In June, we at ERS had the opportunity to chat with education reporter Sarah Carr, who recently published Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children. Her book looks through the eyes of three people—a student, teacher, and principal—at the benefits and challenges of charter-focused school reform in post-Katrina New Orleans. These powerful personal narratives highlight the complexity of reform and the importance of strong leadership. During our conversation, Carr shared her insights from meeting these individuals and sharing their stories:
Leadership Can Make or Break Reform
According to Carr, one of the most surprising things about reform in New Orleans was the amount of power principals had over their schools. She noted that schools, particularly charters, acted completely autonomously even if part of a broader charter school network. For better or worse, this left principals with lots of control and little support. Often, there was no one to intervene when leaders went down the wrong path. Carr therefore emphasized the importance of attracting, developing, and supporting strong leaders in autonomous environments.
This resonated with us because ERS has worked with a number of districts on the question of principal autonomy. We believe that school systems play an important role in helping principals succeed—both giving them autonomy, but just as importantly, providing support and accountability. This can mean sharing best practices, training on strategic school design, and orienting the central office as a strategic partner. It also means providing oversight to identify leaders who are truly struggling.
With Great Flexibility Comes Great Responsibility
Carr described the increased flexibility that New Orleans school leaders had over resources, particularly in charter schools. However, she also emphasized how outside pressures can impact how this flexibility plays out. One school she follows in her book dropped all classes but social studies for a few weeks to address the problem of lagging scores. Carr challenged us to decide if this is the best use of school flexibility. On one hand, the school is responsible for getting results and could close if the students don’t attain certain achievement scores. On the other hand, it may not be best for students to learn only social studies for a month straight. With this example, Carr shows us how the combination of extreme flexibility and outside pressures or rules could be problematic in the long run.
We agree that flexibility should not equal anarchy—that's why it's so important to have a coherent resource strategy. When we coach schools through the strategic school design process, we help them decide how to use flexibility over people, time, and money to hire strategically, create effective teaching teams, differentiate time and attention for struggling students, and focus on personal relationships among many other time-tested strategies. These decisions must be based on data about core student needs, and balanced to meet the needs of every student.
Schools Are Not a Panacea
In addition to principal autonomy and flexibility, Carr also discussed the impact of poverty on school reform. In New Orleans, many families have limited access to health care or mental health services, and parents are often forced to work multiple jobs to support their families. Even the most engaged, responsible families struggle to send their children to strong schools. Carr believes that in this environment, it is unfair to think that schools can support children and families all on their own. She noted that in many areas of education reform—especially at charters—teachers are told that they alone are responsible for their students’ success. This has created a cadre of teachers who feel they have to work 90+ hours a week to see their students succeed. This should not and cannot be the case going forward. Carr spoke of the need to empower schools and teachers to highlight to the politicians and community that they cannot do this alone.
At ERS, we understand this struggle. We know that schools and districts aspire to support the whole child, particularly in high-need areas, but have limited resources to do so. One effective strategy is to leverage community partnerships to provide some of these supports. Building these partnerships does not happen overnight; it takes planning and commitment on both sides to address the needs of students in an efficient and cost-effective way. Despite these challenges, we believe that they can be effective levers in supporting schools and students.
We appreciate Carr sharing her insights with us and will continue to reflect on the lessons from Hope Against Hope in our work in the field.