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NPR panel discusses the school system in New Orleans

27th April 2015   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Dequine Harden
Contributing Writer

Hosted by NPR’s Michel Martin, a group of panelists gathered last week to discuss the successes and failures of the New Orleans education experiment.

The event was titled “Chartered Waters: Stories of change in the NOLA school system, 10 years after the flood.”

A journalist for 25 years, Martin is best known as host of the NPR program “Tell Me More.”

Interviewing educators, journalists, students and other community members, Martin focused on the question: “Are schools better now than they were before Hurricane Katrina?”

A majority of the panelists highlighted more areas of concern than celebration as the 10-year mark approaches, despite the pervasive campaign of success from the state and pro-charter advocates.

There was one student who spoke as part of the panel, eighth-grader Jamia Brown.

Martin identified her, and Victor York, former student and founder of Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, as “the reason we are here.”

“School makes me feel like I have no voice,” Brown said. “I am a robot put into a system.” Martin asked her what she could change. For starters, Brown said, is the “zero tolerance” discipline policy that won’t allow kids through the front door with the wrong color undershirt or shoes. “What if my shoe broke, and there’s no money to get new ones? Why should things like that stop me from getting an education?”

Brown said that students should be allowed to make mistakes, and that that was part of the process of learning.

Experiences and opinions varied but there was consensus on several things.

One, that there were both good things and bad things happening.

An oft-repeated critique was that the extreme culture of high-stakes testing, then using those numbers as a measure of success for a school, carries with it troubling consequences.

Martin provided the dramatic context in her first words. In New Orleans, there is “One thing that is gone forever,” she said, and that is a traditional public school system.

Martin asked panelist Aesha Rasheed, founder of the New Orleans Parents’ Guide to Public Schools, to describe the educational environment pre-Katrina. For about five years before and after the storm, Rasheed covered education for The Times-Picayune.

Rasheed described “a lot of moments that were disheartening,” and that “a lot of folks felt there was no hope.” She talked about a high turnover rate for superintendents, and observed that “citizens expressed apathy toward their public school system.”

Today, Rasheed said that she saw more engagement from the whole community – and a greater sense of shared responsibility.

On what wasn’t working, Rasheed said that “because of test-based measurements,” schools are limited in their ability to nurture children and help them grow. Increased autonomy is supposed to help educators try different techniques for different children, she said. As is, children who struggle to learn in the intensely test-focused environment “become the enemy of the school.” Rasheed called this a “huge failing.”

Douglas Harris, director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans at Tulane University, said that not unlike other urban school districts across the country, the pre-Katrina district in New Orleans was characterized by poor performance and poor outcomes. “People were looking for something better,” he said.

Today, Harris identified “more of a focus on students and student outcomes.” He acknowledged, however, that in terms of outcomes, the data can be “hard to interpret.”

“Can you really compare?” asked Martin, of the pre and post-Katrina population.

Harris noted that it is much more complex, and that his organization was “in the middle of a slew of analysis.” He pointed to his most recent report, in which researchers found that the intense pressure on schools to have high student test scores may be driving schools to “respond in unproductive ways.”

The report showed that about 30 percent of the school leaders interviewed admitted to “creaming” the best test-takers and “cropping” those who might not score as high or take increased effort to teach.

Harris also said that “transparency” was a serious issue in terms of how decisions were being made.

Harris also said that while perhaps “well-intended,” the OneApp unified enrollment system has problems with public confidence and understanding.

Journalist Sarah Carr, author of Hope Against Hope, pointed to two “main narratives” in the pre-Katrina landscape in which she said there was “widespread consensus that schools were not serving kids well.” First, that schools were “starved of resources and set up to fail.” And second, that the system was “structurally unsound” and that the school board was “too top-heavy.”

There was a desire to start from scratch, she said.

Martin asked Carr why chartering schools was the dominant strategy. “There are other things to do,” Martin said.

Carr pointed to the idea that charter schools would be less bureaucratic with the ability to “act more nimbly in the interests of students and families.”

She also noted the “antagonism toward the union” as a key factor to the charter strategy.

Asked what was working, Carr told Martin that, “for the most part, schools are benefitting from more resources.” She also noted a “more concerted effort to get kids to and through college.”

On what wasn’t working, Carr said that the overall system’s ability to change had “gone to the opposite extreme – now the only constant is change.”

Carr detailed the persistently high turnover of teachers and administrators. National reform, she said, “is premised on better equipped teachers and principals taking over failing schools.” In New Orleans, she said, that hasn’t necessarily been the case.

Carr stressed the importance of building trust and relationships between the schools and the students and families, as well as the level of commitment from faculty.

Martin noted a high level of tension and anger surrounding education in the city – “at a level I have not seen other places.”

Rasheed acknowledged “wounds festering” about “who’s here and who is valued.”

Larry Carter, president of the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO) echoed this, saying “reform was done to us and not with us.”

Carter talked about the importance of teachers having a respected voice in their schools.

“It does matter,” said education advocate Harper-Royal. “Teacher working conditions are our kids’ learning conditions.” Harper Royal said that while she wasn’t always in agreement with the unions, she feels it is crucial that “teachers be able to speak freely without fear of reprisal. “We don’t want a situation where we have little mini dictatorships going on at our schools.”

Carr pointed to segregated teaching staffs. She identified a demographic and ideological division between (young, typically white) Teach for America teachers and (older, typically Black) veteran teachers. “People raise the issue but I don’t see progress being made in the integration of the teaching staff,” she said.

Harris agreed that there are issues with the “teacher pipeline.”

The current system, reliant on a high number of largely white, young teachers from elite universities who are “certified” by five-week training programs and work 80-hour weeks is not only not sustainable, but also operates ideologically “in opposite” of a traditional district with a teacher’s union, Harris said.

The event was live-streamed and interactive, reaching four million people and spanning the globe on social media, and occasionally Martin heard comments from cyberspace. One commenter, a product of the pre-Katrina system, said he was “offended by the notion that nothing worked pre-Katrina.” This comment brought cheers from the audience.

Carr responded that there was pain and anger felt by “people who invested time and talent” in the pre-Katrina system, and that that investment was “dismissed.”

Martin noted that those dedicated to the children before the storm were both dismissed and “dissed – disrespected.”

York, who was in public school in New Orleans both before and after the storm, said that he loved everything about his school pre-Katrina.

That “radically changed,” he said. Asked what is not working, York singled out the “punitive nature,” and compared being in school to being like in prison. “I don’t think the punitive nature helps anyone.”

What was working today, York said, was that “there a lot of people that care in schools, and kids who care about their own education, and families who care.”

As Martin pushed the panelists to address whether the nearly all-charter system was “better or worse,” Rasheed said she was more interested in what needs to be done moving forward, and what makes a good school. A school should reflect the kind of community desired, Rasheed argued. And with a current “drill and kill” testing philosophy, and elements of capitalism and elitism in education, she said there was concern about “creating an equal and just community.”

Martin addressed the role of poverty, to which the panelists agreed was not being properly addressed as an integral part of reform. Harris also pointed to a lack of resources and focus on mental health care and serving kids dealing with trauma.

On the topic of what makes a good school, RSD superintendent Patrick Dobard answered that first and foremost it was “joy, and a love of learning.”

Joan Reilly, head of school at Homer A. Plessy Community School, said that her school prioritized making learning joyful, and celebrating differences. But she said that her approach was different than the majority. Reilly was an educator in New Orleans before the storm as well. “We dare to be different,” Reilly said.

Reilly stressed a focus on problem solving over filling in answer sheets. With a smart phone, she said, anyone can find the answer to any question. She wants her children to understand and retain the material – but most importantly to learn harder to measure skills like problem solving.

On the topic of “school choice,” education activist Karran Harper Royal described the choices that existed both for herself and her two children prior to Katrina.

In the current system, Harper Royal said, “a computer chooses for you,” in reference to the OneApp system. And when very few of the A-rated schools participate in OneApp, Harper-Royal questioned the reality of that “choice.” She also argued that parents who want their children at a good school in their neighborhood, they should have that option.

Dobard and Harper Royal disagreed on most aspects surrounding the idea of “choice,” though Dobard agreed that it was a problem that the highest-performing schools elected not to participate.

He also acknowledged a need to “diversify the portfolio” of schools. Dobard said that he would not call the current system “excellent,” or “very good,” but “pushing on good,” and “way better than before.”

He pointed to increased efforts around discipline practices, truancy, and mental health care.

Asked how she would make things better, Harper Royal said that she would “put decision-making power in the hands of the people who use the schools, let parents have a neighborhood school if they want, get away from test-driven accountability, stop sacrificing some children, and stop closing schools as accountability.”

Martin concluded the evening with the hope that “this is just the beginning of an ongoing dialogue.”

This article originally published in the April 27, 2015 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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