This week there has been a flood of news stories assessing the recovery of New Orleans ten years after the devastation of Katrina. There are many aspects of life and rebuilding to look at in a city that was virtually destroyed and almost totally depopulated. No American city in modern times has been through so much.
But, not surprisingly perhaps, much of the attention around the Katrina anniversary has focused on the state of public education in the city. That’s because after the storm the state took the bold move of taking over every failing school in the district, placing them in the state’s Recovery School District and beginning a path to allow each of them to operate as public charter schools with new school leadership and innovative approaches to help a population of students, most of whom come from impoverished backgrounds, find opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have had.
Ever since then, that truly major change in the public school model has prompted considerable national attention – much of it very positive – focusing on the transformation that was underway in New Orleans. As could probably be expected, the old education establishment, both here and nationally, just hasn’t been able to come to grips with the positive changes that have occurred because of a new education approach and as a result they’ve tried to muddy the waters.
The latest was a recent column in the New York Times by a professor of business journalism at the City University of New York titled “The Myth of the New Orleans Schools Makeover.” In it she downplays the very real academic gains that have occurred, says little about the quality of public education in the city prior to 2005, doesn’t mention the corruption and out-of-control financial crisis the district was facing, and concludes that the change in direction in New Orleans “has hurt the most disadvantaged pupils.”
So why don’t we take a quick look at some of the real facts:
-- In 2004, the year before the storm, New Orleans was the worst-rated school district in the state. Today it ranks 41st out of 70 districts – a huge improvement.
-- In 2004, Orleans students performed at just 61-percent of the state average. Today it’s 93-percent of the state average and on a trajectory to exceed that within the next few years. On top of that, the percentage of New Orleans public school students enrolled in schools with a score higher than the state average has nearly doubled.
-- Graduation and college enrollment rates, as well as student performance on the ACT, have all increased.
-- The performance of the city’s most disadvantaged students – those with special needs – has more than doubled and is only two points below the state average while graduation rates for special needs students far exceed the state average.
Indeed, the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University concludes in a post-Katrina report on public education in New Orleans, “
On all objective measures, from standardized tests to graduation rates to college enrollment, progress has been made by the city’s students and educators.”
Were there difficult challenges over the last ten years that had to be overcome? Yes. Do obstacles remain? Of course. Is student performance at the level where we ultimately hope to see it? Not yet.
But to deny the positive results in a school district that was once seen as an extremely low F and has now risen to a still improving C, demeans the tireless efforts of those, both in New Orleans and elsewhere, who have worked to raise student achievement and improve opportunities for thousands of children that once had little or no hope for a quality education.