Lean Education: New Orleans Schools Embrace the Right Philosophy

What is the best organizational structure for tackling a system with huge problems?

Lean advocates will tell you that the structure has to be one that encourages workers at even the lowest levels to be thoughtful and innovative, respects their ideas and encourages them to develop and implement improvement ideas.

As a cover story in the most recent issue of The New York Times Magazine makes clear, perhaps no system has greater problems than the schools in New Orleans, especially since Hurricane Katrina.

The city’s disastrously low-performing school system was almost entirely washed away in the flood — many of the buildings were destroyed, the school board was taken over and all the teachers were fired…

In New Orleans, before the storm, the schools weren’t succeeding even in an incremental way. In 2005, Louisiana’s public schools ranked anywhere from 43rd to 46th in the federal government’s various state-by-state rankings of student achievement, and the schools in Orleans Parish, which encompasses the city of New Orleans, ranked 67th out of the 68 parishes in the state. The school system was monochromatically black — white students made up just 3 percent of the public-school population, most of them attending one of a handful of selective-enrollment magnet schools — and overwhelmingly poor as well; more than 75 percent of students had family incomes low enough to make them eligible for a subsidized lunch from the federal government. The dysfunction in the city’s school system extended well beyond the classroom: a revolving door for superintendents, whose average tenure lasted no more than a year; school officials indicted for bribery and theft; unexplained budget deficits; decaying buildings; almost three-quarters of the city’s schools slapped with an “academically unacceptable” rating from the state.

But since the storm, a wide range of dedicated reformers have come to New Orleans, seeing the situation as an opportunity to virtually start over.

The well-written article, by Paul Tough, describes in detail how a variety of strategies are being tried; how the situation is incredibly complex, and how success is painfully slow.

But one point that jumped out at me from the article is the philosophy of the district’s leaders, including new superintendent Paul Pastorek, about how you encourage change.

It is simply impossible, Pastorek has come to believe, for a traditional school system, run from the top down by a central administrator, to educate large numbers of poor children to high levels of achievement. “The command-and-control structure can produce marginal improvements,” he told me when we met last month at a coffeehouse on Magazine Street. “But what’s clear to me is that it can only get you so far. If you create a system where initiative and creativity is valued and rewarded, then you’ll get change from the bottom up. If you create a system where people are told what to do and how to do it, then you will get change from the top down. We’ve been doing top-down for many years in Louisiana. And all we have is islands of excellence amidst a sea of mediocrity and failure.”

That brings to mind a book we publish,
Freedom From Command and Control by John Seddon.

In New Orleans, in actual practice, the complexity of the situation and the approaches being tried means that different categories of schools have different degrees of autonomy and success.

It is one of the oddities of the organizational structure that governs public-school education in New Orleans today that Pastorek and Vallas, the high-paid hotshots at the top, are responsible for the schools with the biggest problems and the worst test scores, while the schools that are doing best are the ones furthest from their control, the ones they can claim the least credit for. What the two men will tell you, though, is that this is exactly the way things should be. Under a portfolio model, successful schools can be left alone to do their own thing, while failing schools are subject to increasingly active levels of, first, support and then control…

Although Vallas is a believer, in theory, in decentralization, he and Robichaux are providing a great deal of centralized support for the schools in the Recovery School District. They have created a “managed curriculum” for every school in the district to follow: detailed binders that each teacher can consult to see which skills and what knowledge they should be imparting each week and month in order to keep up with the state’s standards. The R.S.D. requires its schools to administer regular “benchmarking” assessments to each child in the district in each core subject, to monitor how much is being learned — and taught — in each classroom.

I didn’t read the word “lean” anywhere in the story. But consider what is being described here: Decentralization. Standard work. Goals. Metrics. Sounds lean to me.

The task facing the administration and staff in New Orleans is daunting. But by employing lean strategies and tactics, they are on the right track. I wish them luck.


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