Report: New Orleans public schools see loss of black teachers and those with formal teaching credentials

Public school teachers in New Orleans are considerably more likely to be white, inexperienced, without local roots and lacking formal teaching credentials as a result of the charter school movement that has remade public education in the city since Hurricane Katrina.

Those are the conclusions drawn by Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance for New Orleans in a report released Monday.

The group’s findings generally match what has become the common perception of charter schools locally and around the country. But the new report provides the first comprehensive set of data to back up that perception, which has fueled much of the criticism aimed at the post-Katrina reforms.

Last year, the percentage of black teachers in New Orleans was 49 percent, down from 71 percent the year before the storm, the report says. The percentage of teachers with five or fewer years of experience was 54 percent, up from 33 percent. And the percentage of teachers who leave either the profession or the state at the end of the school year in New Orleans had nearly doubled, to about 18 percent.

On the other hand, the report’s authors, Tulane economics professor Douglas Harris and alliance research fellow Nathan Barrett, point out that academic results in New Orleans have improved significantly over the same period.

“The question is,” they write, “how is it possible to see large improvements in student outcomes when all the typical measures of teacher quality seem to be going in the wrong direction?”

They offer four possible explanations: that test scores and graduation rates may be improving “despite these changes in the teacher workforce” because of other factors; that giving schools more leeway to hire and fire at will has weeded out low-performing teachers; that training programs offering alternatives to traditional teacher certification might be working; and that many of the city’s young, inexperienced teachers are better positioned to work “extremely long hours in the short run” than those who have other commitments, such as children of their own.

The new report comes during a crescendo of national media attention leading up to the 10-year Katrina anniversary on Saturday.

Dueling commentaries published in The New York Times and the website of New York Magazine on Sunday and Monday rehashed much of the debate that has been raging locally for a decade, drawing a response from Louisiana’s top education official, John White.

Writing on the Times op-ed page, business journalism professor Andrea Gabor questioned whether the available data show any real improvement and bemoaned how the firing of “unionized, mostly black teachers after Katrina cleared the way for young, idealistic (mostly white) educators who are willing to work 12- to 14-hour days.”

At nymag.com, political writer Jonathan Chait responded by calling Gabor’s piece “riddled with important factual errors” and “unsubstantiated generalizations.”

White pointed to an extensive, point-by-point rebuttal from local blogger Peter Cook, who has emerged as one of the charter movement’s most energetic defenders in the constant online warfare over school reform.

The Education Research Alliance, which began publishing research on New Orleans schools early this year, has offered ammunition to both sides of the debate.

One of its reports provided evidence that some charter schools avoided enrolling students with disabilities, at least before the new common enrollment system was implemented. Another showed that test scores really have improved about as much as state officials claim they have.

The latest findings are likely to give charter critics more to work with than supporters, even if the authors’ own conclusions are somewhat ambivalent.

The loss of black teachers is especially troubling for a public school system that enrolls mainly black students, the report notes, given that “there is some evidence that, other things being equal, students learn somewhat more when they have teachers of the same race.”

Recent efforts to reverse this trend seem to have paid off. The percentage of new hires who are black has ticked upward. But the report warns that “the overall percentage will continue to decline unless additional steps are taken.”

The loss of teachers with formal credentials and years of experience may be less concerning.

“While some studies find that teacher credentials predict teacher performance, the connection is weak,” the report says. “Even years of experience, the teacher qualification most positively linked with teacher performance, the likelihood that an inexperienced teacher is low-performing is only slightly higher than the probability the teacher is high-performing.”

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