Thursday, June 18, 2015

Mucking up the data on post-Katrina New Orleans: A tale of two headlines.

"No Excuses" N.O. charter  (Mario Tama / Getty Images)

In our doc seminar at DePaul, my students like to compare and contrast quantitative (statistical) and qualitative (interpretive) methods. Some argue that statistical research is more "objective" while qualitative research, ie. ethnography, participatory action research, etc... is open to interpretation (actually requires it). But every once in a while, real life jumps up and mucks up the data.

For example, here's headline on a story latest study of school improvement in post-Katrina New Orleans. The report comes from Tulane's Cowan Institute whose research has been touted by numerous news agencies, charter school support groups and the Louisiana Department of Education.
NOLA schools show dramatic improvement post-Katrina
Here's the headline above a similar story on the same study. This one is published in EdWeek.
 10 Years After Katrina: New Orleans School System Still in Flux, Report Says
Remember, they're reporting on the same statistical study based on hard numbers on test scores and dropout rates. So which is it? Dramatic improvement or still in flux?  Or both? Can the same numbers tell two different stories depending on whose reviewing the data? Of course.

After Katrina
Readers might recall the last study published by the Cowan Institute in November, 2014, touting the great gains supposedly made since the hurricane by the Recovery School District's privately-run charter schools. But a scandal erupted and the study had to be retracted when it was learned that the hired-gun researchers had used a "value-added" model to predict academic performance at 25 high schools, based on students' socio-economic standing and past testing history. We were told that the researchers' conclusion -- that many high school-ers do better than expected, given their background -- was inaccurate due to their flawed methods.

According to reform critic and ed historian Diane Ravitch:
 The sponsors of the district from a public school district to an all-charter district celebrate the amazing progress that followed the elimination of public schools and the teachers’ union.  
Because so many hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to “prove” that privatization works, we will see many more such declarations of success.
On the other hand, critics say that none of the data is trustworthy. They say the state department of education and the Recovery School District (the all-charter district) manipulate statistics.
Ravitch goes on to quote Mercedes Schneider, a Louisiana high school teacher with a doctorate in research methods and statistics, who has been relentless in dissecting the narrative produced by apologists for the RSD. In her latest post, Schneider looks at the tale of graduation rates.
The Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) hides information and releases delayed or partial information in an effort to keep the public ill-informed regarding the state of education in Louisiana and especially as concerns the now-all-charter Recovery School District (RSD) in New Orleans, which White and other well-positioned, well-financed privatizing reform cronies actively endeavor to market as a national model. 
What the RSD is best at, she says, is marketing and sales.
 So much for objectivity vs. interpretation.

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