Sell That Schlock, Kids! It’s For Your Education

Nov 11, 2010 by

*Important 11/12 update at the end of this post*

After I steadied myself with a couple of beers at a local watering hole following Diane Ravitch’s talk at Dillard and was able to face the world again without screaming bloody murder at it, I tried to keep my feelings of gloom and doom towards education in this country under wraps for a while.

Problem is, stuff keeps happening, and I can’t…keep…the blinders…on.  Plugging my ears and singing loudly to drown sounds out doesn’t go over so well with the two- and four-legged members of my family, and trying to talk about it is no picnic, either….which is why you are all treated to my rants about it here and on my blog.  I owe the Humid City maestro a great deal just for that privilege alone.

I read Ravitch’s account of her visit to New Orleans, for instance, and somehow knew that race would come up in there, even though the audience for her talk was mixed and the tone of the Q & A session was civil compared to some City Council meetings I’ve attended.

In New Orleans, I spoke at Dillard University, an HBCU (or historically black college or university). There, I heard from angry African-American parents and educators who felt disenfranchised by the charterizing of their public schools. The mainstream media may think that the chartering of New Orleans was a wonderful thing, but the audience that night did not. When a young woman (who was white) from the Cowen Institute at Tulane University defended the success of the charters in getting more students to pass AP exams, several people in the audience demanded to know why their non-charter schools were no longer allowed to offer AP courses. The young woman had no answer. Several people that night said: “They stole our public schools, and they stole our democracy while we were out of town.”

Racial issues and public education are intertwined, whether everybody likes it or not (especially in New Orleans), and the Cowen Institute rep’s biggest crime was her tone-deafness to that fact when she was stymied by RSD teachers asking her, if her AP programs were so successful, why weren’t they being offered in traditional RSD schools?  It’s a damned good question, but it ought to have been asked of the Recovery School District itself.  Then again…well, just read this from the Cowen Institute’s site:

Transforming the community through education has been identified as one of the priorities of the University, and to enable that commitment the Cowen Institute operates under the direct supervision of the President Cowen. To inform and revolutionize change, the Institute’s efforts are led by a talented and diverse staff of nine full-time staff members and a growing number of Tulane students. Additional support is provided by Tulane faculty, centers, and institutes. We have developed national and local advisory councils, both a diverse and distinguished group of national and regional leaders, to advise the Cowen Institute’s staff on current and potential initiatives. The Institute has also partnered with a number of major research universities from around the country – including Harvard, University of California at Berkeley, Brown, Emory, and DePaul – to engage their students and faculty in this historic effort. The brightest minds are participating in our efforts.

How nice.  We’re getting many, many more lab-coated cooks in the local kitchen of public education – or, should I say, kitchens.

One would think all of this collaboration would be working somehow – and it is, but only in the schools that have the permission of their district to work with the Cowen Institute (that’s only five schools, for those of you keeping track).  And the trend seems to be to deny that permission to the traditional schools – which are largely populated by the students whose families didn’t have the time or the resources to successfully negotiate the obstacle course of school choice that reigns over public education here.  It’s a state that leaves New Orleans’ poorest children behind – and most of them are black.

Is the Cowen Institute asking hard questions of the RSD, the OPSD, and the BESE concerning how well their decisions on these matters have been made?  Is the decision of who gets the AP courses and who doesn’t based on solid research that says the courses will go farther in charter schools than it does in non-charters?  Where exactly is that data? How well has it been interpreted?  What sample size is it based on?  This inquiring mind wants to know…even if the Cowen Institute shrugs its collective shoulders and says, “Not our job.”

I suggest they lasso all those experts of theirs into solving another problem that has come up, then, one that will affect the operations of the schools they are trying to help:

State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek has told school superintendents their districts won’t receive an expected infusion of $147 million in federal education money.

Instead, The Associated Press has learned that Pastorek told the superintendents in a Wednesday conference call that the Jindal administration plans to use the money to fill in budget gaps next year and to help offset cuts to higher education.

I’m guessing that our absentee governor wants to avoid scenes like this one across the pond and make sure that LSU is happy.  But what good will that short-term solution be if, in the long-term, fewer and fewer kids will be coming out of the elementary and secondary schools with the skills to get them into those institutions of higher learning?

Wait, I’ve got it…this is all part of Jindal’s plan to squeeze more value out of higer education.

Or, he’s taking Rand Paul to heart and giving our kids the biggest lesson of them all: we all work for rich people or sell stuff to rich people…so let’s get to it!  Case those mansions on St Charles, kids, and beat down the doors if you have to to get their bucks in exchange for bars of the World’s Best Chocolate, reams of wrapping paper, or whatever dry goods can possibly be sold, because your classroom supplies depend on that money.

Now more than ever.  Sadly.


Update:  This link from the Cowen Institute appeared in the comments on my blog this morning addressing the concerns voiced above. Please read it all.  I am thankful for the response and the clarifications within concerning the question of why AP courses are not offered at all RSD schools, with specific attention paid to John McDonogh High’s situation concerning why it has thus far been impossible for the Institute’s AdvanceNOLA programs to make headway there.  I hope they keep trying for the McDonogh students’ sake, but they do not have the ultimate authority in the matter.  The RSD needs to ‘fess up.

To clarify my own positions:

I still think the best way to deal with public education’s challenging troubles in this city is to follow a model closer to that of Raleigh, NC’s in which all the schools are held to high standards and the population mixes in the school system are not based on race but on economic status.  It doesn’t mean charters cannot operate in the system, but it does mean that the racial issues do not have as much of a hold on the discourse involving the schools’ operations.  Greater attention can then be given to the things that really matter, like learning.  And it ain’t just this city, it’s the whole country in this fix.*  So nice to know Louisiana’s only just behind Serbia in its students’ math proficiency,* too, but I digress.

People who are genuinely trying to help are hog-tied by the massive decentralization that comes with the large numbers of charters that are here, which hampers accountability and transparency in the decisions made concerning the schools, making it much easier for the district officials purportedly in charge to pass the buck on questions such as why AP courses are offered in some schools and not in others.  Running around to all the charters’ board meetings is even less helpful when most of them won’t even comply with Louisiana’s open meetings law.  What everyone is left with, then, is an overall feeling of frustration and helplessness stemming from everyone who wants public education here to improve, but is not sure who exactly to take their grievances to – or the people in charge are not forthcoming with their answers, their sympathy, or their time and willingness to work things out.  Hence the defensiveness, the anger, the events in which people listen for one reason and speak out on their grievances in the hopes that the right people will be somehow listening, will give them the answers they seek, will raise their consciousness.

This is where we are with the public schools right now.  And it’s not a good place to be.

*Thanks to @valmcginley for The Atlantic links.

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