The flood of stories about education in New Orleans began well before the 10th anniversary of the flooding that destroyed most of the city’s terrible schools.  Is education better or worse now that the city is virtually all-charter?  Is this a model for urban America, or a gigantic hoax?  So far, I haven’t seen much in the way of middle ground.

Here are SIX truths (as I see them), THREE predictions, and ONE piece of advice.

First, the truths: 1)  Before Katrina, the city’s public schools were to be avoided, and anyone who could afford a parochial or independent school or a suburban home, did so, while a handful of admission-only magnet schools held onto the most affluent students.  The system was segregated, and buildings were falling down. I remember one school that had to steal electricity from other buildings and utility poles because its own wiring was inadequate—probably rotted through.  And the schools, many of them, were violent and dangerous places.

2) Today New Orleans has a ‘system of schools,’ not a ‘school system.’  Public charter schools serve nearly all of the city’s students.  The system is smaller and whiter, and the teaching force is younger, whiter and non-unionized.

3) Education is better…but then again, it could hardly be worse.  Scores and graduation rates have improved, but neither is up as much as the supporters would have people believe.

4) Unfortunately, this radical approach has not solved the special education challenge.  In some respects, going all-charter may have made things worse for kids with special needs.

5) Different approaches to discipline remain a problem.  Because charter schools are independent entities, each can set its own rules and enforce the rules as they see fit.

6) Some families feel disconnected and disenfranchised because their neighborhood charter school is run by a Board that doesn’t reflect them or their neighborhood.

We captured a lot of this in”Rebirth: New Orleans“, our 1-hour film that is available on Netflix. It’s based on 6 years of videotaping, and I hope you will take a look.

Prediction #1: No American city will copy New Orleans and go ‘all charter’ all at once, because it’s just too hard.  Instead, politicians will hold up New Orleans as a goal while gradually expanding charter schools. That’s the easy way: start with K-1 and expand one grade at a time, because that allows the grownups in charge to train the kids from age 4 or 5.  Taking over a high school, full of teenagers who’ve spent 9 or more years in a very different kind of school, is a challenge most charter leaders run from (but that is what New Orleans faced).

Prediction #2: Wise leaders will insist on significant oversight of all charter schools, to ensure financial transparency, a common discipline code, a common application, and shared approaches to assessment and to special education.  Sadly, wisdom is in short supply. I fear chaos will ensue in many cities, especially where the profiteers are invited to participate.

Prediction #3: Schools in New Orleans will never rise above the level of C- until they adopt a sophisticated way of measuring their effectiveness.  Right now, it’s all about test scores, which shapes the curriculum and the experience of students.  When we were filming “Rebirth,” we learned of an aspiring charter school principal who was determined to open a performing arts school. He envisioned a vibrant building full of talented aspiring musicians, artists, dancer and actors, all given the opportunity to develop their craft.  However, once he realized that the charter review board cared only about test scores, he never even submitted an application.  As long as that’s the prevailing mindset, mediocrity is guaranteed. That’s a shame.

Finally, some advice: Pay close attention to news coverage that includes contributions from Leslie JacobsScott Cowen,  Aesha Rasheedand Andre Perry.  Ms. Jacobs was the principal architect of the charter approach; Dr. Cowen, former President of Tulane University, put brains and muscle behind the effort while remaining an honest broker; Ms. Rasheed, a former reporter for the Times-Picayune, has become a powerful advocate for fairness for families and children; and Dr. Perry, an academic who stepped into the trenches to run some charter schools, is an honest and thoughtful analyst.  Of course, they’re not the only people whose analysis is valuable, but if none of them is heard from, I’d be worried.

What have I missed?


  1. You have missed the reality that without fundamental systemic change, nothing will work. To quote historian James Anderson :We are still trying to develop both the philosophy as well as a system of education that really does respect the intelligence and abilities of ordinary people.” Not only has that not been done, it isn’t allowed. The Collins amendment to ESEA is a good start. (go to to read)

    Changing the name of the school, who runs the school or who finances it is irrelevant as long as the outdated system remains the same. What happens is schools then begin to rake the geniuses and throw the rest into the street like so much rubbish. And that’s what happened to special ed. They will not help your test score.

    As long as test scores drive the curriculum there will always be second class education. In areas where kids do well on test scores, those who have less obstacles in the way of learning, innovation can happen. However, those area who have difficulty with the test find the curriculum narrowed to assure better scores. This is evidenced by cutting shop, the arts, and hands on active curriculum etc.

    That leaves a harsh reality. That kids must learn in the way they learn the worst in order to get the privilege of learning in the way they learn best. That is only unethical it is immoral


  2. As a public school teacher, citizen and parent, my question regarding New Orleans is: “Is that all there is?”

    Yes, considering the state of schools prior to charters, the new situation certainly is better. It sounds wildly better, when one considers what apparently was a cesspool of a school district. But is it good enough?

    Is it as good as an education experience at my neighborhood school where test prep is forbidden so that the curriculum’s full focus is on inquiry based instruction, where teachers are highly trained intellectuals, where parents maintain a significant oversight of the school. Is it as good as (let’s pick a really affluent district in my lovely state of MA) the Wellesley school district?

    My concern is (and has been for a long time) that the privatization/charter movement allows our society to pretend to address the disparities in our country with a fix that results in widely varying educational goals and outcomes – where an elite group are being educated to be leaders, and those less fortunately born are being trained as followers. And we accept this – the guise of test scores allow us to take the easy way out and say the quality of an education is reflected in a standardized test score, when we know that is balderdash. It is a happy myth, that we adopt and sell so that the masses will be appeased. The myth allows us to stop at a point miles before the point of educational equality. It allows us to look like we are doing something while all along we have set up a new game that will allow the disparities to continue.

    Dewey’s famous quote needs to be at the forefront of the New Orleans discussion, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”

    When the Wellesley parents, or President Obama, or Bill Gates, or Arnie Duncan, or Rom Emanuel, or Chris Christie decides that their kids deserve a New Orleans approach to education then we will have arrived at what should be our goal. Nothing less than equality in state supported education.

    New Orleans propaganda is a gaping, giant pothole on the road to that journey… this is what I think you left out.


    • My point is that people need strong and effective BS detectors, particularly where New Orleans is concerned. However, if leadership there would embrace the schooling you endorse, and a sensible metric, that would be a huge step forward. But don’t hold your breath..


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