Today’s (12/27/2011) New Orleans Times Picayune includes a front-page article on John White, recently appointed superintendant of the city’s Recovery School District (RSD) and a prospective head of the State Department of Education, and Kira Orange-Jones, head of the New Orleans Teach for America office and newly elected representative to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). Both are alumni of the Teach for America program, which is prominent in the New Orleans school reform effort. The newspaper asks whether New Orleans and its state are entering the “era of Teach For America.”
Although I have previously expressed skepticism about the amount of improvement we can expect in New Orleans schools, rising test scores provide some tentative empirical evidence that the city’s abysmal schools have shown somewhat better results under the reform regime that has transformed a majority of the city’s schools into charter schools and brought Teach for America volunteers into heavy participation in the school system. Somewhat reluctantly, I favor both charter schools and Teach for America. I favor the former because they do tend to offer a wider range of educational choices to families and freedom of action and flexibility to individual schools. I favor Teach for America, and programs like it, because I don’t believe that our current credentialization bureaucracy does a very good job of selecting and educating teachers, because I don’t think that certification has any necessary connection to good teaching, and because I see enthusiasm as generally more productive than years in the classroom, which can lead to burnout as often as knowhow.
I say that I reluctantly support these kinds of endeavors, though, because in their present form they are contrary to the ideal of local community control over education. Although the organizations behind some of the charter schools are located in the city, the schools are often heavily dependent on outside reformers. Teach For America is a kind of domestic Peace Corps, aimed at bringing volunteers into low-income districts to provide the quality of teaching those districts are presumably unable to supply themselves. Mr. White and Ms. Orange-Jones, as products of Teach For America, exemplify the missionary spirit of this corps. I have no doubt that they packed substantial quantities of idealism, intelligence, and dedication in their carpet bags, but neither resided in New Orleans before coming here to take up their reforming appointments.
The New Orleans experiment in public education, in fact, emerges from an external takeover of the school system. In 2003, the state legislature passed a bill mandating that the state take direction of consistently failing schools away from the locally elected school boards. The bill was clearly aimed at New Orleans, since most of the failing schools in the state were here and most of the schools in the city were failing. This legal coup had good justification. The schools in New Orleans were some of the worst in the country, and the incompetence of the school board was exceeded only by the corruption that landed former Orleans Parish School Board President Ellenese Brooks-Simms in prison in 2007. Ms. Brooks-Simms was the twenty-third Orleans Parish school board official convicted for malfeasance in office since 2003.
I do not believe that the inept and sometimes criminal school board made New Orleans schools so awful, although it certainly did not help. The relationship between a bad elected body and bad educational institutions was what statisticians call “spurious.” The underlying cause behind both was a community that had become deeply dysfunctional. As I argued in my 2002 book, A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana, the problems of New Orleans were not simply due to poverty, but to a type of poverty that has become prevalent in other areas of the United States, especially in central cities. This is an anomic poverty, characterized by the collapse of basic social institutions, most notably the family. Sky-rocketing murder rates give testimony to the city’s Hobbesian chaos. Over the past few decades, New Orleans has become a city that simply does not work.
The state takeover and the assumption of control by outside reformers were essentially acts of guardianship. Guardians take over the affairs of those who are judged incompetent to run their own lives. I think we need to recognize this fact as people debate the post-Hurricane future of the city. To attempt to re-create the New Orleans that existed on the eve of the storm would be to strive to return to civic failure.
Can outside direction bring a city to healthy independence? In fairness to the Recovery School District, its officials do generally say that they eventually intend to return the schools to a new and reformed Orleans Parish School Board. I am concerned that the tutelage will simply cultivate civic dependence, while continuing to undermine fundamental social institutions by maintaining a large part of the population as anomic wards of the state. But given the current state of social decay, I do not see a good alternative.