There is no ‘New Orleans miracle’

No doubt you’ve heard or read somewhere that the post-Katrina New Orleans school system, one of the most under-performing in the country when the storm hit 10 years ago, has become a model for urban high-poverty school districts.

Nearly every school in the city is a charter these days and supporters say the graduation rate has soared to more than 70 percent, from 56 percent a decade ago.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

So has New Orleans emerged from catastrophe with the answer to high-poverty urban schools? Does New Orleans have an answer for Rochester? Is a network of charter schools the elusive cure for the cancer of failure that has hurt so many urban students and transformed whole neighborhoods into the cemeteries where dreams go to die?

Well, as the old saying goes, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

There have been some marginal improvements in test scores and graduation rates, but it’s fair to say there is no miracle.

Andrea Gabor, a professor of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York, has reported extensively on New Orleans schools, first in a long takeout piece in Newsweek in 2013, and more recently in a New York Times op-ed piece in August.

First, she notes, the pre-Katrina New Orleans school population was about 65,000 students; today its 45,000—with many of the city’s poorest families having disappeared after the hurricane. So while the Recovery School District is still predominantly poor, there are many fewer students.

Indeed, she writes in her Times piece, “a new report by Measure of America, a project of the Social Science Research Council, using Census Bureau survey data from 2013, found that over 26,000 people in the metropolitan area between the ages of 16 and 24 are counted as ‘disconnected,’ because they are neither working nor in school.”  The city schools have certainly failed those young people.

Last year, Gabor says, 63 percent of New Orleans school children were proficient on state tests, up from 37 percent in 2005. But Louisiana standards are among the lowest in the country (set the bar low enough and more people can hop it). Furthermore, Gabor reports, the Education Research Alliance found evidence of widespread “creaming” by charter principals, who counsel out the poorest performing students—and many of those students simply leave school altogether. The charters have no obligation to track them and no way to do so.

An August report by the Network for Public Education, found that, even with modest improvements, the New Orleans graduation rate (actually 61 percent, according to NPE) is the lowest in the state. And while many charter schools “tout themselves as college prep in the media and public discourse, only 5.5 percent of their students who take Advanced Placement courses…score high enough on the AP tests to get credit.”

Most telling of all, even in a charterized New Orleans, NPE reports, the average ACT score for a New Orleans graduating senior in 2013 was 16.3; and 15.6 in 2014. The national average score for the college entry exams is between 20 and 21, with a 23 often being good enough for admission to multiple colleges. A large majority of  New Orleans graduates did not have scores high enough to meet the minimum requirements of Louisianan public colleges.

My point here is not to beat up on New Orleans.  There certainly are students who are better off today in charter schools than they were in pre-Katrina schools.

But there is no miracle. The New Orleans numbers may look good—but only when you change the way you count, or don’t count, the facts on the ground.  New Orleans charter advocates are the latest in a long line of education reformers who claim they can dramatically improve outcomes while continuing to isolate the poorest kids in America in the poorest schools in the poorest neighborhoods.

But isolation is the problem.

Great Schools for All isn’t selling quick fixes or miracle cures. We’re saying that if Rochester is serious about improving the educational outcomes for our community’s poorest children, we should go where the evidence leads. If we find ways to integrate city and suburban schools along socioeconomic lines, improvements will follow—with enough time, innovation and compassion.

We can do right by our poorest children, but only if we are willing to work hard and stop wishing for quick fixes and miracle cures.