'Blackboard Wars': Oprah's Education Reality Show Reveals Reform Isn't Always Students-First

On the show and in education reform, students are mere backdrops that fuel exploitative drama.

As an educator in New Orleans, I've been asked dozens of times, "What do you think of Blackboard Wars," the documentary series featured on Oprah's OWN Network about troubled John McDonogh High school.

My first and most enduring reaction to Blackboard Wars is fatigue. I'm simply tired of New Orleans education reform, the spectacle. This is not because the series is not well produced. Without a doubt, Blackboard Wars is gripping television. The show has everything you want in television: an engaging protagonist with a fatal flaw (Principal Dr. Thompson), a damsel in distress (Ms. Cobb), people needing salvation (students), high stakes, community unrest, and love.

Viewers can't look away from the high-flying drama at John Mac, which can be found in schools throughout the country—which makes me wonder, why set this show in New Orleans? Residents have been forced to see—and live—this same narrative multiple times over, especially since Katrina. Teachers, leaders, and The Future is Now—the non-profit associated with the series—have much to gain from this reality show version of Lean on Me. But, I struggle to see the long-term benefits for students, their families or the community from bringing cameras in the school. The show isn't for New Orleanians.

Indeed, while I appreciate the enthusiasm for educational change in this city, is New Orleans education reform as a whole about New Orleans? The national narrative around reform has clearly drowned out the sounds of what local people think, want, or vote for. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and others released glowing articles on New Orleans' educational changes. Foundations such as Walton, Gates, and Broad have poured millions into the development of a national model. Many researchers glowingly suggest that New Orleans provides a "roadmap to scaling up charters nationwide."

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg contributed $100,000 to the Alliance for Better Classrooms, which is the political action committee organized by Baton Rouge Businessman Lane Grisby. Grisby poured thousands of dollars into the once obscure Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education election. The PAC committed to tipping the state governing board towards reform candidates and promoted current State Superintendent John White, who is the former deputy under Bloomberg's education chancellor Joel Klein, to the position.

I believe in many of the structural changes that have comprised New Orleans reform. I helped manage four charter schools. I have a son in one of the original charter schools, and my daughter graduated from a selective-admissions charter. I've written extensively on reform, and I speak on the subject to local and national audiences. I'm invested in the most substantive ways and think New Orleans is developing a model that other cities can learn from.

However, school systems must always remember they primarily serve local communities. Educationally, socially, and economically, schools must promulgate the communities they serve. For instance, importing too much external talent compromises the economic stability of the community. Closing wealth and income gaps, which also correlate with academic success, demand that local systems build local talent—and provide durable residents with opportunities. We don't educate youth to lock them or their families out of jobs.

In terms of reform, an open-air view of John Mac High adds little value. New Orleans school leaders know what’s occurring behind the doors of John Mac. However, eight years after the storm only in the last two have district leaders finally placed an emphasis on high schools—just in time for the cameras.

The series isn't teaching students or their families. Students can readily see disparities simply by looking down the street at their peers' institutions. For decades, families of students have been begging to illuminate disparities in instruction, funding, and student outcomes. The 2003 shooting in the school gymnasium of 15-year-old Jonathan Williams is forever etched in all New Orleanians minds. The burden of getting a privileged look into one of the "worst schools in America" falls squarely on the students and families of John McDonogh High School.

The show has consequently offended many, including the school's advisory board, for shaming instead of naming. The advisory board released an "Open Letter" to Oprah Winfrey, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, and the school's management that described the show as "a source of negative, exploitative depictions of the students and the school."

From a developmental perspective, a student can't feel good about hearing the series' premise of how bad his or her school is. While the blame for John Mac's performances should be shared among district leaders, principals, teachers, and taxpayers, the students will undoubtedly shoulder the most negative tradeoffs of a bad reputation. Understanding the possibilities of how youth can negatively internalize the 'worst' label coming from national television begs the question, who approved this show? The students and their families obviously did not.

I encourage transparency and appreciate the courage of letting cameras expose leaders and teachers' success or failures. The problem with Blackboard Wars is that the story arc favors a national agenda and national providers. Students are mere backdrops that fuel superfluous drama. In addition, New Orleanians already live in a perceived fishbowl. Voyeurs flock to the city in tour buses to see the Ninth Ward and Tremé. We might as well place John McDonogh High School on the next stop. Tours are relatively cheap. The students and families of John Mac pay a tremendous social and emotional price for the ride.

However, there is a concrete way these students—the real stars of Blackboard Wars—can benefit. Oprah should give every student attending the school during its taping a full scholarship to a college or university. After all, if the school leaders succeed, the students will need the scholarships. If they fail, the students will still need scholarships.

Overall, the promotion of New Orleans education reform as the model for the nation as well as the branding of the city as the destination for entrepreneurs make Blackboard Wars as exploitive as it is compelling. The show will be a hit. However, students deserve change not fanfare.

Dr. Andre Perry is the Associate Director for Educational Initiatives for Loyola Institute for Quality and Equity in Education. The Institute assesses the success of post-Katrina education reforms and also creates enrichment opportunities for students in the metro area.

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