The Agenda

Jo-Ann Armao on Public Education in New Orleans

At the Washington Post, Jo-Ann Armao, a member of the editorial page staff, has an encouraging short piece on school reform in post-Katrina New Orleans: 

Most of the buzz about the city’s reforms focuses on the banishment of organized labor and the proliferation of charter schools, which enroll nearly 80 percent of public school students, up from 1.5 percent pre-Katrina. But what really distinguishes New Orleans is how government has re­defined its role in education: stepping back from directly running schools and empowering educators to make the decisions about hours, curriculum and school culture that best drive student learning. Now, state and school-district officials mostly regulate and monitor — setting standards, ensuring equity and closing failing schools. Instead of a traditional school system, there is a system of schools in what officials liken to a fenced-in free market. Families have more choice about where their children can best succeed, they say, and educators have more opportunity to choose a school that best aligns with their approach.

One teacher I spoke with during a recent trip talked about the luxury of being pursued by different charter networks willing to pay for her talents. After 11 years of teaching, she said, it was the first time she felt she was being treated as a professional.

It is worth noting that the decentralization that Armao praises is difficult to achieve under a city-wide collective bargaining agreement; if principals don’t have the autonomy to set work rules in their schools, they have very little ability to combine technology and labor in customized fashion. Yet the interests of teachers are protected through the existence of different charter networks, which compete for talent both on the compensation side and, presumably, on the work satisfaction and professional autonomy side. 

And later in the piece, Armao quotes Neerav Kingsland, the chief strategy officer of New Schools for New Orleans, as he makes a very Manzian observation:

In fact, officials in New Orleans have come to believe that the traditional notions of school reform — switching to mayoral control, bringing in a star superintendent, enacting tougher laws, allocating more money — ultimately will founder and fail. Kingsland, blogging this year on the Education Week Web site, sparked controversy by challenging superintendents of struggling school districts to relinquish their systems instead of trying endless reforms: “Rid yourself of the notion that your current opinions on curriculum, teacher evaluation, technology, or anything else will be the foundation for dramatic gains in student achievement. If history tells us anything, they will not be.” Move away, he wrote, from a centralized bureaucracy and improve the quality and number of charter schools.

That is, trial-and-error learning through small-scale experimentation is a more effective way to improve the quality of instruction than deciding on a course of action in centralized fashion and implementing them across all schools serving a diverse population.

We don’t know if the apparent success of school reform in New Orleans will prove durable. The city faces a number of serious structural challenges that will inevitably impact its K-12 student population. Yet if Kingsland is right and New Orleans’ decentralized approach really does work well, one wonders what a similar approach might achieve in larger school districts, in which the opportunities to bring effective instructional strategies to scale, or to pursue niche strategies that meet the needs of difficult-to-serve students, would be even greater.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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