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Posted at 3:51 PM ET, 01/29/2010

Duncan’s own Hurricane Katrina

By Valerie Strauss

When Education Secretary Arne Duncan said to a television reporter in an interview to air Sunday that Hurricane Katrina was the best thing that happened to the New Orleans school system, I’m sure he wasn’t retroactively wishing a catastrophe to decimate the city and its school buildings.

But his statement concerns me nevertheless.

Here’s what he told Roland Martin for TV One’s “Washington Watch,” airing Sunday at 11 a.m. EST:

“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...

“Children in our country, they want to learn. They’re resilient. They’re tough. We have to meet them halfway. We have to give them an opportunity, and New Orleans is doing a phenomenal job of getting that system to an entirely different level.”

I think Mr. Duncan has made a mistake.

He may have thought it was a metaphoric hurricane, and indeed they did need a metaphoric hurricane.

Perhaps many cities do and, if he really means that school systems should start from scratch, he should use the billions of dollars he has to dole out to districts to have them do just that.

But Katrina was a real hurricane that resulted in the loss of many hundreds of lives.

Duncan didn't just say once that Katrina was good for New Orleans schools as a throwaway line that he uttered without much thought. His thoughts on this were in paragraphs.

The education secretary is confusing metaphor with reality.

And that is worrisome in an education secretary of the United States.

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By Valerie Strauss  | January 29, 2010; 3:51 PM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan  | Tags:  secretary arne duncan  
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Very good point, Valerie, thank you. But it is also worth challenging the Secretary on the question of results. From what I can tell, some schools in New Orleans are now doing well. But it appears that many students and schools are not, they are being left behind. has had detailed reports on this, for example.

I am not arguing that every critique is correct - I do not know. But claims of success from someone who has completely inflated claims of success in his own previous city of Chicago(per now about 4 major independent reviews), touts successes in New York that are at least as questionable and deserving of review as Chicago's -- well, we should not accept questions of success in New Orleans without digging more deeply into the evidence to answer questions about success for whom and what success looks like.

Posted by: montyneill | January 29, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

Ironically, what Duncan did in Chicago was to shut schools and disperse the low scoring students so that when he "reconstituted" the school only the higher scoring students were left. Then he trumpeted the higher test scores.

That is essentially what happened to New Orleans. Only the more affluent families could return from the diaspora after Katrina. So they probably are doing better than were the poor 9th Ward students in their lead paint peeling schools.

Duncan's way to deal with low-scoring low-income students: get rid of them.

Posted by: zoniedude | January 29, 2010 5:27 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for holding Mr. Duncan to account. Wer in New Orleans are sick and tired of the experimentation on our lives and community because of the "opportunity" afforded by Hurricane Katrina. The fact is -- because of the internal displacement of most of us in the months after the storm, our public schools, public housing and public healthcare system have been stolen from the community in the name of disaster capitalism.

What's more, we are still stuck with 50+ students in many classrooms, the layoff of thousands of veteran certified educators (many replaced by "Teach for America" interns), the downsizing of our school district so that it is effectively barring the return of many residents to the city. Mr. Arne Duncan should resign his position and the Obama Administration should quit playing politics with our lives.

Posted by: gobraduno | January 29, 2010 6:11 PM | Report abuse

One thing Duncan did NOT do was to wish disaster on anyone. He did find the silver lining in a cloud he did not make. New Orleans did have one of the Nation's worst school systems. It was terrible for entirely too long. Before the Hurricane no progress was made. I won't speculate why. On its own neither the City nor the State did anything that was effective to improve the lot of its poor students. Perhaps the poor have been spread around but that was a great improvement for them. Let's be happy for them that they went to better schools.

Posted by: michbar2468 | January 29, 2010 7:00 PM | Report abuse

More than a few people are taking the Haiti disaster and saying, we can only live going forward and now we rebuild for a better future. The same has to be said of New Orleans. We cannot reverse what happened as a result of Katrina to New Orleans, but a lot of us con ourselves if we think that pre-Katrina New Orleans was paradise lost. So many people died there because they were trapped by persistent poverty that they could not escape from and part of the cause was poor education. If there is anything to come from the senseless horror of that event, I hope it is that the children of New Orleans have better opportunities so they are not so poor they can only watch the water drown them.

Posted by: Brooklander | January 29, 2010 7:25 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for reminding people that Katrina was a tragedy. In addition to being insensitive, inappropriate, and inaccurate, the Secretary's shocking remarks reveal a callous determination to score points that, in your words, is worrisome in an education secretary. Our schools deserve better.

Posted by: susano2 | January 29, 2010 8:24 PM | Report abuse

Valerie - Arne Duncan's statement is consistent with everything he has said and everything he has done to date. Duncan, like many "reformers" of his ilk, believes only in "dramatic", "exponential", or "astronomical" gains -- and to achieve these he believes wholesale reconstruction of our public education system is in order. His actions in Chicago proved he does fret about disruption. He sneers at those who advocate for gradual, incremental steps. He has never paid heed to "above all, do no harm" as he is convinced that, in many cases, school systems couldn't possibly be worst. The irony of all this, of course, is that under his reign, Chicago public school students made only small, incremental gains as evidenced by the NAEP.

His statement certainly crystalizes the dangerous tendency in his thinking. Even if New Orleans schools are now better, there is no warrant to say that they couldn't have been improved in any other way.

Posted by: dz159 | January 29, 2010 8:41 PM | Report abuse

Well, he could have called the teacher unions "terrorist organizations."

Posted by: edlharris | January 29, 2010 10:58 PM | Report abuse

dz159 is correct that Duncan's statement was consistent with his and others' "reform" mentality. He believes "only in "dramatic", "exponential", or "astronomical" gains -- and to achieve these he believes wholesale reconstruction," and his allies "sneer at those who advocate for gradual, incremental steps," and "he has never paid heed to "above all, do no harm."... "His statement certainly crystalizes the dangerous tendency in his thinking."

That being said, I come down on the other side on this one. Duncan, who is typically brilliant in his dull way with words, just misspoke. And he misspoke by just speacking the truth too bluntly.

What Duncan said was technically true. But it also illustrates the limits of data-driven reform. If we had an infinite amount of money to experiment with creative destruction, The New Orleans reconstruction model could be scaled up. If we had the money to pay every teacher $160,000 per year, teachers could all become free agents and flush principles of solidarity down the toilet.

The truth is that Hurricane Rhee seeks to wipe away the status quo in the belief that innovative disruption will someone rebuild. That is a dangerous thought. I wish Duncan would reject it, but that's not happening.

After the huge amounts of money invested in New Orleans, of other "reformers" funded generously by true believers in the Market, and the RttT, we should learn from all of the above. The big lesson, I predict, will be the dangers of hubris.

Hopefully we, Duncan included, will learn those lessons before reauthorizing ESEA.

But we don't want to learn the wrong thing, and adopt their scorched earth politics, and jump all over a misstatement.

Posted by: johnt4853 | January 30, 2010 10:02 AM | Report abuse

This is not a difficult thought to have expressed more elegantly: "Hurricane Katrina was a terrible tragedy, but one good thing that came from it is that it allowed New Orleans to reinvent their school system," or some such.

Just curious (I really don't know the answer): If Katrina was a benefit to New Orleans' school system, how did it work out for Houston's?

Posted by: rpondiscio | January 30, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

"Just curious (I really don't know the answer): If Katrina was a benefit to New Orleans' school system, how did it work out for Houston's?"

The answer was posted in response to Jay Mathews commentary on Mr. Duncan's words:
there's no evidence that Katrina caused an actual improvement in school performance.

Scores increased 10 points since Katrina, but then they also increased in the three years BEFORE Katrina.

The most likely reason for the improvement is that the percentage of families living in poverty decreased since Katrina. Lots of poor people moved to Houston.

Houston schools took a huge hit--fortunately, not too badly in performance--but in absenteeism, violence, and bad behavior.

So the real problem isn't that Arne Duncan said the wrong thing. It's that he's flat out wrong--there's no evidence that Katrina did anything for schools except convince some dogooders to move in and pretend they raised test scores.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | January 30, 2010 2:34 AM

Posted by: edlharris | January 30, 2010 11:46 PM | Report abuse

Duncan specializes in confusing metaphor and sound bytes with reality. In fact, it would appear that Duncan resides in an alternate reality - one where facts play a minimal role. He conveniently leaves out the fact that charter schools run by for-profit companies were given priority to rebuild the New Orleans schools instead of giving support or working with educators to rebuild the public school system. And while test scores may have risen slightly post-Katrina, they were on the rise pre-Katrina. He conveniently leaves out the fact that his turnover plan in Chicago has decimated many local schools and increased youth violence, while disempowering parents and teachers. Aren't we all supposed to be partners in education? Not in Duncan's world. In the pseudo-reality Arne (and apparently President Obama) have created in the race to the top of heap, the only partners of worth would appear to be the Business Roundtable and those poised to make a profit. Here's a new term to ponder: disaster capitalism. Let's portray our public schools as disasters based on a single measure and then open the door to privatization and profit...

Posted by: PGutierrez1 | January 31, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

Arne Duncan is pushing the idea of Hurricane Katrina being great for New Orleans because he supports the idea Colonialists coming in to tell the natives what is good for them. I am truly upset because I was an educator in New Orleans and I was fired, not because I was not a good teacher, but because I would not listen to the colonialists! I lost everything I owned and I lost five students! What's so good about that?

Most of the charter boards are made up of people who had no legacy in public educatioin in New Orleans. These board members do not send their children
to these schools. These board members have become experts on what's good for poor people and what they have recommended is that they will give poor people a school but they will not be
like the schools that their children go to and neither would they like these poor people to go to school with their children. For me that description is indicative of what the Europeans did in Africa, North America, Haiti, South America and Asia. They decided what type of education system those poor, backward natives should have but it could never be a system as good as theirs because these natives could never measure up to what they would plan for European children. It's appalling that it takes a natural disaster for people to pay attention to what's happening to those who need the most help in this country. The sad part of the story is that we are still not helping those children in New Orleans who need the most help. They are still the worst off, and they will continue to be the worst off as long as we have the likes of Arnie Duncan et al.

Posted by: akotohfbmeaolcom | February 1, 2010 2:45 PM | Report abuse

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