Guest Post by Sarah Newell Usdin and Neerav Kingsland, New Schools New Orleans
Five years ago, New Orleans was perhaps America’s worst school system. The FBI convicted over twenty district officials for stealing from kids. A valedictorian of a local high school failed the high school exit exam. Five times. Her school had failed her. Her district had failed her. Her school board had failed her. At every level, the system was broken.
Five years later and the results in NOLA are incredible:
- We’ve out paced the state’s growth by nearly a factor of 4 over the past four years (growth of about 12 pts. vs. 3 pts)
- We’ve halved the percentage of failing schools (about 60% to 30%)
- Our highest-performing open-enrollment schools are out-performing selective-admission magnet schools.
In short, we’ve gone from “F” to “C” in five years. Now we need to go from “C” to “A”. Can we? We don’t know. Anybody who says they know how to get an entire city to “A” is much smarter than us. Of course, we do have some ideas.
The upcoming years present daunting challenges. The problems we face? We call them Charter Issues 2.0. Charter Issues 1.0 are the issues you face when you’re 10% of the system. Charter Issues 2.0 are the issue you face when you’re on your way to be 80% of the system. Some of the problems are the same. Some are very different.
Charter Issues 2.0: Duty, Virtuous Cycle, Talent, Government
Duty: When charters are the system, you must meet every need. Special education students. Adjudicated youth. Mid-year enrollees. Every kid. Every time. And entrepreneurs have to work with government to build effective systems. Common enrollment systems. Transparent expulsion processes. This isn’t about validating results by showing we serve the same kids. It’s about validating the very idea that charters can be the system.
Virtuous Cycle: Great schools must expand. Failing schools must close. We must create a virtuous cycle whereby great schools expand to serve more students, then hire more staff, and then develop more leaders who can takeover or start new schools. But there are undeniable costs to this cycle: closing schools disrupts communities, expanding schools requires large amounts of up-front cash, and managing the whole process expends a lot of political capital. If our virtuous cycle rate stalls, our growth will flat line. Will we keep it up? Or will a monopoly (district) be replaced by an oligarchy (entrenched charter interests)? Will we fight for excellence or fall for the soft chorus of better than before?
Talent: Back of the envelope math indicates that New Orleans has the highest % of TFA and TNTP trained teachers of any city in the country (roughly 30%). This number will increase. What does this mean? Is the new teaching track 2 years and out? This won’t work. Four years and out? Maybe. But what about lifelong teachers? We have lifelong economists. We have lifelong doctors. So what will our school talent system look like? Are schools run like law firms (teachers = associates, school leaders = partners)? Or like sales departments (teachers = rainmaker sales people, school leaders = managers)? Or are they a labor system unto their own? We don’t know. But our young teachers want to be developed. Our veteran teachers want to be developed. We better figure it out.
Government: How do you run system when the district no longer operates schools, recruits talent, or provides professional development? Does government become obsolete? No. Governance is essential. But it will look wholly different. At its core: effective school operator authorization and performance management. And resource allocation. And facility oversight. And a forum for public debate and accountability. Can we build this structure? Or will the urge to operate schools be just too much?
One Possible Future Worth Making a Bet On
New Orleans is one possible future for the nation’s education system. It’s not the only possible future. Other cities are doing great work. DC. New York. Maybe their results will be better than ours. Maybe their methods of reform will be more scalable. Maybe. Maybe not. The point is we don’t know. And for the nation to not at least make one bet on New Orleans would be a terrible waste. New Orleans may be the answer. It may be part of the answer. We don’t know. But we need to find out. At New Schools for New Orleans we’re trying to raise resources and recruit talent over the next three years to see if we can work with great New Orleanian educators get a city to “A.” We’ve been honored to fight the fight for the past four years by incubating schools, recruiting and developing talent, and advocating for excellence. But we need money and we need friends. We’re not that different than an annoying teenager. Come join us. Our parents are out of town. And while they’re away we just might change the future of education in this country.