We ask teachers for higher student achievement, but we don't trust them with the authority to make meaningful changes. 


Olly/ Shutterstock

First, the good news. Over the past 10 years, our country has experienced a sea change in the way we talk about education. We've embraced the need for accountability and high expectations as the true magnitude of educational inequality and its devastating effects have become clear. To close the vast gap in achievement between rich and poor students, political leaders have called for standards, assessments, and holding educators responsible for their students' performance. For all its flaws, No Child Left Behind, which was passed in 2002, shifted the conversation about education to focus on demonstrable student achievement rather than on inputs like class size and spending on technology.

Now the bad news. We've tried to hold educators accountable for student performance without addressing the morass of process requirements that prevents them from doing what it takes to get great results for kids. We're asking educators to deliver better outcomes, but we haven't given them the flexibility and authority they need to meet high standards.

The problem is that we've built an education system based on our distrust of educators, and we didn't rethink it when we embraced accountability. For years, well-intentioned policy makers have attempted to safeguard children by micromanaging principals and teachers through mandates and process requirements. Our education policies are a patchwork of thousands of top-down regulations that tie educators' hands rather than empowering them with the freedom over how they run their schools and classrooms.

Over the past 20 years, hundreds of schools -- and a few school districts -- have shown us that we can achieve dramatic progress if we take a different approach. We can give underprivileged kids the kind of education that puts them on a completely different trajectory. But transformational change for students can't be imposed from outside. It flourishes only in places where principals have personally embraced a mission of high achievement and can build teams that are aligned, that allocate their budgets, and do what it takes to realize their vision.

Solving the nation's most entrenched problems See full coverage

When you walk into New Orleans' Charter Science and Math Academy, known as Sci Academy, it's clear that teachers and principals are not preoccupied with rules and regulations. Instead, everyone is intently focused on the mission of ensuring that their kids get to and through college. Reaching that goal has required rigorous coursework, an intense culture of character-building, and an all-out effort by teachers who routinely work 12 hours a day, six days a week, and take calls from students until 9:30 every night. The high school is just four years old, but it's already posting some of the highest test scores in the district, even though most of its students start out reading at a fourth grade level or below.

Sci's success depended in no small part on its setting in a city that frees schools from the usual web of constraints. Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was run like many other school districts. Teachers were centrally hired and assigned. Principals did not have control over their schools' budgets, the length of the school day, what curriculum was used, or how classroom time was spent. Teachers who wanted to go above and beyond traditional expectations in pursuit of student impact found their creativity stifled and their initiatives discouraged by administrations who did things by the book to comply with mandates.

Then the traditional structures and rules that had stymied reform were figuratively and literally swept away by Hurricane Katrina. As the city rebuilt, local leaders used the clean slate to turn around the failing school district. Their ambitious reform agenda began by decentralizing power from the school board and central office to principals and charter school boards.

Principals were told they would no longer be evaluated on process, just results (which would be measured by factors like student achievement, attendance, and dropout rates). They were given broad authority and flexibility to meet that goal with control over their budgets and staffs, so they could hire -- and fire -- who they want, and compensate them competitively. The Recovery School District replaced bureaucracy with individual accountability -- principals know they will have to answer for their students' success or failure. But more importantly, they're energized that their job description has changed from checking off boxes to ensuring students are learning.

In short, New Orleans broke with the national status quo by increasing autonomy along with accountability. Its approach has empowered many of its veteran educators, and at the same time the school district has placed an intense emphasis on recruiting and developing top talent. Indeed, it's become a magnet for mission-driven educators who are drawn to the freedom to innovate and focus on essential work.

As a result of this culture change, the percentage of students meeting state standards in New Orleans has doubled in the past four years. The annual high school dropout rate has plummeted from 11.4 percent in 2005 to 4 percent in 2011. The school district still has a long way to go, and it certainly doesn't have all the answers for how to achieve community-level change. But it does illustrate how much progress is possible when we decentralize authority and free educators from the tangle of bureaucratic hoops so they can concentrate their efforts on doing whatever it takes to raise student achievement.

By studying and scaling up what is working in places like New Orleans, we can begin to effect system-wide change. That change starts with reshaping the culture of our education systems so they empower principals and their teams with authority and flexibility, rather than micromanage them. At the same time, we must ramp up our efforts to recruit and develop effective teachers and principals who will rise to the occasion and lead the transformation in their regions.

Now that we know what it takes for schools to give low-income students an excellent education, I'm more optimistic than ever that we can end educational inequality if we immerse ourselves in the lessons of their success and act on them with urgency.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.