Sunday, July 24, 2011

New Orleans schools: A nexus of poverty, high expulsion rates, hyper-security and novice teachers

New Orleans schools: A nexus of poverty, high expulsion rates, hyper-security and novice teachers

Ohanian Comment: As I read this horrific, documented account of how children are treated in New Orleans schools, I find it hard to grasp that this is happening here. These are our children.

Follow the hot links in this well researched article.

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Learning Matters is mentioned briefly. I couldn't resist posting one of the transcripts on their 'study' of teaching in New Orleans--referred to briefly in the article. Look at who supports them.

NOTE: Produced by Learning Matters Inc. for PBS NewsHour July 7th, 2009
Paul Vallas in New Orleans
Episode 10 - The TFA Effect

Does being bright, young and energetic qualify one to be a good teacher? New Orleans Superintendent Paul Vallas seems to think so.

About 20% of Vallas' teachers are novices from groups like Teach for America and other organizations that recruit top graduates and send them into some of the nation’s toughest schools, with just 8 weeks of training, or less.

Vallas believes that TFA teachers bring the enthusiasm and idealism needed to fix a district plagued by academic failure. But are these teachers prepared to succeed in the most challenging classrooms?


JIM LEHRER: Now a plan to use rookie teachers in one of the toughest school districts in
the United States. The NewsHour's special correspondent for education, John Merrow, has
been chronicling the efforts to improve public schools in New Orleans and Washington,
D.C. Tonight, he looks at how some novice teachers fared in New Orleans this year.
TEACHER: Say what you mean. You can do better than that. I know what you're trying to
say, but tell me what you're actually trying to tell me.
JOHN MERROW: Almost everyone agrees that teachers are the single most important
factor in a child's education.
TEACHER: We're seeing some really good ideas, some really interesting ideas.
JOHN MERROW: But good ones can be hard to find. Teach for America, or TFA, believes
it has the solution: recruit top college graduates for a two-year stint in the nation's toughest
public schools.
PAUL VALLAS, New Orleans superintendent: We are rebuilding a public school system
from the ground up.
JOHN MERROW: New Orleans Superintendent Paul Vallas is one of Teach for America's
biggest fans.
PAUL VALLAS: They bring an extraordinary work ethic. They're very innovative. They're
very creative. They're brilliant. They have high expectations for the kids.
JOHN MERROW: Vallas is hoping TFA will help close the achievement gap in his
Recovery School District, where 65 percent of students are at least a year behind. Since his
arrival two years ago, Vallas' district has hired 128 Teach for America members. They and
other so-called fast-tracked teachers now make up 20 percent of his staff.
Although they have only eight weeks of training, Vallas believes their intelligence and
enthusiasm more than compensate for their lack of experience. Can this be true? What
Produced by Learning Matters, Inc. for PBS NewsHour
For questions, comments, or more information, visit Or contact us
via email at
impact do novice teachers have on troubled schools?
Motivation to Teach
DANIEL HOFFMAN, teacher, G.W. Carver High School: I think it's vital for me to
JOHN MERROW: Yale graduate Daniel Hoffman was hired to teach math at George
Washington Carver, one of the district's most challenging high schools.
DANIEL HOFFMAN: In my ordinary life, if I fail, I'm the only one failing. If I fail in this
classroom, all my kids fail. That's what motivates me to succeed.
JOHN MERROW: Princeton graduate Jeylan Erman was also hired to teach math at Carver.
JEYLAN ERMAN, Teacher, G.W. Carver High School: The whole aura of the city is all
about change, all about reform. I never really believed that there could be such an energy
and excitement for change until I came here.
JOHN MERROW: Lindsay Ordower, a graduate of Mount Holyoke, was hired to teach
science at Frederick Douglass, another low-performing high school.
LINDSAY ORDOWER, teacher, Frederick Douglass High School: What I'm looking
forward the most to is actually getting to know my students. I don't want to know them by
their handwriting; I actually want to know who they are.
All right. So science is all about investigation, OK?
JOHN MERROW: From day one, Lindsay seemed to be a natural in the classroom.
LINDSAY ORDOWER: It's really important that we know what's in the water that we're
drinking. We can't just trust someone else's opinion.
I think today went well.
You want to try one? I knew you would.
I did stay on task. I accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish. They're on schedule
for where I wanted them to be.
DANIEL HOFFMAN: Everyone has a seat? Start working on your worksheet.
Idealism put to the test
JOHN MERROW: However, Daniel's idealism was put to the test from the start.
DANIEL HOFFMAN: Everyone familiar with a liter? Give me a thumbs-up if you're
familiar with a liter, thumbs-down if you're not. I need everybody to give me either a
thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.
Produced by Learning Matters, Inc. for PBS NewsHour
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I have not had as much success as I'd like to have. When I'm in the classroom, I'm
thinking, "Oh, my god, what am I doing?"
JEYLAN ERMAN: Anyone want to share what they wrote in their power-ups?
JOHN MERROW: Jeylan also had trouble connecting with students.
JEYLAN ERMAN: I thought I'd come into teaching being naturally good at it, because I
care so much about students. I automatically thought that, because I care so much, I had to
be really great. It's not like that.
JOHN MERROW: A few months into the year, discipline continued to be Daniel's major
stumbling block.
DANIEL HOFFMAN: Kids getting up, walking around, walking out of class, you name it. I
get things thrown at me all the time. A garbage can was thrown at me once.
I need you to go back in class.
STUDENT: What are you telling me for?
JOHN MERROW: Is this what you expected?
DANIEL HOFFMAN: Yes and no. I knew that I was coming into one of the most difficult
educational situations in the country. A lot of these kids have seen murder, seen Katrina, and
so there's almost nothing that they're scared of. Dealing with that when I am supposed to be
in a position of authority, in some ways, my hands are tied.
JEYLAN ERMAN: I want all of you to pass your homework to the front. Pass your
homework to the front. Anybody else?
Demands of the job
JOHN MERROW: The demands of long hours preparing for and then teaching her classes
had Jeylan hitting the wall.
JEYLAN ERMAN: It's been really, really hard for me to muster up the energy to get up and
go into class with that idealism and optimism that brought me down to New Orleans in the
first place.
JOHN MERROW: Jeylan's low point came when her class started a petition to get
her fired.
JEYLAN ERMAN: I remember sitting at the corner of my room, on my desk, and, like,
literally not yet crying, but, like, on the verge of tears.
Produced by Learning Matters, Inc. for PBS NewsHour
For questions, comments, or more information, visit Or contact us
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LINDSAY ORDOWER: Kevin? Where's Kevin?
JOHN MERROW: For Lindsay, our most confident teacher, the biggest problem
was attendance.
LINDSAY ORDOWER: Is Walter here today?
I have 26 students on my roster, but on any given day I can expect about 17.
JOHN MERROW: You have 10 right now.
JOHN MERROW: One just came in.
LINDSAY ORDOWER: It slows my teaching down a lot. I feel like I'm always playing
All right. Who was not here yesterday and needs a handout on metals versus non- metals?
JEYLAN ERMAN: So we're not just dealing with negative X. We're dealing with negative
1X, just like we've been trying for the last few days.
JOHN MERROW: By January, Jeylan's class seemed to be turning around, and the
student petition was long forgotten.
JEYLAN ERMAN: I was so adamant that I wasn't going to fail from the beginning, and that
led to many different ideas. And when one wouldn't work, I would try another one. When
that one didn't work, I kept going, going and going, until I finally found what worked for me
and felt natural to me.
I'm going to pass out another worksheet that I need you to finish, good practice for you all.
LINDSAY ORDOWER: What do we see about body color for all three of these groups of
frogs? Are they somewhat the same?
JOHN MERROW: Lindsay continued to improve, and her students seemed to benefit.
WAYNE JONES, senior, Frederick Douglass High School: I can tell she was like a
pretty cool teacher. I had a real problem with science; she made it easy for me. I could
understand it.
Produced by Learning Matters, Inc. for PBS NewsHour
For questions, comments, or more information, visit Or contact us
via email at
MICHAEL MATTIO, senior, Frederick Douglass High School: Out of all the teachers
I knew in past years, she was the first teacher who ever told me, if I need a recommendation,
come see me, try to help me through college, try to help me find a college. That's the first
teacher who did that.
WAYNE JONES: And she pushed us -- the way she pushed us beyond our natural
bounds, beyond our natural limits.
LINDSAY ORDOWER: Very proud of my kids. I think they're doing very hard work.
Yesterday, all of our re-testers got their test results back. I think at least 80 percent
of my students said they passed.
DANIEL HOFFMAN: All right. Let me take a step back, because I realize that there's
a little bit of confusion about this activity.
JOHN MERROW: However, Daniel never hit his stride. He continued to struggle, and so
did his class.
DANIEL HOFFMAN: Eighteen centimeters. You did that. You divide it into 100 and
you take 18 of those.
The one thing that really gets to me is when my kids tell me I'm a bad teacher, because I
know to a certain extent it's true. It's hard, because you see, you know, something that you
think you've taught a dozen times, the same exact problem, with none of the numbers
changed, I gave it on the test, and a lot of the kids didn't -- still didn't know how to do it.
Learning at the expense of students
JOHN MERROW: At year's end, we invited the teachers to dinner. They brought two other
first-year Teach for America colleagues, Zitsi Mirakhur and Bayoji Akingbola. We asked
them to respond to a common criticism of TFA. Are you learning to teach at the expense of
these kids who actually need experienced teachers?
DANIEL HOFFMAN: The kids are the only reason we're here. We're not here for the
paycheck. We're not here for anything else like that. We're here for the kids, and we're
putting our all into it.
BAYOJI AKINGBOLA, teacher, Frederick Douglass High School: We stay up until like 1, 2
o'clock, stay at school 'til 7 o'clock working on lesson plans, and that energy, which might
not be there if you've been in the system for 10 or 15 years, we use as a tool to make positive
JOHN MERROW: So the energy outweighs your inexperience?
Produced by Learning Matters, Inc. for PBS NewsHour
For questions, comments, or more information, visit Or contact us
via email at
BAYOJI AKINGBOLA: Yes. Yes. It compensates for it.
JEYLAN ERMAN: Absolutely.
JOHN MERROW: Did you ever find yourself triaging? "Well, I don't have enough
energy to help everyone here, so I'm really going to work on these two"?
TEACHER: Definitely.
TEACHER: Absolutely.
TEACHER: Definitely.
TEACHER: Absolutely.
JEYLAN ERMAN: And if you were to take the entire classroom by storm and try to
tackle all the issues, I mean, I don't think any one of us is capable of that.
LINDSAY ORDOWER: It's not always in your control. Like, I had a student acting up a
few weeks ago that had never really -- he would sleep during class all the time. And I find
out that he's homeless. There's no way that me being nicer or stricter or more motivational is
going to change the fact that he doesn't have a home.
ZITSI MIRAKHUR, teacher, G.W. Carver High School: I think all of us, our collective
society, has to address issues of poverty, very fundamentally, of health care. But we can't just
say that we're going to fix the school system and everything will be OK.
JOHN MERROW: But Vallas is adamant that smart young teachers are the answer,
even if their commitment is short term.
PAUL VALLAS: I want to have a steady flow of the best and the brightest from the
colleges and universities into our teaching corps. And if they stay for two or three or
four years and then move on, so be it.
JOHN MERROW: But Daniel Hoffman won't have a second or a third year. At the end of
his first year, Carver High School dismissed him.
DANIEL HOFFMAN: It's probably the right thing, but I don't know if -- I'm still
wrapping my head around it in a lot of ways.
JOHN MERROW: Daniel is the rare exception. Both Lindsay and Jeylan were asked to stay
for their second year, as are almost all TFA recruits. Sixty percent stay a third year.
Vallas himself originally signed a two-year contract, but buoyed by improved graduation
rates and increases in scores on state tests, he's signed on for a third year and promises to
hire more new teachers for the fall.

Reader Response: Your story today regarding the young Teach for America college students hired in New Orleans shows me that newscasters know as little about education as politicians do. Education would be better if politicians and newscasters stayed out of education. I say that as a retired high school teacher.

Why wasn’t the question ever raised or ever mentioned to these "America's brightest and best" that seasoned teachers spend 15 hour days staying up to 1AM grading papers, grading more papers and doing lesson plans on weekends, grading tests, projects, notebooks, and countless other things over holiday breaks? Everyone acts as if they know the life of an English teacher or a Science teacher in a high school or any age group. Good teachers work their butts off. The job demands it. The lives of the students demand it. All of you, with your lack of understanding and indecent reporting which is too often dishonest, as with dishonest politicians control work to keep our schools down, which in the long run is to the benefit of corporate capitalism.

Have you ever noticed how teachers are never the ones asked to fix the schools? We are always told what to do!

This program [Learning Matters] was made possible by support from the Annenberg, The Eli and Edythe Broad, Bill & Melinda Gates, William and Flora Hewlett and Wallace Foundations.
By Mikhail Zinshteyn

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 dramatic deconstruction 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 warns students 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." [Why can't this scholar put his name behind his statement?]

    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.

    — Mikhail Zinshteyn
    American Independent


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