Kingsland: What Happens to Teachers When Charter Schools Come to Town? A New Orleans Case Study
In hot spots for reform, such as New Orleans and Newark, observers have expressed concerns that reform efforts might damage communities by firing local veteran educators and replacing them with young outsiders.
Even if children benefit, they say, perhaps communities, as a whole, will suffer.
Previously, there was little data to address such fears. But fortunately, researchers at Tulane University have finally conducted research on both issues and, for New Orleans, we now have a much better understanding of how much things have improved for students — as well as how adults were impacted by these reforms.
In New Orleans, the academic gains have been immense. High school graduation rates are up over twenty points, and the proficiency gap with the remainder of the state has been nearly closed. Tulane researchers conducted a rigorous analysis of student achievement growth and noted: “we are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time.”
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In New Orleans, the changes in the composition of the teaching force have also been significant. Here’s a quick overview of the research on how the teaching force in New Orleans changed over the last decade:
- The teaching force went from 71% African-American to 49% African-American.
- The percentage of teachers who graduated from a New Orleans college went from 60% to 34%.
- The percentage of teachers with less than five years of experience went from 33% to 54%.
All of which begs the question, were the student achievement gains worth the loss in jobs for the African-American community?
Ultimately, how one answers this question will have as much to do with values as data, but one way to further understand the issue is by looking at the number of jobs impacted, rather than changes in percentages. There are roughly 2,750 teachers in New Orleans. Had the previous teaching composition held constant, the number of teaching jobs held by African-Americans would have been 1,950 rather than the estimated 1,350.
So there are about 600 less teaching jobs held by African-Americans today.
Now consider: There are about 180,000 African-American adults in New Orleans. That means 0.3% of African-American adults have been affected by the changes in the composition of the New Orleans teaching force.
From a jobs perspective, the reforms have not gutted the African-American middle class. Teaching, while an important profession, is only a small part of the city’s economy. But of course, numbers aren’t everything. The whitening of historically black institutions can have a larger impact on a community than the numbers might indicate.
Still, wherever one ends on the issue, the numbers seem to show that the most extreme worries of community harm have not actually occurred.
But even if one concludes that past reforms were worth it (which I do), there is still cause for concern. Research demonstrates, and common sense confirms, that students of colors benefit from role models who share their backgrounds. If the trend in racial composition of the teaching force continues, New Orleans students may lack adequate role models.
Furthermore, given the risks in implicit racial bias in hiring through professional and social networks, the whitening of the teaching force may lead to the exclusion of effective teachers of colors.
Lastly, importing talent may be an unsustainable strategy. At some point, a new city will become the epicenter of reform, and the pipeline for teachers outside New Orleans may be further squeezed.
As the Tulane researchers note in their report, local education leaders are worried about the issue. And they are trying to come up with innovative solutions to localize and diversify teacher pipelines.
You can read about some New Orleans pilots here, including a program called Brothers Empowered to Teach, which aims to increase the number of men of color who enter the teaching profession.
But, as of yet, the issue remains unsolved. And, given the racial distrust that still often divides the city’s leadership, solutions may be difficult to come by.
All of which gets to the core issue of charter school growth: over the long-term, who gets hired is much more consequential than who gets fired. In most cities, the rate of charter school growth is less than the rate of average annual teacher turnover. As such, managing natural attrition in an effective manner can prevent most teachers from being negatively impacted by charter growth.
It is who the charters hire that will, overtime, determine whether or not schools are staffed by effective educators of color.
As such, diverse coalitions will be needed to develop solutions, which could include supporting more African-American entrepreneurs to launch and scale charters schools; charter schools partnering with historically black colleges and universities; and local colleges of education placing their students in residencies at high-performing charter schools.
The question is not whether or not education reform – and the growth of high-quality charters schools – will destroy communities. The opposite will almost always be true. Great schools are the foundation of great communities.
But for great schools to sustain themselves, they will need to be led and staffed by great educators of color.