John White: Big Easy's School Revolution
The WSJ with a nice profile of ed warrior John White, the new head of New Orleans schools. I LOVE his willingness to say that lousy teachers are committing "a criminal act against kids" – how true! I'm sure Randi and Ravitch, as they always do, will call this comment anti-teacher, but of course nothing could be further from the truth. It's 100% pro-teacher to get rid of horrible teachers who demean the profession and drag down schools (and kids):
Mr. White looks in on classrooms. In one, groups of seniors chat loudly and puzzle over a basic algebra problem. In another the teacher struggles to start a conversation about a USA Today article that few students had read. A girl in the corner sits with a jacket over her head, headphones in both ears.
"Just to put that in context, that's a criminal act against these kids," says Mr. White, after walking out. "It's unacceptable to not have a well-planned, rigorous lesson. It's fundamentally unacceptable." He pauses and refers to the algebra class. "I just can't get over that. You have these kids doing sixth-, seventh-grade math in a normal and typical school system [and here] in a 12th-grade year. And not doing it well. Well, we're going to change that."
More than any other superintendent in America, Mr. White can make good on this promise. He heads the Recovery School District, which includes most schools in New Orleans and surrounding areas, and has broad powers over them. Hurricane Katrina wiped out resistance from politicians and unions and improbably made the Big Easy a national laboratory of educational reform.
Four out of five kids in New Orleans attend independent public charters. The schools under Mr. White's supervision are open to all students no matter where they live. "In other cities, charter schools exist in spite of the system," Mr. White says. "Here charter schools are the system."
The results are encouraging. Five years ago, 23% of children scored at or above "basic" on state tests; now 48% do. Before Katrina, 62% attended failing schools; less than a fifth do today. The gap between city kids and the rest of the state is narrowing.
But New Orleans schools still have a ways to go. A state report this week based on scores, graduation rates and attendance records said the majority of the city's schools merited a D grade or worse.
Enter Mr. White, a sort of reform superintendent 2.0., to try to take New Orleans to the next level. Predecessors Paul Vallas and Paul Pastorek shook up the schools, in the way the charismatic Michelle Rhee did in Washington, D.C. Mr. White spent five years working for another trailblazer, Joel Klein in New York. As deputy superintendent, Mr. White weeded out bad schools and nurtured the charter school zone in Harlem. His task here is to hold and build on the gains so far.
October 8, 2011