A Major VAMbarrassment in New Orleans

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Tulane University’s Cowen Institute for Education Initiatives, in what is now being called a “high-profile embarrassment,” is apologizing for releasing a high-profile report based on faulty research. Their report, that at one point seemed to have successfully VAMboozle folks representing numerous Louisiana governmental agencies and education non-profits, many of which emerged after Hurricane Katrina, has since been pulled from its once prevalent placement on the institute’s website.

It seems that on October 1, 2014 the institute released a report titled “Beating-the-Odds: Academic Performance and Vulnerable Student Populations in New Orleans Public High Schools.” The report was celebrated widely (see, for example, here) in that it “proved” that students in post-Hurricane Katrina (largely charter) schools, despite the disadvantages they faced prior to the school-based reforms triggered by Katrina, were now “beating the odds, while “posting better test scores and graduation rates than predicted by their populations,” thanks to these reforms. Demographics were no longer predicting students’ educational destinies, and the institute had the VAM-based evidence to prove it.

Institute researchers also “found” that New Orleans charter schools, in which over 80% of all New Orleans are now educated, were to have been substantively helping students “beat the odds,” accordingly. Let’s just say the leaders of the charter movement were all over this one, and also allegedly involved.

To some, however, the report’s initial findings (the findings that have now been retracted) did not come as much of a surprise. It seems the Cowen Institute and the city’s leading charter school incubator, New Schools for New Orleans, literally share office space; that is, they are literally “in office space” together.

To read more about this, as per the research of Kristen Buras (Associate Professor at Georgia State), click here. Mercedes Schneider on a recent post she also wrote about this noted that the “Cowen Institute at Tulane University has been promoting the New Orleans Charter Miracle [emphasis added]” and consistently trying “to sell the ‘transformed’ post-Katrina education system in New Orleans” since 2007 (two years post Katrina). Thanks also go out to Mercedes Schneider as before the report was brought down, she downloaded the report. This report can still be accessed there, or also directly here: Beating-the-Odds for those who want to dive into this further.

Anyhow, and as per another news article recently released about this mess, the Cowen Institute’s Executive Director John Ayers removed the report because the research within it was “inaccurate,” and institute “[o]fficials determined the report’s methodology was flawed, making its conclusions inaccurate.” The report is not be reissued. The institute also intends to “thoroughly examine and strengthen [the institute’s] internal protocols” because of this and to make sure that this does not happen again. The released report was not appropriately internally reviewed, as per the institute’s official response, although external review would have certainly been more appropriate here. Similar situations capturing why internal AND more importantly external review are so very important have been the focus of prior blog posts here, here, and here.

But in this report, that listed Debra Vaughan (the Institute’s Director of Research) and Patrick Sims (the Institute’s Senior Research Analysts) as the lead researchers, they used what they called a VAM – BUT what they did in terms of analyses was certainly not akin to an advanced or “sophisticated” VAM (not that using a VAM would have revealed entirely more accurate and/or less flawed results). Instead, they used a simpler regression approach to reach (or confirm) their conclusions. While Ayers “would not say what piece of the methodology was flawed,” we can all be quite certain it was the so-called “VAM” that was the cause of this serious case of VAMbarrassment.

As background, and from a related article about the Cowen Institute and one of its new affiliates – Douglas Harris, who has also written a book about VAMs but positioned VAMs in a more positive light than I did in my book, but who is also not listed as a direct or affiliated author on the report – the situation in New Orleans post Katrina is as follows:

Before the storm hit in August 2005, New Orleans public schools were like most cities and followed the 100-year-old “One Best System.” A superintendent managed all schools in the school district, which were governed by a locally-elected school board. Students were taught by certified and unionized teachers and attended schools mainly based on where they lived.

But that all changed when the hurricane shuttered most schools and scattered students around the nation. That opened the door for alternative forms of public education, such as charter schools that shifted control from the Orleans Parish School Board into the hands of parents and a state agency, the Recovery School District.

In the 2012-13 school year, 84 percent of New Orleans public school students attended charter schools…New Orleans [currently] leads the nation in the percentage of public school students enrolled in charter schools, with the next-highest percentages in Washington D.C. and Detroit (41 percent in each).

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