DECIPHERING POST-KATRINA SCHOOLING
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 Jacobs, Scott Cowen, Aesha Rasheed, and 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?