Colorblindness is dangerous. Veteran local educators should mix with rookie outsiders. And kids shouldn’t be “bounced around like stocks in a portfolio.”
A New Orleans journalist shared those lessons from a city that inspired New Haven’s school reform drive
The journalist, Sarah Carr (pictured), made the remarks in a recent interview about her new book, Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children.
Carr’s book examines the nation’s most dramatic modern-day school reform effort—the reinvention of New Orleans’ public schools after Hurricane Katrina. Katrina devastated New Orleans in August of 2005. With no money for salaries in the wake of the storm, the school district laid off 7,500 employees. Then idealistic educators swept into the city to help rebuild the school system from scratch.
New Orleans’ experiment was the original model for New Haven’s school reform drive, according to Mayor John DeStefano. As he researched ways to overhaul schools in 2008, he took note of an approach in New Orleans called “portfolio management.” The approach calls for schools to be managed differently according to their needs, like stocks in portfolio. In New Haven, that means principals at high-performing schools are supposed to get more autonomy, and failing schools may be taken over by outside management organizations.
New Haven has begun collaborating with the successful local charter organization Achievement First, but has not seen a mass proliferation of charters. Instead, it has pursued a moderate path, in collaboration with the teachers union. The city has tried a variety of approaches with failing schools in its “portfolio”: It launched “turnaround” experiments run by district principals, a Stamford social services agency, a charter school company from New Jersey, and even by the teachers union. None are official charter schools, public schools that are given more autonomy to operate under their own rules; all the turnaround experiments operate with unionized teaching staff within the district. The city is about to launch its first charter school since the reform drive took off in 2010, a parent-led Montessori school.
New Orleans, meanwhile, has eviscerated its teachers union and converted nearly all schools to charters. Carr, a former reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, said that city gives a glimpse into the future of public education as the modern-day school reform movement takes hold nationwide.
“New Orleans is this test case for reforms that are happening in New Haven and across the country, and is an extreme example of that because it happened at scale, and much more quickly than it has happened in a lot of other places,” she said.
Carr said instead of vilifying either side, her book aims to challenge the ideological debate about the charter school and accountability movement—a debate so polarized that people in opposing camps barely speak the same language.
She humanizes the story by following the lives of people at three charter schools: veteran New Orleans educator Mary Laurie, principal of O. Perry Walker High School, one of the first schools to reopen after Katrina; Aidan Kelly, an idealistic Harvard graduate who signs up to teach at Sci Academy, a new charter school founded in 2008 by New Schools for New Orleans, a not-for-profit formed after Katrina to promote the growth of charters there; and Geraldlynn Stewart, a student at KIPP Renaissance High School, a new charter school that opened in 2010 through the Knowledge is Power Program, a national charter network.
The Independent caught up with Carr at an education seminar in Palo Alto. (The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
NHI: Why did you choose to focus your book on those three charter schools?
Carr: Charters are the story in New Orleans now: 90 percent of students go to charters. I wanted them to be at charters that were diverse in terms of where they were in their growth and their mentality. I didn’t want them all to be a KIPP-style school led by outsiders. I wanted one to led by a veteran administrator who had the context of the pre-Katrina schools. I wanted to give a range of perspectives and experiences.
Why those three people?
I wanted one to be a newcomer to New Orleans, and relatively inexperienced, and one to be a veteran who had been there before Katrina. … Above all, I wanted people who didn’t come at these issues from ideological perspectives… people who came at it from a practical approach, just trying to do the best they could.
You highlight a polarization in the types of staff hired at different schools—veteran New Orleans educators don’t mix much with rookie newcomers.
In general, a lot of the young school leaders who are new to New Orleans have hired 20-something Teach for America corps members or alums or people coming through alternative programs who tend to be white; and the veteran educators have tended to hire veteran African-American educators who worked in the schools. There aren’t enough places that build off of the strengths of those two staffing profiles and have the energy and enthusiasm of the young educators and the expertise and commitment to the city and relationships with people in the community that the veterans have. There’s a polarization of schools there, which makes it hard.
What’s the danger in that polarization?
At the schools that are predominately staffed by newcomers, there’s this danger of the kids who are going to them, who are predominantly black and low-income, associating education and leadership with whiteness. As talented as those teachers might be, that’s problematic in a lot of ways. When you have a staff that’s primarily comprised of people who are young and not from a place and childless, it’s a lot harder for them to develop those relationships, and that’s a lot of the reason that a lot of them rely on this intense sort of structure, which is almost a sort of proxy for understanding and relationships.
More broadly: The schools would be stronger if they took the best of both of those models. There are strengths and weaknesses to both of those models. If the city is going to grow and develop in a positive way, it can’t sort of do that if there’s this alienation between the people working and leading the schools and a distrust at some level.
You write a lot about the dynamic of elite, highly educated, white outsiders coming in and imposing cultural values on black urban kids. You say schools need to discuss that dynamic more openly.
Some schools do talk about it more openly than others, but overall there’s a little bit too much of this colorblindness to the school reform movement that I think is really problematic. I’m not saying they need to sit around every day and talk about race, but you can’t go into it with this colorblind mentality, and without understanding the ways in which your own race and class and background might give you a certain privilege that a lot of the students that you’re teaching have not had.
That’s another reason there needs to be more diversity among staffs. White people do not talk about race as much with each other when they’re isolated. That fosters and allows this colorblind mentality to take root.
At one of the schools you write about, Sci Academy, some kids and families didn’t take well to the strict system of rules, which included making kids walk along a line taped down in the hallway—a line one dad said reminded him of prison.
To their credit, staff at Sci Academy have thought a lot about the implications of that, including: If you have a highly, highly structured environment, are kids going to be prepared to go to college, where there won’t be that kind of structure around them, or will they crash and burn?
They’ve also tried to explain why they’re doing it. Kids get most frustrated when staff don’t explain why—they’re being told to sit still and walk a straight line and raise their hand at a given time and always track the speaker without any explanation of why it is important.
It would be great if a Montessori school opened in New Orleans because too many of those schools are along the lines of that Sci Academy/ KIPP model, and there needs to be more diversity in school culture and school pedagogical approach to meet the needs of kids who might not ever want to or be able to thrive in that really routinized environment.
What benefits have you seen to the “portfolio” approach to running schools?
There is a benefit to autonomy if you have a strong principal. In a more decentralized model, strong school leadership is key. Teaching staffs, depending on what sort of principal they had, could thrive or struggle. If you have a strong, thoughtful principal, there’s a lot of benefits to it because they’re much more free to own their school, to make quick decisions.
One principal who led the same school pre- and post-Katrina talks about having to go through this inane process to order basic supplies before Katrina. Now she can just go to Office Depot and buy them. As long as there are checks and balances in place to make sure the principals are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and are competent in leading their schools well, and have a system of support if they aren’t, the [decentralized] model can be beneficial.
In the abstract, there are some benefits to choice, but I just think it’s been so hard to kind of make it a fair playing field where the most vulnerable families have access to the better-performing schools. In practice, it hasn’t played out as it should.
One consequence of New Orleans’ school reform drive you say is overlooked: When the school district laid off 7,500 public school employees right after Hurricane Katrina, it dealt a huge economic blow to the black middle class.
It’s kind of neglected in the whole narrative of school reform, because people are so focused on how we are going to grow by the numbers. There’s not enough attention paid to the broader ways in which school reform can affect a community. I heard somebody say the other day about New Orleans: “Kids are smarter, but the community is weaker.” I think there’s some truth to that. A large part of that is because of the displacement of thousands of black middle class [workers] from the city. Some have come back and are teaching in the schools, but there’s a lot [the fired public school employees] who couldn’t afford to come back, or were so alienated by the firing that they didn’t even try to come back.
Any other drawbacks to the portfolio management approach?
The choice and the portfolio model there have given some families who felt badly served by the old school system access to more structured, stable, ambitious schools, but I feel that it hasn’t reached the most vulnerable yet—kids with severe special needs and the kids who might be coming with more behavioral challenges, or who are coming out of incarceration or alternative schools, or the families who are the most vulnerable and disconnected from the system. The schools have such pressure to meet these test score gains that they don’t have any incentive to enroll them. A lot of these families have a hard time navigating the choice landscape. There’s been too much of this trickle-down approach to school reform, where it starts with the low-income families that are the easiest to reach and connect with and educate, but it hasn’t reached the kids in a lot of cases who need it the most.
One of the things I find interesting about the portfolio approach: If a school isn’t meeting its targets, you have another operator come in and take it over, so there’s constant movement and change in the system. I have some sympathy for people who say that schools that persistently fail kids should be shut down or changed or taken over at some point, but I also feel like there needs to be some degree of stability and connectedness in a system. In New Orleans, that’s been problematic because not only did you have the turmoil of Katrina, but now you have schools that are constantly being reinvented and converted and changed and chartered. I question whether or not kids in schools are going to be able to develop the connections and the relationships they need in the long-term to make continued growth possible.
Yes, there are human casualties to persistently failing schools, but there are also human casualties when kids are bounced around a lot like stocks in a portfolio.
Another argument for portfolio management is that it takes away a big bureaucracy and makes things responsive at the site level, but in New Orleans you see that some of the non-profits that emerge to lead and support the schools can become mini-bureaucracies in and of themselves. ... It’s important that people hold these non-profit school operators’ feet to the fire, just as they might have done with the traditional school district bureaucracy.
One consequence of the decentralization of New Orleans schools was a lack of a citywide discipline policy. Certain charter schools were kicking kids out at a much higher rate than others.
They have [now] tried to standardize the expulsion process, but it’s still so easy for a school operator to covertly push a kid out. And suspensions are all over the map, and they’re self-reported by the schools, so you don’t even know if they’re being honest in terms of their suspension levels. It’s not fair to the kids or to school operators who are trying to do their best to serve all kids, where kids are spending months out of school because of outrageous suspension levels. It also results in a system where you the most challenging, needy kids end up out of school.
One of the students who I wrote about in the book, Brice, was given a 45-day suspension because the school didn’t know what to do with him. He ended up getting more enmeshed in a bad scene and arrested. If he hadn’t spent those 45 days out of school, his story would have been really different.
What future do you see for New Orleans schools?
It’s going to be 90 to 95 percent charter for the foreseeable future. I think they’re trying to deal with some of these problems, like serving kids with special needs fairly, and making sure that students aren’t serving suspensions for 45 days, but in some ways I worry because I feel like a lot of the people who are leading this and making decisions don’t know enough about the realities of poor families’ lives to create the policies and the structures needed to solve the problems.
There’s been all this focus on comparing the schools to the pre-Katrina ones, but I feel like the focus needs to be on comparing the schools to what they need to become. Even though you can’t forget history and the past, you need to stop saying, ‘Well, at least we’re better than the pre-Katrina schools.’
Does New Orleans give a fast-forward look at what other cities might see in the future?
Yes—with the charters, with a portfolio push, with this question of the role of the [teachers] union, and whether or not reform should be driven by a community, or imposed by the outside—those are all issues and tensions that places are grappling with on smaller scales elsewhere.
After Katrina, the proponents of portfolio and charter schools and imposing from the outside were able to do what they wanted much more quickly there, but that’s happening in a smaller way in communities across the country.
What do you hope people take away from your book?
First, I hope that it challenges the more ideological polarized debate about these conversations. And that it humanizes a story that has been recklessly politicized at times. And I hope that it shows how hard it is to reinvent a city in the long-term if the focus is explicitly on the schools. Schools can do a huge amount to turn around people’s lives, but if you have a city with a broken system and where families don’t have access to living wage jobs, and to affordable health care and to housing and safe communities, the schools can’t fix all of that on their own. I hope it prompts people to think about community reform in a more holistic way.