Return to New Orleans


10 years ago, I drove into a darkened New Orleans.  Literally.  The streetlights were off, traffic lights non- functional, and there were still large swaths of the city with no power.  It’s hard to explain what it was like.  Driving down the I-10, and seeing the increasing devastation in the countryside, as you approach, and as the sun dips, you get off the exit into the City, and it’s dark.  Car headlights forming miner’s flashlights cutting beams through the unknown, jigsawing their way through the darkness, slowly revealing, in glimpses, the aftermath of devastation.

I have a great sense of direction, but in New Orleans I was always lost.  It wasn’t just the pre-GPS days, the often absent street signs, those twisted sideways by the storm, or even New Orleans’ bowl shaped layout, there was just something disorienting.  As someone who works with schools, there is a certain rhythm to weekdays that almost goes unnoticed, kids and buses lining the streets in the morning, and students in school uniforms spilling out in the streets mid-afternoon.  None of that was happening, kids were just kind of hanging out when you saw them, and schools were shuttered.


10 years later, despite some very real and important gains, on my recent visit back, I heard continuing dissent from many of my compatriots around whether things were “really” better for everyone.  New Orleans has the third highest rate in the US of youth aged 16-24 who are not in school nor employed. In some schools, “no excuses” discipline with its gratuitous suspensions and expulsions and all too often student shaming had eclipsed more humane and responsive approaches to children and families.  And sometimes, the staff, being unreflective of the community, and seeming condescending in relating to it, had reinforced fears that New Orleanians had about outsiders coming in post-storm and the ability of folks to really understand and meet student needs.

Let me say that New Orleans kind of kicked my ass in the first round, not the schools, community, or kids, but moreso the politics and honestly many of those in the so-called reform movement.  The New Orleanians were inspirational, finding bootstraps in the mud, literally digging sludge from server rooms and opening doors to kids on the street who needed some sense of stability, as I described in a prior article here.  At the same time there was a deep and enduring undercurrent of separation and racism, New Orleans was alone in having selective admissions charter schools, and even those schools that were not technically selective often had a confusing range of preferences that tended towards certain families.  And believe me, folks in the community knew that the system was rigged.


There was also an influx of ed reformers, or “deformers” as we/they are often called, who saw opportunity in NOLA.  Some saw opportunity for the abysmal system to improve, others for themselves, and some you couldn’t tell.   But I could tell that they often didn’t really get “it”, and as the only brother in the room or one of two, most of the time, in a system where the vast majority of kids are Black, folks seemed a bit out of touch.  And worse, they either didn’t see the racial impacts of some of the reforms, or some times when those concerns were voiced, they did their best to avoid them.  Race and education are embedded in America, and if you don’t see that in a place like New Orleans, you will not get reforms right.

Things have improved in terms of student achievement for students in the schools based on relatively valid indicators.  ACT scores, high school graduation, and college acceptance rates, have all grown at rates that significantly outpace the State, and according to fairly comprehensive research study by the Education Research Alliance of New Orleans, found here , there is a very strong effect size of the reforms themselves.  This is all very encouraging, and despite the grumblings, many of the grumblers also admitted that the prior system was terrible, and that this very imperfect and still skewed system is probably better than what was.

But Better is not good, and New Orleans is not nearly good enough in terms of having sufficient quality options for families.  While the number of A and B rated schools has increased there still are far too few quality schools to meet demand.  School choice feels like a fraud when you can’t get into quality options, so we have to continue to work on the supply side of quality.

These are lessons for any city that is looking to move forward with similar sets of reforms; increasing school choice, creating common enrollment, and more rigorous enforcement of accountability upon low performing schools.  We have to learn by looking back honestly and dreaming forward ambitiously.  This means not just putting up street signs and opening roads, but being sure that everyone accesses those paths equally, and that some predictable historical victims are not left by the wayside.


Witness to New Orleans- republishing a photo essay I did in NOLA post Katrina

nola nat turner



by Dirk Tillotson


 nola car

Not even the birds have returned to the Ninth Ward. Warm summer winds lap through the scores of neighborhoods that lay in rubble in what was once New Orleans. Driving through block after block, hardly a sign of life. Homes ripped from their moorings, perching on top of cars, or in their final resting place as a pile of rubble, sandwiches with plywood bread and memories and history as the meat.

Spray painting is the only sign of life and sometimes death. Some expressive, “Baghdad” “The Fire Next Time”, others, officially designating the homes either as GPS points or, more darkly, the inspection markings from search teams.

Most houses in New Orleans are marked with a prominently displayed “X”, the date at top, and the number of bodies found at the bottom. A Biblical marker reminiscent of Exodus, tagging the homes that the Angel of Death had passed over and more chillingly those she visited. And indeed they are still, still, finding bodies in collapsed houses, ravaged by the elements and picked at by animals.  Ten months later they are still finding


Is this America?

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While Bourbon Street parties into the dawn hours and Uptown the cafes and restaurants buzz, large swaths of New Orleans still lay dark, without power, water, or people.

Lakeview is an affluent area where the water rose high enough to kill and stayed long enough to destroy. FEMA trailers dot rebuilding and work crews populate the neighborhoods during the day, at least relatively. Here, many houses are at least gutted, which creates it’s own visible tragedy. Imagine everything you own; your clothes, wedding albums, children’s toys, furniture, all thrown haphazardly, moldy and rotting onto the side of the road. House after house, block after block, neighborhood after neighborhood, it’s all gone.  Each trash pile marking the grave of a family’s history.

Mass graves crowd over lots and into the streets.

Is this America?

tricycle nola

When I told my Godmother, who is from Shreveport, that I was going to work with schools in rebuilding New Orleans, she fretted. While many of us see Nawlins as a party mecca, with opulent costumes, sunny afternoon jazz, booze soaked parades, and the prospect of a free flash, locals knew what the truth is.  That New Orleans was already sick. The bankrupt school system was arguably the worst in the nation (a valedictorian at one high school failed the exit exam multiple times and scored an 11 on the ACT, which is less than random), violent crime was rampant, the City administration was historically notorious for corruption, the infrastructure was decaying and needing massive repairs, and there was a gaping chasm between the largely White haves and the largely Black have-nots. This thin veneer of coexistence cracked wide open after Katrina, exposing the darker side of New Orleans and the troubling present manifestation of its past history.

Things are different down there.  Shotgun wielding police line bridges during disasters and fire over the heads of people fleeing to block their escape. Seven public defenders represent 1,200 defendants, some of whom have been in jail longer than their maximum sentence, if guilty, but have not seen a lawyer. Elders were left to die in nursing homes. Children sat four days on roofs and then were evacuated to the firearm symphony of the Superdome, and wish they stayed on the roof. A girl sat days on a bridge waiting for help within eyesight of a dead man and his brains that had been splattered on the sidewalk.

Schools became shelters and shelters became morgues.  Help did not come.

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The birthplace of jazz, where African slaves shared brass on Sundays with Whites to create the greatest American art form.  The synergy of cultures.  The most progressive and free city in the South before the Civil War.  Mardi Gras Indians dance to celebrate the unique shared culture, where local tribes absorbed escaped slaves. And Mardi Gras masking allowed people of all races and classes to mix when such interactions were taboo in the North. Spanish, French, African, Indian, English, Caribbean, Creole, Cajun, Catholic, Baptist, Free, Slave, Black, White, American. Like the succulent jambalaya or gumbo, New Orleans was that spicy mixture of cultures whose whole could be greater than its parts.

White and Black parishioners sit in at a Catholic Church demanding the return of a popular Black Priest. A truly diverse circle of compatriots stand outside a home awaiting gutting, holding hands, heads down in prayer, asking God’s help in rebuilding. A Black preacher drives back to New Orleans before FEMA and plucks an elderly White man from his roof, and a White couple scours the streets in their neighbor’s boat for anyone needing help. Churches, schools, homes, and shelters are opened for victims from Houston to Oakland to Maine. Tens of thousands send aid or travel themselves to lend a hand. Ant trails of rebuilding form, but a single ant, or even a few, will not make it. And already, the warm waters of the ocean conspire to wash away nascent rebuilding.

Is this America?

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Children talk about Katrina like she was a mean bully, “Katrina took my toys”, and increasingly cry themselves to sleep. Extended families crowd into the few remaining family resources, and people are drinking, drugging and hitting each other more. The “lucky” families live for months in 20 foot long trailers, the only privacy found in the tiny bathroom. And the stress of it all is causing cracks in the psychological defenses that people have put up to make it this far. Finding a place to live, dealing with insurance, keeping track of your family, trying to find a job, worrying about your kids and parents, getting health care, these and many more stresses are weighing on the minds of most every New Orleanian. And a dark specter hovers, a foreboding sense that it really is but for the grace of God that they do not go through it all again in the coming years. Or months.

There are tears welled in every New Orleanian, a deep reservoir just below the surface. A cracking voice in recounting a story, the hand wiping to the eye, pause and clearing of the throat.  At other times the psychological levees breach.

When I first visited in January what I saw was heroic. School employees were working, unpaid, to clean schools and get them open. Despite the allocation of significant federal funding, none had arrived to schools themselves, a problem that continues to a lesser degree now. And school employees forced schools open because it needed to be done. Students and employees are traumatized, resources have not materialized, and there are significantly greater needs around mental health support and counseling. This amidst the extreme deficits and segregation that existed before Katrina.

New Orleans is on its knees, and the tide of hurricane season is rising.  The best hope is in the prayer that another storm does not curl through the Gulf Coast. While levy repairs are underway, independent evaluations paint an unreassuring picture of the current levees design and strength. The shattered lives from last season are just being collected and reassembled. Another storm, without adequate safeguards, would break New Orleans as we know it.

Katrina compounded the existing problems of New Orleans, it did not create them. If we care, and want to remedy the deficits and rebuild New Orleans as the jewel of a city that it should be we need a sustained investment in the region and its most needy people. We need to act individually, and also pressure political leaders.

  • Create lasting partnerships with community organizations in the Gulf Coast. This is person to person, school to school, church to church, business to school etc. Call Habitat for Humanity, sponsor and participate in rebuilding projects down there or bring students up here for summer enrichment programs. And money always helps, as do gifts. I remember hearing of the joy of students in opening backpacks that were designed and donated by other kids, containing school supplies, toys, and the sense that someone else cares. Look on the internet, make a call to a school or service agency, ask them how you can help

and arrange a partnership. Pass the collection plate on the behalf of our most needy.  For years to come.

  • Political pressure to invest in critical infrastructure, there and throughout the US, and to make good on the current funding promises to the Gulf Coast, and to

insure structural integrity where risks are predictable.

  • Pray, and act locally to dismantle the dual America that I am sure you can find nearby

nola nat turner

In the final analysis Katrina was merely the match that was dropped in the pool of gasoline that had been collecting in New Orleans. Corrupt politicians, racism, underinvestment in critical infrastructure, environmental degradation, and an attitude that relied on luck to avoid catastrophe rather than contingency planning and preventative investment all were tributaries that drained into New Orleans lowlands. How many other fertile grounds are there for the fire next time.

America has always been an imperfect and evolving dream. Beacon of freedom, haven for slavery. Vast wealth among a sub nation of indigents, or those one bad break short of it. There have always been at least two Americas.  Black children wading through feculent waters made this abundantly clear last year. We cannot say that we don’t know. It is up to us now, individually, and as a society to decide whether we have reached the end of the evolutionary chain or whether we will ultimately grow into one nation, with, if not a sense of “liberty and justice for all”, at least shame.

Is this America?

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That is a question for each of us to answer as we plow through the inanities of our daily lives, and bodies float by in our peripheral vision.

The Upcoming Pain from the Common Core, and Why it’s Worth it

2802054386_6453237d2e_m kinder kids “I feel like a failure”, one of our top teachers muttered with downcast eyes.  They had just gotten a glimpse of the data trickling out from the latest tests in California, the first that reflected the new, more rigorous, Common Core curriculum standards.  This from a teacher who is on top of their game, has high expectations, is 110% committed, and historically has shown very strong outcomes for students.  Now those proficiency numbers are being cut in half.

As the scores are released in the next few weeks statewide, we can expect to hear a chorus of similar sentiments, further emphasized by the collective groans from families, who will learn, that their previously proficient student, is no longer so.  It’s also likely that disadvantaged students will fall  the furthest, if results in other states are predictive. This is ultimately bitter medicine, whose administration and sourness falls mainly on the teachers and students.  And we need to work to get beyond the pain of this moment to realize the gains that the new curriculum promises.

These new standards are another ball game, with an emphasis on critical thinking and deeper understanding rather than rote memory and superficial test taking skills.  And the transitions will be painful, teachers who have had their practice narrowed by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and more scripted curricula, are being asked to do a 180, to differentiate lessons for all students, and to teach to a much deeper and more complex set of standards, which ultimately rests on students being literate and developing critical thinking skills.  We have moved from tee ball to the majors in the space of a year.

So given the discouraging effects on teachers, students, families, and the likely disproportionate impact on disadvantaged students, why would I support the Common Core?  Because what we have done for the last decade in NCLB has been a lie and a fraud.  States had to promise to reach 100% student proficiency by 2014 to get federal funding, so did they? A) raise the bar and support for high quality teaching, B)increase funding and support in research based ways, C)lower standards D) teach to the tests.

C and D are largely the correct answers.  And this lie is not without a cost, roughly 68% of students entering CSU need remedial courses, despite doing everything the State required, they are not academically ready for college.  They pay for these classes, but don’t get credit, and disadvantaged students are more likely to need remedial classes.  So we have been lying to students and families for a while now, and the jig is up.  Our long developing tab is being called for collection, and those holding the bag; current students, families, and educators will bear the cost unless we take some of that burden.

So what can we do?  First, reframe the debate, where teachers and students are not “failures”, and we must develop accurate mechanisms to measure progress, taking account of where students are starting.  We had a middle school student, who was new to the US, had intermittently attended school in their home country and did not recognize words like “and” and “the” on sight.  This student, realistically, will take some time to reach proficiency in even the best of circumstances, and they nor their teacher is a “failure.”

Second, schools need more supports, and learning needs to extend beyond the traditional school day and school year.  A place like Oakland is its own museum, laboratory, and canvass.  There are literally hundreds of opportunities for students to be engaged in informal learning year round, from Lake Merritt, to the shoreline, the parks in the Hills, not to mention the diverse array of businesses and non- profits.  There are tens of thousands of residents who are dedicated to making Oakland better and have some time they could regularly give to schools and students.  We need to find ways to identify our vast human and social capital and to align it and mobilize it for students.

In the end, teachers and students are not “failures.”  We are for setting them up, and we have to do better to create the conditions for success, rather than trying to blame and shame those left holding the bag.

OUSD should issue diplomas to kids caught in the bureaucratic crossfire

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Thank you OUSD.  Sludge tends to predictably flow downhill in bureaucracies.  So I was heartened to hear that OUSD has changed its mind and will vote to award diplomas to a subset of seniors who were caught in a bureaucratic snafu.

This drama is pretty well explained in the recent Mercury News article, “Decision to cancel California high school exit exam creates chaos.” The short of it is that, a set of students had met all requirements to graduate except passing the CAHSEE, the high school exit exam, which the State abruptly cancelled this year, because it was no longer aligned to what was being taught or expected of high school graduates.  So these students were left in purgatory, their college acceptances threatened to be revoked, and it was hard to see how they could, absent legislative action from the State, ever graduate.  And let’s not hold our breath on the State acting, or delay these seniors’ futures.

This move is not without risks.  The State could fine OUSD.  But come on, we are already paying down over 50 million in debt to the State, from a time when none of our current students were even in school, and none of our current board or top staff had any relation to.  So I guess if I am thinking about the list of stupid things that OUSD pays for, fines for diplomas seems pretty good.

So thank you Superintendent for proposing the policy change, and I hope that the board will follow suit.  This is a chance for us to start the year working together for equity.  I can see the next few weeks for these 221 students, in two parallel paths.  In one, there are tears and hugs, and a set of students moving on in their lives to bigger and better things.  In the other, it’s really just tears.

Understanding the “Pain” Behind the “Gain” in the Common Core

13936959441_7baeaed7c4_m common coreAs a supporter of the intent behind the Common Core standards, teaching and testing for deeper meanings, and more complex understanding, it has been painful to watch its implementation.  In New York, a rushed implementation without sufficient resources led to confused teachers and families, plummeting test scores, and a real and substantial backlash.  And as California’s first test scores are released, I think the other shoe will drop, alongside the proficiency rates of students, schools, and districts.  If we hope to avoid the unproductive rancor found elsewhere, advocates need to do a better job of explaining what the Common Core is, and why it is important enough to justify the growing pains that come with it.

Too often, reforms are really done to stakeholders rather than with them.  And without buy in, painful prolonged reform processes, like the move to higher academic standards, will be whittled away at, evaded, watered down, and in some cases repealed.

We have seen a growing opt-out movement in New York, where roughly 20% of families withdraw their children from testing.  And, according to Education First, last year, the first year of implementation for most states, saw two states repeal the common core, three require a review, and another 21 survived legislative repeal efforts. Whether this is just a set of early stumbles or the start of a tumble down the stairs depends on how advocates engage and convince those who will feel its effects most directly: families and educators.


A couple of recent blogs have highlighted these issues. In TNTP’s, “What Do Parents Think About the Common Core,”  a group of involved parents who also worked at Aspire Eres Charter School described their experiences and understandings of the shift to the Common Core standards and its implications. Like most parents, they are feeling the effects through increasingly complex class and homework, and a sense that expectations have been raised.  And, when asked to explain what the Common Core really is, or the rationale behind it—they struggled.  These particular parents raised language as a potential barrier, but I think these issues cross race, language, and class lines.  I bet 95% of all parents—who don’t work in curriculum or instruction—could not really answer this question either.  That’s a problem.

Another broader article, “The Ultimate Demise of the Common Core—Part II: The Parents,” describes the antipathy that parents have shown here.  In both, there is bad news for Common Core supporters and real storm clouds ahead unless we get our act together.

Coming from New York, where we implemented Common Core a year earlier and really screwed it up, I can smell the storm in the air.  In New York the standards were dropped on students and teachers too quickly; the tests were high stakes in year one, and they were much more difficult than the previous state tests.  There were not good curricular resources for teachers that were proven, and everyone felt frustration, with proficiency rates plummeting, students that were “advanced” now testing as “below proficient,” and lower achieving students sitting stupefied by the complexity of the questions and often the answer choices.  This was a whole new ballgame, and nobody really had shown us the rules or given us the training to be successful.

POTENTIAL GAINS5074150006_264620dcfb_m student testing

The move toward Common Core is the right direction in my opinion. And New York’s results, while sobering, at least are more honest, giving families a true report on their students’ academic progress and whether they are on track to be college and career ready.

Over the last decade, if not longer, I have seen teaching narrow to very narrow tests, and schools dumbing down and teaching students (particularly disadvantaged students) in an anti-intellectual way.  I remember doing school visits where they were doing test prep (which happened more and more over the years in general) and math problems were on the board in each room, and they were decoding the questions, teaching students key words (if you see “less” cross it out and put a minus symbol). There was not a push to think through what was really being asked or to analyze the problem.  This old way of teaching to a very narrow test, was stultifying to students, depressing for teachers, and ultimately did not prepare students for the challenges they would face in career, higher education, or their own intellectual development.

The Common Core is bitter medicine.  Especially at first, it is difficult to choke down, and it may lead to more initial discomfort for the sake of long-term gain.  But without a strong rationale, discomfort is usually fought and avoided.  As a kid, I would get ear infections; they would pound incessantly. The solution then was horrible tasting purple oral penicillin. And all I knew about it was it tasted bad.  So my solution: if nobody was looking, I would just pour the little cup out behind the couch.  Eventually someone moved the couch, and there was a large purple Rorschach stain…and I probably had more and more painful infections that I should have.

We need to authentically engage and support staff and families in the dialogue on Common Core implementation.  There is some pain to come, and unless people understand the gains, I fear that they will resist or toss the medicine.