After the flood 98

Disaster though it was, Katrina brought some good. It broke the levees of the bureaucratic mind and let common sense came flooding in – at least as far as education is concerned.

The whole country could learn from what has happened in the schools of New Orleans since the flood.

We haven’t come across a report of the good news in an American source, but this one appeared in Britain.

From the Sunday Telegraph:

Although only 16 of the city’s 128 schools survived the catastrophe intact, and about one-third of school buildings were totally destroyed, schools have improved significantly since Katrina.

The reason is simple. In the wake of the disaster, state politicians unleashed a bottom-up revolution in the city’s schools … The breaking of the levees breached a mindset that excused failure. A bureaucratic system run by local officials was torn up and handed over to a hotchpotch of philanthropists, entrepreneurs, ambitious teachers and even local universities. Parents were given freedom over where to send their children, unions were sidelined, and now standards are rising to such an extent there are lectures on the experiment at … Harvard Business School.

New Orleans schools used to be infamous, among the worst in America. Generations of children were crushed by low expectations, poor teaching, incompetent management and corruption. The statistics were damning. City schools ranked near the bottom nationally in reading and maths, with 19 out of every 20 high school seniors testing below basic proficiency in English and maths in school exit exams. In some schools, nearly one-third of seniors dropped out during the school year. …

When the storm struck shortly after the start of the school year, the struggling school district had only one month’s cash left. So it paid staff for the days they had worked, then laid them off. When people started returning to the city, the schools needed to be rebuilt and reopened. But instead of just restoring a dismal and discredited system, the state took most of the schools out of the hands of the old school board and instigated the boldest system of parental choice in the country.

The mechanism used was charter schools: non-selective, publicly funded institutions, with five-year contracts and funds allocated according to the number of pupils attracted. They were allowed to make their own decisions on hiring, curricula and school rules … although there are strict targets to meet, and profit is not a dirty word. Having made it far easier to set up charter schools, the district then eliminated collective bargaining over teachers’ pay by refusing to renew its contract with the teaching union. …

Dozens of schools converted to charter status. Stifling old rules went out the window as these new bodies competed for the best teachers and pupils, with families free to choose any school and lotteries used when there are too many applicants. Some schools reverted to single-sex lessons, while others extended school hours and terms. Uniforms are in, discipline has improved and parental satisfaction has rocketed.

Perhaps the key change, however, is that bad teachers get sacked while the best earn higher rewards. …

Indisputably … the statistics show that across the district the performance score – a tally of test marks and other performance indicators – has improved by nearly 20 per cent. …

One lesson to emerge from the agonies of Hurricane Katrina is that the combined forces of parental choice and school independence have the power to transform the lives of some of the most disadvantaged children in society.

Posted under Commentary, education, News, United States by Jillian Becker on Monday, September 13, 2010

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