Over the weekend I had the privilege of attending the “5 Years of Post-Katrina Education Reform Research” conference at the University of New Orleans. The conference was designed to bring together “national scholars with areas of expertise that are critical to studying New Orleans” to contribute their understandings to the post-Katrina experience. The conference features great keynote presentations on widely varying topics, from, for example, the technical-logistical-economic concerns of organizing a choice district (by Dr Henry Levin of Teachers College, Columbia University) to an understanding of the Teach for American movement informed by critical race theory (by Dr Lisa Delpit of Southern University in Baton Rouge), among others.
Now, not exactly identifying as an academic myself, I always experience a slight dissonance at conferences. Lots of beautiful words and ideas by highly intelligent people, yes, but in the words of a particularly action-oriented work associate, “Give me a toolkit!” But the strength of this weekend’s conference was its focus not simply on presenting research and discussing ideas, but to discuss ideas, philosophies, reforms and needs in order to translate those discussions into action. In this case, action refers specifically to research. Because, as UNO’s Andre Perry said, “Now, more than ever, we need research.”
The keynotes and paper presentations all worked toward this end in one way or another. But to really get at it, the final breakout session featured a number of “research agenda setting sessions”, instead of small, panel-like paper presentations. We signed up for discussions on specific topics of our choice throughout the conference, then met up in our groups and held open, free, and fluid conversations on those topics. I chose “Market-based reforms and Choice.”
My group was small, and at one point, when it was just three of us in the room, we considered teaming up with the RSD/System of Schools folks. But we stayed in our little room, and the group grew to a grand total of six. Broadly speaking, two of us represented the research side of education, two the service side (a former TfA teacher and a current teacher’s aid at Success Prep), one was a “professional education advocate”, and the other was from the state Dept of Ed. We had a great, dynamic conversation that, honestly, did not achieve its stated goal of setting a research agenda.
We talked a lot about school culture, and debated creating a school culture as opposed to developing one (or allowing one to develop organically out of — or with — student’s, parent’s, and communities’ extant culture). Given the current choice model in New Orleans, we wondered what a parent does if they don’t like the culture at a school, as one examination of the “voting with their feet” argument. There is a gap here between the theory — that parents and students can vote with their feet — and the practice — where they often lack an available, truly superior option. This was not the group to suggest a policy to eliminate that gap. But we can agree that research is necessary to inform policy changes so that they lead to the desired improvement.
We also talked about how the current dominant indicator of a school’s, student’s, or teacher’s success is, quite simply, test scores. No more, no less. This makes it difficult to assess (and communicate) the real impact of a reform’s success, meaning a given reform’s effect on whole child outcomes, on families and communities, and on narratives. These indicators exist, yet they are not the dominant mode of assessment. So, at least in some instances, more research, better data, using superior indicators will not really inform policy decisions. Maybe before this research is even completed, those of us who desire a more nuanced, less polarized, and more open education reform debate need a massive PR campaign, a paradigm shift in rhetoric.
Now, more than ever, we need good research. Yes. But now, more than ever, we need that research to effectively inform policy, so that policies are adopted that truly contribute to greater student success.
PS Sorry about the nearly-month-long gap between posts. A lot’s been going on here in Loyola-land, and I will surely keep you all up to speed.
PPS Don’t forget to check out NBC’s coverage of public education this week on the Today Show and the Nightly News with Brian Williams. It’s called Education Nation, and they’ll have a panel discussion spotlighting New Orleans tomorrow at 10:05. Catch it on their website.