Big, not easy
Revolution and innovation in some of America's toughest neighbourhoods
AS PUPILS file into their classroom at Kipp Renaissance, a high school in a battered corner of north-east New Orleans, each one stops to shake the hand of a history teacher. “Changes”, a rap song by Tupac about the struggles of being poor and black in America, plays quietly in the background. Within a minute or two, the dozen teenagers—all black—are busily filling in test papers. Soon afterwards, Mr Kullman, the teacher, begins rapping himself—hopping around the room demanding quick-fire answers to questions about the civil war. Pupils shout back answers in chorus.
Kipp Renaissance is one of New Orleans's newer high schools. Since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, only six traditional public schools, directly run by the city, remain. Instead 94% of pupils now attend charter schools, which are publicly funded but run by independent non-profit organisations such as Kipp (in full, the “Knowledge is Power Programme”).
Change began in 2003, when Louisiana created a Recovery School District (RSD) to take over and turn around failing schools across the state. Katrina dramatically accelerated the process: the RSD now controls most schools in New Orleans. Since 2008 alone, it has closed about 50 and presided over the opening of an equal number of charters. The district organises admissions and expulsions, and helps allocate school buildings. But staffing, teacher training, transport, catering and much else are left in the hands of schools and the charter chains which run them.
A decade ago, teachers in New Orleans were demoralised. The city's school district had eight different superintendents in the decade to 2005, none of whom managed to curb corruption or control waste. Affluent whites had fled the system: before Katrina New Orleans was roughly 67% black and 28% white, yet only 6% of public-school pupils were not black.
Under the new regime, schools have sharply improved. In 2004 just 16.5% of pupils in New Orleans's schools beat Louisiana's state performance score; by the end of the most recent school year, 31.1% did, according to the Cowen Institute at Tulane University. High-school graduation rates have risen from 55% before Katrina to 73% now; drop-out rates have fallen by half.
After Katrina, most of New Orleans's 7,500 unionised teachers were, in effect, fired. Charter schools have hired some back—but they have also hired plenty of new, young ambitious teachers, often straight out of college, who work the long days and extra hours without complaint.
The ability to choose a school matters less than you might expect. Autonomy and central scrutiny matter more. New Orleans's charter schools are probably more closely watched than public schools ever were, and those that fail to meet targets do not get their charters renewed. With academic targets set centrally, schools tend to agree on what works best.
The challenge now is whether improvement can be sustained. On national tests, Louisiana still comes last or nearly last on a range of measures. What the state deems “mastery” of a subject barely passes for acceptable in other states: by the standards of Massachusetts or Maine, schools in New Orleans remain terrible. Middle-class whites still mostly send their children to private schools.
One worry is money. Before Katrina, spending per pupil in New Orleans was 7,900 per year, about the same as in Louisiana at large. Last year the figure was 12,797—much more than the state average. Federal money, doled out to help rebuild after the hurricane, now pays for repairing almost all the city's school buildings. But it will not last for ever.
At some point, the city's overworked teachers may begin to struggle. Some critics say reform has been imposed paternalistically by white reformers on black communities, and so has only limited support. Yet in a vote on December 6th a new tax for school maintenance was easily approved by the city's voters. They, and their children, seem to like what they are getting.