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The New Ninth Ward

If you’re one of the folks that stopped watching Treme after its first season (“Too boring! Too slow!”), or if you just never bothered to check it out, you might want to check back in. Now in its third season, Treme is proving itself adept at mirroring what creator David Simon’s more celebrated predecessor, The Wire, did better than any show before or since: depict characters struggling and surviving amidst the dysfunctional, intractable, and dialectical systems holding them – and us – prisoner.

In The Wire, the city was Baltimore, and the systems were the drug trade, the public schools, the municipal government, the press, and the police. In Treme, the city is New Orleans, and several of the systems – the schools, the police and the elected officials – make a return appearance. This time, however, Simon adds some new storylines and characters, all of which ride in on the destructive current of Hurricane Katrina, and all of who exist to tell a different story. Indeed, if The Wire was about the older, less visible systems that are holding us prisoner, Treme is about the newer, more visible ones that are being created in the name of progress. The genius of both shows is they refuse to craft a story about something so complicated by oversimplifying the myriad forces at play. As in life, systems and people are more nuanced than mere two-dimensional caricatures – even the ones that hold us prisoner, and even the ones who are up to no good.

I say this because lately I feel like the conversations about school reform in New Orleans are taking on an unhelpful and increasingly entrenched two-dimensional tone: you’re either for the locals, who are being preyed upon by profit-seeking charter schools and carpet-bagging businessmen who see in the chaos of Katrina their last, best chance to remake the city into something new; or you’re for the engines of progress, which recognize that the city’s schools were an embarrassment, its housing projects a blight, and its local traditions best preserved via tangible, lasting monuments, not intangible, romanticized dysfunction.

I say this as someone who knows well-meaning people that have gone to New Orleans as “engines of progress” and who see in its schools the greatest chance to reimagine urban public education for the better. And I say this as someone who feels that much of what they have created is, in effect, perfecting our ability to succeed in an old (Industrial-era) system that no longer serves our interests.

We do ourselves a disservice when we describe school reform in New Orleans in the overly simplistic “privatization of public education” storyline (which is so appealing precisely because it has such clearly defined good people and bad people – and which, like all storylines, is at least partially grounded in the truth). And we are kidding ourselves if we continue to believe that what poor communities need most are outsiders coming in and helping their children raise test scores via a grab bag of teaching methods that not a single “outsider” I know has actually chosen for their own children.

What we have at play in modern New Orleans, in other words, are a few bad people, a lot of bad decisions, and a lot of good (or at least decent) people struggling to succeed amidst larger systemic ways of seeing and thinking that are still holding them – and us – prisoner.

The most recent episode of Treme captures this spirit perfectly in the lyrics of a new song one of the characters has penned in an effort to tell the story of what has happened there since Katrina. Sung by the legendary Irma Thomas, its opening stanza tells you what’s coming:

I’ll meet you on the corner of Dick Cheney Street

And Rumsfeld Boulevard,

Right next to the statue of Michael Brown,

In the new Ninth Ward.

As the song progresses, it’s clear its author is not a fan of the changes underway (nor should he be).

Folks are living so easy there,

Times used to be so hard,

A chicken in every pot,

Oh they dance a lot,

In the new Ninth Ward.

The song’s final stanza sums up the unique tragedy of modern New Orleans – a city with as much cultural heritage as any place in the United States, and a city with as much need of civic improvement.

We kicked out all the criminals,

Got rid of the blight,

Put a little camera on the traffic light,

The kids that come to school

They come to learn and not fight,

This time around we’re making it right,

In the new Ninth Ward.

What makes Treme so redeeming is its refusal to give the chief architects of the post-Katrina clusterfuck a free pass, and its insistence that we not delude ourselves into seeing those architects as being separate from the rest of us. We have met the enemy, and it is us. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we may actually figure out a way to be free. Until that happens, get ready – a new Ninth Ward is coming your way soon.


Questions for the Next Schools Chancellor

Today, presumptive-next-mayor Vincent Gray will meet with presumptive-ex- chancellor Michelle Rhee to discuss the future of DC public schools.

In a way, this is a lose-lose meeting for both. As Rhee has made clear in her typically tin-eared style, she is skeptical Gray shares her commitment to a particular set of reforms. Meanwhile, Gray’s ultimate decision about Rhee is guaranteed to disappoint a significant percentage of his electorate – either those who voted for him to register their disapproval of Fenty’s and Rhee’s style of leadership, or those who voted against him to see her reign continue.

This puts Mr. Gray in a bit of a pickle, but he might as well use the opportunity to think about the essential questions he would want to ask any potential candidate to be the next Schools Chancellor. Here are five he might want to consider:

  1. Thank you for meeting with me this afternoon. Clearly, this most recent election was in part a referendum on leadership in general, and on the different approaches people take to decision-making, community engagement, and working with the forces of change. With that in mind, tell me about your personal philosophy of leadership, about what you believe are the central characteristics a leader must possess, and about how you intend to leverage those characteristics in your work with the many stakeholders of our public school system?
  2. IMPACT, the new teacher evaluation system in DC has received national attention – and both praise and scrutiny – for its increased emphasis on a diverse set of data points to determine teacher effectiveness, a more frequent use of third-party observations, and a commitment to link student test scores to individual teacher evaluations. Tell me, when you imagine your ideal system for evaluating teacher effectiveness, which aspects of IMPACT would you stop using, which would you keep using, and which new features would you want to start using, and why?
  3. In any system, a leader has to identify in which areas of the system s/he wants to seek traditional changes, transitional changes, and transformational changes. Based on what we know about systems change, it’s often wise to pursue all three types of change at the same time, and in different parts of the system, so that the pace of change is neither too slow nor too fast, and so people will experience both the up-close significance of short-term wins and the galvanizing power of a long-term vision. Knowing that, in which aspects of the system would you pursue the most traditional changes, and why? Where do you think the opportunities exist for a transitional set of reforms in DCPS, and why? And how do you feel those changes will help prepare our city for a more transformational set of changes that will help our current 19th and 20th century modes of schooling start preparing children for the unique set of challenges and opportunities posed by the 21st century world they will enter when they graduate?
  4. The past four years have seen DCPS focus relentlessly on improving student results on 3rd and 8th grade standardized exams in reading and math. Banners have been hung in front of schools trumpeting these scores, and for the average parent or community member, schools are still deemed successful or unsuccessful based on these scores alone. When it comes to evaluating the extent to which children are learning, what is your ideal balanced scorecard of indicators, and how would you revise the city’s assessment and accountability system to ensure that future performance data reveal not just who isn’t learning and what isn’t being learned, but also why students are struggling and how DCPS teachers can address their needs?
  5. My final question to you has less to do with any specific changes you hope to make, and more to do with how well you understand the equally important role of communicating those changes to the residents of this city. Let’s imagine it’s four years from now, and we’re looking back to see which central words, ideas and messages the average citizen associates with your tenure as Schools Chancellor. What do you want them to say, why do you want them to say it, and how will you go about executing an outreach strategy that helps ensure the residents of our city feel an alignment between the actions and the aspirations of your administration?
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