NOLA: Charter Issues 2.0

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.

19 Replies to “NOLA: Charter Issues 2.0”

  1. Excellent post. I don’t know enough to evaluate your appraisal of New Orleans improvement but I don’t see real progress coming from NYC, D.C., Klein, or Rhee, and your post shows why.

    You wrote a paragraph that neither leader would be honest enough to utter when you wrote:

    “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.”

    As long as “reformers” spout transparently false statements that they have turned around schools with “the same kids in the same building,” we’ll have a blame game based on gotchas. (and turnarounds based on creaming and dumping discipline problems on neighboring schools.)

    The single best, but far from perfect, approach would be to provide high-quality alternative schools for the 5% of students who are emotionally incapable of functioning in neighborhood schools. Ironically, NYC has started down that path. But they are so committed to scorched earth tactics that they condemn neighborhood school teachers without the backup of alternative slots, saying that we have “low expectations” and would just kick kids out if we were given the power to run our schools in a rational way.

  2. Where are these claims of “incredible results” coming from? Citations? Do you have any data on changes in student populations after a large segment of the population was dispersed by Katrina? Are we comparing apples-to-apples? More info please… Otherwise this looks like ideology parading as fact.

  3. Going from an F to a C is not “incredible results.” [It’s good, but it’s not incredible–especially when it doesn’t include all those difficult kids you mention above.]
    I’m curious about the governance issues. I get to vote for my school board. How do you see that working for charter schools.
    I’m curious about the long-term teaching corps. I think that is important for good schools. If teachers get burned out and chewed up, that cannot be good for the system long-term.

  4. I am also shocked that someone would think a “C” is excellent work. A “C”, in my opinion it is barely passing. If your school is barely passing then your students are barely passing. That goes both ways. Also I believe that inner-city schools do face a lot more challenges from social and economic factors than the rural schools I am used to but that just means that the district needs to come up with better and more age appropriate after school programs to keep students focused on their “job”. Use more professional development seminars to encourage your teachers who will, in return, encourage their students.
    If New Orleans has in fact improved 3 letter grades in five years…good for them…but you have alot more work to be done because “C” work for my child’s school or my own would be unacceptable.

  5. I am from New Orleans and have seen how poor the school systems are. I don’t feel that “C” is excellent work but it is a rise from a “F” system. I have heard many people say that the teachers in the school system as well as the school board do not really care about the students and their education. This is a sad time in history. The elevation of school is needed badly. To have a little increase of a school system I feel is a step in the right direction. But, students need to learn. This is how people in our society will be able to survive. That is through education.

    How can we improve the learning of students? One way is having highly effective teachers in the school systems that want to help students learn. They have to have a willing heart that has passion to help students progress. No way shape or form do we need teachers in the school systems that do not want to help students succeed in life. The teachers need to possess the mind to instill in the students the passion for learning. They have to want to be at the school and see improvement in the students daily lives. It is nothing worst than seeing a teacher who does not care for the students. They just want to go to school teach a little bit and earn a pay check. This is sad. Teachers that want to help students must have a positive mind set. In order for this to happen they need to be able to see the reality of situations not what they think should be. This will give the teacher the ability to teach their students positively and increase their learning. To offer additional help to students who are having problems I feel is another solution to the New Orleans school systems. Having additional help for students who are not grasping the lesson as quickly as other is a big help. Other schools around the country are trying to develop additional options in schools to help students learn better. They are establishing additional after school programs, in school programs, and tutoring for these students. These schools are not allowing the teachers to send the students that require additional help to special education classes anymore. Instead, they are offering help for these students. This is great option for the school system in New Orleans to grasp hold of. I feel if the school board will be more motivating to have hire teachers who have the passion to teach and give additional help to students than the school system will prosper.

    They do have some schools in New Orleans that have an okay systems, but I feel that they still can improve. I’m glad that the system has been fighting for the past four years to improve, recruit, and advocate for excellence, but not a lot of highly qualified teacher will want to come and teach in the school system due to the lack of excellency that is displayed by the schools and the school board. I feel that if the system continues to improve than more highly qualified teachers will want to teach at these schools.

    While other schools around the country are excelling, New Orleans schools need to excel as well. If they can continue to raise their standards for schools, their schools will continue to rise. These are just a few ways of improving the learning of students and the school system in New Orleans.

  6. Great post. While I’m a bit skeptical about the ultimate conclusion, which seems to be “close traditional public schools in New Orleans and let us do our thing”–which I think overreaches the available evidence–the “Charter Issues 2.0” section raises a number of points that really need to be a part of policy discussions, particularly in New Orleans but also in DC and anywhere else charters serve a significant portion of students.

  7. Research Shows Controversial Illness is Real and Treatable

    CHARLESTON, S.C., July 27 /PRNewswire/ — Today, Policyholders of America (POA) released a consensus statement written by treating physicians and researchers in the field on the mechanism and treatment of illness found in people sickened by exposure to water-damaged buildings. This illness has been the subject of heated debate that has resulted in harsh allegations being lobbed at patients by experts hired by industry to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the illness. Today however, so-called “Sick Building Syndrome” is now unveiled to be very real; it’s a chronic inflammatory illness that is easily identified with available lab testing and treatable using FDA-approved medications. The research paper is the first in the field written by physicians with experience treating the illness. Thorough and rigorous, the paper references governmental agency opinions, current published literature and an extensive review of patient data that has made this subject a political and legal hot potato obstructing patient care.

    Nearly six months ago, a distinguished and credentialed panel of medical doctors and researchers, all from outside of POA’s membership, were assembled and charged with developing a consensus statement on the diagnosis and treatment of a growing public health problem across America: illness acquired from water-damaged buildings. The consensus statement was then peer-reviewed by other medical doctors and researchers. The research paper is being released to help physicians and their patients understand the mechanisms, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment protocols available for sickened patients.

    After reviewing hundreds of peer reviewed studies, analyzing hard data from research conducted on thousands of patients, and incorporating published results of treatment of thousands of patients, the authors embarked on this massive assignment with eyes wide open — knowing that if the resulting research did not lessen liability of the powerful stakeholders involved, industry would likely attempt to discredit the findings.

    With the research now concluded, the mysterious illness now has a name: Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome or “CIRS”, and when the cause of the illness can be directly linked to a water-damaged building, or (“WDB”), it is called “CIRS-WDB”.

    Says Co-Author, Ritchie Shoemaker, MD, of Pocomoke, Maryland, “This statement builds consensus by debunking false ideas about illness from water-damaged buildings and establishes the basis by which practicing physicians can assess the complex illnesses these patients experience. We don’t have to guess what might be wrong when we have the labs to prove what is abnormal. Patients don’t have to suffer any longer after being given incorrect diagnoses such as allergy, stress or depression.”

    Co-authors included Laura Mark MD from Williamsburg, Virginia; Scott McMahon MD from Roswell, New Mexico; Jack Thrasher PhD of Oakland, California and Carl Grimes HHS, CIEC, President of the Indoor Air Quality Association, from Denver, Colorado.

    The 161-page research paper can be found, in its entirety, at:

    A layperson’s summary of the research paper follows:

    •CIRS-WDB is a multisystem, multi-symptom illness acquired following exposure to the interior environment of WDB. It exists as a recognizable syndrome that is identifiable and treatable;
    •CIRS-WDB is identified as immunologic in origin, with differential inflammatory responses seen according to (i) genetic susceptibility and (ii) unique aspects of host innate immune responses.
    •CIRS-WDB consistently involves loss of normal control of inflammation and the resulting “inflammation gone wild.”
    •Treatment of human illness that is acquired following exposure to the interior environment of WDB involves a series of steps, each correcting the physiologic problems one by one.
    •CIRS-WDB can be readily identified by current methods of clinical diagnoses. This process of diagnosis is supported by (i) identification of unique subsets (“clusters”) of symptoms found in epidemiologic cohorts of affected patients; (ii) identification of unique groupings of biomarkers, such as genetic markers, neuropeptides, inflammatory markers, and autoimmune findings.
    •Patients with CIRS-WDB are often given incorrect diagnoses such as depression, stress, allergy, fibromyalgia, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and somatization. Those conditions, when actually present, will not improve with therapies employed in CIRS-WDB.
    •CIRS-WDB is acquired primarily from inhalation of microbial products that are contaminants found in the complex mixture of WDB.
    •Re-exposure of previously affected patients will bring about immunological host responses that are enhanced in their rapidity of onset and magnitude, such that these patients are “sicker, quicker.”

    Melinda Ballard, POA’s president said, “About 25% of our members have experienced health effects after exposure to toxigenic mold and other organisms in their homes and of those, the vast majority put on the treatment protocol outlined in this paper have reported back to us that their symptoms have either subsided or vanished altogether. While our experience with these members is purely anecdotal, this research paper is not; the findings are irrefutable. Most importantly, the rigorous science in the paper offers hope to so many who are in desperate need of an effective and inexpensive treatment.

    POA is a nonprofit educational organization that, at no charge, helps policyholders receive adequate payment when a property insurance claim is filed. Since it was founded in 2001, more than 2.5 million people have joined, an unfortunate reflection on the manner in which claims are often handled by insurance companies. Its web address is: POA is a member of ACHEMMIC (the Action Committee on the Health Effects of Mold, Microbes and Indoor Contaminants), a group of scientists, researchers, physicians, indoor air quality experts, environmental engineers, industrial hygienists, structural engineers, teachers and advocates working to advance the understanding of the health effects of mold, microbes and indoor contaminants. ACHEMMIC’s website is

  8. Ah, the virtuous cycle.

    This is a tough one. Right now there is a lot of diversity among these fledgling charters in New Orleans. We hope the ineffective ones close and aren’t allowed to limp along with less than acceptable results. But what about the expansion of the “successful” schools? Already in my neighborhood (I live in New Orleans) there is concern that we are becoming an all KIPP district.

    Let me disclose that I think KIPP is a fantastic charter provider – BUT, all of our nearby elementary schools are also KIPP schools including our neighborhood high school. Parent choice is unfortunately lacking.

    My neighborhood is a thriving middle-class neighborhood filled with artists and musicians. We are very close to the French Quarter. Few of my neighbors with school-aged children choose to send their children to the nearby KIPP elementary schools due to the regimented philosophy which targets children from low-income families with few resources. While the KIPP method largely works for its target demographic, the method is off-putting to those from other backgrounds. Instead, these parents opt to commute to more affluent neighborhood schools if their kids are lucky to land a spot. Other kids languish on forever-long waitlists while parents scramble to find temporary placements in a less prestigious public school or a *gasp* parochial school.

    Ideally, our neighborhood would have been engaged before decisions were made to open only KIPP schools in our neighborhood. We hoped the virtuous cycle would allow for the expansion of other successful charters. We’d prefer to maintain a diverse field of choices.

  9. I want the same information stick does. How many students have returned post-Katrina? How many former Ninth-ward students does your charter system serve? Iask this because I am based in Lafayette, LA, and we still house many of the refugees. Are you comparing apples-to-apples? If so, what new techniques are you using that were not employed before? How have you seen success? What can we try to duplicate to achieve growth by state standards, serving the same population that your school does?
    I do not believe in the scorched-earth policy, either. I have worked with some of the former UTNO teachers, post Katrina, and found them the same as other teachers: some effective, some not. I also heard they were offered recruiting bonuses to go back. Does your pay scale differ substantially from the state’s? Does it allow you to recruit and keep top-notch teachers?

  10. This is an excellent post because it is a questioning one. Above all else, we need open-minded thinkers, as opposed to ideologues, in education. We need people to ask: Is this right? Can we do better? Do others have better answers? How are we doing? Kudos to you for asking these questions.

    In regard to Talent, I’d like to say that we already have a good example of what might be for teachers when we look at our college professors, who make almost all decisions regarding curriculum, instruction, entry into the profession and promotions. “Managers” (deans etc.) take care of matters that generally come under the heading of “support.” They support faculty in their efforts to do a better job of teaching and research, while still retaining their original status as professors.

    Teachers are to schools what lawyers are to law firms, and doctors are to hospitals. They are the key professionals. Hopefully, in the near future, teachers will become full professionals who have almost total control over the work that they do. Only in this way will the profession be able to attract and retain “the best and the brightest” who will want to make teaching a career. Talented people want to be decision-makers and will not accept the second-class professional status that teachers have at this time.

    During this recession it is fairly easy to get well-educated recruits into city classrooms, but once prosperity returns, it will require better salaries, career ladders and a fair degree of professional autonomy.

  11. It is good the educational system has improved in New Orleans considering the challenges. It will require a community of learners to come together and work on one accord. The best of luck with this city’s educational system

  12. I have a different take on this issue. True, our school system has improved…by some accounts vastly. By personal accounts, not so much.

    To insinuate that the current system has “halved” the rate of failure leads the reader to believe that you are working with the same kids as before. The system is neither working with the same number nor experience of students. Those who were able to return to the city post-Katrina possessed something that others who weren’t able to: a necessary support system that encourages growth and achievement. Also I feel that as a writer who is offering commentary on a school system, you do others a disservice when you fail to mention the types of schools that are being operated or those that were reopened following the devastations left by the Hurricane. Of the schools that reopened, many were our “magnets” and “college-prep” schools. They had one thing that the majority of the system did not have: resources.

    While I too am happy with the progress that the city is making in the realm of education, I can’t say that I’m happy with the methods, as I feel they only serve to push others out. Additionally, there is the issue fo gentrification, but since others fail to recognize the connection between the two, I may take to my own blog to write how this paints a different picture for my city.

    Nice post though.

  13. “The system is neither working with the same number nor experience of students. Those who were able to return to the city post-Katrina possessed something that others who weren’t able to: a necessary support system that encourages growth and achievement.”

    Oh please. You do a great disservice to parents and families in NOLA by dismissing the extraordinary levels of poverty and disadvantage within New Orleans post-katrina.

    You state: “Of the schools that reopened, many were our “magnets” and “college-prep” schools.”

    That’s either misleading or wrong. True, the schools that opened immediately after the storm were former magnets, but these are hardly representative of new schools that make up the vast majority of the city.

  14. I think this is a great post and am glad for the improvement the city is seeing. Even if you look at the different views on how much the city’s schools have actually risen by, at least the district is looking ahead and reflecting on how they can keep doing better. Reflecting on something, learning from it, and then acting on it is how we can progress, especially as teachers. I think this is exactly what the schools in New Orleans seem to be doing!

  15. I think that this post was spot on. I believe that the rest of the world was unaware of the extreme poverty or living conditions that the city of New Orleans was in prior to Hurricane Katrina. After Hurrican Katrina it not only worsened the living conditions of the poor but the school system became worse also. I am glad that there is starting to be national attention to the school system in the city of New Orelans. I beleive that change starts with one person. I beivle that the logic demonstarted in this post is the start to a more efficent school system for the city of New Orleans.

  16. reply to John Thompson:

    You said, “The single best, but far from perfect, approach would be to provide high-quality alternative schools for the 5% of students who are emotionally incapable of functioning in neighborhood schools. Ironically, NYC has started down that path.”

    I am a teacher who is particularly passionate about the very troubled 5% you refer to, and I work in one of NYC’s ‘alternative’ (self-contained, more restrictive) settings. I agree with your notion that students with more severe mental health issues need to be served in such a setting. There are three challenging caveats:

    1) QUALITY is disturbingly limited in these settings at present.

    They are seen/used as a dumping grounds for lost causes, and FAR too often those in charge of these schools also seem to also take this detrimental view. For kids with serious social/emotional/behavioral needs, these settings tend to NOT be therapeutic and can function as a feeder for the juvinile justice system.

    2) A MAJORITY of students who are pushed out of regular public and charter schools into a more restrictive setting should not be.

    The grossly disproportionate over-representation of minority males (especially African American) is a HUGE social justice issue. When white kids have trouble, they are much more likely to be labled differently, such as Learning Disabled, ADHD (under “Other Health Impairments”) and with communication disorders and provided with more supports in their settings. Yet most of the Black and Hispanic boys I work with clearly have these exact challenges, but we prefer to call them ‘Disturbed’ or EBD. IEP LABELS MATTER.

    3) INCLUSION is the most appropriate setting for most of these students.

    You cannot socialize and remediate troubled children by removing them from regular schools and placing them in restrictive settings where they only interact with other troubled peers! This exacerbates any problems they come with, and I see happening to innocent little children every single day. Schools MUST do more to develop supports that will make it possible for these kids to make progress in the normal, healthy context of regular schools. Develop School Wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports. Be proactive. Have staff that are trained to help and deal with kids in crisis. What ever it takes to promote positive change in the lives of these youngsters who are MOST in need of help!!!

  17. For those in earlier posts complaining about the writer’s grade of a “C”, I’d like those in “A” big cities to cast the first stone.

    May be a handful, but not many.

    She’s not satisfied with a “C”, what the writer is asking for is an open dialogue about how we can get past the plateau upon which many, if not, most American cities sit.

    In my experience, places like Edmonton that are among the top five performers internationally and serve a diverse population, a few characteristics stand out: 1) flexibility at the school level; 2) strong responsiveness to student/parent needs (eg. mandarin and japanese dual language offerings based on parent demand); and 3) a relentless focus on teaching and learning (eg. all of the senior managers in the district of 200 schools have direct line responsibility to principals/schools).

    From a distance, it looks like NOLA schools seem to be doing pretty well on the first two (although I am not sure the choice options are a function of available models or parent demand), but the large scale, aligned focus on instruction may be the next frontier.

    Best of luck, lots of us are pulling for you, especially after the spill.

  18. To Hank:

    As a product of the public school system (did I state that part), the schools which opened immediately (not by name) had resources…period. The people that came back and were able to stay in the system had resources…period.

    I stand by my statements. I’m neither dismissing poverty in post-Katrina New Orleans NOR the experiences of the people that I’ve talked about. Witnessing my family being barred from schools (for whatever reason) that were once their district schools due to the charter push gave me the evidence to make that statement. Not only that BUT the schools that are greatly performing are now charters and can pretty much do what they want to do. Even the schools that aren’t under the Recovery School District umbrella are mostly charters.

    As someone who has lived and witnessed the effects of a corrupt school system, I’m not completely sold on these findings that overall students are doing “better.”

    I mean, if it’s something you’d really like to discuss, then by all means, I’m open to that.

  19. schoolsmuse Says:

    I’m curious about the governance issues. I get to vote for my school board. How do you see that working for charter schools.

    The most promising thing about New Orleans is that it might bring about the end of elected school boards. Mark Twain said words to the effect that on the 8th Day God created idiots, dolts, fools, and school board members. School Boards elected by public employee unions are conflicted and the fact that America has gone from 1st in math and science int he world in 1970 an nearly dead last in 2008 is a Sputnik moment. With Mark Twain and Sputnik on our side, why can’t we eliminate elected school boards? In a poll conducted by my imagination, only 1.2% of Americans could name their school board member. Seriously, who in American knows who their school board member is? Mayoral control is a step in the right direction because most residents (over 65%) know who the mayor is and therefore it is a true vote. However, I would submit that a small self-selecting board of well respected and experienced people would function even better than mayoral control. The charter schools in New Orleans will be the ultimate proof of this.

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