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This is NPR: Negatively Portraying Reform?

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For most of New Orleans’ 45,000 public school students, Monday marked the first day of a new school year and NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez was in town reporting for a new series of nprEd Team stories focusing on the city’s school reform efforts since Hurricane Katrina.

When I initially heard NPR was planning to focus on our city’s schools, I considered it a good thing. On the whole, I’ve found NPR’s coverage of education issues to be fair and balanced, and therefore saw the series as an opportunity to dispel some of the myths and misinformation out there about New Orleans’ education reform efforts. Unfortunately, my optimism evaporated after hearing Sanchez’s story – “New Orleans Charters Prepare For A Big First Day Of School” – on Tuesday’s edition of All Things Considered.

If you missed Claudio Sanchez’s report on New Orleans charter schools, you can listen to the story above. Below, I outline my three main reactions to the story, including how reporting on New Orleans schools becomes a casualty in the broader war over education reform.

NPR's education correspondent Claudio Sanchez

NPR’s education correspondent Claudio Sanchez

First Things First: Get the Facts Straight

The most egregious error in Sanchez’s story concerns the performance of charter schools in the Recovery School District (RSD). At one point, he claims that “80 percent of the district’s charter schools are D and F schools – among the worst in Louisiana.”

As Danielle Dreilinger at the Times-Picayune quickly pointed out, Sanchez’s numbers were flat-out wrong. Last year, 54% of RSD charters were graded B/C, 21% were graded D/F, and 25% were not issued a grade because they were newly opened schools.

After several listeners brought attention to the error on npr.org, as well as on Twitter, NPR posted a correction on the story’s webpage on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, Melissa Block issued an on-air correction and apology for the mistake.

To their credit, NPR posted a correction on the story's webpage regarding the charter school grades.

To their credit, NPR posted a correction on the story’s webpage regarding the charter school grades.

Later in the piece, Sanchez turns to David Cash, a veteran teacher at McDonogh #35 High School, who opposes charters. Cash says the claim that parents have choice in the post-Katrina school system is “an illusion” and is quoted as saying, “Parents are putting down first, second and third choices – they’re not getting them.”

Of course, Cash is referring to the school preference list parents fill out on OneApp, the RSD-run, city-wide system designed to ensure the enrollment process is fair and equitable for all families. Of the 11,000 students who applied to schools through OneApp earlier this year, over 80% received one of their top three choices. So in fact, most parents are getting one of the their top school choices, but listeners wouldn’t know it because Sanchez never challenges the veracity of Cash’s statement.

Be Wary of Affiliations/Conflicts of Sources

NPR’s Ethics Handbook includes an “Accuracy Checklist” with a bulleted series of “questions to ask before you call any story complete.” One of them is the following:

Do I need to check a source’s “fact” against what others are saying? Advocates can skew things in their favor.

I raise this because while Sanchez notes that “Cash has lived in New Orleans for 21 years and taught in both charter schools and a traditional public school,” he leaves out an important element of Cash’s résumé: he serves on the Executive Council of the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO).1 As I discussed in a previous post, UTNO and its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers, have been involved in recent attempts to malign the RSD’s efforts in New Orleans, including the filing of a specious civil rights complaint in May.

Sanchez mention that David Cash is a member of the Executive Council of the United Teachers of New Orleans.

Sanchez doesn’t mention that David Cash is a member of the Executive Council of the United Teachers of New Orleans.

Interestingly enough, Davina Allen, the other reform critic Sanchez interviews for his story, also plays a leading role in the local teachers union. Although we’re told Allen is a physics teacher at a local high school, it’s never mentioned that she also serves as Vice President of Professional Development for UTNO.

On the other hand, Sanchez does point out that,

“Allen was one of hundreds of teachers recruited by Teach For America – young men and women who arrived with high hopes of not just rebuilding, but improving the city schools – a task that even charter supporters like Kenneth Campbell can see is far from complete.”

Sanchez’s comment leaves one with the impression that the high hopes of those Teach For America corps members were later dashed when confronted with the challenges in New Orleans’ schools. And, perhaps that was the impression he got from Allen, who has recently been involved in organizing efforts against TFA.

Davina Allen, who has been involved in anti-TFA organizing, is hardly representative of the city's Teach For America corps members and alumni.

Davina Allen, who has been involved in anti-TFA organizing, is hardly representative of the city’s Teach For America corps members and alumni.

However, it should be noted that Allen’s perspective is hardly representative of those of us who have worked in New Orleans’ schools through Teach For America.2 In fact, TFA corps members and alumni have played – and continue to play – leading roles in both rebuilding and improving the city’s schools.

New Orleans as Proxy in the War Over Education

Since this piece aired, I was told by someone who spoke with Sanchez that he was “deeply chagrined” by the “80% D or F” error regarding charter school performance. And to be clear, I don’t have the impression that Sanchez is proactively trying to portray New Orleans’ post-Katrina reforms in a negative light.

However, Sanchez’s piece demonstrates why some in the city’s education reform community have developed a sense of “journalism fatigue.” I say this because New Orleans tends to serve as a proxy in the broader war over the direction of public education policy in this country. Often, journalists fly in and build their stories around the loudest, most extreme voices in the debate, folks who apply their preconceived notions and ideologies to the New Orleans context. There have also been plenty of examples of less scrupulous “journalists” who distort New Orleans’ story to further their political agendas. What’s more, the perspectives of those most impacted by the city’s reforms – i.e., public school students and parents – are seldom solicited, nonetheless heard in the reporting. As a result, national coverage of the city’s schools rarely manages to step back from the debate and objectively assess what’s worked, what hasn’t, and what still needs to be done.3

New Orleans’ education reform path over the past decade is complex and – like the city itself – uniquely its own. The question of whether NPR’s coverage of New Orleans schools will be able to reflect that reality is yet to be seen.


  1. Another element that isn’t noted is that Cash taught at G.W. Carver High School until it was phased out to make way for George Washington Carver Collegiate, the same charter school that is featured at the beginning of the story. 
  2. Full Disclosure: I was a 2002 TFA corps member in New Orleans and served as Davina Allen’s Program Director while on staff at Teach For America – Greater New Orleans. 
  3. One journalist who has generally done a good job at providing an honest, nuanced picture of the city’s reform efforts over the years is John Merrow and his team at Learning Matters

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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Robbie Evans
Robbie Evans

Peter, congratulations again on a fantastic piece of journalism. You are very well written, your research is impeccable and your conclusions are fair and on the mark. This kind of reporting is as good as it gets!

Robbie Evans

J.L
J.L

Also worth mentioning: McDonogh #35 was one of the schools that vigorously fought, and successfully bowed out of, the OneAp system that gives every applicant an equal chance at getting a seat of their choice. Teachers, parents, and students showed up at the school board meeting to protest giving everyone an equal chance to go to their school. Instead, school officials should get to select the students that would make their football team strong and contribute positively to their school environment, all while calling their school an open-enrollment school. The real “illusion” here is these selective schools who call themselves open-enrollment. They only want SOME parents to have choice.

Charters

Dear Board Members… An Open Letter To The Arkansas State Board Of Education

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On January 15th, I sent a letter to the members of the Arkansas State Board of Education to bring their attention to the troubling revelations about Einstein Charter Schools that have emerged over the past several months.

Last fall, the State Board of Education approved a proposal from Einstein to open a new charter school in Little Rock after Einstein officials assured board members that they would provide transportation to students. This was the same promise they made to the Orleans Parish School Board last year as part of their charter renewal agreement. As we now know, they cannot be be taken at their word.

For some reason, I never received a response from anyone on the board. Therefore, I’ve decided to publish my original letter, which I’ve reproduced in full below.


Dear Board Members,

In September, the Arkansas State Board of Education approved a proposal from Einstein Charter Schools of New Orleans to open a new K-3 school in Little Rock School District. Today, I am writing to urge you to reconsider that decision in light of a series of troubling revelations about Einstein that have emerged here in New Orleans in the intervening months.

On September 19th, just five days after SBOE approved Einstein’s charter application, the Orleans Parish School Board issued an official notice of non-compliance [see notice here] to Einstein’s CEO and board president for failing to provide bus transportation to students as required by the terms of their charter. District officials became aware of this breach-of-contract after a parent reported that Einstein had refused to provide yellow bus service for her two children (5 and 10 years old) and instead offered them public transit tokens. News reports subsequently revealed that Einstein had been refusing to provide bus transportation to dozens of students.

Six weeks later, on November 7th, Einstein was issued another notice of non-compliance [see notice here] by the Orleans Parish School Board for enrolling 26 students outside of OneApp, the city-wide enrollment system that assigns students to New Orleans’ public schools. In fact, the notice indicates that district officials previously investigated enrollment violations at Einstein in 2016 and had told administrators that the charter network needed to implement internal systems and procedures to ensure they were in compliance with the OneApp process.

These are serious violations that undermine the systems we have established to ensure that all children – regardless of race, socio-economic background, or disability status – have fair and equal access to our public schools. Since Hurricane Katrina, all of the city’s open enrollment schools – both charter and traditional – have been required to provide free bus transportation to children in pre-K through sixth grade, no matter where they live in the city. Moreover, the Orleans Parish School Board renewed Einstein’s charter last year on the condition that school provide transportation to its students.

In 2012, district officials launched OneApp to simplify the enrollment process by allowing parents to fill out only one application in which they rank schools in order of preference. These preferences are then fed into an algorithm developed by a Nobel Prize-winning economist, which in turn, assigns students to schools. OneApp ensures that schools cannot engage in so-called “creaming” or turn away students with disabilities. All schools are required to participate in OneApp and all are prohibited from enrolling students outside of the system.

Nevertheless, Einstein’s leaders have responded to the school board’s warnings with outright defiance. As a result, the district is now seeking a court order to force Einstein to comply with the busing requirement. According to The Lens, a local non-profit news outlet, Einstein CEO Shawn Toranto responded to the OneApp non-compliance notice with a letter stating they had “simply accepted children whose parents had chosen one of its schools — a hallmark of the charter movement.” She has also taken to the pages of the New Orleans Advocate in an unconvincing attempt to deflect criticism of the school, as if the rules should not apply to them.

Finally, I want to make something very clear: I am outspoken supporter of charter schools. As a former charter school board member and teacher, I have seen the impact that high-quality charters can have on the lives of children. At the same time, I also firmly believe that charter schools are only successful when they adhere to clear operational and academic standards. Given their blatant disregard for the terms of their charter contracts in New Orleans (and the possibility that they could lose their charter if they continue to defy the district), I would once again urge you to reconsider Einstein’s expansion to Little Rock.

If you would like to read more about Einstein’s charter violations:

Otherwise, thank you for your time and please feel free to reach out to me with any questions you may have.

Sincerely,

Peter C. Cook
New Orleans, LA

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Charters

All About The Kids? Calcasieu Teacher Plays Politics At The Expense Of Students, Taxpayers

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For more than a year, Calcasieu Parish special education teacher Ganey Arsement has been on a self-appointed crusade against education reform in Louisiana. He has blasted charters, standardized testing, Common Core, teacher evaluation, and yours truly on his blog, as well as on social media. He has worked to coordinate his attacks with the state’s teachers unions, particularly the Louisiana Association of Educators, and has sought to ingratiate himself with anti-reform politicians like Gov. John Bel Edwards and former State Rep. Brett Geymann.

Arsement with Gov. John Bel Edwards and former State Rep. Brett Geymann.

Arsement has also become an increasingly visible presence in Baton Rouge, where he has spent untold hours attending meetings of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) and lobbying in the hallways of the State Capitol. In recent months, Arsement has turned his guns on State Superintendent of Education John White – the bête noire of Louisiana’s reform opponents – whom he wants replaced. After failing to convince legislators that the law required them to reconfirm White (who has been on a month-to-month contract since the beginning of 2016), Arsement filed a petition in state court late last month that seeks to remove him from office.

Through it all, Arsement has portrayed himself as a selfless defender of public education who is fighting the nefarious schemes of greedy “corporate” reformers. However, a closer examination reveals that his political adventures have instead come at the expense of students and taxpayers.

Unethical and possibly worse

Official attendance records provided to me by Calcasieu Parish Schools Superintendent Karl Bruchhaus show that Arsement missed 16.5 days of work – more than three weeks of school – over the course of the 2016-17 school year.

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Screen-Shot-2017-06-10-at-02.52.38
Arsement's absences and Calcasieu Parish School Board holidays.

According to Bruchhaus, all but one of these days (May 9, 2017) were recorded as sick leave. State law permits teachers to take two days of personal leave per year without loss of pay. The law also allows teachers to take ten days of sick leave per year due to illness or other emergencies without loss of pay. Unused sick leave can be carried over from one year to the next.

In Arsement’s case, it is clear that he took paid sick leave on many days when he was actually playing politics in Baton Rouge. Moreover, you don’t have to take my word for it, as he admits as much several times on his blog. Here are just a few examples…

What this means is that Arsement was off doing political advocacy while his special needs students were left with a substitute (who also had to be paid) and taxpayers foot the bill. I would venture to guess that most people would find that unacceptable, especially the parents of his students.

Missing absences?

If that’s not bad enough, I’ve also identified at least one day – and possibly two days – where his attendance record says he was working, but he was actually in Baton Rouge.

Several sources have confirmed that Arsement was at the Capitol during school hours on May 2nd. Nevertheless, his attendance record does not mark him absent on that date. Why that absence is missing is unclear, but since teachers verify their timesheets, the error should have been corrected.

The second day in question is May 8th when, by his own admission, he proudly delivered a petition calling for the removal of John White to the office of Senate President John Alario. Although he does not indicate when he made that delivery, one assumes he didn’t hop in his car immediately when school ended at 3:10pm to drive two hours to Baton Rouge to drop it off. In any case, Arsement is not marked absent on May 8th, either.

Exactly why reform is needed

When Arsement claims education reform supporters “demonize” teachers, what he means is that they actually expect teachers to do the work they’re paid to do. While this may seem draconian to someone who can apparently skip entire days of work and get away with it, this is not a radical concept to most of us. When taxpayers hand over their hard-earned money to pay for public education, they expect teachers to teach. When parents send their children off to school, they expect their kids will actually spend the day learning. When Arsement instead takes a bunch of sick days to lobby lawmakers for lower standards and less accountability, he’s breaking that social contract and possibly the law. Worst of all, he’s doing a tremendous disservice to the young people in his classroom – kids who need the most help.

In his effort to rollback Louisiana’s education reform policies, Arsement has inadvertently provided a real-life illustration of why they are so desperately needed. For that at least, I thank him.

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Peter C. Cook
Peter C. Cook @petercook
New Orleans, Louisiana peterccook.com
Education Reformer • New Orleanian • Progressive • Democrat • Proud TFA alum • Check out my new side project: @retortonline
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