Ten years after Hurricane Katrina spurred a transformation in public schools, the dialogue around education in the city has started to change.
The conventional wisdom about New Orleans today situates its schools in an either/or situation that has significant consequences for the next 10 years and beyond. Many argue that while test scores and graduation rates have improved, these gains have come at the cost of fewer neighborhood schools, fewer black, experienced educators in the classroom and less democratic control and public input over educational policy making for the parents and citizens of the city. A simplistic reasoning often follows from this framework, arguing that despite any consequences of the process of education reform post-Katrina, the products of these efforts are worth the costs. Perhaps overstated, this means that improving test scores (student achievement) are both the means and ends toward an educated person. We disagree.
Our central argument is that the intense focus on quantifying and measuring student achievement has led to substantial instability and confusion for children, families and communities. Many schools have opened and closed in the city following the storm, as school performance scores have gone up and down, leading to substantial instability in the real choices that parents have in where they can enroll their children year to year. Similarly, with teachers under pressure to demonstrate significant improvements in student achievement scores, many schools have experienced high staff and leadership turnover.
While it is convenient to hold up statistics to try to demonstrate what does and doesn’t work in education, we should not and cannot ignore the realities of how different approaches to education reform shape the lived experiences of students and families and the communities of which they are a part. While we must build robust assessments for understanding the quality of our schools, a small set of metrics is not useful for the broader conversation that we need to be having about schooling and society.
To this line of thinking, some might argue that while test scores and graduation rates should not be the only ways in which we assess schools, the changes in New Orleans have been substantial and meaningful and cannot be ignored. However, while the levels of student achievement in New Orleans have been improving compared with the rest of the state, multiple national assessments have continued to place Louisiana at the bottom of national rankings on educational achievement. For example, while New Orleans’ ACT scores have risen to 18.8, closing in on the state average of 19.4, the state average is still one of the lowest in the country.
Our model of educational success should not be something that happens in spite of the lives of families and communities. Instead, it should be something that grapples with the realities of how students navigate the experiences of schools and the benefits of quality education that goes beyond student achievement scores to the opportunities and life chances that students have once they finish school.
With the city’s child poverty rate nearing 40 percent and a criminal justice system that all too often shapes the education and livelihood of black students, any continued focus on a narrow sense of student achievement would be dangerous for students and the city going forward. Only an education agenda that overcomes the false dichotomy of school achievement scores versus a quality, democratic public school system that supports schools as anchors of youth and community development can provide us with quality schools in every neighborhood. The city desperately needs more quality schools, and the community cries out for them.
Luis Mirón is director of the Institute for Quality & Equity in Education at Loyola. Joseph L. Boselovic is IQEE’s associate director.