July 15, 2020

Aboard the NOLA misery tour

Reading Andrea Gabor’s piece this weekend in the New York Times gave me the sick feeling that many opponents of school reform are actually rooting against kids. That may not be her intention, but her central idea that all of the work New Orleanians are doing to improve schools is actually harming children defies reason.

If you’ve read about NOLA schools in the past year then Gabor’s arguments will sound familiar.

Unionized black teachers were fired. ACT scores are up, but they aren’t up high enough. Some kids have “disappeared” from the data because they have – presumably – dropped out of school. Some schools are “selecting, or counseling out, students based on their expected performance on standardized tests.”

I can’t imagine any urban American city that could escape those claims. At the same time I can’t think of another city documenting the type of academic gains for black children in poverty that we are seeing in New Orleans.

Yet, even with undeniable evidence of a climate change in NOLA education a dedicated syndicate of privileged individuals are set on disproving rather than lauding the progress of students, teachers, and schools.

The Misery Tour

Gabor isn’t alone in denying the importance of NOLA education progress.

Anya Kamenetz’ wants in too. She highlights some of the positive research, but then takes the racial angle, lamenting the fact that although a majority of black New Orleanians believe there has been progress in local public education and “charter schools are a good thing,” it’s not as big a majority as white New Orleanians.

If she were fully honest she would say the New Orleans schools are improving and polls show the public – black and white – sees it. Further, it is the result of enormously hard work on the part of students who are stretching themselves beyond anything thought possible, educators who are giving of themselves well beyond the call of duty, and school planners who obsess over every little detail about the operation of their schools.

That would be the story people who aren’t political ideologues would tell.

Here’s where things get really silly. Kamenetz says “Last month a group of civil rights activists and scholars went on a bus tour of historically black neighborhoods in New Orleans, such as the Lower Ninth Ward, where former school buildings have been neglected and abandoned.”

It turns out the “civil rights activists” were actually grantees and allies of national teachers’ unions.

I had seen a Storify about the “bus tour”called “Slave market education reform in NOLA?” posted by noted anti-reform blogger Julian Vasquez-Helig. It chronicaled the descent of these activists on New Orleans, starting with his meal at Emeril’s. No, I’m not kidding.

On first glance I felt a little sorry for the participants. They looked like lusty misery tourists traveling to New Orleans in search of an ultimate dose of poverty porn.

A tour for whom?

The “bus tour” was part of an anti-reform conference put together Dr. Kristen Buras and sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association among others. The purpose was “to prompt a national conversation among prominent urban education researchers and community members most intimately affected by such reform to illuminate effects on the ground.”

In reality the purpose was to form an attack on a success story that threatens their “poverty prevents learning” narrative. When the black poor are learning outside of the traditaional system, it isn’t good for business. There will be a business response. Like a bus tour to highlight everything bad.

Earlier this year I attended a lecture Buras gave on the racist implications of school reform. She said  “If we want to understand the struggle that prevailed in the public schools in this city prior to Katrina, we need an adequate historical analysis of white supremacy.”

I thought she was going to give an analysis of how uptown whites and the black bourgeoisie had always enjoyed a four tiered school system that faithfully reproduced an oppressive racial hierarchy for all of New Orleans’ history. Nah, she just wanted to condemn the post-Katrina reforms that focus almost exclusively on upending that previous system.

She gave that lecture uptown at Tulane University to a mostly white crowd. When I asked the Tulane professor who organized the event why they wouldn’t take such an important discussion into parts of the city where people most affected could participate, she said organizers wanted to make sure that their university students would feel safe enough to come. She added that 90% of them weren’t from New Orleans.

At the end of the lecture Josh McCarty from New Schools for New Orleans bravely asked Buras if she could admit that there had been academic progress. She flatly denied the possibility. She smugly said the data is in dispute.

Only results matter

The uniting property of arguments made by Gabor, Buras, and Kamenetz is they emit smog to avoid any honest confrontation of the facts about academic achievement before and after Katrina.

Gabor’s fine point is to say “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.”

Few things said about the rebuilding of public education in New Orleans are more baseless or irresponsible than that statement. I was happy to see former NOLA teacher Pete Cook take her to task point-by-point. Louisiana’s top education official, John White, also corrected her wandering hack job.

Back in June the Education Research Alliance held a real conference for researchers with a variety of ideological perspectives to engage fairly with the school research. That conference left a pretty good video trail if you want more than a dose of misery to support your rigidly fixed positions about race, poverty, and the potential of public schooling.

What Gabor calls a “myth” is research-based fact.

All students, in all grades, improved proficiency on all tests.

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The number of students proficient on Louisiana’s Leap and Ileap tests jumped dramatically.

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The percentage of students attending schools in Louisiana’s lowest performing decile plummeted from 60% in 2004 to 13% in 2014.


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While I disagree often with school reformers, especially those in New Orleans, the goal isn’t intellectual – it’s in these charts above. That’s personal for me. My NOLA education sucked. Badly. So now I feel some kind of way about these schools and what they should be doing to prepare kids.

I’m appreciative we have people fighting the good fight against an obvious campaign to derail educational improvement in the city where my schools were not competitive at all.

To be more specific, schools that weren’t Uptown where Kamenetz’ parents lived; or where Buras gave her lecture to white college students about white supremacy and school reform; or where test scores have ironically provided select seats to the children of local anti-reform activists.

For me the right time for a misery tour of New Orleans would have been years before hurricane Katrina. Sadly, there was little interest then.

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