April 27, 2012

Jo-Ann Armao is a member of The Post’s editorial page staff.

Neerav Kingsland lives and breathes numbers. But when you ask the chief strategy officer of New Schools for New Orleans about this city’s remarkable efforts to rebuild its schools in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he starts not with statistics but with the story of Bridget Green.

A young woman whose grades earned her the distinction of valedictorian of her 2003 high school class, Green never gave the commencement speech or walked across the stage with her classmates. Despite five tries, she was unable to pass the math-competency exit exam required for graduation.

Green’s story is emblematic of the hopelessness that used to mark New Orleans’s schools. No matter how smart or hardworking or well-meaning the system’s leaders, there was no chance for sustainable improvement, given the enormity of its dysfunction. Then the levees broke and the city was devastated, and out of that destruction came the need to build a new system, one that today is accompanied by buoyant optimism. Since 2006, New Orleans students have halved the achievement gap with their state counterparts. They are on track to, in the next five years, make this the first urban city in the country to exceed its state’s average test scores. The share of students proficient on state tests rose from 35 percent in 2005 to 56 percent in 2011; 40 percent of students attended schools identified by the state as “academically unacceptable” in 2011, down from 78 percent in 2005.

So sure are New Orleans officials of the work being done to turn around schools that they think they can become a model for urban education reform, proof that students of any color, income level or social background can achieve if schools do their job. Indeed, Kingsland — who came here as an undergraduate at Tulane and entered education reform through a (failed, he admits) stint mentoring impoverished students — argues that the transformation in this city may turn out to be the most significant national development in education since desegregation.

Most of the buzz about the city’s reforms focuses on the banishment of organized labor and the proliferation of charter schools, which enroll nearly 80 percent of public school students, up from 1.5 percent pre-Katrina. But what really distinguishes New Orleans is how government has re­defined its role in education: stepping back from directly running schools and empowering educators to make the decisions about hours, curriculum and school culture that best drive student learning. Now, state and school-district officials mostly regulate and monitor — setting standards, ensuring equity and closing failing schools. Instead of a traditional school system, there is a system of schools in what officials liken to a fenced-in free market. Families have more choice about where their children can best succeed, they say, and educators have more opportunity to choose a school that best aligns with their approach.

One teacher I spoke with during a recent trip talked about the luxury of being pursued by different charter networks willing to pay for her talents. After 11 years of teaching, she said, it was the first time she felt she was being treated as a professional. I visited the classrooms of Sci Academy, where 99 percent of the students are minorities and 92 percent are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. They have some of the city’s highest scores on statewide tests, and more than 90 percent of Sci Academy seniors have already been accepted to a four-year college or university. At O. Perry Walker College and Career Preparatory High School, one of the first charters to open after Katrina, the mostly African American student body has turned in dramatic gains in achievement. (The school’s academic performance, as graded by the state, went from 48.1 in 2006-07 to 68.4 in 2009-10.) To those who argue that the overarching effects of poverty prevent children from learning, Principal Mary H.L. Laurie has a terse answer: “Then don’t come to work here.”

Leslie Jacobs, a businesswoman who has been a part of New Orleans education reform for two decades, concluded while serving on the local school board that she could stop bad things from happening but couldn’t start anything good. She was appointed in 1996 to the Louisiana board of education, where she is credited with helping to craft accountability and teacher quality reforms as well as the mechanism that allowed the takeover of New Orleans’s failing schools. Her journey taught her that top-down efforts to reform a district don’t work; only by starting over school by school — like businesses emerging from bankruptcy — could real improvement occur. Anything short of that, she said, amounts to chipping away at a status quo that is bound to prevail.

It’s a sobering determination for places, such as the District, where money and time are being spent to overhaul the traditional school system.

In fact, officials in New Orleans have come to believe that the traditional notions of school reform — switching to mayoral control, bringing in a star superintendent, enacting tougher laws, allocating more money — ultimately will founder and fail. Kingsland, blogging this year on the Education Week Web site, sparked controversy by challenging superintendents of struggling school districts to relinquish their systems instead of trying endless reforms: “Rid yourself of the notion that your current opinions on curriculum, teacher evaluation, technology, or anything else will be the foundation for dramatic gains in student achievement. If history tells us anything, they will not be.” Move away, he wrote, from a centralized bureaucracy and improve the quality and number of charter schools.

The horrors of Katrina created a blank sheet that is (thankfully) absent in other cities. But the successes in New Orleans raise a question for officials in places where schools are horribly failing their students: Why should it take a natural disaster to return power to parents and educators?