Before the Storm and the Decision to Reform from Douglas Harris on Vimeo.

At the outset I have to tell you I’ve lost my patience with people who purposefully divert attention from the strong gains New Orleanians are making in public education. Students, their parents, and their teachers are putting in the work and producing eye popping results that we all should celebrate.

Yet, as students gain ground in proficiency, graduation rates, ACT scores, and college enrollment, advocates against the very school reforms responsible for those gains want to change the subject. To them the new measure of whether or not schools are successful depends on their ability to immediately reverse enumerable longstanding social issues, not whether or not students are learning or going to college in higher numbers.

I’ve spent the last year listening to the rich, layered, engrossing stories of people in New Orleans. What I’ve heard is big, complex, and can’t be reduced to a blog post. You can’t do it justice without addressing pre- and post-Katrina history, sociology, and politics; or unearthing  many contentious issues like school governance, choice, and transportation.

That said, people know the important connection between learning in school and having a good life afterward.

Telling a Story

Growing up in New Orleans I remember elders saying “boy, you telling a story.” It was a kinder way of saying “you a lie,” which was only slightly nicer than actually calling someone a liar.

That came back to me when I read “Reform” makes broken New Orleans schools worse: Race, charters, testing and the real story of education after Katrina” by the union-friendly blogger formerly known as Edushyster (now called Jennifer Berkshire). Apparently she went to New Orleans for 10 days intent on telling a story. Just not the right one.

Her piece is well-written. It is more moderate than expected. Even a few school reformers passed it around as evidence of some Val Halla for reform/anti-reform consensus. Forgive them. They are desperate to be liked by the other team and yearn for any confirmation of a middle Earth between opposing teams. They ignore the fact that Berkshire carefully curates the complaints of select individuals – complaints that could exist in any urban district whether reformed or not – and uses them as an indictment on school reform globally.

The upside is that the facts about education in New Orleans are better known now; So much so that Berkshire is forced to make two important admissions.

First, the third world dysfunction and corruption of the pre-Katrina New Orleans public schools was truly “awful.” Even lovers of traditional public schools can’t bypass that truth. Berkshire would have us quickly acknowledge it and move on, but consider this description from a recent Education Next article by Doug Harris of the Education Research Alliance (or, watch the video above):

The New Orleans public school district was highly dysfunctional. In 2003, a private investigator found that the district system, which had about 8,000 employees, inappropriately provided checks to nearly 4,000 people and health insurance to 2,000 people. In 2004, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued indictments against 11 people for criminal offenses against the district related to financial mismanagement. Eight superintendents served between 1998 and 2005, lasting on average just 11 months.

This dysfunction, combined with the socioeconomic background of city residents—83 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—contributed to poor academic results. In the 2004‒05 school year, Orleans Parish public schools ranked 67th out of 68 Louisiana districts in math and reading test scores. The graduation rate was 56 percent, at least 10 percentage points below the state average.

In other words NOLA schools were at the bottom of a state that was at the bottom of the country. Awkward.

The second admission is that post-Katrina schools are posting real gains in test scores, graduation rates, ACT scores, and college enrollment. Prior to the storm 62% of NOLA students were in a “failing school” based on state standards. Today that number is 7%.

If you want to spin a tale to say school reform is bad it will be a mammoth challenge to do it on the basis of results. You need to another strategy. Berkshire’s is to side step student outcomes all together and exploit authentic racial antagonisms for inauthentic purposes.

The new awfulizing

Berkshire’s opener says those of us “awfulizing” about how bad the old schools were are crowding out the possibility of good things that existed. Truthfully, there were good things in the prior system. Those good things were distributed on the basis of money, class, race, and color. Ironically she spends the rest of her piece doing her own awfulizing of the post-storm reforms and crowding out the consideration of good work being done in academics, discipline, special education, and community engagement.

Her strategy is to set a bar for success beyond what schools are charged to do. She say’s:

The challenge for architects and advocates of the reform effort here is that, expanded even slightly beyond these narrow metrics [student academic outcomes], the case that life is improving for the children of New Orleans gets much harder to make. Child poverty stands at 39%, a figure that’s unchanged since Katrina, even though the city is now home to tens of thousands fewer children. Inequality is the second highest in the country, on par with Zambia. And violent crime remains a persistent plague here.

Those are some damning truths, but I think she misses the point: outrageous child poverty rates, inequality, and violent crime aren’t reasons to belittle school reforms intended to increase literacy and college enrollment. To the contrary. It’s a reason to continue pushing for reform. She seems to be confusing the goal of schools with that of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice. That is like taking your child to a veterinarian for music lessons.

When she says “[s]chools increase the numeracy and literacy of students as measured by standardized tests. Effective schools are the ones that do the best job of that,” it sounds like she will stumble upon reality, but then she swerves into the fog by saying:

But what about New Orleanians who have a more expansive definition of what schools should do—whose descriptions of successful schools include, not just academic achievement, but harder-to-measure concepts like community building, justice, liberation, and the ability of the city’s children to not just survive but thrive in their own world?

Those are important stories to tell, but the primary voices she casts exposes a curious glitch with her piece. The star players of her story are almost all members of New Orleans’ disgruntled, grant-funded nonprofit industrial complex (with the exception of Ashana Bigard who is a parent activist).

Notably absent are the voices of educators and school leaders who are successfully educating poor black children everyday. It’s a peculiar omission for a writer shooting bows from the side of the debate that constantly reminds us of the importance of teacher voice.

How could you possibly tell the New Orleans education story without talking to folks like Jamar McNeely who runs InspireNOLA, a network of high performing charter schools; or Rene Lewis-Carter who is the 2016 Principal of the Year of the state of Louisiana; or Dana Ward, LaToya Douglas, and Lamont Douglas who had many complaints about their charter school management so they organized parents to determine who their next management would be; or to Erin Lockley, a student who thought her pre-Katrina schools were complete chaos and unchallenging, but now appreciates how her post-Katrina education contributed to college admission?

Without these voices and others like them you are telling a story, but not the truth.

The real story

The reality is New Orleans has always been a racist colony with an obvious white supremacist hegemony that uses economics to enforce a brutally efficient social hierarchy. A core part of that program involves a self-important black bourgeoisie that has often been a middle-man for a tiered system of oppression. At the bottom there has always been a sizable permanent underclass, NOLA’s version of the untouchables. The schools for that group have historically been reproducers of obscene inequity, even if a great jobs program for the black bourgeoisie who often tucked their own kids into selective enrollment magnet schools designed for the upstanding elite, or parochial institutions like St. Augustine.

To pretend that school reform invented any of that reality in the last 10 years is cunning. To act as if the heavy focus on lifting achievement of the underclass instead of the bourgeoisie is somehow a new form of racism, well that’s just too stupid to warrant consideration.

Our focus should be on the fact that kids are doing better. More of them are learning to read, write, count, and think. More are going to college. If we truly care about inequality and social justice, we should demand more of that in the next 10 years.

The push for quality schools needs to push even harder. The fight for results needs to produce more gains. The need for white people to be partners in education rather than a domineering power is critical.

I have numerous criticisms of school reform and its leaders. But I’m militant about results for kids. I was once left behind and it impacted my life in very real ways that still haunt me today. I’m damned tired of all the intellectualizing of the problem by people who are every bit the careerists, opportunists, and rent-seekers they claim school reformers to be.

So, please excuse my French, but reform opponents who divert attention to everything except school outcomes need to cut the s#%t.

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


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