Award-winning UNO education professor sees good, bad in reform

Brian Beabout, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of New Orleans who won the 2013 Emerging Scholar Award, offers a unique perspective on New Orleans education as a former teacher and scholar who has studied post-Katrina changes.

A former Teach for America teacher who spent four years in New Orleans schools in the late 1990s, he returned to write his dissertation about schools reopening after Hurricane Katrina.

His award, from the American Educational Research Association, is given to an educational scholar who has a strong record of “original and significant scholarship related to educational change.”

There was a lot of rhetoric about wiping the slate clean and starting over with schools in New Orleans, Beabout said of his dissertation research, but the reality he saw on the ground was an often challenging mix between reform and aspects of the old system still in place.

Beabout also said that a “series of inequities’’ was built into the new system. There were schools that did not provide busing, schools with enrollment caps, selective admissions and confusing lottery systems.

He also saw a heavy reliance on first- and second-year teachers in certain schools — with the least experienced teachers often teaching the students with the highest needs.

From his own experience, Beabout said that “I stunk when I started,” but was much better by his fourth year. He also said that during that time, he worked with some of the best teachers he has ever come across, though they had “no resources and no support.”

“I get angry when people talk about the old system and everything being bad — and I am a white TFA male,” Beabout said. He said he had friends who lost their jobs and all their benefits — some of the 7,500 fired after the storm.

“It’s anger for me, and it’s vitriol for them,” he said.

As reform has progressed, Beabout said that after rapid decentralization some things have become more centralized with added oversight, like the Recovery School District’s expulsion process and the introduction of the OneApp enrollment process.

It’s a good thing, he said, that the new system doesn’t allow schools that don’t produce academic achievement to continue. There’s also more professional development training and support staff for teachers than when he taught in the city, Beabout said. And there’s optimism that the schools are getting better, with the potential to rebuild public trust in the public schools.

Test scores continue to improve, but with a vast dependence on private dollars, Beabout questions whether that can be sustained with tax revenue.

“If the outside dollars go away, it will come to a crashing halt,” he said.

And now, as some of the charter management operators grow and add more and more schools, they begin to resemble districts, a notion Beabout called somewhat “antithetical of the charter movement.”

In terms of choice, he said many of the charter models look like the same types of schools, also a departure from the charter philosophy of diversity and innovation.

And while there are claims of returning power to the community, Beabout questioned whether charter boards represent parents, saying that the structure essentially takes away the public’s right to vote for a school board, he noted.

So what if Beabout ran the system?

One thing he said he would do is fine schools with selective admissions $1,000 of their Minimum Foundation Program, the formula used to calculate per-pupil funding.

He would also work to establish a better relationship between schools and their surrounding community. Historically a strong connection, “The community support is broken and it needs to be put back,” Beabout said.

He also said he’d ensure transparency with the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on new facilities. “It’s like 3-year-olds at Christmas,” he said. All parties involved must be “over-the-top transparent” in terms of who gets what and how facility assignments are made, Beabout said.

Another other challenge Beabout would tackle is reaching out to the 30 percent of families who don’t use the public system.

“That’s changeable,” he said.

One of the biggest changes Beabout said he wants to see is an expansion of pre-K education. There isn’t any other type of intervention that can have the impact of a strong pre-K program, he said.

Beabout proposed getting rid of the senior year of high school and adding pre-K at every school. “Every charter wishes they had pre-K, but many can’t afford it,” he said.