Lessons from the flood

Published in The Sunday Telegraph (September 12, 2010)

Five years ago, America was struggling to come to terms with the destruction of New Orleans. The nation was stunned at the pictures emerging from one of its most famous cities, with corpses floating in the water, lurid stories of mayhem and murder among survivors and thousands of families fleeing to safety in scenes reminiscent of a Hollywood disaster movie.

Among those watching the horrific news footage was Ben Kleban, a former corporate financier with the aircraft- maker Boeing, who had moved to New York with the aim of getting involved in education. As the scale of the devastation became clear, he resolved to do his bit to help the city recover from Hurricane Katrina. So at the age of 26, he went down to Louisiana and set up a school.

His venture – New Orleans College Prep – started life in a refurbished school building in the Central City area with just 120 children, all in the sixth grade and aged between 11 and 15. The second year it added seventh grade. Last year it tripled in size, taking over a nearby poorly performing school. Parents are clamouring to send their children there: proficiency tests reveal annual improvements of between 11 and 39 per cent, and it has just won a national medal in recognition of its success.

But this school is not an isolated success story. It is part of the boldest experiment in education reform seen in the United States, and one with obvious resonance in Britain. Its success is leading many in the education world to ask whether the storm clouds of the hurricane, despite all the death and devastation, contained a silver lining. Among them is Arne Duncan, President Obama’s education secretary and an enthusiast for free schools, who called Hurricane Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans”. His words were tasteless, but right.

Visiting the city last month, the scars of the disaster remain visible, with derelict streets and houses still displaying “Katrina tattoos” (the markings made by search-and-rescue teams). But although only 16 of the city’s 128 schools survived the catastrophe intact, and about one-third of school buildings were totally destroyed, schools have improved significantly since Katrina.

The reason is simple. In the wake of the disaster, state politicians unleashed a bottom-up revolution in the city’s schools beyond even our Education Secretary Michael Gove’s wildest dreams. The breaking of the levees breached a mindset that excused failure. A bureaucratic system run by local officials was torn up and handed over to a hotchpotch of philanthropists, entrepreneurs, ambitious teachers and even local universities. Parents were given freedom over where to send their children, unions were sidelined, and now standards are rising to such an extent there are lectures on the experiment at Mr Kleban’s alma mater, Harvard Business School.

New Orleans schools used to be infamous, among the worst in America. Generations of children were crushed by low expectations, poor teaching, incompetent management and corruption. The statistics were damning. City schools ranked near the bottom nationally in reading and maths, with 19 out of every 20 high school seniors testing below basic proficiency in English and maths in school exit exams. In some schools, nearly one-third of seniors dropped out during the school year. And these were children desperately in need of good schooling – nearly 80 per cent of the city’s students were living under the poverty line as wealthier families fled to the suburbs and the private school system.

When the storm struck shortly after the start of the school year, the struggling school district had only one month’s cash left. So it paid staff for the days they had worked, then laid them off. When people started returning to the city, the schools needed to be rebuilt and reopened. But instead of just restoring a dismal and discredited system, the state took most of the schools out of the hands of the old school board and instigated the boldest system of parental choice in the country.

The mechanism used was charter schools: non-selective, publicly funded institutions, with five-year contracts and funds allocated according to the number of pupils attracted. They were allowed to make their own decisions on hiring, curricula and school rules – similar to the free schools that the Coalition government wants to see established across Britain – although there are strict targets to meet, and profit is not a dirty word. Having made it far easier to set up charter schools, the district then eliminated collective bargaining over teachers’ pay by refusing to renew its contract with the teaching union. “A flea market of entrepreneurial opportunism,” howled one detractor.

As a result, a wave of ambitious teachers and educationalists swept into the city, many of them Ivy Leaguers fired up with idealism, determined to trial new methods of inspiring children let down for too long. Dozens of schools converted to charter status. Stifling old rules went out the window as these new bodies competed for the best teachers and pupils, with families free to choose any school and lotteries used when there are too many applicants. Some schools reverted to single-sex lessons, while others extended school hours and terms. Uniforms are in, discipline has improved and parental satisfaction has rocketed.

Perhaps the key change, however, is that bad teachers get sacked while the best earn higher rewards. New Orleans College Prep advertises across the United States for staff, accepting fewer than one per cent of applicants. Those appointed earn significantly more than the local average, with annual bonuses on top, but are expected to work long hours if need be. ”The ability to hire the best is the single most important factor in our success,” said Mr Kleban.

He relies on a daily flow of data on attendance, discipline and classroom performance, ensuring staff can step in as soon as a problem arises rather than just at the end of term. Although nearly all his pupils are from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, the only expulsions have been ones dictated by law, such as involvement with drugs. “We are using basic business practices,” said Mr Kleban, who hopes to create a small network of schools eventually. “For too long the public school system found excuses rather than being properly accountable to parents.”

Of course, such innovative change has to have room for failure. Some new charter schools proved inadequate, and their charters were revoked. But freedom allows schools to switch course rapidly if heading in the wrong direction. After realising that new pupils had to learn to read properly before tackling the standard curriculum, one high school redrew its entire curriculum over a weekend to include classes in phonics and fluency.

There are also claims of discrimination against special-needs pupils, although these are hotly contested, while some critics point to the role played by extra federal money. Indisputably, however, the statistics show that across the district the performance score – a tally of test marks and other performance indicators – has improved by nearly 20 per cent. Charter schools dominate the list of best schools in the city, explaining why another nine switched over this school year. And, whereas before Katrina nearly two-thirds of pupils attended schools deemed to be failing, today it is down to one-third.

Charter schools are not a new idea in America, with more than 4,000 established across the country. But no other city was desperate enough to push the concept this far, this fast. As a result, one lesson to emerge from the agonies of Hurricane Katrina is that the combined forces of parental choice and school independence have the power to transform the lives of some of the most disadvantaged children in society. It is a lesson being studied attentively in the White House – and one that should be watched just as closely in this country.

Related Posts

Categorised in: , , , ,