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Rebirth: New Orleans -- Documentary Poses a Moral Dilemma

Thursday night I had a chance to watch John Merrow's new documentary, Rebirth: New Orleans, with an audience at the Education Writers Association seminar at Stanford. The film will soon be available on Netflix.

Merrow has done a creditable job in capturing the core elements of the transformation of this district. He does us all a disservice, however, when he concludes the film by declaring this experiment a success. In so doing, he short-circuits the very deep reflection his movie ought to provoke.

The vast majority of students in New Orleans now attend charter schools. Following Hurricane Katrina, state leaders closed the schools in that city, laid off all the teachers, and waited months before gradually re-opening schools primarily as charters.

We see Ben Marcovitz, the 27 year old founder and principal of Sci Academy, who has his students walking through the halls on lines painted on the floor. He runs into trouble with his African American students, especially when the demerits begin piling up for minor infractions, like wearing gray shoes instead of black. As Andre Perry points out, the lines on the floor evoke the prisons we hope these students can avoid.

We find out that, even according to charter school leaders, it is possible to push low performing students, or those with behavior problems, out -- and back into the residual public schools. Special ed students likewise are concentrated at the public schools, and we meet an autistic youth who is repeatedly turned away from one charter school after another. The non-charter public schools where these challenging students are concentrated are under-resourced, and the morale of students and teachers is low. They have effectively been abandoned by state leaders.

Another moral dimension not really explored is the fact that New Orleans teachers were basically fired en masse, without cause, and replaced in large part by younger, largely white TFA corps members from other parts of the country. We can understand why schools were temporarily closed, but why were these predominately African American teachers, many the first in their families to attend college, not given their jobs back when the schools reopened? These teachers have recently won a lawsuit that, if upheld, will garner them millions of dollars in back pay. Is it morally acceptable to, in effect, take advantage of a crisis to fire teachers because they do not fit your model of reform?

Teach For America and similar programs have played a huge role in this project. There are nine KIPP schools in New Orleans, and the charter chain was founded by TFA alums. The charter sector has actively recruited TFA corps members to the city, and approximately a third of the teachers there now are current TFAers or alums of the program. I do not know what the turnover rates for TFAers in New Orleans are, but in my experience in Oakland, fewer than 25% remain after three years.

We see that test scores have risen - and that many of the charter schools do very well on this set of measures. The screening process seems to have favored data driven operators such as KIPP. An audience member who was a teacher in New Orleans at this time suggested that many charter school proposals that came from the community there were rejected.

The stories we see are vivid. We see a young woman who is struggling to finish high school at age 19, who benefits from the attention of her TFA teacher. We also learn of one student who has vanished from the schools after dropping out, and we have no idea where he went. Another young woman with ambitions of attending medical school was killed by gun violence.

And this highlights for me, the moral dimension that Merrow ignores, when, at the end of the film, he proclaims this experiment a success. How can we accept that a third of the schools in New Orleans have been consigned to the status of dumping grounds for the other two thirds? How can we celebrate the creation of a system that allows schools to wall themselves off from students who are the most damaged by poverty and violence - and relegates those students to schools that cannot possibly succeed in this competitive scheme?

We hear in one segment that Louisiana has proportionally more people behind bars than any other state. The students in these dead end schools, those kicked out of the "no excuses" charters, are being shuffled from one sort of abandonment to another. And the cost to them, and to the rest of us, is tremendous. There is a lot of talk of choice in our education reform discourse -- and this term usually refers to the choice of schools we offer parents and students. But in New Orleans we have established a system where charter schools are exercising choice as well, to reject students -- and teachers as well -- that do not fit in to the no-excuses model of reform. This is portrayed as competition, but the charter and public schools are operating with different sets of rules, and different sets of resources.

John Merrow has recently proclaimed his independence from Gates and Broad Foundation funding, but they appear among those who sponsored this film.

Once upon a time in this country, we had a project with the noble name "No Child Left Behind." What should we call this project? Only a third of the children left behind?

The film actually does a good job in presenting the details necessary to comprehend this moral dilemma. It is only Merrow's too glib proclamation of success that in the end, lets the viewer, and society, avoid confronting the difficult moral dilemma this experiment presents.

Update: Dr. Mercedes Schneider has written a different account of what she terms the "illusion" of success in New Orleans. She delves into the data more deeply here. She has also taken issue with the means by which success is being shown.

What do you think? Should we consider rising test scores in New Orleans a validation of this experiment? Or do the circumstances call for some deeper reflection?

Continue the dialogue with @anthonycody on Twitter.

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