A case study in extremis of educational philosophies

02 Mar

Atlantic Monthly never fails to please me with its intelligence and civility, even if some very conservative people sometimes write there: Mark Steyn for example. In the January-February 2007 issue, just now available in Surry Hills, there are a number of good articles, but the one that has most attracted me is Amy Waldman, “Reading, Writing, Resurrection”. For the moment you may read it all online, but against the time it closes from non-subscribers, here is a taste. “Hurricane Katrina destroyed one of America’s worst school systems and made New Orleans the nation’s laboratory for educational reform. But can determined educators and entrepreneurs transcend the damage of the flood — and of history?” Read it as you contemplate our education debate here in Australia. Particularly note the graphic on the right!

waldmanchart1.gif[Click graphic to enlarge]

…The storm ravaged the city’s architecture and infrastructure, took hundreds of lives, exiled hundreds of thousands of residents. But it also destroyed, or enabled the destruction of, the city’s public-school system—an outcome many New Orleanians saw as deliverance. That system had begun with great promise, in 1841, as one of the first in the Deep South. It had effectively ended, in 2005, in disaster—and not just the natural kind. Its defining characteristics were financial high jinks and low academic performance. On the last state achievement test before Katrina hit, 74 percent of eighth-graders had failed to demonstrate “basic” skills in English/Language Arts, and 70 percent scored below “basic” in math. The Orleans Parish School Board, which ran the city’s schools, was $450 million in debt. Yet these numbers did not begin to capture the day-to-day texture of the schools: when students held a press conference to express their post-Katrina wishes, they asked for textbooks, toilet paper, and teachers who liked them.

The floodwaters, so the talk went, had washed this befouled slate clean—had offered, in a state official’s words, a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvent public education.” In due course, that opportunity was taken: three months after Katrina, the state legislature deemed 107 of the 128 city-run public schools “failing” and seized control of them for five years. (Before the storm the state had already placed five failing schools in what it called the Recovery School District, then converted them to charter schools.) Stripped of most of its domain and financing, the Orleans Parish School Board fired all 7,500 of its teachers and support staff, effectively breaking the teachers’ union. And the Bush administration stepped in with millions of dollars for the expansion of charter schools—publicly financed but independently run schools that answer to their own boards. The result was the fastest makeover of an urban school system in American history—and a patchwork nonsystem of bewildering complexity and bewitching promise…

On a rainy August night, James M. Huger, a thirty-eight-year-old scion of Uptown New Orleans gentry, stood before a group of parents to pitch his new charter school, Lafayette Academy of New Orleans. Among the new schools, Lafayette had been one of the most prolific advertisers—on radio and television as well as in the streets. This was because Huger, whose business interests ranged from real estate to construction to parking lots, understood the marketplace better than most…

But human capital, on many levels, was complicating Huger’s experiment. Brand-new, and filled with children from across the city, Lafayette Academy had neither history nor community to draw on. The principal seemed unhappy, the chief administrative officer tentative, and the lines of authority between them unclear. Two teachers had already quit by mid-October. And on the third floor, home to the unruly sixth and seventh grades, staff morale was sagging. The older children had come up through a school system that combined social promotion with an absence of socialization. Some of their teachers, in turn, had little or no urban teaching experience. The result was an endless clash of wills between students and staff, and what teachers described as a profound lack of respect. Nothing worked—not lectures, not phone calls to parents (themselves often indifferent), not detention.

The students “don’t care if they fail,” said one teacher, who didn’t want to be named for fear of alienating parents. “You put in a twelve-hour day, every day, and feel like you just wasted twelve hours. They’re great kids and they’re smart—they just can’t close their mouths.” …

Although Huger had been convinced that choice would produce great schools, a quick scan of educational literature suggested choice would not be enough. National surveys on charter-school performance were all over the map—reflecting both the ideologies of the surveyors and the actual wide range in performance. In Detroit, the public schools had lost 40 percent of their students since the late 1990s, in significant part to charter schools, showing that parents would indeed vote with their feet. But the school board there had responded to the pressure with a $500,000 marketing campaign to lure students back to public schools—hardly the sort of educational improvement that competition from charters is supposed to foster. In Washington, D.C., meanwhile, another charter hub, the latest numbers showed that only four of thirty-four charter schools had met academic benchmarks. And in Philadelphia, the most recent data showed schools run by educational management companies—which Huger saw as the best bet when run in partnership with local nonprofits like his—lagging behind public schools in improving performance. It was possible, in short, to leave one failure for another…

Think about all that when someone next proposes a sure-fire fix for the complex realities of schooling. Donnelly or Bishop, for example, but also Rudd and Smith.


While the whole teacher performance pay sidetrack and related “debates” here in Australia seem shallow in the light of the above, Bruce has asked a very good question: So What Is The Education Philosophy of The Howard Government?

It is clear from the campaigning that the Howard Government wants to supplant existing teaching philosophies, BUT WHAT DO THEY INTEND TO REPLACE THEM WITH? It’s not enough to be just “anti-education-philosophy-x”, one needs to also be ‘pro-education-philosophy-y” otherwise you are just anti-education. What is their philosophy, if they have one and is it supported by their premises?

I got rid of a stray apostrophe there, Bruce… 😉

Saturday 3 March

If you look carefully at that set of graphs from the Atlantic Monthly you could argue that it represents a reasonable degree of improvement in Math(s) and Reading scores! What would you expect averages in standardised tests to do? How much can they be expected to change?

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Posted by on March 2, 2007 in Aussie interest, Cultural and other, Education, Surry Hills



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