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What I Learned in New Orleans

Dear Deborah,

The elections brought a barrage of bad news for supporters of public education. A number of governors and legislators were elected who support the corporate reform model. They will promote vouchers, charters, merit pay, more testing, tougher accountability, evaluating teachers by test scores, and anything else that is guaranteed to cause dissension and demoralization among the men and women who work in our nation's public schools. It's sad for teachers and administrators and will be catastrophic for the quality of education. The new superintendent of schools in Oklahoma was the founder of two charter schools; in her campaign, she pledged to defend the rights of homeschooling parents and opposed additional funding for public schools. No nation in the world, at least none that we wish to emulate, is engaged in doing what our "leaders" are doing. I can't say where all this is going, but it doesn't look promising for those who care about our nation's children and the quality of education that we provide them.

As you know, I have been traveling constantly this fall, speaking to teachers, administrators, school board members, parents, and researchers. Wherever I go, I try to learn something new and not just hear myself talk.

In New Orleans, I spoke at Dillard University, an HBCU (or historically black college or university). There, I heard from angry African-American parents and educators who felt disenfranchised by the charterizing of their public schools. The mainstream media may think that the chartering of New Orleans was a wonderful thing, but the audience that night did not. When a young woman (who was white) from the Cowen Institute at Tulane University defended the success of the charters in getting more students to pass AP exams, several people in the audience demanded to know why their non-charter schools were no longer allowed to offer AP courses. The young woman had no answer. Several people that night said: "They stole our public schools, and they stole our democracy while we were out of town."

Also in New Orleans, I spoke at the Grantmakers in Education conference, where I shared a panel with Ted Mitchell (the president of the California state board of education, the president of the NewSchools Venture Fund, and a board member of Green Dot charters and New Leaders for New Schools, etc.) and John Jackson, the president and chief executive officer of the Schott Foundation for Public Education. Mitchell spoke enthusiastically about the Obama-Duncan agenda, especially the Race to the Top, which promotes so many of the ideas in which he believes. John Jackson was brilliant in criticizing that agenda for "thinking small," dropping $50 million on KIPP to double the number of its charters from 99 to perhaps 200, and endowing Teach for America with $50 million when they add fewer than 10,000 teachers each year—teachers who agree to stay on the job for only two years in a profession that must add at least 300,000 teachers every single year. Jackson wondered why the administration was not planning a dramatic expansion of pre-K to all those who need it (a goal on which there is strong, positive research) or devoting resources to building a strong profession.

My favorite line from that day occurred when Jackson said he had recently visited some very high-performing nations. At each stop, he asked authorities: "What do you do about bad teachers?" They consistently replied: "We help them." He then asked: "What do you do when they don't improve?" They answered unhesitatingly: "We help them more."

Diane

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