New Orleans Schools Struggle to Bounce Back
TONY COX, host:
This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya, who is on vacation.
We've heard many stories about rebuilding the houses and neighborhoods of New Orleans. But that's not all it will take to revive the city. New Orleans' schools are also in transition. After Hurricane Katrina, the state legislature took control of most of the public ones. Eventually, more than 30 became charter schools, giving the city the largest proportion of charter schools in the United States.
Amy Waldman writes for "The Atlantic." Her piece in the current issue describes New Orleans' school system as, quote, "the fastest makeover of an urban school system in American history; and a patchwork, non-system of bewildering complexity and bewitching promise," end quote.
I asked Amy Waldman how race has affected rebuilding the schools in this majority black city.
Ms. AMY WALDMAN (Writer, The Atlantic): Well, the public schools are still, even post-Katrina, majority black. I think some people thought maybe that would change a little more than it did, but it really hasn't. I think the way I saw it manifest the most was in the state takeover, because more of the state officials now running a lot of the schools are white in what has been a largely black system.
And so there was I think always a sensitivity to that on both sides of what that was going to mean for the schools and the power dynamics in the schools. And the state has actually, because they couldn't find enough successful charter applicants, ended up directly running, I think, 17 schools. So just in a city where everything I think has always been racially charged and had racial implications, that created I think some issues and concerns.
COX: One of the other factors, if I can put it that way, that will help determine how effective any school system is would be the teachers, of course. And you talk quite a bit in the article about the fact that some of the teachers failed the qualifications test; and that even though this is a post-union era, they do have a certain amount of power, the teachers. How are the teachers fitting into the equation with regard to both charter and non-charter schools?
Ms. WALDMAN: I think that teachers is one of the most interesting aspects of what's going on there. You can't separate the rebuilding of the city from the rebuilding of the school system. And teachers, like everyone else, had their lives ruined or disrupted. A lot haven't come back yet. A lot are dealing with very difficult conditions.
So there's a shortage of teachers to start with. Then, as you said, states set up this test to sort of test the qualifications of teachers, and quite a few -about a quarter - didn't pass. So that further diminished the pool. So, even though the state's idea was that you should start these schools from scratch, make them much better in terms of teaching quality, smaller classes, all of that, that's hard to do when you don't have enough teachers to do it.
And then from the teacher's perspective, even though they no longer have a union and some feel very exposed, the nature and variety of schools and assistance means that they can easily just move from one school to another if they're not happy. Because there's a shortage of teachers, they actually have power because there's more demand than there is supply.
So I think the big challenge for New Orleans, though, is going to be getting enough good teachers. And the state is trying really hard on this front. They are advertising nationally and trying to encourage people to come to the city. And I think for somebody who's really dedicated to education and wants to be somewhere where things are just getting off the ground, it's a great place to go.
COX: I want to ask you about the test because you took it. How difficult was the test? You did pass it, right?
Ms. WALDMAN: I did, yes. It was a combination of math and English that were not very difficult, and then a lot of sort of educational jargon and theory that I found much more difficult not having an educational background. So it's hard to know what to take away from, you know, a quarter of the teachers not passing. You could say, OK, then clearly they don't have the basic math and English that they need; or you could say, you know, a PE teacher who got certified 20 years ago may not remember all of that educational theory and maybe that's why they didn't pass.
So, I see the argument for doing that test. I'm not convinced that it's a great way to determine whether somebody is actually a good teacher or not. Because once school started and I visit a classroom, I saw a huge range in the classroom. And so some of the teachers who passed the test were very good teachers, and some I thought were abominable teachers.
COX: Here's my final question for you, Amy. It's this - there are three different sort of school entities operating simultaneously, if not cooperatively, in New Orleans. You've got the Louisiana Department of Education Recovery School District running 17 of the city schools. You also have 31 charter schools and five schools ran by New Orleans Parish School Board. As you look back over your experience there, which of these three types of schools seems to be the one that is gaining traction?
Ms. WALDMAN: I think at this point it's a little bit unfair to make a real pronouncement on that just because it's so early in the process. And I think it is actually going to take three to five years is what's commonly said to evaluate how all these schools turn out.
And you have to remember the Orleans parish - the city-run public schools have a certain advantage in that they have instituted, most of them, selective admissions, and then that leaves the other schools to deal with some of the tougher kids or the kids who may be behind and need more remedial work.
As to the rest - the charter schools, it depends a lot on the people running them, the quality of the teachers they get. I came away thinking that it's great to have choice, but charters themselves are not a panacea. It again just depends on the quality and the vision of the administration and their ability to actually put together a real school. And even within the Recovery District I think a lot will depend on the individual principal of each school.
COX: Amy, thank you so much for your insight.
Ms. WALDMAN: Thank you for having me.
COX: Amy Waldman is a reporter for "The Atlantic" magazine and a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. She joined us from our bureau in New York City.