Time to Change the “Outsider” Narrative in Education

The Outsiders

via http://www.angelfire.com/hi/SEHTheOutsiders/

Like many of you, I’ve been reading a lot about the radical changes in New Orleans’ education system since  Hurricane Katrina made landfall ten years ago. A subplot of nearly all of the stories is the “outsider” narrative. The narrative consists of two parts: 1) an influx of mostly young, white, and educated outsiders are largely responsible for the rapid academic progress that the new all-charter system produced and 2) the mostly-black native New Orleanian educators who weren’t thrust aside in a massive firing are routinely deprived of the recognition they deserve.  

There’s little to dispute on the facts underpinning this narrative.  In general, the number of young, white, educated professionals increased in New Orleans from 2000 to 2010, and the profile of the teaching workforce changed dramatically following the storm from a stable corps of experienced black locals to transient young white transplants. Additionally, thousands of Orleans Parish teachers were controversially dismissed following Katrina as a result of a scattered student population and transition to a decentralized system.

But, as Andy Rotherham points out, the reality is much more complex than a story of naive white interlopers descending upon a city to save schools from recalcitrant locals. There’s nuance in broad middle ground where most school reform actually takes place, where people debate productively, work collaboratively, and tackle new challenges that don’t have solutions.  Even so, this kind of rhetoric is pervasive in places like Newark and Memphis where dramatic interventions are being put in place. When the reality is portrayed as a simplistic outsider narrative, the “cities don’t need outsiders” response it often elicits is counterproductive to genuine efforts to ameliorate poverty and increase education opportunities for urban students.

Millions of American students are trapped in underperforming schools and the outsider narrative does nothing to help them. It’s time to change it.

Chief among the reasons to change the outsiders narrative is that young and educated professionals have been flocking to city centers nationwide for the last ten years, a trend that will likely continue. Depending on how we respond, these professionals can either be a force for good or contribute to gentrification, concentrated poverty, and inequitable economic benefits.

I wrote about this in a three part series and still believe that smart and proactive policies can take advantage of swelling numbers of young educated professionals in ways that protect local cultures, history, and jobs. The outside narrative does nothing toward this end.

Let’s move beyond the damaging dichotomy of “locals vs. outsiders”, acknowledge the demographic forces impacting our cities, and figure out ways that any willing person can contribute to improving schools.