Monday, October 24, 2011

Lessons From New Orleans

STOP THE PRESSES!  Check out this editorial in tomorrow's NY Times – it doesn't get any better than this!


October 15, 2011

Lessons From New Orleans

Before Hurricane Katrina, more than 60 percent of children in New Orleans attended a failing school. Now, only about 18 percent do.

Five years ago, less than a quarter of the children in a special district set up by the state to manage the lowest performing schools scored at or above the "basic" level on state tests. Now, nearly half  do.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan says the progress made by New Orleans's school reform effort in the six years since Hurricane Katrina has been "stunning." And there are many reasons for optimism about a system that is overwhelmingly made up of poor and minority students — just the sort of place where optimism is in short supply.

There are three important things to consider about the New Orleans experience: Many of the structural changes occurred because the hurricane essentially destroyed the old system, allowing the city to begin fresh. Charter schools, while a foundation of the system now, did not by themselves improve achievement. And finally, New Orleans has done the hard work of changing the school culture while embracing new instructional methods.

The city has put in place a system for steadily ratcheting up school performance requirements. It has also been helped by state education reforms passed in recent years. Louisiana, which has historically ranked near the bottom nationally in student performance, mandated teacher evaluations that take student achievement into account. It also created an innovative system that evaluates teacher preparation programs based on how their graduates go on to improve students' work in important areas, including reading, math and science.

By the time of the storm, the state and the city were fully intent on strengthening the teaching corps. With its schools empty, New Orleans took the extraordinary step of laying off the entire teaching force, requiring basic skills tests for those who wished to return to their jobs. By some estimates, only about 20 percent of the original force returned to work.

Meanwhile, schools that had been failing for years came under the control of the Recovery School District, a state entity that opted out of collective bargaining agreements with teachers' unions. The district, which now oversees an overwhelming majority of the city's schools, streamlined the central bureaucracy, and pushed money and policy authority down to the school building level. It also recruited new talent from around the country, making New Orleans a magnet for young school leaders.

Three-quarters of the city's schools are charter schools, which are given broad latitude to attack educational problems as long as they meet rigorous state improvement criteria. Nationally, charter schools — which are publicly financed — are often accused of siphoning off scarce resources and taking the best students from traditional schools. That is less of an issue in New Orleans, where most schools are charters with open enrollment, and where school officials are monitoring to make sure schools stay open to all comers.

Charters around the country are often no better than traditional schools, and are frequently worse. In New Orleans, they appear to be better on average than charters elsewhere. They generally have a longer school day and a longer school year than most schools. They spend a great deal of time teaching study and time management skills, and plan each student's development. None of these attributes are particular to charters, but they have helped turn the schools around.

New Orleans still has a long way to go to become a uniformly good school system. But by bringing in fresh ideas and strong instructional methods, it is showing that even a system with a long history of failure can improve. 

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