Recently Newsweek, the once-lauded news magazine that is now a shell of its former self, cast aside any lingering shred of respectability it still had with the publication of a highly distorted appraisal of New Orleans’ post-Katrina education system. The piece, entitled, The Great Charter Tryout: Are New Orleans’ schools a model for the nation – or a cautionary tale was written by Andrea Gabor, who is the Bloomberg Chair of Business Journalism at Baruch College/CUNY, as well as the author of several books.
It’s hard to understand why Newsweek’s editors would think Gabor was the right “journalist” to report on New Orleans’ schools. After all, as I’ve noted elsewhere, her opposition to education reform is well documented and she aligns herself with anti-reform zealots like Leonie Haimson and Diane Ravitch. Given her clear bias, it comes as no surprise that her reporting on New Orleans’ public education system is shot through with inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and glaring omissions of fact. When taken together, one cannot help but conclude that Gabor is pushing her political agenda at the expense of her journalistic principles.
As I review in detail below, Andrea Gabor’s “secret recipe” for reporting on New Orleans’ public schools is as follows:
- Prepare the story you want to tell in advance
- Add or withhold facts depending on taste
- Season liberally with anecdote
- Before serving up your political agenda, coat it with a thin veneer of objectivity
It is a simple formula, but certainly an effective one for someone keen to knock one of education reform’s victories off its pedestal, especially when they have The Daily Beast / Newsweek as a platform from which to shout their calumny.
What follows is an attempt to set the record straight.
A Few Inaccuracies, Misrepresentations, and Omissions…
The inaccuracies in Gabor’s article start from almost the very beginning, and her relationship with the truth goes downhill from there. For example, she maintains that “seventy-nine percent of RSD charters are still rated D or F by the Louisiana Department of Education,” which is false [see the RSD’s most recent SPS data here]. Interestingly enough, this is the same incorrect statistic touted incessantly by Research on Reforms, a local anti-reform group which Gabor cites several times in her article to support her positions. What Gabor neglects to mention is that this “local research and advocacy organization,” as she calls it, is comprised solely of former officials from the pre-Katrina Orleans Parish School Board regime, none of whom are professional researchers. Given the fact that such disclosures would undermine the credibility of their statements, one can see why Gabor leaves those details out.
Making sweeping generalizations while omitting facts that run counter to her argument is a tactic that Gabor employs throughout her article. In making her case that New Orleans’ charter system turns its back on students with the greatest needs she writes:
“In New Orleans, critics argue that the pressure to show high test scores and get kids into college, combined with the broad leeway given to charter schools to suspend and expel students, means the “difficult to teach” kids have been effectively abandoned.”
The claim that charters have carte blanche to expel students is not only false, but once again, Gabor leaves out an important part of the story: New Orleans has adopted a district-wide expulsion system to ensure that those “difficult to teach” students are not being unfairly pushed out. As reported by the Times-Picayune earlier this year, “All 87 schools – except for the International School of Louisiana – participated in the new system, where students recommended for expulsion are routed through a central office and a single hearing officer.”
The Times-Pic continues, “The goal of the new system was not to cut expulsions to zero but to bring everything into the open and unify what constituted expellable offenses, making that punishment a true last resort.” In terms of the aim of ensuring that expulsion is reserved for only the most extreme cases, the district-wide system has been a success. Last year, only 272 students (or about 0.6% of approximately 48,000 students) were expelled from New Orleans’ public schools – a far cry from the vast number of castaways that Gabor wants to impart in the minds of readers.
Nevertheless, the distortion that New Orleans’ school system callously disregards the city’s highest-need students and families is a message that Gabor returns to again and again. At one point, she states that the city’s decentralized network of charter schools serves as a barrier to all but the most savvy parents:
“One undeniable reality is that negotiating the new charter-dominated system has been complicated for students; it also has favored those who have the most parental support…Part of what makes the New Orleans school system so complicated is that it is essentially two systems: the smaller, high-performing, mostly selective schools, which were never taken over by the state—though many were converted to charters—and the 60 or so schools within the RSD.”
It’s interesting that Gabor conveniently fails to mention of one of the Recovery School District‘s major initiatives in recent years – The OneApp System – which was established to remedy the very problem she raises. Admittedly, a system comprised of largely autonomous charter schools presents a challenge to parents without the knowledge or wherewithal to navigate the admissions process. But whereas Gabor wants to give the impression that reformers are insensitive to those with the greatest needs, in reality, the opposite is true.
The RSD and pro-reform advocacy groups in the city have come together to push for the systemwide adoption of OneApp to ensure that all families, regardless of their circumstances, have a fair shot in the application process. And while every charter school in the RSD participates in the OneApp process, it should be noted that the few schools that have resisted joining are those still under the aegis of the local school board. It’s hard to believe that Gabor was not aware of the OneApp system, seeing that the Orleans Parish School Board’s resistance to it has been the subject of headlines over the past several months. Therefore, how does one explain the fact that Gabor never mentions it?
Of course, no anti-education reform diatribe would be complete without a unfair swipe or two at Teach For America, and Gabor’s piece in Newsweek is no exception. At one point she states:
“After the storm, the state fired the city’s unionized teachers, who were mostly middle-aged African-Americans, an action that has been challenged in court. While a few schools have hired back teachers who worked in the pre-Katrina schools, the city now relies heavily on inexperienced educators—mostly young, white, and from out of town—who are willing, at least in the short run, to put in grueling hours.”
She then goes on to add, “In New Orleans, teachers with certifications from Teach for America number close to 400, five times the level a few years ago.” First of all, it should be noted that Teach For America does not certify teachers – only the Louisiana Department of Education has the authority to issue teaching credentials, whether those educators come through TFA or the traditional route. Second, while TFA may be five times the size it was previously, when Gabor says “a few years ago” she in fact means “eight years ago.”
More importantly, what did TFA have to do with the layoffs of Orleans Parish School Board employees following Katrina? Nothing. What evidence does Gabor provide to demonstrate that schools have sought to hire TFA corps members at the expense of local African-American teachers? None. What does the fact that TFA’s Greater New Orleans corps has grown prove in relation to either of the above? Zero. Obviously, you’re forgiven if you can’t follow the logic of Gabor’s point since there doesn’t seem to be any.
Gabor uses anecdote, in addition to inaccuracies and omissions, in her effort to malign New Orleans’ post-Katrina education system. She faults charter schools’ focus on college-readiness as one reason why the system is supposedly letting so many students fall through cracks and points to the extreme example of one former Sci Academy student to illustrate her point:
“The premise of the New Orleans charter-school experiment is that charters can educate all children. However, the experience of kids like Lawrence Melrose, another Sci Academy student, does not support that claim. Now 18, Lawrence’s life is a testament to both high levels of social dysfunction, including poverty and violence, and the inability of some charter schools to meet the needs of the most disadvantaged kids.”
Sadly, Lawrence no longer attends Sci Academy. After a string of criminal offenses, he was finally arrested for armed robbery and – after being found incompetent to stand trial several times – was handed a 10-year sentence. While there is no question that Lawrence’s story is tragic, it is also exceptional. Although Gabor maintains that “his case points to problems not only with the quality of individual schools in New Orleans, but also with government oversight…of charter schools,” it actually speaks to the sorry state of Louisiana’s dismantled mental health system. For in the final analysis, despite Sci Academy’s best efforts to work with Lawrence, he required the help that only a psychiatric hospital can provide. For Gabor to lay the responsibility for Lawrence’s fate at the feet of Sci Academy – or the education system more broadly – is simply disingenuous.
These are but a few examples of the inaccuracies, misrepresentations and omissions that emerge in the course of Gabor’s article, but it is her refusal to provide a comparison of New Orleans’ pre-and post-Katrina school systems that most clearly reveals the ideological bent in her reporting.
Ignoring the Past to Malign the Present…
While Gabor plays fast-and-loose with facts and figures in describing the current state of the school system, the dysfunctional morass from which it emerged merits only passing reference:
“After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, education reformers swept away what remained of the traditional public schools in what had been one of the nation’s lowest-performing districts”
“Of course, New Orleans had been a troubled school district long before Katrina. While schools were improving before the storm, charter advocates point to a faster rate of improvement in the years since”
No seriously, that’s the extent of her discussion of New Orleans’ pre-Katrina public education system – the baseline from which to judge the system’s progress since 2005 – in her entire 4,663-word article.
Later, Gabor provides an unconvincing explanation for her decision to exclude a relative assessment of New Orleans’ old and new systems saying, “pre- and post-Katrina comparisons are difficult, in large part because of a surge in funding for charters post-Katrina.” She then tries bolster her argument by citing figures from Andre Perry and Michael Schwamm-Baird that show “per-pupil funding in the 2006–07 and 2007–08 school years was about double what it had been in the two years immediately preceding the hurricane.”
Can anyone say cop-out?
To start, Gabor’s contention that pre-and post-Katrina comparisons are difficult (so much so that she doesn’t even try) due to a difference in per-pupil funding assumes that a district’s academic performance is simply a function of how much money goes into it. As those of us who have worked in public education can attest, that’s simply not the case; the reality is much more complicated.
Furthermore, even if we accept its assumption, Gabor’s argument ignores a not-so-minor factor that accounts for the funding differential she’s using as a red herring: the devastation of New Orleans by a flood that covered 80% of the city and destroyed all but a handful of its public schools. When one considers that education officials faced the challenge of not only rebuilding actual school buildings, but replacing the myriad things one takes for granted in a school – from desks and computers down to notebooks and pencils – the jump in the per-pupil expenditure looks like a pittance and certainly cannot account for the improvement in the district’s overall performance.
Moreover, Gabor’s own critique of New Orleans’ post-Katrina educational landscape is undermined by her willful lack of perspective. At one point, Gabor laments that “the progressive roots of the charter movement have been swamped by the new realities of a competitive charter marketplace,” and uses New Orleans Charter Middle School (NOCMS) as an example:
“In the 1990s, the city’s first charter school, New Orleans Charter Middle School, was built on a progressive curriculum that used experiential projects and electives, such as bicycle repair and African dance, to foster a love of learning. The school became the most highly rated nonselective school in the city before it was devastated during Hurricane Katrina.”
Gabor is correct that NOCMS was the city’s highest-rated nonselective school in the city before Hurricane Katrina. In fact, when I started teaching in New Orleans Public Schools in 2002, I had the opportunity to visit NOCMS, which at the time, seemed like paradise compared to the dismally failing schools in the rest of the district. But looking back on it now, NOCMS has lost some of its luster, for if the school was judged by today’s standards, NOCMS would be considered failing. In the 2004-2005 school year, NOCMS received a School Performance Score of 73.1, which as shown below, would translate into “F” based on the current grading scale.
To look at it from another perspective: The year before Hurricane Katrina shuttered the school forever, only 48.2% of NOCMS 8th graders were proficient in English Language Arts and 51.8% were proficient in math – and this, once again, was the highest-performing nonselective school in New Orleans at the time.
I bring this up not to disparage NOCMS, its founders, or those who worked hard each day for the students the school served. I raise this fact to underline the point that one cannot even begin to evaluate the post-Katrina transformation of New Orleans’ public schools without placing them within their broader context.
As my colleagues at New Schools for New Orleans correctly noted in their response to Gabor’s article, had she included the full picture of New Orleans’ educational progress since Katrina, readers would have been left with a much different impression of the city’s school system. For example, over the past eight years, New Orleans has:
- Increased the high school graduation rate from 54% to 78%, which now surpasses the Louisiana rate of 71%
- Increased the percentage of high school seniors eligible for TOPS scholarships (free or subsidized in-state college tuition) from 25% to 39%, approaching the state average of 43%
- Increased the percentage of 8th graders performing on grade level in Math and English from 28% to 67%, just one point shy of the state average of 68%
- Increased the performance of students with special needs so they now outperform the state average for students with special needs
- Achieved these gains while maintaining an expulsion rate lower than the state average
These are just a few of the statistics that Gabor could have included in her story to provide a more balanced picture of New Orleans’ public schools. Yet as we’ve seen above, it’s clear that Andrea Gabor never intended to present an honest accounting of the facts on the ground. Instead, she tossed aside her obligations as a journalist to tear down the achievements that educators in New Orleans have worked so hard for in the years since Hurricane Katrina.
Which raises one final question for Professor Gabor: Was it worth it?