Let’s reduce the myriad spreadsheets and analyses to the handful of figures: 73, 37, 18.9.
The last one is perhaps the most important: It’s the average score on the ACT college readiness test for students in New Orleans.
Back before hurricanes Katrina and Rita, when a corrupt and mismanaged school system failed the children of Orleans Parish, only the strongest students took the ACT and then the average score was 17. Since the school reforms ushered into being after the storms, under the overall leadership of a Democratic (Kathleen Blanco) and Republican governor (Bobby Jindal), the test now given to all students is objective proof of academic progress.
At 73 percent, the students graduating on-time from New Orleans high schools have gone up almost 20 points over 2005. And 37 percent of students qualify for TOPS or other college scholarships today, compared with 24 percent in 2004.
It is a measure of the polarized nature of the education debate that these numbers, touted by, among others, the president of the United States on Thursday, are called into question by a prominent superintendent and state school board member, Lottie Beebe, of St. Martin Parish. She casts doubt on the numbers in the discussions of educational improvement since Katrina, what we think is one of the success stories of the 10th anniversary of the storm.
“When Louisiana’s citizens hear claims of academic progress over the past four years, they should be mindful of the questionable source of this information,” Beebe said of the state Department of Education.
We would never disagree with anyone who calls attention to the challenges ahead in public education — they are stiff, in New Orleans and elsewhere in Louisiana — nor anyone who calls for transparency in the development and presentation of the information that fuels this debate.
But these numbers are widely accepted, including by a peer-reviewed study by Tulane University economists, who said, “We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large gains in such a short period of time.” In the ACT case, is the national testing company cooking the books at the behest of the Louisiana Department of Education? We can’t imagine why or how.
Education reform in New Orleans is a work in progress, and one that has seen some charter schools closed because of poor performance; President Barack Obama is right to embrace the progress made and also call attention to the tough challenges of poverty and its impacts on academic achievement.
Nor is the experiment in charter schools going to be exactly the same in other places. Charters have sparked some resistance in Lafayette Parish lately, even as parents line up to send children to new ones. In Baton Rouge, where charters have had a rocky time in some cases, one of the New Orleans innovators is seeking to organize and support a new network of charter schools.
All that said, New Orleans’ successes touted during the anniversary do not seem to be based on misinformation.
The president’s administration has backed school reforms in the Crescent City, reforms that enjoy bipartisan support in a politically red state. We don’t think these numbers lie.