent for managing at-risk pupils.
“There is a saying in teaching if you cannot manage your classroom, there’s no way you can transfer your knowledge,” begins Davina Allen, a Teach For America alumna in New Orleans currently earning a post secondary degree in educational leadership. “If you’re struggling with behavioral issues, then there’s a very good chance you’re not teaching well.”
TAI spoke to Allen about the tandem force of keeping teachers in schools over a longer period of time and how a high turnover of labor in education hobbles the community.
“No one is saying all old teachers are better, but the new paradigm is that you don’t want veteran teachers around” is flawed, she said.
According to an internal document from the American Federation of Teachers obtained by TAI that uses 2008-2009 Times Picayune teacher experience data in New Orleans, experience matters. For RSD schools, which tend to perform poorly, 42 percent of teachers in K-8 classrooms have less than two years of experience. One in six eighth-grade students are proficient in math. At Orleans Parish, which was spared a handful of schools following the state takeover of schools in the city, thirteen percent of teachers had less than two years of experience and two out of three eighth-graders were proficient in math.
The class and race criticisms Dr. Sanders imputed for the region’s schools are likely fueled by these findings, also from AFT:
• A typical White high school student attends a school in which 17 percent of the teachers are in their first or second year, but a typical African-American high
school student attends a school in which 37 percent of teachers are in their first or second year.
• For a typical African-American student in a state-run RSD high school, the vast majority of teachers (64 percent) are in their first or second year.
• A typical White student in grades K-8 eligible for free lunch attends a school in which only 15 percent of teachers are in their first or second year, but a typical free lunch-eligible African-American student attends a school in which double that percentage of teachers (29 percent) are similarly inexperienced.
• An African-American student who is ineligible for free lunch is more likely to have a first- or second-year teacher (21 percent) than a White student who is
eligible for free lunch (12 percent).
Part of the blame for the disparity in performance falls squarely on the shoulders of the Recovery School District at large. As a report on education strategies in New Orleans and other large cities from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform states, “Many respondents [New Orleans educators, school officials] felt that, with the possible exception of some charter and [Orleans Parish School District] schools, teachers and leaders overall are not getting the level of support they need either from administrators or the system at large.”
But RSD appears satisfied with its human resources model. This year alone, 250 experienced teachers will lose their jobs, with a cadre of Teach for America fellows filing through in replacement to help educate the some 40,000 students in New Orleans. That decision continues a trend of favoring younger educators.
An education scholar who requested not to be named offered a moral vignette: “Knowing how to manage behaviors with kids who watched their parents drown in Katrina is not something a French Literature major from Long Island can learn overnight.”
Information on student test scores and teacher experience levels in other cities buoys the data mining at AFT. A 2009 study out of the University of Virginia observed that teacher effectiveness continues to slope upward at a steep incline into the 21st year of being on the job. And while the instructor’s performance begins to sag in the subsequent decade of experience, the 30th year on the job posts higher levels of effectiveness than was achieved after ten years of teaching.
Is it fair to draw conclusions from low socio-economic status and high transfer rates among affected students? The writers of the OECD study do little to betray that notion, putting some of the onus on educators:
These results suggest that, in general, school systems that seek to cater to different students’ needs by having struggling students repeat grades or by transferring them to other schools do not succeed in producing superior overall results and, in some cases, reinforce socio-economic inequities. Teachers in these systems may have fewer incentives to work with struggling students if they know there is an option of transferring those students to other schools.