Nine years after Katrina, we’re still asking the wrong questions about education

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“Is the educational system better now than it was pre-Katrina?” It’s the question I hear more than any other. But the typical responses around test score growth miss how we should measure school performance in New Orleans.

It’s just over nine years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in August 2005, and we’re still asking the wrong questions.

The operative question is are people in poverty better prepared for a disaster than before Katrina? I’m not talking about whether or not the city’s evacuation plan has improved. I’m asking if our impoverished neighbors have a greater likelihood of getting in cars, with gasoline, driving to North Louisiana, staying in hotels, eating, potentially enrolling in other schools or colleges and then eventually driving back to New Orleans, rebuilding their homes, getting business loans and having political influence to direct their own recovery?

In other words, is the realness of Katrina taken into consideration in our school reforms? Are we maximizing the opportunities that school reform gives us to equip New Orleanians for life? When you’ve been through a disaster like Katrina, preparedness is true to life.

Rusted scissors, coins and other debris sit on the floor of an elementary school in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans, La. File Photo.

Rusted scissors, coins and other debris sit on the floor of an elementary school in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans, La. File Photo. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The nation looks to New Orleans for advice on education, but they need to be reminded why New Orleanians need better public schools. Around 100,000 people were held inside New Orleans, unable to escape for days. But let’s be clear, if Katrina didn’t barrel down the Gulf, a high percentage of that number couldn’t have left if they wanted to.

Floodwater didn’t trap 100,000 New Orleanians.

Katrina just exposed the greatest public policy disaster in the United States. It’s the same public policy disaster that lies in wait within many American cities. I used to say the failures of our educational system trapped largely black and brown bodies inside the Superdome and city. While the­re isn’t research that can tell us what school type those who were forced to huddle in the Superdome attended. It’s safe to say public schools failed them. However, policy failures in transportation, healthcare, policing and housing joined education to limit people’s ability to get out of harms way.

Over the last few months, I’ve released columns in the Washington Post and the Hechinger Report that essentially challenge if New Orleans and education reform are maximizing their opportunities to address what really traps people. These pieces have been met with extreme praise or criticism. The common theme among the criticisms is that schools can’t and shouldn’t treat all social ills.

Likewise, I’ve been told that school reform must focus on the needs of the child. As one person wrote me, “Schools aren’t jobs programs. He continued, “You’re being unreasonable in your expectations of schools.”

I’m being unreasonable in my expectations of schools.

When Mayor Ray Nagin and the Bring New Orleans Back Commission revealed that some neighborhoods would come back as green space, it’s wasn’t unreasonable to ask that an elected official represent a neighborhood school.

When about half of the black male population is unemployed during a time of rapid economic expansion, it’s not unreasonable to demand that schools hire black teachers. It’s not unreasonable to ask federal innovation grants to encourage local historically black colleges and universities to create pipelines to enter teaching careers.

With a child poverty rate of 42 percent compared with a national rate of 23 percent, it’s not unreasonable to examine the amount of loan debt incurred by low-income public school graduates.

The current performance gap between 4th-grade and 8th-grade black and white students on the more reliable National Assessment on Education Progress (NAEP) isn’t substantively different from the gap in the 1992. So it’s not unreasonable to question the steep incline on Louisiana’s statewide exams.

As important as our current school reforms are to the future of the city, the impact of its graduates won’t be felt for decades. Two-thirds of New Orleans’ 2025 labor pool is expected to be working-age adults, meaning — if we want to become a more literate and productive city — we must make significant investments in the adults who share their fates with children. It’s not unreasonable to examine adult educational progress as measures of success.

When 1 in 7 black men is either in prison, on parole, or on probation, it’s not unreasonable to demand that schools stop the practice of expulsion and suspension. It’s not unreasonable to see forcing students to walk on white lines or even wearing uniforms as criminalizing.

In a city that is one of the most conducive for start-up businesses, which schools are, it’s not unreasonable to ask the state to limit vouchers to black owned, effective schools.

Whites are twice as likely as blacks to have at least an associate’s degree (25 years and older). It’s not unreasonable to question if reforms are impacting college readiness. It’s also important to question colleges and universities to see if they are making changes to graduate underrepresented groups.

In a city where whites earn twice as much as blacks, it’s not unreasonable to demand that a disadvantaged business enterprise program (DBE) for the multibillion-dollar school construction project be as effective as student learning. Schools should be required to enter long-term professional service contracts with black and brown-owned food service providers, bus companies, accountants and banks.

How many people have to be killed, fired and jailed for it to become clear that black skin is associated with bad. So it’s not unreasonable to say that black teachers need protection. Implicit bias and unconscious discrimination as well as outright discrimination impact who is hired, fired, recruited, and yes shot.

In New Orleans, whites represent approximately 35 percent of the total population but approximately 60 percent of private and parochial schools. Blacks represent about 90 percent of the public school population. It’s not unreasonable to provide incentives for public schools to actually look like the public.

Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. John Dewey said these words decades ago. Dewey knew that limiting education to technical matters of curriculum and instruction defied the essential reason why schools exist – the community. Fixing schools is a means to that broader end, and any school reform that doesn’t explicitly uplift parents, local businesses, and other stakeholders is a reform that is destined to fail. We must close the community gaps that make New Orleans the tale of two cities.

If we created a school for community growth index, how would New Orleans schools rank? School measures must speak to the individual and social needs of the community. Leading up to the 10th Anniversary of Katrina, I will examine education in a reasoned attempt to create measures that examine educational systems impact on the day-to-day realities of families and communities in New Orleans.

Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).


Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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