So where did I leave off? My story is a little disjointed so I guess I will continue with that technique to further flesh out how I developed my points of view on various education issues. I was chatting with a reporter recently trying to put some pieces together to explain to her how I got to where I am today. Perhaps you would like to hear some of that?
Prior to John White’s arrival I applied for and was interviewed for a few higher profile level jobs. One of those was the head of Louisiana’s Department of Education Accountability department. I’d heard a number of stories about some political manipulation and fraudulent data reporting and I wanted to see if I could do something about that. I was friends with the previous head of the department and we’d discussed at some lengths some of the problems in his area. It was a high stress thankless sounding job for a couple thousand dollars a year more, that would probably doom anyone who took it to a life of jaded failure, but I was (perhaps foolishly) willing to give it a go. I’d worked with many of the folks in the accountability department on data audits, had my brain picked for the dropouts and graduate cohort calculations, and worked with their testing data and School Performance Score data for numerous federal reports and internal projects. While I did not land that job, (I think my lack of a PHD played a role there although I think it should have), nevertheless I stayed in touch with this area and their problems.
One of these problems was the existence of Shadow Schools. EBR and Superintendent Bernard Taylor is taking heat from John White and Senator Bodi White about moving students from one school to another to prevent RSD takeovers, but this is actually the intent of Reform. Is this any different than closing poor schools and transferring/busing all those students to higher performing schools so those schools can provide a buffer for the new students? The new students don’t end up learning anymore at their transplant schools that require longer bus rides and more crowded class rooms (and even hostile parents groups like the Local Schools for Local Children movement in South East Baton Rouge supported by both John and Bodi White that advocates carving a wealthier whiter enclave out of the heart of the city to wall off students evicted from struggling schools), they are simply scattered and concealed among larger disparate higher achieving populations. Iberville, St James and Jefferson have been moving students around on paper for years, with the blessing of current Louisiana Superintendent John White and former Louisiana State Superintendent Paul Pastorek. While EBR is actually physically moving magnet programs from one school to a next, using the higher performing magnet student scores to raise the overall scores of their new schools, what Iberville, Jefferson and St James have done is much more nefarious, but more acceptable to LDOE. In the case of Iberville and St James, they built brand new schools for their “programs” and never declared the schools but instead called them “academies”. This allows them to “route” those students to any failing school in their district to boost those scores as needed. John White is well aware of this situation, and has even commented that he endorses this idea and sees nothing wrong with it. If this is true, I would recommend that Bernard Taylor simply close some schools and reopen them as high performing “programs” in their old sites and route those students to any school in danger of takeover. This should address John White and Bodi White’s concerns about future disruptions from the moving/relocation of students and be no less honest than what other parishes are doing with DOE and BESE blessings. What I have been told by my accountability contacts is that Jefferson Parish has done in the past, and appears to be doing again with three of their schools is “routing” every single student from their magnet schools across their district. The sitecodes exist, the schools exist on paper, but they don’t get scores because for accountability purposes they have no students of their own. Apparently these are acceptable alternatives to BESE and John White. When the former President of BESE, Penny Dastugue was asked about Iberville on camera, she said she saw no problem with this situation. Do you?
As I’ve mentioned before, before John White was even named Superintendent of Louisiana he was already making decisions impacting the department and data sharing. For a few years the CREDO institute based in Stanford and Devora (Dev) Davis had been asking me for large quantities of data to do their analysis of our schools and data. Our department had misgivings about handing over such large quantities of data to a researcher, and the time and expense in involved with doing so. They were basically asking for everything we had. To try and accommodate this concern Dev offered to fly me out to Stanford for some training on their statistical analysis software and techniques and to provide their software to us free of charge to use in-house on their projects and for anything else we might want to look at. This seemed like a good deal to me, and a great deal safer that handing over gigabytes of highly sensitive student data, but this idea was nixed by my management . Devora Davis swore she would take this up with the Superintendent (Paul Pastorek) and that was the last I’d heard of it until about November of 2011 Kim Nesmith (then the self-described data quality “director”) came to me and said that this big data sharing project had been approved by John White. “HE” had spoken and so it would be. Kim’s a big time name dropper and always likes to throw people name’s around to get people to do her work for her, but I was surprised she was already throwing John White’s name around before he was even confirmed by BESE. I mentioned that John White was not our State Superintendent yet, but Kim assured me it had all been taken care of through Erin Bendily and Ollie Tyler would sign off on the official MOU. After this we had several conference calls with CREDO and Dev Davis where magnanimously agreed to a longer deadline that a week or two to provide the data that “John” had promised her. She told us “John” was really interested in their work and “John” had been very helpful and encouraging and that they had worked out a mutually beneficial agreement together. At the time we had not converted and loaded all out testing data into LEDRS, our 4 million dollar data warehouse we abandoned after building it, so we decided we’d need to wait until after that process was complete or until we could apply our GUID to the student test records. Once we did this, I showed my folks how to load these GUIDS into a key table. This key table was given new randomly generated unique numbers and those new identifiers were applied to the source data that was to be provided to CREDO. At this point this database became its own external set of records. Our source data might change, but this database would remain separate, apart and would need to be retained forever to examine any potential data issues reported by CREDO or to verify their results. Since the CREDO MOU spanned years until 2016, it would also need to be stored as part of key for future years data. This CREDO database is its own beast, its own distinct set of permanent records. It has been provided to other researchers to produce research, and support LDOE claims about their reforms and backing up their expenditures of public funds on charter schools it is a public record, or set of public records. By providing this database in entirely to CREDO for their study, LDOE has implicitly asserted they do not believe this database is a violation of FERPA, nor subject to FERPA restrictions. Nevertheless, currently the department is claiming this database is not a public record, that FERPA prevents it from releasing the data as part of FOIA request and that providing this database would be burdensome.
I learned about this from someone who has become a friend and ally, Dr Charles Hatfield. He was just asking DOE for entry and exit codes and reasons and unique identifiers and grade level. He wanted to do a study on feeding patterns for New Orleans schools now that they had an extremely disjointed and fragmented enrollment process and oversight system for monitoring parish wide enrollment with RSD, dozens of independent charters, the original Orleans Parish School board, and a few larger collectives like the Algiers charter association. I imagine Charles also wanted to see if there was a pattern to students being exited (such as right after funding or right before test time) and if some schools were overusing certain codes like transfers out of state to escape reporting dropouts. As you can imagine, LDOE does not want this research to go forward, and has fought him tooth and nail in court for the past 2 years to prevent this data falling into the hands of anyone not already showering praises upon LDOE, the Reform movement, and RSD. Nevertheless they have created records that are deidentified, which have been provided to other researchers and which they themselves have promoted the research and results of to the public. As such, I find it hard to understand how LDOE can assert these are not public records that must be provided. (I will be sending a request for them myself in a little bit.)
Just before I left DOE I was making vague plans to do “something.” I knew the Southern Poverty Law Center was getting some responses from the department and making them scramble from the occasional curses I heard muttered about them so I thought I’d contact them to see what was up with all that. At first I think SPLC thought I was playing a joke on them, but when they realized I was legit and had some concerns they refused to talk with me. J I was never clear if they found it unethical or illegal but nevertheless they said they couldn’t talk to me while I was an employee with the department. Amusingly or serendipitously enough, a little more than 2 weeks later I was not and I called them back about 2 weeks after that. I dished a little on some of funding issues (or defunding issues) shadow schools, corporal punishment data, etc, and they decided we needed to meet. We agreed to meet at Thai Kitchen where a drunken patron initially harassed us for the first half hour until I told him to take a hike (that’s the first time that had ever happened to me there so I blame Katie and Eve for that.) We had a nice little chat and dinner, although my lawyer friends were both nursing colds, and we went over as many issues as I could think of. They filled their notebooks up with page after page of notes, but in the end I got the distinct feel what I was talking about was out of their league or interest. I’d been impressed by a case I read Katie Schwartzman was involved in concerning a Louisiana student so thought she’d be a good first contact to make. However after a few weeks of nothing much happening and dwindling correspondence I gave up on them. I think they are good people, but probably more intensely focused on the rights of specific individuals in specific cases rather than hypothetical cases, or far reaching public policy.
After that I tried contacting numerous legislators, newspaper reporters covering education, the US Department of Education, everyone on the Education Weekly staff I thought might be interested in hearing some of my stories, and based on my responses (which numbered zero) I began to wonder if maybe no one cared but me? So at this point I decided to conduct a little experiment and created my own media outlet, my blog. I was wondering if maybe I wasn’t credible or persuasive enough and my conscience was weighing on me. I knew a lot of the things going on at DOE were wrong. I knew I was one of the few people that could speak about them, but nobody seemed to want to listen. So I decided maybe an audience didn’t really matter. Maybe if I just did the “telling” I would feel better, so I started a Blogger blog and got zero readers. I came to realize that was not nearly as satisfying as I’d hoped it would be and that I was not nearly as witty as I thought I was either. Of course I didn’t start off with education issues at first but jumped into more complex political issues, and spent many hours linking photos, videos, and sassy commentary to no avail. I think that blog might still be out there somewhere, with zero views no doubt. I discovered this whole blogging about important issues thing was little harder than it looked. If only I was interested in blogging (or vlogging) cute kitten videos. . . .