Campbell Brown was on C-SPAN yesterday (August 18, 2015) talking up her new school “reform” web site, The Seventy Four. Her discussion focused on the usual “reformer” talking points…choice, failing schools, and most of all, how much better New Orleans schools are now, compared to what they were pre-Katrina.
Before I get to some of her comments, though, it’s important to note that this month marks the tenth anniversary of the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.
In 2010, Arne Duncan famously commented…
“…I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that ‘we have to do better.’ And the progress that they’ve made in four years since the hurricane is unbelievable.
Just last week, Chicago Tribune writer Kristen McQueary echoed Duncan’s sentiment when she wrote,
I find myself wishing for a storm in Chicago — an unpredictable, haughty, devastating swirl of fury. A dramatic levee break. Geysers bursting through manhole covers. A sleeping city, forced onto the rooftops…That’s what it took to hit the reset button in New Orleans. Chaos. Tragedy. Heartbreak.
The backlash against Duncan forced his boss to make him “not-apologize” for his remarks. Likewise, the backlash against McQueary forced her to write a “not-apology” a few days later (see here and here for two responses to McQueary’s article).
School reform vastly expanded in New Orleans after the hurricane. Dozens of schools were added to the Recovery School District. Whether you approve of charter schools or not, it was a revolutionary change in education, and it would not have happened without Hurricane Katrina.
Many readers thought my premise — through my use of metaphor and hyperbole — was out of line. I certainly hear you. I am reading your tweets and emails. And I am horrified and sickened at how that column was read to mean I would be gunning for actual death and destruction.
She said she didn’t actually want hurricane-level damage to hit Chicago. Her point was that Chicago needed a “disaster capitalist” excuse to tear things down and rebuild from scratch because nothing would have gotten accomplished otherwise.
Is it true that nothing was done to improve the New Orleans public schools till they were wiped out by Katrina? How hard did individual teachers work to help their students in the struggling, likely underfunded, New Orleans public schools before Katrina? How much time was spent by administrators in lobbying for more funding, better facilities, and up-to-date materials for their schools?
The plight of public schools in high poverty areas are easily ignored by politicians because the parents of the community are often too busy working two or three jobs, or are unfamiliar with the hoops they must jump through get full, equitable funding for their children. Sometimes there are educational and language barriers that parents can’t overcome. Sometimes there are racial barriers as well. Note the number of schools on the south side of Chicago which have been or are targeted to be closed and replaced with charters while schools on the north side are well stocked and successful.
I’m not going to reproduce all the information which shows how the Recovery School District (RSD) in New Orleans has failed to improve the education of New Orleans children. There are others who have done that…Mercedes Schneider, for example has discussed it in great detail in dozens of posts which you can find here…and especially here, here, here and here. It would take hours to go through it all…so here’s a taste…
…the term “school choice” could well mean that it is the school that exercises greater leverage when it comes to choosing, not the parents.
One-third (10 of 30) of schools selected or excluded students by, for example, counseling students who were not thought to be a good fit to transfer to another school, holding invitation only events to advertise the school, or not reporting open seats. This number included five OPSB schools and five RSD schools. [Emphasis added.]
And another taste…
New Orleans charters opened longer did not show better 2014 AP outcomes.
What is clear is that with only a couple of exceptions, the results are not impressive.
My spreadsheet of the data can be found here:
Once again, there is no miracle here.
To the districts nationwide that are watching the New Orleans Charter Circus with wide eyes, know that any reported New Orleans charter *miracle* patently contradicts its consistently unimpressive outcomes.
For another look at New Orleans RSD schools read these posts by Crazy Crawfish. Check out the post, The RSD and New Orleans miracle (of cheating), for some information about test scores in New Orleans.
New Orleans Schools
Let’s now turn to Campbell Brown and her appearance on C-Span, August 18, 2015, Education Policy.
Studying the material at the two blogs I mentioned above ought to be enough to rebut the following…
At 7:25 in the program she said…
It’s such an incredible story of the progress that’s been made in New Orleans since Katrina when they have revamped public schools…
At about 33:55 she announced in a Chris Christie sort of way about how America’s public schools today are no different than the public schools that her grandparents and great-grandparents went to.
Just think over the last century how our lives have changed in so many ways because of technology. I mean…for a hundred years we’re living vastly different lives except in how we educate our kids. We are educating our kids today — and our grandkids — exactly the same way we educated my grandparents…my great-grandparents. We have not had innovation or advancement in the same way in education. And it’s…you know…we’ve failed to see real gains because of that.
First, she’s wrong because achievement has improved. Diane Ravitch, in Reign of Error, documented the increase in NAEP math and reading scores from 1973 through 2008. The trend is upward.
Second, anyone who has spent time in classrooms recently knows that they are fundamentally different than classrooms of the past in a variety of ways. Can we improve classroom education? Of course. But we need research based innovations. As we have learned from schools’ experiences around the country, integrating technology like Smart Boards or iPads into the curriculum doesn’t change anything unless teachers are trained in their use.
Finally, innovation just for innovation’s sake, like technology for technology’s sake, doesn’t help children learn. Research into new teaching methods and best practices ought to drive innovation…not bells and whistles.
At about 41:40 she responding to a caller who said we ought to reward kids with money for learning. After acknowledging that “good idea,” Brown said,
…because we haven’t been able to innovate as quickly as we need to…one of the things that happens in our schools is that the kids in the middle…you know a teacher can’t teach everybody…right? There’s just…she doesn’t have the tools or he doesn’t have the tools to have the flexibility to let those kids who are learning more quickly continue to be challenged, or the kids who need extra help…you know, how does one person take the time to give those kids the extra help they may need…and then deal with everybody else. There are lots of cool, really interesting technologies that are trying to…you know…individualize lesson plans. So that these kids can move forward at their own pace…and…and we’re giving them more of the kind of individual attention that they need to progress so that the kids on the higher end can be more challenged and the kids on the lower end can take their time and get the extra help that they need and hopefully free up time for that teacher to be able to help those kids more and spend a little more time with them.
Her points seem to be that 1) teachers can’t teach everyone in their classrooms because the ranges of achievement and abilities are too wide, 2) high achieving kids are held back while low achieving kids aren’t getting their needs met and 3) innovation with “cool” technology is the way to solve that problem.
This is a perfect example of why actual real life, currently practicing educators ought to be included when education policy is discussed and made. It’s obvious that Brown has never heard of “differentiation” (or if she’s heard of it she doesn’t understand what it is). Good teachers understand and use differentiated instruction…and those who are adept at it can gear instruction to children at the level they need. Understanding and using differentiation is not something you can do with just 5 weeks of training (after graduating from a high-status college with a degree in business administration). Like other pedagogical tools, it takes study, practice, and a long term commitment to a career in education.
Fully staffing schools with specialists who have advanced certification or degrees in reading (like me!), special education, and gifted education, can also help teachers deal with the wide range of achievement levels in a general education classroom.
Finally, as long as standards, and standardized tests based on those standards, have high-stakes attached to them, students will not be allowed to progress at their own rates. Requiring all students, except those with the most severe academic disabilities, to pass the same test at the same time, and then using those test scores to label schools and teachers, is educational malpractice. Brown said that children should be allowed to “move forward at their own pace.” On that point, she is right.
The Chartering of New Orleans
Beginning at about 43:50 Brown extolled the wonderfulness of New Orleans’ charter schools.
…[In New Orleans] after Katrina…they were trying to figure out how to rebuild that school system…they made a choice to basically take almost all the schools in New Orleans and make them charter schools. You know, take the handcuffs off, and put the union contracts aside, and give the schools the flexibility to be innovative, and to do different things than they had been doing before.
Now the real truth comes out. Disaster capitalism depends on a catastrophe to make it successful. The catastrophe of Katrina had to destroy everything so that the
vultures edupreneurs could swoop in and start all over. And one thing which had to be destroyed was the teachers union.
“…take the handcuffs off, and put the union contracts aside…” The goal of charters in the “reform” movement is to get public dollars for educating students in the cheapest way possible. Teachers unions stand in the way of that.
Politicians and education “reformers” will tell you over and over again about how much they love teachers…but how much they hate teachers unions (except, of course, Chris Christie who makes no bones about how much he hates teachers and their unions). The fact is, however, that teachers unions are made up of teachers…millions of them. All over the country average, dedicated classroom teachers negotiate contracts with duly elected school boards. Those contracts protect children as well as teachers. The conditions under which teachers work…class size, availability of special services, preparation time…are the conditions under which students learn. Individual teachers unions can sometimes pressure school boards to do things that they wouldn’t normally do, but on the whole states with strong teachers unions achieve at higher levels than states with weak or non-existent teachers unions. Charter school takeovers of public schools, like in New Orleans, will not change the conditions of children’s lives. The poverty level of children in America and the refusal of those who run our nation, states, and cities to acknowledge poverty as a factor in student achievement is the number one problem facing public education today. It’s not “bad teachers,” teachers unions, or teacher contracts that are damaging public education…it’s elected officials like Mike Pence, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, and Rahm Emanuel…it’s political appointees like Arne Duncan and his predecessor Margaret Spellings…and it’s people who don’t know anything about education acting like they do…like Campbell Brown.
Campbell Brown ought to throw her support to the teachers who struggle in public schools every day, not hedge fund managers, politicians, or other “reformers.” If she truly wants to help the children she claims to care so much about, then she needs to change her tune and fight for more equitable funding of public schools, wrap-around services for children in need, more and better training for teachers, and the end to test and punish policies. Here’s a good place for her to start…
The narrow pursuit of test results has sidelined education issues of enduring importance such as poverty, equity in school funding, school segregation, health and physical education, science, the arts, access to early childhood education, class size, and curriculum development. We have witnessed the erosion of teachers’ professional autonomy, a narrowing of curriculum, and classrooms saturated with “test score-raising” instructional practices that betray our understandings of child development and our commitment to educating for artistry and critical thinking. And so now we are faced with “a crisis of pedagogy”–teaching in a system that no longer resembles the democratic ideals or tolerates the critical thinking and critical decision-making that we hope to impart on the students we teach.