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NOLA Argument #11: The False Choice Between 'Traditional' and 'Reform' Systems, Part 1

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There is not a lot that everyone in New Orleans agrees on with the city's unprecedented school reforms. But here is one: Everyone is tired of talking about how the schools compare with the pre-Katrina "traditional" system. People are tired of talking about the past, especially a past that is so inseparable from the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.

At the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, we hear this concern often. The problem is that we can only study the effects of one program/policy by comparing it to something else--something else that has actually happened, not hypothetical alternatives. In this case, the only plausible way to study the effects of the New Orleans school reforms is to compare it with a more traditional one, especially the pre-Katrina New Orleans system. While this is just the nature of research, we recognize that this can inadvertently narrow the debate to just two options.

This doesn't have to prevent us from talking about other alternatives, however. First, we have to be precise about what we mean by the two extremes. To me, the "traditional public school system" includes governance by local school boards who select superintendents. This district executive then manages the system, including selecting school principals and negotiating contracts with teacher unions. Students are assigned to schools based on the neighborhoods they live in, so families have limited choice of schools once they have decided where to live. Control in this system is mainly with teachers and school boards.

In contrast, the New Orleans "reform," sometimes called the portfolio model, gives school districts limited governing authority and almost no management control. Instead, authorizers decide which schools open and which are closed. School leaders have autonomy to manage schools largely as they please, without having to negotiate with teacher unions. Families can choose the schools they wish. In this case, control is more with school authorizers, CMOs, and parents. (By the way, there are many types of authorizers, ranging from school districts to state agencies and universities. That's a topic for another day.)

It's not hard to think about alternatives to these two extreme cases. Some of them simply fall in between. Instead of school board or authorizer/CMO control, we could increase availability of charter schools and leave the rest of the traditional public school system along with it (as in most large cities) or allow teachers and community groups to develop charter schools (as the originator of the charter school idea, Al Shanker, suggested).

Instead of either zone-driven student assignment or completely open school choice, we could make more extensive use of magnet schools (as in just about every large city), limit choice just to high schools (as in New York City) or guarantee neighborhood slots while also allowing open choice among the remaining open slots (as in New Orleans pre-Katrina). 

Instead of traditional union contracts that cover salaries, fringe benefits, and detailed work rules, school districts and unions could negotiate "thin" contracts with more limited work rules. Generally, any use of charter schools limits the influence of unions because it is more difficult to organize teachers at individual schools.

It's important to emphasize, however, that one decision about the design of the system is more important than the others--the role of the school board. The potential benefit of local school boards is that they provide local democratic accountability. Others would question whether this is the right approach to accountability, however, pointing out the persistent stagnation in U.S. educational outcomes and inequity. In New Orleans, the district was dysfunctional and corrupt and simply unable to turnaround low-performing schools.

The role of the school board also determines other key elements of the school system. For example, whole school districts are easier for teachers and unions to organize than small ones. The role of CMOs would also likely be lessened over time if control were shifted back from the state-run Recovery School District to the Orleans Parish School Board.

The point here is to show that it is a false choice between traditional and reform systems, but it's not quite as false as it might seem. The one key decision that distinguishes the extremes--school board control--drives most of the other decisions. That's not a false choice, but a real and fundamental one.

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The opinions expressed in Urban Education: Lessons From New Orleans are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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