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School & District Management Opinion

Of New Orleans and Reform That’s Done ‘To, Not With’

By Rick Hess — August 31, 2015 3 min read
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On Saturday, New Orleans marked the tenth anniversary of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. The educational tale since then is both one of the remarkable progress and of valid complaint. Many in the community feel that reform has been done “to them, and not with them.” Thousands of black educators lost their jobs, and whole swaths of the community felt like the destruction of Katrina was followed by educational disenfranchisement and disrespect.

Remember, Katrina killed 2,000 residents, forced a massive evacuation, and shut down the city’s schools for a year. In the aftermath, all district employees were terminated. The state took control of nearly all local public schools via the Recovery School District and rebooted the district as a system of charter schools. Meanwhile, organizations like Teach For America, The New Teacher Project, New Leaders for New Schools, and national foundations sought to import talent and resources into the city.

A lot of what transpired was indeed done “to” the community by outsiders. It’s also true that the outsiders doing it made enormous sacrifices, exhibited an inspiring commitment, and brought remarkable energy and skill to the work. This has fueled the natural question: How do you get the energy, influx of resources and talent, and results that followed Katrina while still ensuring that the effort is driven by and reflective of the local community? In other words, when you try to export the Nola strategy to other communities, how do you get the best of all possible worlds?

Various answers suggest themselves. A popular one among foundations right now is that the real problem was that the outsiders were so . . . white. The takeaway is that recruiting and cultivating a more racially diverse cast of reformers will make it easier for the outsiders to win the trust of local communities. Another answer is to ensure that local communities are actively involved from the beginning.

The thing is, highly-educated, professionally successful outsiders have a long history of being viewed skeptically in poor communities — even when their skin color matches that of the locals. More significantly, community members may simply not agree with outsiders about what needs to be done. After all, it’s fairly easy for us outsiders to tell a community that it should downsize the central office, fire low performers, close schools, or dismantle the old school system. Things look different to community members whose jobs are on the line, whose neighbors or loved ones are in the firing line, or who see a threat to beloved local institutions. The abstract promise of reform can pale beside practical disruptions for people who live in a community, meaning that communities may be loath to adopt strategies that outside reformers think promising — and inclined to adopt those that outsiders view as more of the same.

In fact, it’s a safe bet that most communities will do just this. Why? Well, if they were inclined to do what reformers wanted, reform would already be underway and we wouldn’t keep wrestling with this tension in place after place. In fact, the 1990s Annenberg Challenge can be regarded as a big-dollar test of what communities do when given funds and the leeway to steer the ship. The results: pretty uninspiring, and nothing in the way of Nola-style improvement.

What to make of all this? Seems to me that there’s a central tension that we need to confront honestly, even if it means there are no wholly satisfying answers. 1] Local communities have so much invested in the known and familiar, are so bound by loyalties and local ties, and are so aware of the dislocations and risks posed by radical change that it’s hard to ever get the Nola-style train to leave the station. 2] On the other hand, as we’ve seen in Nola, outsiders can get the train moving — but they may not be able to keep it on the rails. (And that’s assuming that, like me, you think the direction of Nola reform has been healthy and promising.)

The dream of blending these two in just the right proportions is a happy one, but the fact is that decisions are ultimately made by local community members . . . or they’re not. If they are, see [1] above. If they’re not, see [2]. Perhaps, as painful as it may seem, the kind of outsider-initiated launch that we’ve seen in Nola followed by backlash and correction is how any transformative change is likely to play out. If that’s the case, we should do everything possible on the front end to learn from Nola, anticipate concerns, ensure that the governing cabal is as permeable as possible, and explore ways to transfer authority without derailing the train. And along the way, we’d benefit immensely from listening closely and working to cultivate empathy for all involved.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.