Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Charter Schools' Katrina Memory Hole

Charter Schools' Katrina Memory Hole:


Pre-Katrina New Orleans graduation numbers are charter school advocates' exhibit A for reform. One problem: the U.S. and Louisiana Departments of Education say they don't exist.

We’ve heard the narrative so many times we know it by heart. "Results-based" charter schools "turned around" a "broken education system" using "accountability" and "data" to "rescue" it from the clutches of "failed school boards" and the dreaded teachers' unions. No city in America better illustrating this trope than Katrina-ravaged New Orleans; with its clear before and after division of charter and "traditional" eras, it was the A-B tested anecdote the pundit classes loved to cite. It's no surprise then that when seeking a statistic to support this axiom as part of the recently revitalized debate on charter schools, otherwise careful media outlets like the Christian Science Monitorthe Atlantic and cited, without question,'s 2013 claim that the graduation rate for New Orleans improved from 54.4% in 2004 to 77.8 in 2012.


After all, it was vaguely consistent with concurrent media reports, namely the 2013 60 Minutes New Orleans "Turn Around School" infomercial by Scott Pelley.

This stat said it all - a roughly 50% increase in high school graduations from before to after Katrina. Liberal, conservative, whatever - the data was in. Serious People™ knew charter schools got results. There’s only one problem:


The reality is that no one - including the journalist who first cited the figure - knows where the pre-Katrina graduation statistic came from. Official government figures on New Orleans graduation rates from both state and federal Department of Education sources are nonexistent, lost either in the wake of Katrina or at some point during the many incarnations of Louisiana's Department of Education. In this post I attempt to trace the origins of this trope, how it spread unquestioned, and why a dystopian vision of pre-Katrina New Orleans is so essential to the broader "school reform" value proposition.


A thought experiment:
Imagine, for a moment, that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had said five years after 9/11:
"I think the best thing that happened to the defense system in New York and Washington was 9/11. That defense system was a disaster, and it took 9/11 to wake up the community to say that 'we have to do better’.”
We would rightfully find this crude and opportunistic. But in 2010 when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said
“I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that 'we have to do better'."
the media either shrugged it off or embraced its thesis. The political and moral rot of the New Orleans education system pre-Katrina wasn't just taken for granted - our political classes saw it as so manifestly depraved and corrupt that it validated the deaths of 1,833 people. Such is the hysteria with which conventional wisdom cements itself. Like a tale out of an Ayn Rand variation of Genesis, the story of Katrina wasn't one of nature's caprice or racism's legacy, it was instead the fortunate and righteous correction of liberal excess. And though graduation rates are not the only Charter Schools' Katrina Memory Hole: