August 16, 2008


A Teachable Moment (PAUL TOUGH, 8/17/08, NY Times Magazine)

Katrina struck at a critical moment in the evolution of the contemporary education-reform movement. President Bush’s education initiative, No Child Left Behind, had shined a light on the underperformance of poor minority students across the country by requiring, for the first time, that a school successfully educate not just its best students but its poor and minority students too in order to be counted as successful. Scattered across the country were a growing number of schools, often intensive charter schools, that seemed to be succeeding with disadvantaged students in a consistent and measurable way. But these schools were isolated examples. No one had figured out how to “scale up” those successes to transform an entire urban school district. There were ambitious new superintendents in Philadelphia, New York City, Denver and Chicago, all determined to reform their school systems to better serve poor children, but even those who seemed to be succeeding were doing so in incremental ways, lifting the percentage of students passing statewide or citywide tests to, say, 40 from 30 or to 50 from 40.

In New Orleans, before the storm, the schools weren’t succeeding even in an incremental way. [...]

Earlier this month, the state released test results for every public school in New Orleans. There were signs of improvement: 43 percent of fourth-grade students in Recovery School District charters and district-run schools scored at or above grade level on the state English test, compared with 34 percent in the previous year. But the numbers revealed the great distance New Orleans still has to go; in the percentage of students scoring at or above grade level in 8th-grade math, 12th-grade math and 12th-grade English, not a single R.S.D. charter or district-run school beat the average for Louisiana as a whole — and Louisiana is still among the lowest-performing states in the country. The gap between the system’s different structures remained, too; 89 percent of the Orleans Parish schools matched or surpassed the state average in fourth-grade English, while just 13 percent of Recovery schools did the same.

New Orleans’s newly arrived reformers have set their sights high. New Leaders for New Schools says it hopes that in five years, half of the public schools in the city will be led by principals trained in their system, and they want their principals to attain 90 percent proficiency rates and 90 percent graduation rates within five years of taking the job. Given that proficiency rates in most schools in the Recovery district are currently below 40 percent, those results would represent an educational earthquake. Pastorek’s goals are similarly ambitious; he sees a day in the not-too-distant future when the city’s white children will return to integrate the public-school system, along with the children of the black middle class, all drawn by safer and higher-achieving schools and the introduction of programs like specialized academies and the International Baccalaureate program.

When I spoke to Frederick Hess, an education-policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, he cautioned against putting too much emphasis on a complete transformation of the city’s school system. In the early 1990s, Hess worked as a teacher in Baton Rouge, and even then, he said, New Orleans was notorious for running an “abysmal” school district. “So if we’re now in a position where 20 or 40 or 50 percent of kids in New Orleans are attending good or even competent schools,” he said, “that to my mind is a significant win.

“Of course, the folks down there are the last people to plant their flag on improving things for 30 percent of the kids,” he went on. “They’re all world-changers. They’re all straight from the Great Society. That’s great, and I’m glad they’ve got huge ambitions, but the problem is that if they fall somewhat short of their goals, it will be very easy for critics of charter schooling or critics of Vallas or critics of New Leaders for New Schools or Teach for America to seize on the fact that we haven’t seen 100 percent of students served in the way we’d like and to then try to impugn the entire set of reforms.”

It would obviously have been better to take advantage of the storm to depopulate the city.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 16, 2008 11:03 AM
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