Garbage In, Garbage Out… Zoe Sullivan's Piece on NOLA Public Schools Represents Journalism At Its Worst

Back in 2014, in a piece I wrote in response to an error-laden NPR story on the transformation of public education in New Orleans, I explained why so many education advocates in the city had developed a sense of “journalism fatigue”:

“Often, journalists fly in and build their stories around the loudest, most extreme voices in the debate, folks who apply their preconceived notions and ideologies to the New Orleans context. There have also been plenty of examples of less scrupulous “journalists” who distort New Orleans’ story to further their political agendas. What’s more, the perspectives of those most impacted by the city’s reforms – i.e., public school students and parents – are seldom solicited, nonetheless heard in the reporting. As a result, national coverage of the city’s schools rarely manages to step back from the debate and objectively assess what’s worked, what hasn’t, and what still needs to be done.”

In the intervening five years, I’ve called out scores of reporters for writing sloppy, one-sided articles about the city’s school system, all of which follow a predictable formula, generally quote the same handful of people (while curiously never asking basic questions about their ties or motivations), and invariably get the story wrong.

Nevertheless, the garbage stories about public education in New Orleans just keep on coming. Case-in-point: “The Battle for New Orleans Public Schools,” an article from freelance journalist Zoe Sullivan that recently appeared in Next City.

To put it bluntly, Sullivan’s story is advocacy masquerading as journalism. She gets her facts wrong, makes several misleading claims, and selectively omits relevant information throughout the article. Moreover, the topic involved and the cast of characters featured in the piece suggest that Sullivan was fed a story which she was more than happy to promote.

And once again, it’s the same ideologically-driven, nuance-free story that many so-called journalists have written before, in which the pre-Hurricane Katrina school system’s problems are minimized, the progress that schools have made since the storm is called into doubt, and readers are left with the false impression that the community wants to do away with the city’s charter schools.

Below I outline some of the biggest problems with Sullivan’s article…

She cherrypicks data and doesn’t check her facts.

Sullivan begins her article by claiming that “black teachers now make up less than half of the city’s teaching corps,” citing a 2016 article in Slate, which in turn, cites a report based on data from 2014. So, the numbers she’s using are five years old.

However, had Sullivan taken the time to conduct a little internet research, she would have learned that a majority of the district’s teachers are indeed black. According to teacher data compiled by the Cowen Institute at Tulane University, just over half of the city’s educators were African-American and nearly 60% were people of color in the 2017-18 school year.

Graphic from the Cowen Institute’s 2018 State of Public Education in New Orleans report.

Sullivan also has trouble getting her facts right when she turns to the recent debate over the fate of McDonogh #35, a storied New Orleans high school that was once one of the highest-performing schools in the city, but has been struggling academically over the past several years.

In describing the school’s plight, Sullivan blames McDonogh #35’s academic decline on the state’s takeover of most of the city’s schools after Hurricane Katrina:

“The school was founded in 1917 as the first public high school in the state for black children…The school had an outstanding record until the early aughts but went into decline after Katrina — when its selective admissions system was eliminated under state management. By 2017, the state ranked it as a “D” school.”

There’s just one big problem: McDonogh #35 was never taken over by the state.

McDonogh #35’s high academic performance meant that it was one of the few schools that escaped state takeover by the Recovery School District in 2005. It has remained under the direct control of the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) ever since. Furthermore, the board voluntarily decided to jettison McDonogh #35’s selective-admissions system when the school reopened after the storm because families who were returning to the city needed to get their children back in school as quickly as possible. So, contrary to Sullivan’s claim, state officials had absolutely nothing to do with McDonogh #35’s academic slump.

Instead, that responsibility falls squarely on OPSB, which last month voted to hand over the management of McDonogh #35 to InspireNOLA Charter Schools, a local, black-led charter network with a proven track-record of turning around failing schools. Sullivan insists, “alumni see closing McDonogh 35 as inflicting a wound.” However, as noted above, the school isn’t technically closing; it’s simply being transferred to new management. Moreover, the insinuation that alums were united in their opposition is hard to square with the fact the McDonogh #35 Alumni Association recently announced it was partnering with InspireNOLA to launch a new student recruitment campaign aimed at boosting enrollment at the school next fall.

Get the facts straight: Sullivan blames the state for McDonogh #35’s poor academic performance, even though the state never took over the school.

Sullivan’s disregard for truth continues when she attempts to downplay the progress that the city’s public schools have made over the past 14 years. Although she mentions that an in-depth study by Doug Harris at Education Research Alliance at Tulane “found that academic achievement in New Orleans improved substantially after the takeover,” Sullivan makes sure to note that performance dipped (not plummeted) over the past couple years. She then goes on to mention that the state’s school accountability formula changed in 2018, which she says makes “it difficult to compare with previous years.”

However, that’s only half right. It’s true that Louisiana changed their school accountability formula in 2018 – along with every other state in the country – to align with the new requirements of the Every Students Succeeds Act. (It’s also worth noting that changes adopted in the Bayou State actually make it harder for schools to receive a good grade.) But last year, the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) also intentionally issued two sets of school grades in 2018 – one set calculated with the new formula and the other with the old formula – to allow the public to directly compare school performance across years.

So, it wasn’t difficult at all to compare year-over-year performance of New Orleans schools in 2018, which Sullivan would have realized had she bothered to simply look at the raft of accountability data LDOE provides on its website.

Sullivan later takes a swing at charter schools more broadly, citing a study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University to suggest that charter schools perform no better than traditional public schools:

“A 2015 study issued by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes examined 41 school districts and found that charter students in 26 cities outperformed their traditional school peers in math. But in 11 urban areas, charter students did worse in math. There were similar findings for reading scores.”

For one thing, it’s unclear why Sullivan would cite this as evidence that charters perform no better than traditional public schools, since the research showed that they outperformed in a majority of cities. Nevertheless, the bigger issue is that she omits the fact that this very same study showed that New Orleans charter students outperform their peers in traditional public schools in both math and reading.

She doesn’t acknowledge who her sources really are.

Another major problem with Sullivan’s piece is that while she interviews several individuals in her story, she doesn’t fully disclose who they are in terms of their backgrounds, affiliations, etc.

Take Ashana Bigard, for example, who is prominently featured throughout the article. Sullivan leaves readers with the impression that she is just your average New Orleans public school parent who is fed up with the school system.

Ashana Bigard (at right, in maroon coat) disrupts last month’s OPSB meeting.

In reality, she’s an activist and organizer whose work is funded by the teachers unions. She’s one of fifteen Progressive Education Fellows (a list that includes several prominent anti-education reform voices) who are paid to write and promote anti-charter diatribes which are published by the magazine, The Progressive. Annual reports filed with the U.S. Department of Labor show that the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) bankrolled the project. She’s also a consultant for Friends & Families of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, an organization that gets funding from from two organizations – the Schott Foundation and the Advancement Project – which together have received nearly $2 million from AFT and NEA over the past five years. Sullivan never reveals any of this.

This same transparency problem comes up when Sullivan throws in a quote from Andre Perry, who she says, “studied education in New Orleans for years after Katrina.” First, it should be clarified that “studied education” is a bit of a stretch, since what Perry essentially does is draw on other people’s research and repackage it for public consumption. Sullivan also leaves out a key part of Perry’s biography: He was once was the CEO of a New Orleans charter school network. (In an interview with The Gambit in 2009, he explained how he got the job: “Eventually someone called my bluff and said, ‘Hey, you talk a big game. How about trying to run some schools?'”)

Andre Perry not only studied charter schools in New Orleans, but ran them into the ground.

His short tenure at the helm of Capital One/New Beginnings Charter Schools was a complete disaster. His schools suffered from poor performance, high suspension rates, and before he knew it he was shown the door. Given that fact, most journalists would probably turn to someone else for an unbiased view on charters or, at the very least, give readers a clearer picture of his background.

But perhaps the most laughable part of the article comes from an interview with Armtrice Cowart, a local public school parent who has shown up at several recent OPSB meetings to harangue the board. Sullivan quotes her as she indulges in some historical revisionism about the pre-Katrina school system:

“It wasn’t as horrible as [charter school proponents] try to make it seem. We had great teachers. We had great things happening in our schools. What we didn’t have, honestly, was the resources and the money that these charter schools and charter boards were getting after Katrina.”

Let’s get something straight: The pre-Katrina school system was actually horrible. It was the second lowest-performing district in a state which perennially has been at or near the bottom of national education rankings. Nearly half of public school students didn’t graduate from high school. Most school buildings were in a sorry state of disrepair. Corruption pervaded nearly every level of the school system. In short, anyone who experienced the educational disaster that was New Orleans Public Schools prior to the storm would have to be delusional to assert otherwise.

Sullivan also never mentions that part of the reason why schools didn’t have the resources and money they needed back then is that Cowart and others were literally robbing the district blind. In 2004, Cowart was one of eight school system employees indicted by the U.S. District Attorney’s Office under the Hobbs Act for her participation in a scheme that defrauded the district of $70,000. She eventually pled guilty to the charges.

Maybe someone who stole from the school system isn’t the most reliable source?

In light of this fact, Cowart’s nostalgia for the old days begins to make sense: It was a complete free-for-all in which the adults running the district could enrich themselves at the expense of kids… at least until the FBI showed up. What doesn’t make sense is that Sullivan would consider her a reliable source for this story.

While there are other problems in Sullivan’s recent article on New Orleans schools, I’ll give it a rest because I think I’ve made my point. No self-respecting reporter – or editor, for that matter – would consider this a fair and balanced take on the state of the city’s public schools.

The difference between journalism and advocacy is that the former starts with the facts to develop a narrative, while the latter starts with a narrative and tries to find facts to support it. The numerous problems in Sullivan’s piece make clear that she was pushing an agenda, not seeking the truth.

Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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  1. Peter do you have children to go to the schools In New Orleans?
    Because I do . Thank you for the free advertisement yes I am a professional I’m also a public school parent and a public school graduate in the city of New Orleans . I continue to have problems with both of my children schools despite being an advocate and a writer . Why all the white children just in five of the schools if all of them are doing so well ?
    How come you have so many people that run and work at schools but send their children to other schools a lot of them private schools ,if the schools are doing so well ?

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