Thursday, February 6, 2020

What New Orleans Can Teach Us About the Forces Blocking Change in Education

This is a review of The Politics of Institutional Reform: Katrina, Education, and the Second Face of Power, by Terry M. Moe (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

Nearly 15 years after Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans and prompted rebuilding effort that fundamentally transformed the city’s school system, observers are still confusing the parts for the whole. Analysts focus on the firing of incumbent teachers when the city was abandoned, charter schools, Teach for America, No-Excuses school models, or universal school choice, as if each one were the whole story.

Terry Moe makes sense of the many things that came together and shows why it was possible in the first place. Moe shows how a coalition of “vested interests” that benefited from the jobs, resources, and privileges of the existing system had held the pre-Katrina school system in place. These groups, including the teachers union, school board and district bureaucracy, benefited from the old system even when it was riddled with corruption, dysfunction, neglect of students; it performed so appallingly that one high school’s valedictorian could not pass the state high school exit exam.

The temporary scattering of that coalition by Katrina created an opening for practical actions to improve schools. Blocking change—or keeping it out of the discussion altogether—is the second face of power in the book’s title. Its complement, the first face of power, is the ability to get things done and new policies adopted.

Moe’s core proposition is that the hurricane broke down the second face of power. As vested interests’ lost their stranglehold on New Orleans public education, change became possible. 

After Katrina, newly unshackled state and local leaders had the freedom to act but they faced almost total uncertainty about when children whose families had fled the city would return and where they would settle, how much schooling students would have missed and what their needs were, when funding for schools would start trickling back, what buildings could be restored for use as schools, and how to find teachers and principals who could run effective schools. 

Nor did they possess a clear political mandate to do something new. While opponents of change had scattered, there was no organized constituency for any particular course of action. 

Moe describes key state and local actors including New Orleans residents and state board members Paul Pastorek and Leslie Jacobs, state superintendent Cecil Picard and Governor Kathleen Blanco, as pragmatists and problem solvers. They saw the need for specific changes—like a mechanism to create new schools—but their ideas were practical, not based on any comprehensive theory or ideology. 

The portfolio system that now exists in New Orleans came after Pastorek reached out to the Center on Reinventing Public Education for a core idea to integrate discrete initiatives – all schools charters, family choice among schools, school-based employment of teachers and principals, schools’ ability to choose their sources of assistance and advice, multiple charter networks, a public authority that could close and replace failed schools but not run any, and continuous problem solving to remedy school failures and inequities. 

Over time the outlines of a new system emerged, one flexible enough to adapt to the changing needs of the city. Teachers and school leaders who had avoided the city in despair of being able to accomplish anything realized they could do something positive for kids. Their return, and the decision by KIPP and other high quality charter providers to start schools in the city, changed the choices available to parents, who were returning to the city in increasing numbers. National foundations supported start-up work on new schools and infrastructure to support a decentralized system, including parent information, teacher recruitment, transportation, and services for students with disabilities. Somewhat belatedly, national foundations funded a Tulane Center to honestly assess the consequences for students, which were positive enough to sustain local public support. 

From the beginning nothing was neat: government officials and educators all encountered new challenges every day, made mistakes, and learned. After the original problem solvers left the scene others emerged to build out the reform strategy and secure it by building new vested interests – parents, school leaders, teachers and community leaders. It’s still going on, even fifteen years after the hurricane and less than two years after the state’s recovery district ceded oversight responsibility to a local school board bound by law to respect the autonomy of effective schools.  

Moe’s “second face of power” analysis also explains what has happened from 2005 to the present. 

In the early years after Katrina, the long-standing structure of normal politics was obliterated, and problem solvers operated within a period of free-form political transition that gave them the space to create, build, and adjust. But politics was inherently too threatening for that to last. They needed power if their problem solving was to work.  And they mobilized to get it, taking advantage of the new vested interests that arose naturally and inevitably out of the new system, and building a new political coalition capable of raising massive resources for electoral combat. In the process, they clearly became more than just problem solvers. Their movement became a political movement, fundamentally concerned with amassing and exercising political power. This was no accident. It is what they had to do if they were to succeed.  

The biggest threats to the reforms remain political, even a decade and a half after they were initiated. The groups that had benefited most from pre-Katrina school system are still present. The teachers union and allied organizations, including vendors accustomed to selling to school districts, are working to restore arrangements that benefited them, including centralized hiring, teacher assignment and control over wages and working conditions; just enough quality magnet schools to appease the middle class; a big bureaucracy that can provide patronage-based jobs and contracts; a vague accountability system that can’t close ineffective schools, and the return of a company store approach that forces schools to buy only the help and advice that the district central office can offer. 

To date, changes made after Katrina have held not simply because they have benefited children and the city, but because they have strong grassroots and professional constituencies. But, as Moe explains, the struggle over the future of new Orleans schools will continue indefinitely, as former status quo forces keep pressing, take advantage of problems and failures that arise, and try to convince parents that they can have good schools without the pain caused by closing low-performing schools, the uncertainties of lottery-based school assignments, or other complexities inherent in a decentralized school system. A history of NOLA school reform written ten years hence might have new chapters on the erosion of post-Katrina reforms and the return to more laxity in schooling and patronage-based governance.

Moe’s analysis is also important for would-be reformers elsewhere.  It’s tempting to say, “let’s replicate the New Orleans reforms in other cities.” But as Moe warns, it is impossible to move as fast or as far in other cities where blocking forces are still firmly in place. 

As he concludes:

The New Orleans revolution cannot be emulated by other districts and states. It cannot solve the nation’s education problems. But what it can do is to help us understand why these problems come about, why they persist, and why the politics of institutional reform plays out in ways that are often dysfunctional.  

In other places, it is possible to build new support bases for reforms like charter schools and family choice, and to erode the strength of blocking forces, e.g. by convincing younger teachers that school level hiring and control of funds benefit them as professionals. It is also possible to broaden the political forces at play by recruiting minority parents and professionals, the business community, higher education and cultural institutions into the reform coalition. 

But even when new countervailing powers emerge, the challenges of getting around traditional blocking forces and preventing them from undermining reforms once established, remain. This has important implications for foundations and even state officials who offer funding for new initiatives. School boards, central offices, unions and status quo parents will accept foundation funds and make promised changes, but only with the expectation that things will return to normal when the grant or state intervention expires. 

For their initiatives to make a lasting difference, reformers, whether in local or state governments or foundations, need to build local political support – as Moe frames it, helping create new vested interests that will support a reform long after the event that launched it. For foundations in particular, this means engaging with localities for many years, not just for a 1-3 year grant cycle. It also means supporting (along with local funders) parent groups, teacher recruitment, assessment organizations to track results and flag problems, networks to provide advice and assistance to schools and ensure the availability of special education services, and “harbor masters” to manage problems that no one school can solve (like parent information, fair admissions and transportation). This means paying for more than just the marginal costs of the reform itself.

New Orleans made the progress it did because pragmatic state and local leaders, aided and prodded by a robust nonprofit sector, continually worked to solve new challenges that arose. Now, as the city faces a decline in national philanthropic interest, a shortage of teacher talent, and plateauing performance, local reform leaders will need ongoing political support to create the space for their problem solving to occur.  

Innovators, entrepreneurs, foundation leaders and state officials too often ignore the second face of power, thinking that local school systems will naturally want to build on a small scale success and all that’s required is a scaled up delivery system. Moe’s analysis shows why good ideas and capacity building can smash up against the rock of vested interests. Getting something started is the easy part. Keeping it going in a tough neighborhood is the hard part. 

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