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Posted at 4:30 PM ET, 02/ 2/2010

Duncan, his apology and clean slates

By Valerie Strauss

Education Secretary Arne Duncan apologized today for saying that Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans”--though the fact that it took several days for his walk-back suggests that he was measuring just how many people he offended with the statement.

Apparently, not enough.

Shortly after his Katrina remarks became public late last week, education officials in Louisiana chimed in to say that Duncan was oh so correct. Not that they'd use this opportunity to curry favor with the education secretary. Never! They must really believe that the people of New Orleans should thank their lucky stars for Katrina or else the poor kids in the city would still be sitting in lousy schools.

In fact, I’m wondering why folks in every city with troubled schools aren’t wishing for a hurricane, tornado or other natural disaster so that they, too, can see their public education system destroyed and entrepreneurs can come start new schools.

Here’s what Duncan told Roland Martin for TV One’s “Washington Watch,” which was made public late last week and aired Sunday.

“This is a tough thing to say, but let me be really honest. I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that ’we have to do better.

“And the progress that they’ve made in four years since the hurricane is unbelievable. They have a chance to create a phenomenal school district.

“Long way to go, but that city was not serious about its education. Those children were being desperately under-served prior, and the amount of progress and the amount of reform we’ve seen in a short amount of time has been absolutely amazing.”

Some people, including Diane Ravitch, an education historian and New York University professor, criticized Duncan for those remarks it. Here’s part of what she wrote:

“Funnily enough, this is the same story that one reads in conservative journals. Katrina created a grand opportunity to privatize public education, to break the teachers’ union, and to start over. A couple of other things happened: some 2,000 people died, large numbers of residents left the city, never to return, and the city was devastated. But, hey, there’s good news. Now New Orleans has schools run by private entrepreneurs!”

I wrote about Duncan’s apparent confusing of metaphor with reality. Surely the school system in New Orleans--and in other cities--for that matter--could use a metaphoric hurricane. But that’s not what Duncan said. He said that a hurricane that killed many hundreds of people turned out to be good for the school system.

Here’s what he said today: “I said it in a poor way, and I apologize for that," he told MSNBC. "It was a dumb thing to say. My point was a simple one -- that subsequent to that devastating, devastating tragedy, we’ve seen remarkable progress. And that school system has improved so rapidly it’s been amazing to watch. And I just want to thank the teachers, the principals for their extraordinary commitment to the students there."

I wonder now if Paul Vallas, Superintendent of the Recovery School District in Louisiana, and Louisiana Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek will step back from their comments of support for Duncan.

Now that he admits he said the wrong thing, I still wonder about Duncan’s love for clean slates.

When he was superintendent in Chicago, he closed hundreds of schools, and in a sense boasted about how tough he was that he would take this route.

As Ravitch notes in her “Bridging Differences” blog today, closing a school is not exactly something of which to boast.

“It is odd that school leaders feel triumphant when they close schools, as though they were not responsible for them. They enjoy the role of executioner, shirking any responsibility for the schools in their care. Every time a school is closed, those at the top should hang their heads in shame for their inability or refusal to offer timely assistance. Instead they exult in the failure of schools that are entrusted to their stewardship.”

She also writes about how we can expect more school closings, as if the only way to fix something is to start from scratch. That may work for a cake batter in which you have thrown salt instead of sugar. Not for a school system.

I’m not a big believer in silver linings. Concentrating on silver linings can prevent us from seeking real solutions to real problems. Insisting that that there is always a silver lining can distort the reality of what actually happened. Some things are bad, plain and simple.

By the time we find ourselves praising a natural catastrophe for education reform, we are in big trouble. Such talk is the last refuge of someone bereft of new policy ideas.

-0-

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By Valerie Strauss  | February 2, 2010; 4:30 PM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan  | Tags:  arne duncan  
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Comments

"By the time we find ourselves praising a natural catastrophe for education reform, we are in big trouble. Such talk is the last refuge of someone bereft of new policy ideas."

Well said Valarie. Thank you.

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“Funnily enough, this is the same story that one reads in conservative journals. Katrina created a grand opportunity to privatize public education, to break the teachers’ union, and to start over. A couple of other things happened: some 2,000 people died, large numbers of residents left the city, never to return, and the city was devastated. But, hey, there’s good news. Now New Orleans has schools run by private entrepreneurs!”

Thank you Diane Ravitch.

Both of your comments underscore the purvailing condition of what journalist and author Naomi Klein has characterized as "disaster capitalism." Our public schools in New Orleans, along with public housing and public healthcare have in our absence have devolved into enriching private entrepreneurs far more than serving New Orleanians. We're tired of the experimentation with our lives and our community.

Posted by: gobraduno | February 2, 2010 7:40 PM | Report abuse

At least Education Secretary Duncan apologized.

In contrast, DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee remains uncompromising, according to journalist Jay Mathews, who, among others, called for her to apologize for her “sex with children” comment. More than a week after the comment was made public, she telephoned him to say she told Fast Company magazine that teachers were having sex with children because, according to Mathews, "She thought that was something people should know. It was important to root out such behaviors."

This is reminiscent of “The dog ate my homework” excuse, except Rhee’s excuse is much more creative and much less believable, especially coming from an adult.

Posted by: efavorite | February 3, 2010 7:54 AM | Report abuse

As inartfully stated as they were, Arne Duncan's comments were spot on.

While Katrina was an awful tragedy, at least now a whole generation of New Orleans students will get a second chance at a decent education. Here's hoping the adults in charge don't squander it.

Sadly, these days it take a natural disaster to actually have change in the public schools.

Posted by: holzhaacker | February 3, 2010 8:50 AM | Report abuse

Secretary Duncan left out a part of Katrina's effect on the schools--raised expectations. Several families from New Orleans came to my town after the hurricane, and in interviews every one of them mentioned how hard the kids were struggling in school because the schools here--which certainly aren't great--were so much more advanced than in New Orleans. The families returning to New Orleans after being in other areas may be demanding more from their schools now that they have had a chance to see what they were missing.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 4, 2010 6:47 AM | Report abuse

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