A former state education functionary says there may be "shadow schools" at the high and low ends the academic spectrum.
A former state education functionary says there may be “shadow schools” at both ends of the academic spectrum.

A couple months ago I linked to a post at the Crazy Crawfish blog to buttress my case against corporal punishment. Later on, I read Crazy Crawfish’s other posts. Most of them tackle education issues, with an occasional foray into politics.

After a review of the blog’s archives, I’ve got to say: that silly swamp bug might be on to something.

Over the summer Crawfish unveiled several potentially incendiary findings which might be of interest to those who follow state education issues. The findings have received little notice thus far, but I suspect they will soon. One big caveat, though, before I point you to the Crazy Crawfish’s posts: I do not necessarily agree with the Crazy Crawfish’s opinions on education.

Of particular interest is a phenomenon Crawfish has termed “shadow schools.” Crawfish claims he discovered the existence of shadow schools while working at the Louisiana Department of Education (LDE). The Crawfish defines a shadow school as one that “has its own students, teachers, principal and building, but which goes unreported to the State and Federal Government.” Thus, there’s no data about “shadow schools” on the Louisiana Department of Education website.

According to the Crawfish, there are two types of shadow schools: “Alternative (low performing/second chance/career or discipline centers)” and “Magnet (high performing).”

Now, I already knew that alternative schools were classified separately. But—high-performing magnet schools? How can they go unreported?

Well, the Crawfish contends it’s a matter of fuzzy categories:

Louisiana doesn’t have a precise statute that defines a school, nor one that defines a program. The laws leave these definitions up to the individual school districts to decide. Of course, nothing could stop LDE from clarifying their stand on these issues, or making rulings in some of the more obvious and egregious cases, or bringing this up as a policy issue for BESE to consider tightening up the rules, etc.

The Crawfish claims specific “programs” in Iberville and St. James parishes operate as shadow schools. Click the links to inspect his evidence.

If a district allowed a learning institution to abuse the gray area between “school” and “program,” I suppose there would be an opportunity for mischief. For example, an academy that classifies itself as a “program” could function just like a discrete magnet school (with its own name, mascot, building, principal, website… etc). Yet, it wouldn’t have to report its demographics or test scores to the state. (That is, if the state or Board of Elementary and Secondary Education decided to look the other way.)

The Crawfish can imagine all sorts of disturbing possibilities, if shadow schools are permitted to operate under the radar of accountability.

You can build a brand new school building for wealthier areas of your [parish] and staff it with the most qualified teachers and the most advanced technology while keeping your poorer or darker skinned kids in the older, less well staffed schools so you won’t have a desegregation order declared for you. No one would have the data to show you are doing this.

Schools with low [School Performance Scores] – which are determined by a combination of test scores, attendance and dropout rates – can be taken over by the state. … If you have undisclosed academic magnet schools you can send those students to your borderline terrible schools and boost the [schools’] scores above the takeover mark.

At the end of the month the state education department will release School Performance Scores for all Louisiana public schools. The scores carry potentially serious  ramifications. For example, chronically failing schools can be taken over by the state, shut down or reorganized. Unlisted “programs,” on the other hand, enjoy relative immunity.

Crawfish believes test results from the students at shadow schools are routed back to the schools that nominally “claim” those students. This creates a situation where certain students enjoy all the fruits of a “program academy” education (new facilities, talented staff), while their scores are credited to languishing feeder schools (which the program students don’t regularly attend).

If unlisted shadow school test scores are credited to lower-performing feeder schools, that might be just enough to buoy some of those lower-performing schools out of the “takeover” zone.  As we know, when local schools are taken over by the state, it generates a lot of public outcry and scrutiny. I can imagine a lot of people in Iberville Parish who voted for “school reformers” getting upset. Many of them probably assumed that reform is great so long as it occurs in other parishes.

Since shadow school “programs” don’t report their test results directly to the state, it’s difficult to evaluate their influence. My cursory analysis of test score data in Iberville Parish yielded no obvious “smoking guns.” So treat Crawfish’s claims as interesting food for thought. But if—and I stress if—districts are using shadow schools to skirt accountability systems, that would be a bombshell.

On her widely-read education blog, New York University professor Diane Ravitch, these days a friend of teacher unions and a staunch foe of charter schools, linked to a Crazy Crawfish post about the Louisiana Department of Education’s new public relations hire, who will be paid $12K per month for part-time work. Ravitch insists Governor Bobby Jindal’s education department is “playing games” with school performance data and advises readers not to trust the numbers reported by the LDE.

Now, I wouldn’t simply write off all data that I disagree with. I think the prudent thing to do is to expose flaws in data sets and seek to correct them if they are misleading.

That said, the specter of shadow schools poses an array of problems for those evaluating test score data, on the school, district and state levels.

For example, if magnet “programs” are indeed functioning as shadow schools but not reporting separate scores (or demographics), then how does one evaluate the teachers within those “programs”? Their students’ scores are lumped in with a separate (and distinct) feeder school.

And if scores from shadow school students are aggregated to perhaps boost feeder schools’ (listed) test scores… how can you meaningfully assess the performance of those schools, since many of their top students attend class in separate “programs,” perhaps miles away?

Moreover, how can you compare districts with shadow schools to those without them? I’m sure Jefferson, East Baton Rouge and other large parishes might like to try similar arrangements. However, according to the Crawfish (as well as some internal Louisiana Department of Education emails I’ve obtained), the state won’t let them use unlisted magnet programs and route the scores back to listed feeder schools.

So, the prospect of shadow schools raises numerous questions about fairness and accountability. That’s why I recommend a balanced review of the evidence Crazy Crawfish has presented on schools in Iberville and St. James parishes. Because if those parishes have shadow schools, then I doubt they’re the only ones.

In a possibly related matter, BESE member Carolyn Hill wrote a letter published on News Star.com. She claims school reform is a sham and that school parents “are facing real discrimination.” Then she makes multiple references to the story of Adam and Eve, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s activism. It’s a perplexingly vague piece. But it’s clear that Hill is hopping mad about something.

Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and...