NOLA Education Coverage Diverges Sharply

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All eyes are on New Orleans right now, between the charter school conference ramping up there this weekend and the new Tulane report suggesting that things have gotten much better there for kids. That makes sense given it’s now been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina swept through. 

But there isn’t a lot of agreement about just how well the New Orleans schools are doing, and the media coverage reflects that deep rift. Take for example the Washington Monthly’s latest education feature, How New Orleans Made Charter Schools Work

As you’ll see, Osborne doesn’t shy away from the charter school controversy, or research showing that charters tend to do better or worse depending on how well the 43 state laws regarding charters force them to be:

In states where charters are rarely forced to close when their students are falling behind—in Arizona, Texas, Ohio, and others—charter students do underperform their socioeconomic peers in traditional public schools on standardized tests.

The truth is that charters have lived up to their billing in some places and been a disappointment in others.

However, my reading of the piece is that it’s still pretty much overwhelmingly optimistic. With caveats, Osborne makes the case that the charters in New Orleans are succeeding in terms of student outcomes and not — as is widely claimed — because of demographic shifts, and that early problems addressing the needs of special education students have been favorably resolved. 

The system of charters in New Orleans “have fulfilled the vision of even their most ardent supporters,” writes Osborne. And the NOLA model is going national, he says. 

New Orleans shows that other districts could give more autonomy and accountability than they currently do, and that districts do better when they get out of the operating business. Other places are imitating parts of the New Orleans model, he says. “Forty-three districts already have at least 20 percent of their students in charters. If just a few districts prove that the New Orleans model can work elsewhere, others may join in. Success, after all, has a way of overcoming all obstacles.”

In making the case that NOLA’s charters are working, Osborne mirrors equally enthusiastic writing from Richard Whitmire — and a stark contrast with much of the recent coverage of New Orleans that has been published in other major outlets. For example, in The Atlantic (How Strict Is Too Strict?The Lost Children of Katrina), and on NPR (The End Of Neighborhood SchoolsA Second-Chance School Tries Again). 

Just this week, the blogger who runs the site Deutcsch29 expressed deep skepticism about the claims that are being made (A Bad Day for the RSD “Improvement” Narrative) around graduation rates, among other things:

A common selling point for now-all-charter RSD involves the rise in the supposed pre-Katrina Orleans Parish cohort graduation rate of 54.4% to the combined Orleans Parish-RSD cohort graduation rate of 77.8% in 2012…. [However,] RSD New Orleans has not recovered from the drop in its graduation rate between 2011-12 and 2012-13- with the gap between RSD’s graduation rate and the state graduation rate widening… even the combined Orleans Parish-RSD New Orleans rate is below the state average for the second year in a row.

As NPR’s education team reported last week, districts have been using a variety of methods to raise graduation rates, including early intervention, alternative/easier routes to graduation (aka “credit recovery”), and cooking the books. (I didn’t see anything about NOLA in the NPR package but will let you know if I find out more.)

Osborne isn’t a traditional journalist working out of a newsroom or an entirely neutral observer. He works at the Progressive Policy Institute on a Broad- and Walton-funded education initiative, and one of his daughters was a TFA member in New Orleans. But the story was edited journalistically, according to Osborne:

One thing a number of people have commented on is that the piece was fair, giving critics their due, understanding how much NOLA teachers lost after Katrina and why they’re angry, and not claiming more for the charters than the facts support.Paul Glastris deserves some of the credit for that, because as my editor, he insisted  on it.

The enthusiasm for what’s happening in New Orleans continues to have its backers. A Tulane-affiliated think tank has a new report out suggesting mostly positive results for New Orleans.  As reported in NOLA.com (New Orleans school changes worked):

Before the storm, only one parish in the state did worse [than NOLA]…. Now the city has climbed all the way up to … average. The percentage of students attending schools that perform above the Louisiana average has almost doubled – to 31 percent, according to the report. The on-time graduation rate went from 56 percent in 2004 to 73 percent last year, the authors write.

And to be fair, pretty much any story about NOLA is going to have its critics and its flaws — including those produced and published out of NPR (NPR Blogger Corrects New Orleans Tweet But Stands By Story).

Disclosure: The nearly 6,500-word piece is yet another example of the Monthly’s interest and commitment in covering education. (I mean, besides partnering with me on this blog.)  

Related posts:  NPR Blogger Corrects New Orleans Tweet (But Stands By Story)Diverse Charters Form New National Alliance; What’s Next On Charter School “Backfill”?

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.