Education in the South: A Recap

It’s an old lesson: the more you know, the less you know. In full effect this past weekend at the Oxford American’s Education in the South Symposium at Tulane, it felt as though every speaker to take the stage offered another surprising insight or perspective on the state of education at all levels, and followed it up with a challenge or a provocation in turn. Though I’m not a parent myself, I’ve lived in New Orleans for a number of years now, and would claim at least a working understanding of the issues facing our city’s children; if anything, this symposium made it clear just how many there are, and how deep they run.

The day consisted of two panels flanking a keynote address by Dr Patricia Crisp of the Department of Education; the first panel, moderated by Matt Candler of 4.0 Schools, explored the creative linkages between the education, culinary and tech sectors — namely, the ways in which schools can learn from the experiences of chefs and coders to obtain rapid, useful feedback on their work. To some degree more theoretical than the rest of the day — and less beholden to the New Orleans context — it nevertheless gave a clear-eyed assessment of the changes that schools will have to undergo to remain competitive in the educational landscape. The word ‘competitive’ is not accidental; if anything, much of the discussion early in the day was on the market-based approach to education, here and elsewhere. Candler even went so far as to say that “parents are [our] main customers,” and as the architects of school design in the city, “we deserve to go out of business if parents aren’t able to make good choices.”

Adjusting the focus to the national level, Dr Crisp offered a few surprising observations of her own: the extent to which education in America has stagnated in recent years, even despite the rewards it offers. (She quoted one figure which said that over the course of a lifetime, a bachelor’s degree from college is worth, on average, $2.1 million in earned income – with associate’s and high school degrees worth only slightly less that.) Citing efforts by the federal government to re-engineer the educational infrastructure in this country, she noted that the road ahead would be long, but that the field suffered from no shortage either of ideas or implementers, and encouraged everyone present to make use of the resources provided by the Department of Education. “We’re listening,” she said. “You write us, we’ll write back.”

By far and away, though, the highlight of the day (minus the lovely reception at the Historic New Orleans Collection) was the final panel, which was composed of teachers, administrators, reformers, and advocates from across New Orleans. By turns encouraging, enlightening, sobering, and deeply quieting, the perspectives and experiences of the various speakers — too many to list here — could not have given a more complete picture of the challenges riven through the city’s educational system. Specific moments included: accounts of interventions as small as teaching children to resolve conflicts by playing rock-paper-scissors, using recess as a time for more productive, healthier play; the stunning figure that, locally, up to 10% of a school’s budget is reserved for transportation alone; and the outrage general that, following Anne Gisleson’s excellent piece in the issue, there still exists no roadmap for any parent seeking to learn what their options are for educating their child. Even six years after Katrina, the system remains fragmented, confusing, and discouraging for parents who don’t have the verbal, cultural, or financial literacy to navigate it.

More questions than answers upon leaving, of course: often, with conferences of this sort, that’s how it should be. When the future of our children is at stake, however, they’re the type of questions that keep you up at night. I’m still not sure about the economic language of parents as consumers, and as far as the use of technology goes, I do believe that we should continue to privilege knowing as much as knowing how to know, even as the latter increasingly becomes the dominant paradigm. Googling is learning only up to a point: the rest is up to you. But that said, we learned far more than we could process in a day — about organizations we never knew existed, about truly innovative strategies of educational reform, and about the approaches that crucially untether education from its moorings in the classroom and place it in a wider social, neighborhood, and community context. (One excellent question, raised far too late in the day: how can schools best involve non-parents in their work, turning non-stakeholders into stakeholders?)

If there was a single lesson to be drawn from the symposium, it was this: the health of its school is the health of a neighborhood, and the health of its neighborhoods is the health of a city. Quality of life for everyone in New Orleans depends on the quality of all of its schools, not just the ones where our own kids go. But hopefully we knew that already.