Jennifer Berkshire recently spend ten days in New Orleans, where she attended a research conference about the changes in the schools since Hurricane Katrina, and met with a number of local African-American activists who are disenchanted with the reforms.
These are her reflections, on the gains and losses.
She doesn’t get into the convoluted debate about whether test scores went up. She thinks the data wars are hard to decipher because people are using different standards and benchmarks. In any event, if the scores did go up, there are other issues that may be even more important than test scores.
The parents and advocates she interviewed were all former enthusiasts for the charter revolution.
Part of the “reform” was the wholesale firing of some 7,000 teachers, most of whom were black, who formed the backbone of the city’s middle class. That hurt.
One parent complained that the all-choice system actually disempowered parents. If she complained, she risked being asked to leave the charter school. The schools have more autonomy, but parents have less power.
Berkshire says the charter sector is now consolidating, with chains taking over most of the stand-alone charters, and with the successful charters defined as those that produce the highest scores. Innovation is hard to find. What is common practice is long days, tough discipline, testing, and “no excuses.” One parent lamented that the charter sector thinks that parents and children are problems, not patrons of the schools.
Ignored in the celebratory accounts, she says, is the large number of young people who are not in school and the persistence of poverty and youth violence:
The challenge for architects and advocates of the reform effort here is that, expanded even slightly beyond these narrow metrics, the case that life is improving for the children of New Orleans gets much harder to make. Child poverty stands at 39%, a figure that’s unchanged since Katrina, even though the city is now home to tens of thousands fewer children. Inequality is the second highest in the country, on par with Zambia. And violent crime remains a persistent plague here.
“The measure of the work has to be about how it changes the life outcomes of our children,” says OPEN’s Deirdre Johnson Burel. “If my baby isn’t alive, it doesn’t matter what he got on his ACT. If he’s been divorced from his reality and has no idea who he is, what does it mean that he’s on a college campus, lost and confused?”
Then there are the huge number of young people in New Orleans between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither in school or working. The recent Measure of America study, conducted by the Social Science Research Council, found that the greater New Orleans/Metarie region is home to more than 26,000 so-called “opportunity youth. The youngest would have been just six when the overhaul of the school system began.
But even this number fails to convey the sheer number of young people here who have left the city’s schools, and are in one of the fast-expanding alternative programs, or are in work-training programs to prepare them for jobs in the tourism and hospitality industry. Added together, the number of students who’ve dropped out of the New Orleans’ schools begins to creep up uncomfortably close to the 43,000 students who are still in them.
Berkshire’s account should be read alongside the inevitable stories about the “New Orleans’ Miracle.” The question is: a “miracle” for whom?