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Where there is smoke there is fire, and the evidence that suggests cheating occurred at Landry-Walker High School in New Orleans is suffocating.
After the school’s charter management organization, Algiers Charter School Association, conducted an internal investigation that included test monitoring, Landry-Walker saw a dramatic decline in academic performance from the year before. The scores literally didn’t hold up to the scrutiny.
The management organization did not tell Landry-Walker Principal Mary Laurie about the investigation.
Laurie (who was featured in “Hope Against Hope,” by Hechinger Report contributing editor Sarah Carr) rode a dangerous wave of applause and skepticism when her school cracked the upper echelon of school performers citywide with 78 percent of her students scoring “excellent” on the end-of-course geometry exam for the 2013-14 school year. Those inflated numbers were made apparent given that only 27 percent scored excellent when tightly monitored the next year.
Superintendent John White says the state inspector general’s office is conducting “an investigation of compliance with criminal laws.” Laurie and three of her colleagues were placed on paid administrative leave this week. Neither Laurie nor her colleagues have been charged with anything.
From year to year, students who take annual year-end tests are different, so some oscillation is expected. But for the kind of drop-off experienced by Landry-Walker to be legitimate, students would have had to progress through different lessons, teachers and/or even schools. Or, what’s more plausible, the preceding scores they dropped from were illegitimate.
A few weeks before Times-Picayune reporter Danielle Dreilinger broke the story of the investigation and the subsequent official statement by the Louisiana Inspector General, the person who headed the investigation of Landry-Walker, Algiers Charter Association CEO Adrian Morgan, left his job. In a joint statement, the Charter Association and Morgan said they had “mutually agreed to part ways.” Morgan has since found other employment and has not commented on the case.
What happened and why did it take so long?
State officials at the Recovery School District say they alerted the Louisiana Inspector General to the high likelihood of cheating a year and a half ago. Appropriate changes in personnel lagged even when the evidence was overwhelming. Again, the Algiers Charter School Association initiated an intervention, but didn’t press forward with holding actual people accountable.
Subsequently, the news of a 2014 scandal comes just in time for this year’s testing. Teachers, students and administrators will certainly be deflated. So instead of moving forward this year, the school potentially takes a step back in the aftermath of actions already taken.
Problems in special education
Not to be outdone, the other scandal that made its way just in time for carnival season rolled out after the January 29 release of the Louisiana Department of Education’s investigation of ReNEW SciTech Academy’s special education fraud, which came from yet another cheating scheme at the school that The Lens reported on in June.
We don’t have to belabor the details, but according to state officials ReNEW SciTech Academy “inappropriately obtained special education funds;” “failed to comply with multiple aspects of federal IDEA law including failure to provide Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to students with disabilities;” and “committed a violation of testing procedure in the 2014-15 school year.” The school’s principals, Tim Hearin and Alex Perez, misdirected approximately $320,000 by cooking the books using special education funds without providing appropriate services. The CEO, Gary Robichaux, resigned from his post and moved to an advocacy position within the organization at the same salary of $154,000.
What do the incidents at Landry-Walker and ReNew SciTech have in common? Both are really mundane cases of incompetence that occurred in a much-ballyhooed new hybrid system that was partially predicated on eradicating the inherently corrupt traditional New Orleans School Board model ten years ago.
In the case of Landry-Walker, we’re talking about a simple case of cheating that was only partially handled. In an era of high stakes in which job security and reputations are attached to test scores, senses of loyalty run high.
But cheating hurts children. The toughest job an executive has to make should be the easiest. Remove people who ultimately hurt children. This didn’t happen in a timely fashion.
Like hypocrisy, cheats should never surprise us.
I’m salty because the turpitude that pops up like warts signals that school leaders are still less likely to respond to pressure from families to do right by our children than they are to whatever accolades or punishments leaders’ supervisors dispense. There simply isn’t enough public accountability in our public schools.
When I was a charter school leader, one of the most stressful days occurred on the day that the daily newspaper (remember those) released test results in rank order. I never slept well on those days. The newspaper slapping the concrete outside my door at 4:00 in the morning became my alarm clock as I rushed to see where I ranked among my peers.
I already knew exactly how my school performed, but I didn’t know how other schools fared. At the time, none of my schools were in jeopardy of having their charters removed, but the scores weren’t exactly blowing anyone’s socks off. However, being on the lower half of the fold could provide enough embarrassment for me to hold my head in shame at the next gathering among school leaders.
But the threatening shame of facing families from a possible cheating scandal was far worse than peer pressure. It’s clear from the aforementioned cases that many executives and boards don’t move based on the needs of children or parents. The pressure to do right by children should always exceed the pressure to cheat them.
We say our principals and leaders are accountable to the public but are they really?
If our leaders aren’t responsive to the pressure of parents and students, then maybe more should be applied. (But boards must let parents know whenever cheating is being investigated.)
The actual public must hold public school personnel accountable, because many who say that they love children actually don’t respect them.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.