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WISE Remarks—Doha, Qatar
Dr. S. Cowen, President, Tulane University


December 8, 2010


It is truly an honor for me to speak at this Summit, which focuses on the most important topic for the advancement of society—the education of our children.
 
It is particularly rewarding to be in Qatar, a state that has had a significant impact on my beloved city of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  Qatar’s generosity is greatly appreciated by all of us from the Gulf Coast and especially from Louisiana.   It will never be forgotten.
 
Finally, New Orleans, home of the 2010 Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints, congratulates Qatar for its selection as the host city for the 2022 World Cup.  This is a wonderful tribute to the goals of ASPIRE and to ACHIEVE, which unite all of us at this event.
 
I must disclose from the outset that I am not an expert in pre K to 12 education but I am the product of such a system and had the honor of leading the community wide effort to develop and implement a vision and plan for the rebuilding of New Orleans’ k-12 education system after it was totally destroyed as a result of Hurricane Karina.   
 
My interest in pre K -12 education also stems from the reality that the future of higher education is extremely dependent on the effectiveness of primary and secondary education in our communities.  In the long run, the higher education system can be no better that the system that feeds it.
 
To set the stage for my comments this morning, I would like to share with you four observations-- none of which are new or novel. Yet, they all relate to the belief that educational failures do not result from a lack of desire or even vision; instead, they are caused by an inability to effectively convert thought into action.     
                                                
Observation 1: An investment in education can yield outstanding returns and is the primary driver in building sustainable and vibrant communities.
 
Research proves that relatively small improvements in education result in large gains in GDP. For the United States alone, an increase of 25 points on international student assessment indicators is estimated to create a $40 trillion impact on GDP over the lifetime of today’s school-aged population.
 
Investments in education can have a profound impact on our respective communities:  

  • A more educated population generates additional earnings, which leads to increased economic development.  
  • Education insulates the impact of economic fluctuations by reducing unemployment rates.   
  • Education is good for your health, improving life expectancy and obesity.  It also has a significant impact on lowering crime and enhancing public safety.   
  • Education contributes to higher civic and political engagement.
  • Education can be a powerful competitive advantage in advancing a community.

Viewing education as an investment helps to understand why and how education should be funded.   
 
Observation 2:  The amount of funding provided to support an education system is important but equally critical is HOW the funding is used to enhance student outcomes.
 
Historically, the U.S. pre-K to 12 school system has been the envy of the world but this is no longer the case even though it remains one of the best funded systems in the world.   
 
Per-pupil public education funding in the U.S. increased 123% from 1971 to 2006. Over the past three decades, we employed more teachers, reduced class size, and undertook thousands of various reform initiatives; yet, our global competitive position in education has declined.
 
When you look at average expenditures by country (in US dollars), the U.S. nears the top in spending for primary, secondary, and post secondary education; yet, student achievement has   increased proportionally.  
 
One of the major differences between the way primary and secondary education is managed and funded in the U.S. versus other countries is that these issues are primarily the responsibility of individual states and local school districts of which there are 14,000 in the U.S.  In fact, in the U.S., the federal government’s funding of elementary and secondary education is a small fraction of the total cost.  Given this, some would say that it is near impossible for the U.S. government to effectively intervene in public schools in any significant, sustainable way, despite the fact that we continue to lose global competitiveness.
 
Virtually every administration in recent history has implemented an initiative aimed at improving schools.  For one reason or another, these efforts have led to mixed results despite good intentions.      
 
Observation 3: We need to be laser focused on ONLY funding the policies and practices that lead to a demonstrated increase in student achievement while courageously eliminating those obstacles that undermine it.
 
Let me use my New Orleans experience to illustrate how this observation influenced how we rebuilt the pre k-12 system after it was completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.  Many in the U.S. cite the New Orleans school reform effort as the largest and most ambitious transformation of a U.S. school system in decades.     
 
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Louisiana in August, 2005, it devastated one of the worst performing school systems in the country.  Prior to 2005, the public school system was characterized  by fiscal mismanagement, ineffective board governance, continuous turnover of leadership,  dilapidated school buildings and other issues that contributed to the system’s demise since the 1960s.  
 
The silver lining of Katrina was a chance to re-imagine and implement a new system.  After extensive study of and inquiry about the best educational policies and practices around the world, we articulated ten principles that drove the new school system or system of schools.  None of these principles are new--what differentiates our effort is how we rigorously put them into practice.      
 
Our key principles were: setting superior standards and expectations, empowering schools, principals and teachers and holding them accountable for results, providing school choice and fostering competition among schools, aligning resources with practices that enhance student achievement, investing in high quality human capital at every level, and engaging parents to support student success.    
 
Today, the majority of schools in the city (70%) are autonomous, operating as charter schools.  New Orleans now has a greater percentage of students in charter schools than any other district in the country. Rather than having all schools operated by the local school board, the typical US model, we have 40 different operators running schools in the city.
 
A student’s choice of schools is no longer defined by where he/she lives.   This is important because too often the neighborhood where a child is born is the single greatest factor in predicting their educational outcomes and life prospects. This new strategy ensures that we are improving educational opportunities for children who need them the most.  
 
Finally, we recognized that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality and competence of its principals and teachers.  This led to significant investments in human capital. Great principals and teachers normally get great results!
 
This new model of delivering education to the city’s youth, while still in its infancy, has begun to yield results. Parental involvement, teacher quality, and autonomy with accountability, and community engagement have all improved. Collectively, the school performance scores have increased by 32% in the last four years while the percentage of failing schools dropped from 65% to 22%.
 
While we are pleased with our results to date, we are realistic in our knowledge that it will take decades of focused effort to realize the full benefits of our new system.  
 
 New Orleans, once ranked as one of the worst school districts in the country, now has the potential to become a model for unprecedented innovation in public education in the U.S.
 
This leads me to my final observation.    
 
Observation 4: Educational reform is a marathon, not a sprint.  There is no silver bullet for transformation, just hard work, never ending commitment, and courage to make the difficult decisions needed for our children.
 
We must always be guided by a clear vision and strategy for enhanced student outcomes and effectively align funding to support the desired results.  As important, we must flawlessly covert thought into action and rigorously measure the results of our efforts.
 
Our task is a monumental one because the future of our respective communities and our children is contingent on our success.
 
Failure is simply not an option.
 
 

Office of the President Emeritus, 1555 Poydras St, Suite 700, New Orleans, LA 70112 504-274-3638 info@scottcowen.com