NEW ORLEANS — A few years ago, the students at G.W. Carver High School held a protest in front of the school to object to its disciplinary policies. “We thought some of the rules were extreme,” Dominique Newton, then a sophomore, recalled. Jerel Bryant, Carver’s principal, told me, “In the moment, I did not look upon it fondly.”
By David Leonhardt | Opinion Columnist | New York Times |
But the students were right. The rules were extreme. Students walking between classes had to stay on the right side of the hallway, for example. Most alarmingly, during the year of the protest, more than 60 percent of Carver’s students were suspended for at least one day. Getting suspended was normal.
Carver is a charter school — a public school run not by a centralized board but by an independent operator. After Hurricane Katrina, virtually every public school in New Orleans became a charter, in an attempt to fix one of the nation’s worst districts. And the academic results have been impressive, as I described last week. Students are faring much better in reading, math, science and social studies, and more are graduating from high school and college.
In today’s column, though, I’m going to talk a bit about the shortcomings in New Orleans. Along the way, I want to make a plea for thinking about the debate over education reform in a more nuanced, less absolutist way than often happens.
There are two high-profile camps on education reform. Staunch defenders — who tend to be conservative — support not only charter schools but virtually all school choice, including vouchers for private schools. They see market competition as a cure-all. On the other side, the harshest critics of reform — who are largely progressive — oppose nearly any alternative to traditional schools. They view charters as a nefarious project of billionaires, and they think the academic progress is statistical hooey.
Which side should you believe? Neither. I realize that the political left has a closer connection to reality than the right on many current issues, including climate change, voting rights, health care, Russian cyberattacks and Barack Obama’s birthplace. But education reform is different. On it, the much-mocked cliché that both sides are to blame happens to be true.
The most extreme reformers — like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — have willfully ignored the fact that unregulated, anything-goes school choice keeps failing. Without oversight of schools, parents struggle to distinguish between the good and the bad, and kids suffer.
The harshest critics of reform, meanwhile, do their own fact-twisting. They wave away reams of rigorous research on the academic gains in New Orleans, Boston, Washington, New York, Chicago and other cities, in favor of one or two cherry-picked discouraging statistics. It’s classic whataboutism.
Here’s what the evidence shows: Initially, charters’ overall results were no better than average. But they are now. The main reason, notes Margaret Raymond of Stanford University, is that regulators have shut or overhauled many of the worst-performing charters (which rarely happens with ineffective traditional schools). One form of charter has particularly impressive results — highly structured urban charters with high academic standards.
These schools have their downsides, however. The disciplinary policies can be severe, as they were at Carver. The schools also rely on hard-working, moderately paid young teachers, many of whom can’t make a career of the work. And charter schools sometimes focus so much on academics that they overlook extracurriculars, as well a school’s role as a community center.
I find the New Orleans story encouraging because of both the academic progress and the willingness to grapple with these shortcomings. Parents here know the progress is real, because their children have benefited from it. But they also know that the charter schools aren’t a magic bullet.
This month, a locally elected board assumed control of all schools, ending the state’s post-Katrina control. It is a time for New Orleans to think about how it might keep the positives of reform while addressing the negatives. “What’s so exciting right now,” says Jonathan Wilson, a community leader who has at times been skeptical of reform, is that “we have a unique opportunity — that is, to create a different district.”
Leaders here, for instance, are thinking about how to expand school accountability beyond test scores to include social and emotional skills. “We have to diversify our metrics,” Ben Kleban, a charter-school founder who’s now on the city school board, told me. Some schools have also changed their disciplinary policies — including Carver. Administrators and students there came to a compromise that loosened some rules, like the one on hallway walking, and kept others. Last year, the suspension rate fell to 12 percent.
I left New Orleans wishing that the national debate could be more like the debate here. It is full of strong opinions and disagreement, of course. But it also revolves more around facts than fixed beliefs. And isn’t that precisely how teachers tell students to approach a hard problem?