The Myth of the New Orleans School Makeover
WAS Hurricane Katrina "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans," as Education Secretary Arne Duncan once said? Nearly 10 years after the disaster, this has become a dominant narrative among a number of school reformers and education scholars.
Before the storm, the New Orleans public school system had suffered from white flight, neglect, mismanagement and corruption, which left the schools in a state of disrepair. The hurricane almost literally wiped out the schools: Only 16 of 128 buildings were relatively unscathed. As of 2013 the student population was still under 45,000, compared with 65,000 students before the storm. Following the storm, some 7,500 unionized teachers and other school employees were put on unpaid leave, and eventually dismissed.
…But the New Orleans miracle is not all it seems. Louisiana state standards are among the lowest in the nation. The new research also says little about high school performance. And the average composite ACT score for the Recovery School District was just 16.4 in 2014, well below the minimum score required for admission to a four-year public university in Louisiana.
There is also growing evidence that the reforms have come at the expense of the city's most disadvantaged children, who often disappear from school entirely and, thus, are no longer included in the data.
…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.