Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Reconsidering Public Education in New Orleans

It's been many many months since I've talked about the state of public schools, which had previously been one of my more consistent beats.

I was pretty demoralized by the way the School Facilities Master Plan went down and the results of the Orleans Parish School Board elections only compounded my misery.

I've been trying to rethink how to approach the issue of public education given that some of the things I had been trying to fight against or force compromise on have become established reality.

One of the things I'd been emphasizing was the disorganized and reckless charterization and privatization. I was worried that the RSD had no real game plan for the eventual restoration of local control over schools. The implications of having such a balkanized administrative model over the short term were alarming; the potential for waste is important enough, but inattentiveness to general admission traditional public schools was scariest.

Although this is anecdotal based off of different things I've heard and read, I have noticed that, lately, there does appear to be increased concern in regard to poor performance at RSD schools. But one thing I think is disingenuous about the RSD is that poor performing traditional schools are almost set up to fail. Poor test scores provide the impetus to bring in charter operators to take over. This is happening at Frederick Douglass High School, for instance. Though the building was in sound condition, it had been slated for closure as recently as this fall; the award winning writing program, Students at the Center, was made unwelcome. In this kind of environment, how can a successful program be implemented? It can't.

But low and behold, Frederick Douglass High School has been saved because a charter operator, KIPP, is now interested in the facility.

Now you may find this kind of approach - helping schools into academic bankruptcy via systemic confusion or neglect - to be pretty disingenuous. And so do I.

Still, Paul Vallas has pretty successfully implemented what he set out to implement - the largest experiment in charterization in the nation's history. Whether that translates into higher achievement for students is another matter entirely. So is whether or not this model is economically or physically sustainable in the medium or long term, given that Mr. Vallas has made me look smart for predicting that he'd stretch his own budget to the max by spending one time revenue on recurring costs.

I advocated for a model resembling something closer to pilot schools in Boston, which allow for the academic exploration and experimentation that was the impetus for progressive embrace of the charter concept in the first place but without the same risks associated with unadulterated private charter boards. The pilot model allows for successes in one school to be replicated in others. Charters organizations, on the other hand, become like mini corporations, and successes are too easily treated as trade secrets. It's the difference between a true public education system and a for-profit education industry.

On the national level, people that have been alarmed by the ramrod approach of some charter proponents do not necessarily have an ally in the Obama administration, depending on whether early stances on issues like merit pay for teachers (which sounds better in theory than it might be in practice) foreshadow other policies.

Given the 'success' of Vallas' charterization plan and the larger momentum of the privatization movement on the national level, local advocates of true public education need to think through where they're at on certain issues and reorient in order to make the best of the new calculus.

One thing I'd like to see is a real shake up at UTNO. I don't know if that means management changes there, since I'm not particularly familiar with who's in charge. But it does mean that there needs to be a focus on organizing the younger TeachNola and TFA teachers. Things like merit pay appear to be on their way. UTNO would be wise to be ready to make sure that the measures used to determine achievement are fair to teachers. Beyond that, there needs to be a plan that grants good teachers legitimate stable job security without entrenching bad teachers. Given that UTNO's relevance has cratered, now is as good a time as any to reorient, as painful as it might be to do so.

On the issue of charters, I think at this point it's hard to just dig in and fight against the charters. It's not that it's an unstoppable freight train, it's that the train has already passed our station. What I think we need to do moving forward is force the RSD, OPSB, and the various charter operators to come up with a road map to local administration where charters cede some degree of control to a centralized body responsible for forceful oversight. In other words, whereas I'd been advocating that we move from traditional public schools directly to something resembling pilot schools, perhaps it's useful to think of the current balkanized charter landscape as the middle step in between the overly centralized OPSB of the past and a pragmatic pilot model that restores the voters of Orleans Parish to their rightful role as overseers of their own schools.

To that end, I found some of what was in this article to be extremely heartening given my low opinion of the new OPSB and the sober reconsideration I've been giving to some of these issues.

Later this week, several groups, including the Committee for a Better New Orleans/Metropolitan Area Committee, the Children's Defense Fund and the Urban League, are expected to announce a new coalition that will explore the future of public education in the city, including the question of long-term governance.

"Everything related to public education will be put on the table, " said Keith Twitchell, president of CBNO/MAC. He declined to release more details until the formal announcement, which is expected Thursday.

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School Board President Woody Koppel said the board does not intend to "sit idly by" and wait for someone else to determine its fate.

"I believe we need an opportunity, as a community, to openly govern our schools, " he said. "I think that people want to have schools that are run by people who live near them."


It's going to be messy, but hopefully hitting rock bottom this past fall will force us to figure out where the path upward is.

--

I've also been sitting on some really dynamite stuff in regard to how the federal stimulus package touches New Orleans schools but it's all still raw information. I've been really busy but hopefully by next week I'll have something to publish for everyone about that.

12 comments:

DAMIAN said...

A very provocative post today. I have a number of questions and comments. As background, I'm not a teacher or an administrator, but I am a lifelong product of some of New Orleans' best and worst public schools, and I also currently volunteer at them frequently. Also, a large swath of my family is made up of teachers, some of whom have worked in Orleans Parish.

Ok, on to the questions:

1. "Charters organizations, on the other hand, become like mini corporations, and successes are too easily treated as trade secrets. It's the difference between a true public education system and a for-profit education industry."

I found this comment puzzling in several regards. As I understand it, parents have the freedom to put their kids in any school in the city. If one charter is enjoying extraordinary success, even if it treats its success as a "trade secret", it will be rewarded with climbing enrollment, and will eventually open additional branches. It seems to me that we've seen this with both KIPP and the Science and Math Academies. So even assuming that it is possible for a successful school to conceal its best practices (and I'm not convinced that's possible), and even assuming that they DID so (on the contrary, KIPP representatives for example seems to LOVE talking about their methods), the freedom of parents to move their kids will ensure that best practices are extended as the good schools open new branches and the poorly-run schools shut down. In addition, every teacher who works at a good school is free to start his or her own school applying those best practices, since teaching techniques are not patentable, per se. Since there's probably a hike in salary and prestige in going from a teacher to a principle/administrator, teachers at overachieving schools have an INCENTIVE to spread those practices elsewhere as part of their career development. Admittedly, it will take a few years, but in macro socioeconomic terms, that's very, very fast. Perhaps there's a flaw in my reasoning, though.

In any event, comparing the results, per dollar, between New Orleans' traditional for-profit schools (including the Catholic schools) and its traditional public schools, I have to say, arguing in favor of the public ones is problematic.

2. "Given the 'success' of Vallas' charterization plan and the larger momentum of the privatization movement on the national level, local advocates of true public education need to think through where they're at on certain issues and reorient in order to make the best of the new calculus."

Again, you use the term "true public education". The charter schools are wholly paid for by tax dollars; parents have no payment obligation whatsoever. I'm not understanding your use of the phrase "true public education", unless you mean that public education should be centralized. In which case you should avoid confusion by saying "centralized public education" or "government controlled education". Both of those terms have more negative connotations than the word "public", but I just don't see how the current system ISN'T a form of completely public education. Similarly, you used the word "privatization" several times, which is also confusing. These schools are not privately owned, and, as far as I know, cannot be operated "for profit". After all, who would own the profits? Perhaps there is a mechanism for the charter boards to collect profits that I am unaware of, in which case please let me know.

3. "...perhaps it's useful to think of the current balkanized charter landscape as the middle step in between the overly centralized OPSB of the past and a pragmatic pilot model that restores the voters of Orleans Parish to their rightful role as overseers of their own schools"

I disagree with your premise. The Voters of Orleans Parish are NOT the rightful overseers of Orleans Parish schools. The PARENTS of Orleans Parish are the rightful overseers. More specifically, I would argue that the parents are overseers of the particular schools their children are attending. It would be ludicrous, for example, if a large number of childless Orleans Parish voters decided, by marshaling 50%+1 votes, to shut down all the city's schools. It would be equally ludicrous if a parent sending his child to NOCCA were to insist that a different parent sending her child to Math & Science Academy be FORCED to put that child in an arts program. Different parents will have different priorities, which is ostensibly why they chose their kids' school in the first place. It seems to me that once a parent has decided to send a child to one particular school, the easiest way to remedy a deficiency at that school, other than contacting the administration or otherwise getting involved, is to remove the child from that school and put the child in another, better one, not to attempt to dictate speculative reforms to the entire city's system, including both good and bad schools.

I'll remind you that for many, many years, the voters of Orleans Parish WERE the overseers of their "own schools", via the school board, and it was an unmitigated disaster. Why would we want to return in that direction, when the current system gives parents more freedom and schools more accountability? I fail to see the benefit.

Anonymous said...

My biggest concern about the state of education in the city is that Vallas and co. are experimenting on a generation of children. The writing has been on the while for quite some time that RSD means to get out of the business of running schools directly, so anyone and everyone can charter a school these days. While some of these experiments my succeed, others are failing as we speak. The situation at some of the RSD schools, both direct-run and charter, is dismal. As we bicker back and forth, we are watching as another generation of New Orleans' children go undereducated. I really wonder about what is going to happen to the children that fall through the cracks while we try to get haggle over a more permanent system. The problem is that more children are falling through the cracks than we can imagine.

DAMIAN said...

"While some of these experiments my succeed, others are failing as we speak. The situation at some of the RSD schools, both direct-run and charter, is dismal."

That's true, but students at those schools don't HAVE to wait for the entire system to be perfected. They don't HAVE to become a "lost generation". Their parents can pull them out of the failing school after ONE SEMESTER, and put them into one of the succeeding schools.

In fact, it's ESSENTIAL that parents provide this kind of feedback. It's the parents pulling out that will put the pressure on the failing schools to change their ways or close up shop forever.

When I was a kid in Orleans Parish schools, that was not an option we had. We were REQUIRED to attend the school in our neighborhood. Only Magnet schools offered another option, and if you couldn't get into a Magnet, you were stuck forever. That is no longer the case.

E said...

Damian, your questions and points are thoughtful. I think you're probably right that I was a little quick and sloppy in describing some of the issues with charters.

Anon gets at the larger point I'd hoped to make.

Our public education system needs to serve all of the children, not just those that have engaged parents. The current landscape punishes children whose parents are not on the ball and will continue to do so until we figure out a way to have central oversight and some semblance of centralized decision-making over the entirety of the portfolio.

And to clean up what I was suggesting about charters acting as corporations or whatever...

The point is that I believe shifting the responsibility of public education away from government and the tax payer onto nonprofit and for-profit school managers is not the way to go over the long term. Public education is our nation's oldest entitlement and the one that is most directly responsible for all the wealth and innovation we now enjoy. Bringing non-profits aboard is a good short term stop-gap but it seems like society is copping out of their responsibility to kids.

In the end, what we had with the old system was a mixture of some good things and some bad things and what we have with the new system is a mixture of some good things and some bad things. Where there has been progress in some areas, there has been regression in others.

My hope is that education advocates are able to figure out a way to restore some of the good things about the traditional model within the new framework that's been imposed.

Anonymous said...

Great post E.

1. Let's stick with calling this what it is: privatization of public schools--not "chartering." Charter schools are autonomous schools within a larger publicly controlled system. What is happening in New Orleans is an unprecedented radical experiment in privatization of all public education based on a model that has zero research and evidence to support it. In 2005 Cecil Picard announced he intended to hand over every public school he had seized from Orleans to private operators not accountable to the public. Paul Vallas affirmed that was his plan and Pastorek has said as much.

They refuse to use the term "privatization" and "free market model," which is what Paul Hill used when he invented this scheme, because the free market doesn't look so free and great now. Calling this "chaterization" buys into their language and prevents the public from understanding what is really happening. We did not "charter" garbage disposal--we privatized it and lost control of it for the seven year contract. Sometimes direct government oversight and control is not such a bad idea.

We have also privatized teacher recruitment and training, which no other district has. The majority of new teachers are to be vetted and recruited by Teach For America and the New Teacher Project and trained by their own contractors. New Orleans is a beachhead for privatization of education, and "competition" has already created a separate and unequal system of schools--the botique charters and the RSD and the charters they create.

KIPP has no trade secrets that they want to share. But I will. How about the Broad Foundation grant they got that allows them to pay students $50 a week for good behavior? Or the $180,000 in annual scholarships Minlolta gives Kipp's Mc15 students to attend private high schools as an incentive? None of these behavior and academic incentives can be replicated throughout the system, and KIPP is using their contrived "success" in New Orleans, based on "trade secrets" they hide from the public, to get 14 school contracts in Washington.

We have school principals with compensation packages ranging from $70,000 to $280,000. Teacher salaries have a $20,000 differential between charters and non-charters. The lowest performing schools have virtually no teachers with more than two years exprience. Inequality and free markets go hand in hand.

Caveat Emptor

DAMIAN said...

1.) "Our public education system needs to serve all of the children, not just those that have engaged parents. The current landscape punishes children whose parents are not on the ball and will continue to do so until we figure out a way to have central oversight and some semblance of centralized decision-making over the entirety of the portfolio."

I understand your sentiment when you say this, but let's be frank: The WORLD punishes children whose parents are not on the ball. That isn't unique for public schools, private schools, colleges, or anything else. You're proposing that a good school system should serve all children equally, INDEPENDENT of parental involvement. I would argue that no such system is possible. Kids with caring and involved parents will always have some kind of advantage over kids with negligent or disinterested parents.

Note that parents don't need to be educated or wealthy to be involved. I would prefer a system that invites, encourages, and develops parental involvement, rather than one that tries (and fails, if the rest of human history is to be a judge) to make such involvement unnecessary or irrelevant. I wonder whether your argument would "make the perfect the enemy of the good" by insisting on an improbable sense of equality across a system that, at least in my experience, is rapidly improving.

I know that there are groups trying hard to disseminate information about the performance of the various charter schools, so that parents can, with relative ease, make informed decisions about where to send their kids. This seems like the best possible course in the current charter/privatization/whatever you want to call it paradigm.

It's possible part of our disagreement is based on a fundamental ideological difference on this topic, which is fine. We can talk less abstractly.

It would help to clear out the cobwebs and see exactly what you're proposing. When you say you want "central oversight" and "some semblance of centralized decision-making," can you be more specific about what you want oversight of (construction contracting? insurance provision? information management? hiring practices? etc.) and who exactly should have that oversight (the school board? RSD? city government? federal government?) and why you think THAT organization would do a BETTER job managing the school than the administrators AT the school?

Finally, whatever oversight you think is necessary and appropriate, can it ensure MORE accountability than the power of parents to pull their kids out of school if they're not satisfied? If not, what is the advantage of applying that oversight, rather than helping parents decide whether to keep their kids in an under-performing school?

2.) "The point is that I believe shifting the responsibility of public education away from government and the tax payer onto nonprofit and for-profit school managers is not the way to go over the long term. Public education is our nation's oldest entitlement and the one that is most directly responsible for all the wealth and innovation we now enjoy. Bringing non-profits aboard is a good short term stop-gap but it seems like society is copping out of their responsibility to kids."

First off, we haven't moved responsibility away from the taxpayer at all. The entire system is taxpayer-bought. We should be clear on that: it isn't private, and I don't know of any plans to make it private. Some of the schools are seeking private grants or collaborations, which is a smart thing for them to do financially. That's a long way from suggesting that the entire system be removed from government or financed directly by parents or by other private means.

Again, I understand your sentiment, but on the contrary, I think bringing non-profits aboard is EXACTLY a manifestation of society TAKING responsibility for kids, not a stop-gap measure at all. It is not, perhaps, the government-derived system that we are familiar with, but to declare that a system for educating children is automatically illegitimate unless it is centrally controlled by the government is, I think, rash.

Moreover, I think your romance with America's century-long experiment with public education is based on incomplete information and incompatible with your distrust of corporate consumerism. I might suggest you read the 2nd chapter of John Gatto's "Underground History of American Education". Ironically, he agrees with you: the current education system IS responsible for our nation's wealth. Here is an extended quote from Gatto:

---------------
In the first decades of the twentieth century, a small group of soon-to-be-famous academics, symbolically led by John Dewey and Edward Thorndike of Columbia Teachers College, Ellwood P. Cubberley of Stanford, G. Stanley Hall of Clark, and an ambitious handful of others, energized and financed by major corporate and financial allies like Morgan, Astor, Whitney, Carnegie, and Rockefeller, decided to bend government schooling to the service of business and the political state—as it had been done a century before in Prussia.

Cubberley delicately voiced what was happening this way: "The nature of the national need must determine the character of the education provided." National need, of course, depends upon point of view. The NEA in 1930 sharpened our understanding by specifying in a resolution of its Department of Superintendence that what school served was an "effective use of capital" through which our "unprecedented wealth-producing power has been gained." (The entire book is online; you can read more here if you like:http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/chapters/2g.htm)
---------------

In other words, the modern system of compulsory, regimented government education was developed and devised by titans of industry to ensure a steady stream of standardized capital labor; the book goes into great depth to demonstrate this. This isn't directly relevant to our current conversation, but perhaps it explains why I'm skeptical of monolithic educational entities. Has our oldest entitlement made us wealthier? Apparently. Has it made us into a nation of easily-molded, consumerist tools of industry? That was certainly its intent.

I know I'm getting far afield, but your accurate statement about our national wealth made me recall that book.

Anyway, returning to the topic at hand, perhaps we can use my questions in paragraph 5, above, as an opportunity for greater specificity?

Leigh C. said...

Damian, the problem with the system we have now is that the charters were pushed through when there were no parents in the city and the teachers were dismissed from the old OPSD. The emergency order approved by Blanco that made consideration and approval of charter schools in Orleans Parish a less arduous process (i.e., no parent/teacher approval or preliminary hearings required for a charter consideration) is also still on the books - meaning the parents, the taxpayers, and the OPSB here have no real control over the schools - the state does. For the school board to have more of a say over more schools here, it must face these realities.

Mind you, not all charters are bad. Replacing an entire school system with charters, however, hasn't been done in many places - and Boston does indeed have one of the few models that works. And your idea that schools with growing enrollment will benefit and expand accordingly denies another reality: charters are semi-autonomous, still dependent on the school system for physical plant maintenance and facilities...and the facilities that are here are being demolished under the Master Plan, renovated, or won't be built and completed until a few years from now.

Hurricanes have hit Florida and the teachers in affected areas have not been fired from the school systems in which they've worked. Arrangements were made after Andrew hit Homestead, FL, for teachers to find employment in places to which they'd evacuated until they could return. There was no such organization here, and there won't be until the decentralization trends that the state seems to be moving toward start considering the children - not the statistics, or the money. Kids are not numbers, nor are they greenbacks.

Experienced teachers are also in short supply in the current system. Having a merit-based pay scale like Obama is proposing will only work if teachers' starting salaries are raised across the board - and that isn't happening. The charters are supposed to be coming up with their own benefits and retirement packages for their teachers - they initially had three years after the storm to do so, then they were given an extension. With beginning teachers burning out left and right due to other forms of non-support in their lines of work (teachers are still expected to combine surrogate parenthood, social work, and some psychology along with their regular duties, and even wholly supportive administrators can only do so much), any benefit packages the state or the charters come up with won't be enough anymore to hold ANY teachers in the schools for long. High teacher turnover can't be good for the kids' development.

Education can't be run like a corporation. The fact that so many banks, investment companies, and insurers are now failing ought to be a huge object lesson in that regard.

DAMIAN said...

Hello, Leigh. You've raised some excellent points, thanks for taking the time. Your knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the law is probably superior to mine, so if I make make factual errors, feel free to correct me. I'm learning a lot on this blog.

"...the problem with the system we have now is that the charters were pushed through when there were no parents in the city and the teachers were dismissed from the old OPSD..."

That was unfortunate on both counts. Even a good deed, when done without permission, is prone to raise alarm and provoke anger, and we aren't even sure the charter-system was a good deed. As for the firing of the old teachers, I know a lot of teachers who are still outraged about that. On the other hand, even the angriest teachers admit that some entrenched, problem teachers were released, too. A large number of teachers were in fact rehired. I haven't seen any numbers to indicate how much damage was done in the process.

"The emergency order approved by Blanco that made consideration and approval of charter schools in Orleans Parish a less arduous process (i.e., no parent/teacher approval or preliminary hearings required for a charter consideration) is also still on the books - meaning the parents, the taxpayers, and the OPSB here have no real control over the schools - the state does. For the school board to have more of a say over more schools here, it must face these realities."

The parents may not have any direct control over the schools, but I would argue that they never did through the school board either. In the current system, a dissatisfied parent can pull his child out of a school in a matter of weeks or months. In the old system, he was tied to the school by his district/precinct, and could only hope to influence the school's management by trying to elect a new school board member on a multi-year term. I think the new system is vastly improved, and no one has been able to convince me otherwise, yet. Also, given how fantastically corrupt the old school board was, I thank heavens every day that they are no longer in real control. As for the taxpayers, again, were they ever in control? Was there a golden age when property tax payers in New Orleans got exceptional value for their school dollars? Not in the modern era.

You're criticizing the current system, but I'm not convinced there's anything positive to compare it against. They've started at the bottom. They're going up; unevenly, jerkily, uncertainly... but up. Also, you say that no parent/teacher approval is required for a charter to be considered. But the parents still have to send the kids there. The teachers still have to agree to work there. It's not like any one charter is being forced on people.

"...your idea that schools with growing enrollment will benefit and expand accordingly denies another reality: charters are semi-autonomous, still dependent on the school system for physical plant maintenance and facilities...and the facilities that are here are being demolished under the Master Plan, renovated, or won't be built and completed until a few years from now."

That's true, but as you said, there are few restrictions on starting a new charter. Thus, for example, the governing board behind Math and Science High School on Nashville has started the Math and Science Academy in New Orleans East. KIPPs seem to be popping up all over. There are ways to expand that don't involve building new classrooms, and that appears to be happening. Also, as I said, a teacher at an exceptional school has a real incentive to branch off and start a school that employs the same principles.

I share your concerns about the effect of the Master Plan. For a while, McMain, my alma mater, was on the list to be sold off for the real estate value. There are a LOT of bad ideas floating around, and I'll be at a Master Plan advisory meeting on Saturday fighting against some of them.

"Hurricanes have hit Florida and the teachers in affected areas have not been fired from the school systems in which they've worked. Arrangements were made after Andrew hit Homestead, FL, for teachers to find employment in places to which they'd evacuated until they could return. There was no such organization here, and there won't be until the decentralization trends that the state seems to be moving toward start considering the children - not the statistics, or the money. Kids are not numbers, nor are they greenbacks."

I don't think I ever tried to compare kids to currency; that certainly isn't what I believe.

Anyway, Homestead FL is a 4 mile-across town of around 50,000. I'm not sure what its population was before Andrew, but based on its size and demographics, I'm going to propose that it was similar or slightly less. Also, its rebuilding was never in question, despite the extraordinary devastation there. Relocating its teachers would have been a significantly more manageable task than was the case in southern Louisiana after Katrina. I'm not saying that justifies the abysmal federal, state, and local response to Katrina, but we should keep things in perspective. Should there have been some effort to resettle our teachers elsewhere? I suppose you could argue that, although that would have made it even harder to get them to move back later. More importantly for your specific argument, I don't see any reason to believe that the absence of such a plan was due to decentralization. Indeed, Louisiana is highly bureaucratic--with one of the highest percentages of citizens employed by government in the US--and the New Orleans Public School system had always maintained strict (if totally incompetent) control over its member schools. The fact that, as of Katrina, the system was in turmoil as the state attempted to seize control, should remind us how catastrophic a centralized failure can be. Under the current system, the damage of a poorly-run school is limited to that school. I feel more comfortable with this system, though I freely admit that could be an ideological difference that is not amenable to rational argument.

"Experienced teachers are also in short supply in the current system. Having a merit-based pay scale like Obama is proposing will only work if teachers' starting salaries are raised across the board - and that isn't happening. The charters are supposed to be coming up with their own benefits and retirement packages for their teachers - they initially had three years after the storm to do so, then they were given an extension."

I don't know the details of what Obama is proposing. When I think "merit based", I don't necessarily think "seniority based", so my impression was that young, talented, enthusiastic teachers (who I ALWAYS preferred when I was in school) would do very well in such a system. Perhaps that is not the case, and I look forward to hearing more from you about it. I would like to see young teachers rewarded for innovation, not punished for a lack of experience.

"With beginning teachers burning out left and right due to other forms of non-support in their lines of work (teachers are still expected to combine surrogate parenthood, social work, and some psychology along with their regular duties, and even wholly supportive administrators can only do so much), any benefit packages the state or the charters come up with won't be enough anymore to hold ANY teachers in the schools for long. High teacher turnover can't be good for the kids' development."

I agree with everything you said: we OUGHT to pay our teachers more, and they need vastly more non-monetary support than they get. It's a tragic shame that our culture has labeled teaching a second-class job, while lawyers and advertisers are venerated.

However, I don't see why this is a charter-school-versus-public-school question. The charters are still paid for with tax dollars, and unless taxes go up or down, I don't see why the school-organization philosophy should affect teacher salary. Please feel free to clarify.

Leigh C. said...

"I don't see why this is a charter-school-versus-public-school question. The charters are still paid for with tax dollars, and unless taxes go up or down, I don't see why the school-organization philosophy should affect teacher salary. Please feel free to clarify."

I see your point, Damian. The school-organization philosophy doesn't affect teacher salary so much as it affects how the teachers are treated in other ways. Those who teach at a charter are mightily discouraged from joining a union or creating their own. Say what you will about unions, especially about the way the teachers' union operated in this town for many, many years, but there need to be some protections in place to ensure that teachers are not taken advantage of more than they already are. Teaching is always spoken of as being a profession, but that word rings hollow in the face of the realities.

A while back, the T-P did an article on a special ed teacher at New Orleans College Prep. I discussed the problems this dedicated teacher faces here:

http://liprapslament-theline.blogspot.com/2008/06/details.html

Among the biggest problems for teachers: most of the RSD schools are unaccredited.

http://liprapslament-theline.blogspot.com/2008/06/feedback-on-yesterdays-post-this-list.html

Anybody teaching in an unaccredited school here is gonna have a hard time getting a teaching job elsewhere in an accredited school.

I don't know why there can't be some sort of medium found between the centralized and the decentralized systems. Yes, I know we are starting at the bottom here, but we need to try to ensure that we don't STAY at the bottom, and there are some things being done here (as well as all across the country) that are not helping. It's not enough for Obama to support charters - all of public education needs to be reexamined and a true plan needs to emerge.

From where you are, and the literature you've read, what would you propose?

Anonymous said...

Damien,
Salaries for teachers range $20,000 between charters and RSD-public schools because Charters like Lusher raise millions from outside sources and RSD schools have fixed salaries and virtually no foundation or corporate funding. That's why Lusher can pay their "CEO" (principal) a $280,000 compensation package for a school with 1,300 students while principals in the RSD make $80,000. Under the old sytem, teacher and staff were on the same scale, so one school could not get foundation funding or corporate funding to pay teacher more to attract better veteran teachers. Look at Audubon and Behrman: best scores, most experienced teachers.

"Deregulating" schools has created profound inequality and robs poor children with low achievment scores of the best teachers. The system is upside down and the business mentality is the reason. The solution is to keep a measure of school autonomy but restore democratic control to ensure equity. A newly configured board could be obligated to allocate funds to schools based on student need. Finally, the BESE formula for funding schools is inherently unequal and unconstitional and the ACLU should sue. This has succeeded in other state so poor districts get more money. The point is that the old system did not work because of the board structure and underfunding. We have to fix both and stop the privatization madness.

DAMIAN said...

Leigh,

You said that teachers who work at charters are mightily discouraged from joining a union or creating their own. Can you explain the mechanism by which they are inhibited from creating a union? Is there a reason they can't just join an existing teachers' union? I'm not familiar with the law in this area. Obviously, the freedom to organize is essential in any free society, so if the teachers are prohibited by law from unionizing, I'd find that profoundly offensive. But I'd never heard anything like that from any of my teacher friends, so I found your comment a little startling.

I had read that Picayune article, and I'm somewhat acquainted with the teacher featured in it (Shawn). I volunteered in his class last year, but I knew his colleagues much better than I knew him. I think we both went to Penn State... but he might have been a Wake Forest grad. Anyway...

I've heard about this accreditation problem before. It really does appear to be a dilemma. But I'll point out that many teachers consider the accreditation process the problem, not the non-accredited schools. Qualified teachers who do a damn fine job are ineligible for accreditation because they don't have the right course load, or haven't taken enough exams. Having strict requirements for teaching sounds fine in principle, but in practice it means turning qualified people away because they don't have the right papers. A very close friend of mine once told me that I would never be able to teach math or science in an accredited New Orleans school because I didn't major in education, even though I have multiple degrees in engineering. Of course, I wasn't _intending_ to teach in New Orleans schools, but the idea that I was _unqualified_ irked me. Surely a school administrator would be a better judge of who they need in a science classroom than a list of bureaucratic requirements, and it seems to me that if the principal wants someone in the classroom, the red tape should be kept minimal.

Right now, James Carville is garnering nationwide rave reviews teaching a political science class at Tulane. But he could never teach a class at an accredited public high school. There's something wrong with that system. Again, I don't consider this a problem with the charters; it's an endemic problem with the system, and I think it's wonderful that the charters are allowing highly qualified teachers to get into the classroom without accreditation. Will it be tough for them later? Certainly, if they want to move on to an accredited school, but without this system, would they have ever gotten into the classroom at all?

But I admit, my understanding of the accreditation process is very incomplete. If I have any gross misunderstandings of it, please let me know.

You said that you'd like for a "true plan" to emerge. I'd like to sound a note of caution about plans. Something that works beautifully in Boston might fail utterly here. Even more troubling, something that works brilliantly in Mid City might fail in Lakeview, just because of personnel difference, or differences in parent participation, or even facilities. People tend to denigrate decentralized systems with words like "fragmented" and "disorganized" and "Balkanized". Although any of these words might apply, I think painting with that broad brush is unfair. Sometimes a system is so complex that no single plan will possibly do. Frankly, I think it's almost offensive for someone in Washington DC, who's never lived here, worked here, or even visited here, to think they can plan our school system. Heck, even our own school board failed to do it, after years of trying. I don't even trust Baton Rouge to attempt to explain what exactly is causing grades to slip at Sam Green, or enrollment to drop at Langston Hughes. How on Earth would they know?

I'm not saying that there aren't principles and approaches that are generally more effective than others, but I am saying that if you can give a decentralized network of schools the tools they need to operate with only very localized management, you should at least give it a try. If several of the schools come back to you and say "Ok, we tried to set up our own IT department, and it was a disaster. We need help with this", then it's perfectly reasonable to go back to the drawing board and write "Note: Charter schools are having trouble handing their computer systems. We need to set up a central network for this." I mean, this system is not static. It's evolving. On the other hand, if 9 out of 10 charter schools set up their networks just fine, and ONE is having a problem, it is UNREASONABLE IN THE EXTREME to demand for all of the schools (most of which are having no problem) to use a central network, which may be inferior to the ones they've devised on their own. My greatest concern is that "centralization" will become a hammer with which successful schools are bludgeoned back into mediocrity. That has been the case in the past.

You asked me what I would do, from my perspective. I'm really not qualified to answer that question, though I am stimulated by this discussion. I have some ideas, but many of them are not compatible with current laws or funding mechanisms. But I don't want to be the sort of person who only criticizes and never suggests an alternative. So here are a few simple things, mostly informational things, I would like to see:

1. I would like to see the state and federal governments reevaluate their standards for accreditation, and institute changes, where practical, to make teaching more accessible for people without education backgrounds. I think school would be more stimulating if your English class was taught by a retired journalist, if your chemistry class was taught by an engineer on sabbatical, your math class was taught by a computer programmer who found that coding work became scarce. It would be more diverse, more involved, more exciting. I hope so anyway. This would also give principals more latitude to develop the curriculum they think will succeed. If we're going to judge these "Balkanized" schools on their performance, we should give them the freedom to try really innovative and perhaps counterintuitive things. Similarly, I would like to see rules that are often considered sacrosanct reevaluated. For example, some studies have shown that regimenting children by age (the "grade" system) limits their development and creates behavior problems. If a school wanted to experiment with multi-age classes, they should be allowed to make a case for it.

2. I would like for parents to have access to comprehensible, well measured parameters about a school's accomplishments. If I'm a parent, how can I tell the difference between a school that has an EXCELLENT staff and curriculum, but serves a high-risk population and so has low standardized test scores, and a school that has a mediocre staff and a flawed curriculum, but serves an affluent population and so has high scores? How can I tell how satisfied the students feel? Again, if we're going to judge schools on their performance in a "decentralized" system, we need to meter their performance in meaningful and comprehensible ways so parents know what they are choosing. Is a school improving? Stagnating? How well do they communicate with parents? What are their disciplinary problems? Obviously, the school can't self-report all of this. Even if they meant to be honest, they would inevitably inflate their performance. But current external review consists mainly of standardized tests, which are a very poor meter of overall performance. Student surveys should figure heavily in any meaningful study of school quality. Are they happy? Stimulated? Afraid? Dejected?

3. I know this sounds silly, but I would like to see a New Orleans fund set up, into which went money seized in graft, corruption, and embezzlement prosecutions. The money would go entirely to teacher salaries, distributed equally among schools (with, perhaps, an exception for schools with unusually thick bankrolls). It's not because I think this would produce a great deal of additional money... I'm really not sure how much it would produce. But I'd like for voters (and students, at impressionable ages) to see a tangible benefit every time a corruption case is concluded successfully. It would be a teachable moment.

Ok, off to bed. I have other ideas, but they're even stranger than #3.

I'll try to engage "Anonymous" tomorrow about some of his/her concerns, which I think are very good points. I'm just too beat to take it up tonight. PLEASE do let me know if I have any factual errors above. I'm learning new things about the system all the time, and I present my thoughts with real humility. In Churchill's words, I'm a humble man with much to be humble about.

Angelique said...

Just a quick note about unionizing in charter schools - I couldn't possibly wade through this avalanche of assertions and address each one that caught my fancy. That's just not possible after a couple of glasses of wine.

But, back to what I wanted to say about unions. Having worked in 2 separate urban high-poverty school systems (Baltimore then the RSD) I experienced 2 ends of the union spectrum. In Baltimore, the union was super entrenched with awesome collective bargaining power. In the RSD, the union was mostly a fractured, nostalgic joke. Obsolete, I guess. Yet, my distaste for the union developed in Baltimore, not the RSD. Why? Well, for starters, it bothered me that they didn't give you much of a choice to join, really. It was pretty much mandatory that if you worked in a traditional public school, then the local branch of the AFT directly transfered $25 out of your monthly paycheck into their personal account. And if you chose not to be a member, then the union had an agreement with the school system that $25 would be taken out of your account ANYWAY and put into some other obscure account that only the school board had access to. Crazy, huh?

I'm not anti-union -- neither are lots and lots of charters, but I'll get to that later. I think its important for workers to have the mechanisms in place to stand up for their rights. It was not too long ago that educators were terribly exploited and had to endure insane working conditions (thanks to the limited employment options educated women were afforded back then, school systems had a captive workforce and accordingly paid female teachers peanuts). But unions, like many institutions, become more more preoccupied with preserving and protecting themselves rather than evolving. For example, I enjoyed a 6.5 hour workday with a 45 minute lunch period. AWESOME! But did a 6.5 hour school day really benefit the kids? NO! But the union guarded that school day length jealously, unwilling to compromise what they scored on behalf of the members of the BTU.

That said, I think I should address your assertion that charters discourage unionizing. Sure, some do. But there are so many exceptions to that rule, that unions and charters are no longer mutually exclusive. See Green Dot charters on the West Coast for an example of charters that are friendly to teacher unions. In New Orleans, there's nothing preventing charter school teachers from joining UTNO, either. Why would they, though? What has UTNO done for teachers (especially RSD teachers) lately. Nothing much.

Now, I'm going to brace for more of the avalanche because I'm sure all that was written above was largely inarticulate, but I just enjoyed a delicious sausage and pepper dinner -- an inadvertent St. Joseph's day homage? And my husband is yowling for me to get of the computer and watch our fresh arrival from Netflix.

Peace.