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Anya Kamenetz of NPR described a new study of choice in New Orleans that found that most parents picked schools based on proximity and extracurricular programs, not academics.
The charter school movement is built on the premise that increased competition among schools will sort the wheat from the chaff.
It seems self-evident that parents, empowered by choice, will vote with their feet for academically stronger schools. As the argument goes, the overall effect should be to improve equity as well: Lower-income parents won’t have to send their kids to an under-resourced and underperforming school just because it is the closest one to them geographically.
But an intriguing new study from the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans suggests that parent choice doesn’t always work that way. Parents, especially low-income parents, actually show strong preferences for other qualities like location and extracurriculars — preferences that can outweigh academics.
Mercedes Schneider, who has written frequently about New Orleans, took issue with a different aspect of the study, its claim that low-income families had greater access to high-performing schools, and that higher-performing schools moved into low-income neighborhoods following Hurricane Katrina.
She says that what the study calls progress is probably examples of “gaming the system” and recalculating what produces a higher letter grade for a school (links are found in the original post):
First, in their comparison of school performance scores pre-Katrina to post-Katrina, Harris is aware that the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) even awards some schools points for students whose scores are not proficient on state tests.
Consider this statement from the Harris/Larsen OneApp analysis:
After Katrina, the lowest-income families had greater access to schools with high test scores. School bus transportation systems expanded, average test scores increased across the city, and schools with higher test scores were more likely to locate near lower-income neighborhoods. Pre-Katrina public schools zoned for the highest-income neighborhoods were 1.3 letter grades higher than schools zoned for low-income neighborhoods; the difference between the lowest- and highest-income neighborhoods dropped to just a half letter grade considering the nearest schools after Katrina.
It seems that Harris and Larsen are equating higher school performance scores with higher test scores. As noted above, the LDOE incorporation of “bonus points” for non-proficient students boosted school performance scores, and RSD benefited from this practice.
Also, not sure how useful the above pre- to post-Katrina school grade comparison is given that there is no anchor. That is, the “closing if the letter grade gap” could mean that the highest letter grades have fallen. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the highest remained stationary while the lowest rose. Also, the highest-to-lowest income ratios are not necessarily the same pre-Katrina versus post-Katrina.
The degree to which the letter grade “gap closure” is an artifact of the post-Katrina mixture of income levels brought about by open enrollment remains unclear.
Moreover, school letter grades and performance scores serve as a fine example of high-stakes numbers easily gamed. Whereas Harris and Larsen re-scaled performance scores to compare pre-Katrina with post-Katrina school scoring outcomes, since 2011-12, the public has only “seen” the letters A B C D F and not the alterations in scoring that make those letters not directly comparable from one year to the next. Therefore, in 2011-12, a school with a D could have had a C in 2012-13 simply due to changes in calculation. However, the public “sees” the grade as “improved.” A deception.
Additionally, Harris and Larsen comment that “very-low-income families also have greater access to schools with high average test scores.” However, even with inflated school performance scores, most RSD schools continue to be rated as C, D, or F, the definition of a “failing school” by the original Louisiana voucher standard. The schools that have consistently been “high average test score” schools are those that were not taken over by the state post-Katrina and continue to be with the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB). General “access” to “higher average test score” schools might be “greater,” but it remains limited.
Next, Harris and Larsen note that “practical considerations” prevent parents from choosing higher-test-score schools. Indeed, it could be that so few A and B schools are available for parents to “choose,” especially given that many of these are selective-admissions schools, that the limited choice of a C school over a D school does not entice parents to choose to a greater degree based on academics.