What's Missing from This Solution?
More than a year after Hurricane Katrina, schools in New Orleans are still struggling to find enough teachers. According to this AP article, the 19 schools which form the state-run "Recovery School District" is about 50 teachers short of what it needs--a shortage so severe that some students who want to enroll have been placed on a waiting list.
But, as you read further, you'll discover that Katrina was merely the straw that broke the back of a failing school system. New Orleans's inner-city schools were in trouble before the storm, beset by crumbling facilities, violence and rock-bottom scores on achievement tests. As the AP notes:
"Many of the schools inherited by the state were run down even before Katrina, plagued by leaky roofs, lead paint or poor heating systems. Many of the students are indifferent to learning or are far behind, with some freshmen unable to read and some teenagers disappearing for days. Some have been arrested for fighting with each other or beating up security guards. Some schools lack classroom supplies."
Sound familiar? So, too is the proposed solution. The state is mounting a full-scale recruiting effort, designed to attract young teachers to the Recovery District. There's a planned partnership with "Teach for America," which places recent college graduates into a "school-in-need" for two years.
Will it work? As a former teacher, count me as a skeptic. Judging from the AP account, it sounds like the Recovery District is doing little--if anything--to address the underlying causes of its failing schools: the complete lack of discipline, an inability (or unwillingness) to move troubled students into alternative education programs, and rampant truancy. Sadly, the inner-city schools of New Orleans sound like they've been out of control for years, and the inmates are still running the asylum. I'll predict that most of the new hires now teaching in New Orleans will be gone within 2-3 years, burned out by working under chaotic conditions, for low pay.
Want a better solution? Introduce real discipline into the schools--establish some "Junior ROTC high schools (as Chicago has done), where every student is a member of the cadet corps, and required to meet more stringent dress and behavior criteria. Get the troublemakers out of the school--permanently. I don't have the numbers, but I'll wager that the number of students permanently expelled from New Orleans schools before the storm was shockingly low. You see, booting the bad apples invites law suits and means less dollars under the federal school lunch program, which awards funding solely on a school's enrollment.
More importantly, give the students who want to learn (and their parents) a real choice. The Recovery District seems ripe for a voucher program, along the lines of past, successful efforts in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Washington, D.C. and other cities. The AP reports that New Orleans's charter school system doesn't have a teacher shortage (wonder why?), and neither does the Orleans Parish system, which was also hard-hit by the storm. In the wake of Katrina, qualified teachers apparently voted with their feet and continued a migration to better schools, both in and outside the city.
Last year, barely three weeks after the hurricane, Chris Kinnan had an excellent column at National Review online, advocating the widespred use of vouchers in New Orleans. As he observed, a large-scale education voucher program would have allowed students to find a seat in the city's parochial schools (which served 50,000 students before the storm), or in other systems in the New Orleans area. Sixteen months later, the need for that sort of program in New Orleans is more evident than ever. Instead, the Recovery District seems intent on recruiting new teachers for perpetually failing schools, continuing a doomed cycle that existed long before Katrina made landfall.