Academic Progress in New Orleans Charter Schools Is “Remarkable”

(p. A19) This month, the New Orleans overhaul entered a new stage. On July 1, [2018] the state returned control of all schools to the city. The charter schools remain. But a locally elected school board, accountable to the city’s residents, is now in charge. It’s a time when people in New Orleans are reflecting on what the overhaul has, and has not, accomplished.

So I decided to visit and talk with students, teachers, principals, community leaders and researchers. And I was struck by how clear of a picture emerged. It’s still a nuanced picture, with both positives and negatives. But there are big lessons.

New Orleans is a great case study partly because it avoids many of the ambiguities of other education reform efforts. The charters here educate almost all public-school students, so they can’t cherry pick. And the students are overwhelmingly black and low-income — even lower-income than before Katrina — so gentrification isn’t a factor.

Yet the academic progress has been remarkable.

Performance on every kind of standardized test has surged. Before the storm, New Orleans students scored far below the Louisiana average on reading, math, science and social studies. Today, they hover near the state average, despite living amid much more poverty. Nationally, the average New Orleans student has moved to the 37th percentile of math and reading scores, from the 22nd percentile pre-Katrina.

This week, Douglas Harris — a Tulane economist who leads a rigorous research project on the schools — is releasing a new study, with Matthew Larsen, another economist. It shows that the test-score gains are translating into real changes in students’ lives. High-school graduation, college attendance and college graduation have all risen.

One example: In most of Louisiana, the share of 12th graders going directly to college has fallen in recent years, probably because of budget cuts to higher education. In New Orleans, Harris and Larsen report, the share has jumped to 32.8 percent, from 22.5 percent before Katrina.

People here point to two main forces driving the progress: Autonomy and accountability.

For the full commentary, see:

Leonhardt, David. “A Better Way to Run Schools.” The New York Times (Monday, July 16, 2018): A19.

(Note: bracketed year added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 15, 2018, and has the title “How New Orleans Is Helping Its Students Succeed.” Where the two versions differ, the passages above follow the online version, which includes a few sentences not included in the print version.)

The Harris and Larsen report, mentioned above, is:

Harris, Douglas N., and Matthew F. Larsen. “The Effects of the New Orleans Post-Katrina Market-Based School Reforms on Student Achievement, High School Graduation, and College Outcomes.” In Technical Report: Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, 2018.

Army Corps of Engineers Blamed for Hurricane Katrina

(p. 13) NEW ORLEANS — Nearly 10 years on, one might assume that the case of Hurricane Katrina is closed.
That the catastrophic flooding of this city was caused not merely by a powerful storm but primarily by fatal engineering flaws in the city’s flood protection system has been proved by experts, acknowledged by the United States Army Corps of Engineers and underscored by residents here to anyone who might suggest otherwise.
But the efforts to establish responsibility with ever more precision — to ascertain just how many of those flaws were due to engineering, politics or money — have not stopped.

For the full story, see:
CAMPBELL ROBERTSON and JOHN SCHWARTZ. “Decade After Katrina, Pointing Finger Firmly at Army Corps.” The New York Times, First Section (Sun., MAY 24, 2015): 13 & 16.
(Note: the date of the online version of the story is MAY 23, 2015, and has the title “Decade After Katrina, Pointing Finger More Firmly at Army Corps.”)

Governments Stop Errol Joseph from Repairing His House

JosephErrolNewOrleansHouseFixer2013-05-04.jpg “Errol Joseph and his wife, Esther, at their Forstall Street property in New Orleans. Mr. Joseph, 62, had spent his life fixing houses.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) NEW ORLEANS — Errol Joseph has the doorknobs. He has the doors, too, as well as a bathtub and a couple of sinks, stacks of drywall, a hot water heater, pipes, an air-conditioner compressor, and big pink rolls of insulation. They are sitting in a shed.

A few blocks up the street sits the gaunt frame of a house, the skeleton in which all these insides are supposed to fit. They have sat apart for years. The gap between: permits, procedures, policies, rules and the capricious demands of bureaucracy.
As people in the Northeast set off on the road back from Hurricane Sandy, there are those here, like Mr. Joseph, who are keen to offer warnings that recovery can be far more difficult than they imagine. Mr. Joseph sees his own story as a cautionary tale, though he admits he is unsure what he would have, or should have, done differently.
“Do the right thing and fall further behind,” said Mr. Joseph, a big man with a soft voice.
. . .
(p. A4) But Mr. Joseph, who had spent his life repairing houses, figured he could do it himself, and would be back at home by that summer. He spent most of his rebuilding grant buying materials, including windows, shingles and everything else in the shed. In the spring of 2009, he elevated the frame of the house, leaving it propped on wooden cribbing.
Before he took any further steps, he contacted the state for an inspection, as he had been instructed.
Then the inspectors showed up.
” ‘Do not do anything to this house until you get a letter of continuance,’ ” he recalled one inspector saying. “He said that three times. He said you would lose your money.”
So Mr. Joseph did not do anything to the house. Months went by. No letter arrived. The inspector disappeared. Officials denied that anyone had ever said anything about a letter, said Mr. Joseph, who in his regular visits to state offices would then ask for written permission to move forward anyway.
In 2010, told that he would not be allowed to do the work himself, he drew up a contract with an elevation specialist. But permission from the state to move forward was still elusive. “Your paperwork is in the system,” Mr. Joseph was told.
Though Mr. Joseph did not know it, his paperwork was blocked for months in the federal clearance process, but for reasons that remain a mystery.
The drywall rotted in the shed. The frame sat in the elements. The city, unaware of Mr. Joseph’s travails, warned of demolition.

For the full story, see:
CAMPBELL ROBERTSON. “Katrina Rebuilder Can’t Rise Above Red Tape.” The New York Times (Thurs., February 21, 2012): A1 & A4.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date February 20, 2012, and has the title “Routed by Katrina, Stuck in Quagmire of Rules.”)

JosephErroBlockAfterKatrina2013-05-04.jpg “A photograph of Mr. Joseph’s block taken shortly after Hurricane Katrina. It took years to prove his house was salvageable.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

“Planning Is Crap”

WeShallNotBeMovedBK2012-12-01.jpg

Source of book image: http://images.indiebound.com/636/044/9780807044636.jpg

(p. C8) As Mr. Wooten recounts, obstacles abounded from a municipality bent on redesigning New Orleans while the city was still in crisis. Neighborhoods from middle-class Lakeview to the devastated Lower Ninth Ward began to fear that the city they loved didn’t love them back.

“Planning is crap,” said Martin Landrieu, a member of a prominent local political family, at a meeting of Lakeview residents. “What you really need is the cleaning up of houses . . . . Where are the hammers and nails?” Yet five months after Katrina, a city commission called Bring New Orleans Back presented an ambitious plan to restore the city that included converting neighborhoods that had heavy flooding into green space. The commission also imposed a temporary moratorium on rebuilding there. Residents would have to show that their communities were viable or risk being planned out of existence; they were given four months.

For the full review, see:
CARLA MAIN. “After the Waters Receded.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., August 4, 2012): C8.
(Note: ellipsis in original.)
(Note: the online version of the article was dated August 3, 2012.)

Katrina Was Less a Natural Disaster, and More an Artificial One Caused by Government

ShearerHarry2011-06-05.jpg

“Harry Shearer in the documentary “The Big Uneasy.”” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. B6) . . . Mr. Shearer is serious about his reasons for adding to a Katrina genre that includes two documentaries by Spike Lee (“When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” and “If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise”), another about custody battles over pets lost in the storm (“Mine”), and Werner Herzog’s reinterpretation of “Bad Lieutenant” (“Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”).

“What they are missing is why it happened, why people suffered,” said Mr. Shearer, who spoke last week from his home in New Orleans.
At one-day screenings in about 160 theaters around the country on Monday, “The Big Uneasy” will fill in the blanks with a feature-length description of what it sees as failings by the Army Corps of Engineers and others.
Mr. Shearer said he was inspired to make the film last year, after hearing President Obama refer to the hurricane as a “natural disaster.” Mr. Shearer argues there was nothing natural about the breakdown of systems that were supposed to protect the city.

For the full story, see:
MICHAEL CIEPLY. “Katrina Film Takes Aim at Army Corps of Engineers.” The New York Times (Mon., August 30, 2010): B6.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story is dated August 29, 2010.)

We’re from the Government, and We Are Here to Help

In February, I heard a wonderful presentation by Emily Chamlee-Wright on the recovery process from Hurricane Katrina. One of my favorite parts of her presentation was an account of how the federal bureaucracy hindered those whose entrepreneurship was needed for recovery. The account is included in her book The Cultural and Political Economy of Recovery, that documents her research on Katrina:

(p. 142) . . . , the bureaucratic structure governing disaster relief can stifle, or at the very least frustrate local leadership driving community redevelopment. Doris Voitier’s efforts to re-open the public school system in St. Bernard Parish illustrate this point. Voitier had initially assumed that FEMA’s newly created task force on education would lend the support and expertise she needed. But she quickly learned that FEMA’s role was not so much to lend support as it was to regulate the decisions coming out of her office.

VOITIER: [W]e had our kickoff meeting in September. We didn’t even know what a kickoff meeting was nor did we know we were in one until after it was over . . . . In their little book, which I read later, they tell them, “meet in the person’s home territory,” basically. Now . . . we were operating out of Baton Rouge, and so were all of the people who attended this meeting. We all got rental cars and drove down [to St. Bernard Parish] and met on the third floor of the building over by Chalmette Refining at 2 o’clock in the afternoon in 100 degree heat with no air conditioning or anything. [M]y assistant superintendent and I walk into this meeting and there were 27 people in this meeting are sitting around this table . . . and we were going through the introductions. And the first two people said, “We’re so and so. We are the FEMA historical restoration team” I said, okay, tell me what you do. “Well, we make sure any buildings that are 40 years old or more, they’re designated a historical building, we make sure all of the rules and regulations are followed for that or if there are any historical documents, paintings, or whatever, that they’re preserved properly, and that you do (p. 143) everything you’re supposed to do . . . .” Now here we are just trying to, you know, trying to recover, not worrying too much about that sort of stuff, but . . . thank you very much. So the next two introduced themselves and I said, “Well who are you?” “We are the FEMA environmental protection team.” I said, “Tell me what you do.” Well, same thing. “We make sure all of the environmental laws are followed, that if there are any endangered species that they’re protected,” you know, yadda, yadda, yadda. Okay. The next two, “We are the FEMA 404 mitigation team.” I’m looking at them and I’m thinking, what in the heck is 404 mitigation? Because the next two were the FEMA 406 . . . . So I’m looking at them, I’m thinking, I don’t know what 404 was and I certainly don’t know what 406 is . . . . And you know. . . [I’m thinking] can’t somebody help me get a school started and clean my schools . . . ?

Source:
Chamlee-Wright, Emily. The Cultural and Political Economy of Recovery: Social Learning in a Post-Disaster Environment, Routledge Advances in Heterodox Economics. London: Routledge, 2010.
(Note: first ellipsis added; other ellipses in original.)

“Public Money Was Being Used to Rehab a House, and Later to Demolish It”

GadboisKarenNewOrleansGadfly.jpg “Karen Gadbois,a New Orleans activist, has helped expose corruption within a federally funded program designed to help rebuild the city.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A13) But Ms. Gadbois has a dangerous affection for the city’s shotgun houses and Creole cottages in a place where so much is falling down. She is the daughter of a plaster lather — a textile artist herself, and wife of a painter — and she cannot let the sagging porches and ragged cornices go. They have turned her into a full-time activist.

Lists of homes to which things are going to be done — there are many in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, where nearly 60 percent of the dwellings were damaged in the storm — are red meat for Ms. Gadbois. But this time she did not even need to leave her own house, a rambling, cheerfully messy raised green cottage in the Carrollton section (it took on four feet of water in the hurricane) to know something was terribly wrong with the list of houses NOAH claimed to work on.
“It wasn’t even that the house didn’t exist; the whole block didn’t exist,” Ms. Gadbois recalled. “Something’s not right here. We saw properties that had supposedly been remediated by NOAH coming up to be declared imminent health threats, and then demolished.”
It galled her, she said, that public money was being used to rehab a house, and later to demolish it, often by agencies sharing the same office space.

For the full story, see:
ADAM NOSSITER. “Amid Ruined New Orleans Neighborhoods, a Gadfly Buzzes.” The New York Times (Weds., August 13, 2008): A14.