More A Little Less New Orleans…And, How The Left Was Won?

Earlier I posted on the exceptionalism of New Orleans and why reformers should stop making it a “proof point” and just focus on helping kids there. Now it’s AFTie Ed playing off the exceptionalism of New Orleans in a different way. He seems to be arguing that because new sup’t Paul Vallas is addressing out-of-school issues as well as trying to improve the schools there, this validates the argument that we shouldn’t hold schools accountable for getting kids to proficiency (on often very modest standards) until we address social issues.

Again, let’s remember that New Orleans is a community that was hit by a major hurricane, then flooded, then basically emptied of people and the accompanying community supports, which are just now being rebuilt. As a result, drawing big inferences is a pretty dodgy business because the situation is so unique. A superintendent there is going to have to do a lot of things you wouldn’t do in many other cities.

AFTie Ed is a smart guy, hardly as simplistic as his post implies, and obviously knows this. He’s trying to make a broader point. But, I’m not sure the broader argument is sensible either. I don’t meet too many people in the education reform community who don’t also want to see an improvement in various social services for kids (though there is naturally some disagreement about how best to accomplish it that generally falls along the lines of how people view government, more on that below). But, many people, including many on the left, do argue that all else equal schools can do better now. I think the evidence pretty clearly supports that argument; right now schools achieve different results with similar groups of students. And, as Robert Gordon wrote recently:

In the seminar room, you can argue for months about whether poverty creates an obstacle or an absolute barrier to student achievement. But in the real classrooms, some schools teach poor kids far more effectively than others—and those schools are exactly the ones that set clear and high expectations for themselves and their students. Yet such expectations are precisely what these critics resist.

The problem is that these ideas, improving schools and addressing other social issues, are put in opposition to each other, as AFTie Ed basically does here. And too often it’s the people promoting attention to other social issues who do not argue with nearly equal vigor for school accountability or in some cases actually argue against it. That’s a shame because a center-left political coalition that married both and used the levers of government to accomplish both would be formidable and achieve a lot for kids.

Update: One national pro-reform lefty writes to say, “The crazy thing here is almost everyone I know who supports school reform was incredibly mad about the SCHIP veto, the failure of immigration reform, etc…and completely supportive of increasing the minimum wage. So if we say so, does that make us Rothsteinistas? I guess so, just like if you are in favor of any school choices for parents you are a disciple of Milton Friedman…” Good point, the world is not black and white but too often gets boiled down that way when in fact one thing that makes education policy interesting is how it transcends some traditional delineations.

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