The Seattle Times  published this column on February 1, 2012.
The Big Easy is about food, music and Bourbon Street, not about innovation, right? Wrong! New Orleans is at the center of an education revolution that is developing an "education system" that defies conventional wisdom.
If, as they say, an ill wind blows no good, then Katrina, while devastating in many ways, was not an ill wind. It provided an opportunity for New Orleans to wash away not only the old decrepit buildings, but a decrepit education institution that was the seed of poverty and crime in the city.
So in 2006, community leaders conducted neighborhood meetings to consider promising ideas for school reform from around the country. Instead of focusing on the latest fad for the superintendent to force-feed every educator, we focused on what climate would be necessary to motivate educators to search for their own best practices tailored to each child. Competition was the answer.
The community identified the portfolio-management model to administer public schools. Its most prominent feature was discarding the traditional command and control of a school district central office, which micromanages its version of a "one size fits all" approach to educating children. Instead, the new central office would: 1) set goals; 2) allow schools (meaning principals and teachers) the autonomy to direct the school; 3) hold each school in its portfolio accountable to meet goals, and 4) if the school met goals, offer the principal the opportunity to run more schools — or, if the school failed to do so, it would be removed from the portfolio and replaced with new management.
At the same time, progressive political leaders placed chronically low-achieving and mediocre schools into a statewide Recovery School District, incorporating portfolio management to pursue a radically different approach, no longer relying on the "brilliant" superintendent to fix the schools. This decentralized school district would eventually be composed entirely of charter schools. Today, nearly all of the schools in New Orleans compete for the privilege of educating our future adults. Competition among America's schools! Imagine that!
Today, these ideas, and many others, are the driving force behind the remarkable success of the Recovery School District. Other innovations include parents choosing to send their child to any school in the district (poor parents want and deserve an option, too); drastically reducing the central office's role and sending the savings to the classroom; if a child leaves a school to attend another, having the funding follow the child; using the same funding formula for all schoolchildren; having rigorous approval processes to become an authorized school; shutting down schools that don't do what they promised; and automatically taking the lowest-performing schools out of business each year.
There certainly have been challenges. But, by nearly every measure, success is unparalleled. Take two measures: academic achievement as measured by state standardized tests has doubled in New Orleans (though still not nearly enough); parental satisfaction with schools and choice has also doubled. Or consider that New Orleans is a mecca for educators with an entrepreneurial spirit.
These ideas have not solved all of the ills of public education. But, they show great promise that a fundamentally different system can give a better opportunity to more children than ever before.
Most important, it doesn't require a natural disaster on the scale of a Katrina to set the stage. Instead, it merely requires a willingness to let go of the status-quo system (school board- and superintendent-led) — designed to educate only some of our children well — to a system (principal-led) that is more likely to educate all of them well.
Paul Pastorek, former Louisiana state superintendent of education, keynoted Washington Policy Center's education luncheon on February 1 in Seattle. Watch his speech online .