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NOLA Makeover Myth Exposed As Statistical Shenanigans

Andrea Gabor, a professor of business journalism at Baruch College of CCNY, wrote a detailed expose of the so-called New Orleans Makeover that occurred after Hurricane Katrina damaged 112 of the 128 buildings in New Orleans, a devastating blow that Arne Duncan described as “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.” In making the statement, Duncan was echoing political “reformers” who were unleashed by George W. Bush, who, looking back on his handling of Katrina in his memoir saw one success story:

The most uplifting change of all has come in education. Public schools that were decaying before the storm have reopened as modern facilities with new teachers and leaders committed to reform and results.

Reformers and conservative and neo-liberal politicians ALL see NOLA as the template. After the hurricane, NOLA laid off 7500 union teachers and replaced them with new, lower paid teachers. They used philanthropic funds to build new high tech schools and used the test-and-punish method to replace nearly all the public schools with privately funded charters. In the years that followed. studies funded by pro-privatization and pro-charter groups crowed about the success story in New Orleans… but Gabor sees through the data they present and sees only misrepresentations and lies. Test scores went up because LA tests were de-graded. Drop outs decreased because methods for their calculation were compromised. And the percent of students attending college increased because the senior cohorts diminished as a result of the “push-outs”. Two paragraphs illustrate Gabor’s findings:

“We don’t want to replicate a lot of the things that took place to get here,” said Andre Perry, who was one of the few black charter-school leaders in the city. “There were some pretty nefarious things done in the pursuit of academic gain,” Mr. Perry acknowledged, including “suspensions, pushouts, skimming, counseling out, and not handling special needs kids well.”…

The rhetoric of reform often fails to match the reality. For example, Paul G. Vallas, the superintendent of the Recovery School District from 2007 to 2011, boasted recently that only 7 percent of the city’s students attend failing schools today, down from 62 percent before Katrina, a feat accomplished “with no displacement of children.” This was simply false. 

Gabor notes that one of the major problems in assessing the effectiveness of NOLA schools is that complete lack of oversight and does not contend that the system devastated by Katrina was exemplary… but she laments the way the NOLA miracle has been unquestioningly reported in the media and the impact of privatization on the neediest children in the city. She concludes her essay with this caution:

For outsiders, the biggest lesson of New Orleans is this: It is wiser to invest in improving existing education systems than to start from scratch. Privatization may improve outcomes for some students, but it has hurt the most disadvantaged pupils.

While it is wiser to build on the systems in place, it is easier to sell the notion that wholesale reform will solve the ills of the schools, especially when it costs less, replaces “union teachers” with “idealistic…educators who are willing to work 12- to 14-hour days”, and does nothing to help the children of “the undeserving poor”. 

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