Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Attacking New Orleans Teachers: A Math Problem for Bobby Jindal and the Media

So Governor Bobby Jindal has decided to make education reform the flagship of his second term. It's a smart political move. It plays well nationally. It's very pro-business for the companies making fortunes off of the charter school movement. It gives the impression that Jindal cares about youth and the intellectual future of this country. It perpetuates the myth that anyone can escape poverty through education and hard work. And if the grades don't improve, he has the teachers' union as a scapegoat.

What bothers me though about Jindal is his not-at-all-subtle attack on teachers. Consider his rhetoric. In rolling out his plan he made the following two statements about teachers:

1. "Short of selling drugs in the workplace or beating up one of the business's clients, they can never be fired."

2. "We are going to create a system that pays teachers for doing a good job instead of for the length of time they have been breathing."

Ugh. First teachers are easily fired. In fact, every teacher in New Orleans was fired after the flood. And my principal friends tell me all one needs to do is document the poor performance in yearly evaluation forms and the contract will be terminated. And notice in his business model he calls students "clients." Second, my wife is a public school teacher and I find this idea about her pay being based on simply living to be very offensive. My outrage is influenced by that fact that my kids and I all suffer due to the incredible work load placed on her shoulders. Ask anyone married to a public school teacher. Some of us call ourselves "teacher widows" and "teacher widowers." It's a major sacrifice. I look forward to June when I can have a wife again.

Besides the rhetoric, there is this myth being perpetuated in Louisiana education circles that we can all "vote with our feet." If we don't like the school in which our child is enrolled, we can switch schools. But entry into the best schools is extremely difficult if not impossible. For starters, you would need to have a parent with access to resources such as time, networking, and diligence. Louisiana Association of Educators Executive Director Michael Walker-Jones stated that many parents don't have these and other resources to make informed decisions about navigating these systems. This statement offended Jindal who argues that all parents want what's best for their kids and will be working on a level playing field in school choice.

So who is correct? I have a simple solution that a journalist could solve in about an hour. Let's take the two best performing charter schools in New Orleans, Ben Franklin and Lusher, and look at the average income for the parents of their students. Let's look at the demographics. Do these students come from houses where they have two parents? Perhaps one of these parents has time to volunteer at the school? Do they have a computer and an internet connection in their home?

Then lets compare these numbers to two of the lowest performing public schools in the city. I don't want to name names here, so choose any two RSD schools, or some of the lower performing BESE run charters. I think it's a reasonable hypothesis here that you will see a drastically lower income, far more single parents, no time to volunteer and fewer computers with internet in the home. I'm pretty sure that you will see a direct correlation between school quality and parental income.

But if the results are similar between these two sets then Jindal is correct and we all should be offended. I'm offended too, but for reasons that differ from Jindal's.

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