First off, a disclaimer. I am no longer working for United Teachers of New Orleans, as I have been for over a year. So while all the content on this blog was only ever my personal opinion and in no way reflected the positions of the union, well, now it does even less.
Today the School Facilities Master Plan was finally unveiled after months of waiting… or was it? I got a press packet from my good friend RSD Communications Director Siona LaFrance that contained a slim, vague jumble of papers; apparently the details will be released at the school board meeting at McDonogh 35 tomorrow and then made public the following day.
For the best description of what little we do know about the Master Plan I have to again refer you to Eli Ackerman of the blog We Could Be Famous.
Weíre shrinking the footprint again. I had the pleasure today of hearing a fascinating exchange between Eli and State Superintendent Paul Pastorek, who must the be the most overpaid, under-qualified bureaucrat in the state. Basically it went something like this…
Pastorek: “Those places where we rebuild schools, they will serve as catalysts for neighborhood recovery.”
Ackerman: “So then what is going to happen to neighborhoods where we donít rebuild schools? By extension, does that mean that if we donít provide public services like schools, that this will discourage people from rebuilding those neighborhoods?”
Pastorek: “Well, I donít think the placement of schools will have an effect on all areas of the city… high schools would not be a geographic attractor.”
There we have it in perfect bureaucratese, the sort of sublime logic that only those who make more than $300,000 a year can really understand. Where we build schools, people will come back to those neighborhoods. Where we donít rebuild schools… oh well, that doesnít really matter, does it? After all, weíre going to have these “magnet-like” schools…
On another front, last Thursday Paul Tough of the New York Times published a perfect piece of bullshit that I only now have come across. I talked to Paul when I worked for UTNO, and I recall how out of touch he was about the realities of New Orleans schools. He appeared to have no idea that the overwhelming majority of our public school students were low-income African Americans, and also did not seem to grasp the historical role of de-investment in the incredible inequities around education here.
But hey, I guess you donít have to be too much of an intellectual to work for the New York Times Magazine, do you?
It was enough for Tough to know that 1. schools were really bad before Katrina (no shit) and 2. the free market is great.
Maybe I have just not been smoking from the same Neoliberal bong that Paul has. Maybe I am burdened by the knowledge that experienced teachers make a significant difference in test scores, and that these ivy-league kids with TFA largely donít have any idea how to manage a class? Or perhaps it is what really shouldnít be inside knowledge for someone who calls himself a journalist- that the RSD and many of the charters are terrible messes.
Despite all the hype, test scores have not appreciably risen from pre-storm levels. Yes, they improved over last year- but I seriously hope so, given the abysmal chaos of the RSD under Robin Jarvis when the school takeover architects in their infinite wisdom decided they could run a district with half a dozen people as their main office staff.
What Vallas has accomplished he has largely done by more than doubling per-pupil expenditures, mostly by spending one-time monies that are supposed to be going to long-term needs and infrastructure. Give any urban school district in the country that kind of fiscal injection and you are going to see improvement.
But while Vallas has shrunk student-teacher ratios and brought technology into the classroom, he has also failed to fix basic problems. Ask any teacher and they will tell you that RSD professional development is a bad joke, run by salespeople and consultants who largely have no classroom experience. The implementation of the much-publicized technology like the “promethian boards” is abysmal; half the time it just doesn’t work. The discipline policy is toothless, where it is actually enforced. The paperwork errors are legion: in one small example a teacher friend of mine called me tonight and explained to me that the RSD had lost the 11th grade records for a large number of her former students, and has been sending them as seniors back to 11th grade classes.
And the charters? The great wunderkind of public education? Please. Again, most of them have no idea how to handle discipline. A third of teachers in Algiers think their merit-pay scheme TAP should be scrapped, and another third think it should be overhauled. And among the wonders of their decentralized model of education is a situation where no school can afford retiree health care for their employees because theyíve lost the economy of scale that a real school district has.
Charters have largely made what improvements they can claim in test scores by creaming their student populations via a combination of backdoor selective admissions and “soft expulsion”, where the parents of troublesome kids are “encouraged” to pull their kids out so the school wonít have to expel them. This, and their ability to attract private funding.
But donít believe the hype or the Times-Picayune headlines. Even with these advantages, many of the charters have not improved their test scores, and charter schools here, when you take the test scores of the same schools pre-storm, have largely dropped in performance. This echoes national trends, that charter schools perform on average slightly below regular public schools in standardized test scores.
But again, none of this seems to bother Paul Tough, who is busy chasing down attractive 23-year old ivy leaguers and falling head over heels for their dedication to saving the ignorant savages of New Orleans.
Hereís another story that didnít make it in to any of these reports: the RSD basically drove out the internationally renowned writing program Students At the Center (SAC) with a combination of neglect, bungling and outright hostility. This year there is no SAC at Frederick Douglass High School in the 9th ward, and the “reformer” Vallas and his cronies who he put in charge of academics, many of whom are overpaid consultants with no educational experience, are to blame.
Paul Tough basically swallowed the PR of New Schools for New Orleans hook, line and sinker, and came up with the sort of dross that Sam Winston was writing for Gambit Weekly before I took him to Einstein Charter in the fall of í07 to see how badly a school that has no real accountability can go. Tough should know better; he is a professional. I have to wonder; did he even talk to any teachers who weren’t recent TFA graduates?
This sort of shallow, ideologically loaded work is the reason that people in the rest of the country have no idea what is going on here.