"Fix the City Schools" lacks meaningful research to support its claims
Report citing New Orleans as a model for changing urban education ignores key facts and makes faulty arguments, reviewer finds
EAST LANSING, Mi., (April 15, 2010) – A recent Reason Foundation report points to the post-Katrina school system in New Orleans as evidence to support massive decentralizing of urban school systems. But a Think Twice review of the report concludes that it lacks evidence for its claims and ignores key facts about the New Orleans situation that would undermine its case.
The Reason Foundation report, Fix the City Schools: Moving All Schools to Charter-Like Autonomy, was reviewed by Katrina Bulkley, an education professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
Under the plan advocated in Fix the City Schools, schools in urban districts would operate with autonomy and accountability similar to charter schools. School districts would manage a "portfolio" of these autonomous schools, and they would receive funding based on enrollment. The report draws heavily on the author's claims that the post-Katrina New Orleans schools, a highly decentralized system in which 60 percent of students attend charter schools and the traditional public schools have much greater autonomy, have experienced remarkably improved student achievement.
Bulkley's review of this report identifies a number of flaws. She notes that it relies primarily on advocacy articles and anecdotal media reports; the report is unable to provide readers with any valid, generalizable research supporting the claims of beneficial outcomes. At times, Bulkley notes, the report "addresses issues that have been assessed in high-quality research, but neglects to include that research or its findings." For instance, while Fix the City Schools asserts that closing schools can lift achievement, Bulkley points to research that undermines those assertions. Similarly, the report ignores large-scale studies that show charter schools do not, on average, improve student achievement.
Additionally, in making the New Orleans story the centerpiece of its evidence for the "portfolio management" approach, the report ignores several key facts: (a) the New Orleans district was already showing steady improvement before the post-Katrina reforms; (b) other districts in the state not devastated by the hurricane have continued to improve in the post-Katrina era as well; (c) Katrina led to a disproportionate exodus of poor families from the district, where enrollment is less than two-thirds of pre-Katrina levels; and (d) post-Katrina resources for the city's public schools have been significantly greater than before the hurricane. Bulkley does not disparage the New Orleans schools' possible improvement, but she cautions that without much more study, it cannot be used as a blueprint for school reforms elsewhere.
"This report offers no strong evidence in support of the proposals it advocates," Bulkley concludes. While it might offer advocates of its approach a useful guide to implementing the reforms it proposes, the absence of meaningful research to support its conclusions "limits the use of this piece for policymakers or others trying to determine the best research-based strategies for improving urban schools."
Find Katrina Bulkley's review and a link to Fix the City Schools on the web at: www.greatlakescenter.org
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