Decision Point

Last night, Education Reform Now hosted a presentation and panel discussion at Central Library. The main speakers were a representative from the New Orleans system and David Harris, CEO of the Mind Trust; they were joined by two (very impressive) teachers currently working for IPS–one from Howe, a “traditional” school that has just been taken over by the state, the other from Herron High School, a high-achieving public charter school.

Often, when people from elsewhere (isn’t that the definition of an expert?) come to lecture about education, they deliver bromides, based upon their own pet theories and unacknowledged values/prejudices. The New Orleans representative (name escapes me) was very different. He didn’t come to throw bombs or accusations; he was very clear that the failure of urban systems is a systemic failure, not a result of teacher’s unions, or bad teachers or even poverty. New Orleans recognized that what had to change was the top-down system itself–that even the most well-meaning, hard-working people could not achieve results until the system changed.

He was also very candid that the New Orleans schools–despite impressive gains–still has a long way to go.

They key to the improvements in New Orleans was relinquishment–recasting the central office as an administrative support unit, not a command center. As he pointed out, you cannot micromanage what happens in the classroom if you want to hold schools accountable for results. (There’s an analogy to what architects call “performance specifications”–unlike detailed drawings, performance specifications set out the required results, and let the architect or engineer figure out how to achieve those results.)

The systemic changes in New Orleans sounded a lot like the proposals recently made by the Mind Trust, as both presentations made clear.

During the panel discussion, moderated by Amos Brown, the two teachers on the panel explained why they endorsed the Mind Trust’s approach, and shared their own experiences and frustrations.

All in all, the program was the best analysis I’ve heard of the challenges urban school systems face, and the best explanation of the Mind Trust’s proposals for change. That change won’t be easy; the representative from New Orleans downplayed the role of the hurricane in that city, but that disaster clearly created–along with so much tragedy–an opening and mandate for the reinvention of that city’s schools. The tragedy we face is much less obvious–a steady stream of children we are failing. They aren’t being swept away by tidal waters, but they are drowning in a dysfunctional system.

There are no panaceas, and no one on the panel suggested they had all the answers. But the program made a compelling case for change–not just the typical handwringing “we have to do something,” but a well-researched, carefully constructed plan to help us improve the school system and the lives of the children that system is currently failing.

The question is, do we have the will to make the changes we need? Or will we continue to bicker and tinker at the edges of a broken system?