New Orleans’ public schools were a disaster before Hurricane Katrina washed away the past. Paul Tough, writing in the New York Times Magazine, looks at the vision for the future: A city in which 75 to 90 percent of schools are charters and 100 percent of students are learning. Paul Pastorek, state superintendent, and Paul Vallas, superintendent in New Orleans, believe their role is to support good schools and weed out bad schools.
Currently, the old school board runs a handful of selective-admission magnet schools that were succeeding before Katrina; most students come from middle-class families and whatever whites remain in the public system go these schools. Charter schools educate students who agree to the charters’ rules; while most students are way behind academically, they’re the kids of parents who made a choice. The Recovery School District (RSD), run directly by Vallas, gets everyone else.
(In the RSD), they have expanded the school day by an hour and a half and are trying to extend the school year from 173 days to 193 days. This year teachers (who are working without a collective bargaining agreement) were each given a $3,000 raise. And in every school, principals and teachers are being trained in the â€œbest practicesâ€ of the countryâ€™s leading charter schools.
Vallas hopes to apply lessons from KIPP schools to the Recovery schools. With the help of a new hire from KIPP, Vallas is giving each school “detailed binders that each teacher can consult to see which skills and what knowledge they should be imparting each week and month in order to keep up with the stateâ€™s standards.”
The R.S.D. requires its schools to administer regular â€œbenchmarkingâ€ assessments to each child in the district in each core subject, to monitor how much is being learned â€” and taught â€” in each classroom.
A new voucher plan “will pay for nearly 900 New Orleans elementary-school students to attend private and parochial schools this year.” But most of the competition will come from charter schools, the fastest growing sector.
Their evolving plan would involve both the highest- and the lowest-performing schools in the Recovery School District becoming charters, though in different ways. Principals at high-performing Recovery district schools will be encouraged to apply for a charter that would let them run their schools independently â€” essentially, to â€œgraduateâ€ out of the control of the district. On the other end of the performance scale, schools that consistently fall short of state standards, even after all of the training and support that Vallas can muster, will be seized by the R.S.D., which will either hand the school over to a new or existing charter-school provider or shut it down and replace it with a new charter school. Failing charter schools will also be taken over or closed down, by having their charters revoked or transferred to another charter provider.
A great deal of foundation money is going to start new charters, hire good principals and recruit teachers. But the problems — especially for middle and high schools — are huge.