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Where Duncan went wrong

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan never should have said, as he did on a TV interview to be aired Sunday and Monday, that Hurricane Katrina was "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans."

He was hurtful and insensitive. There were nearly 2,000 confirmed deaths from the storm and the floods.

Instead, he should have focused on why New Orleans schools attracted better resources, fresher ideas and a great influx of energetic teachers that they would not have gotten nearly as quickly if the disaster had not occurred.

We have many terrible problems in this country that we ignore until the situation becomes absolutely desperate. I put the growing deficit and the looming bankruptcy of Social Security and Medicare in that category. Some of our schools belong in that category too, but schools are a local issue so the desperation has to be localized before anybody does something.

One of the best urban schools ever, the Central Park East Secondary School, was born only because the education situation in Harlem was so bad. Here in D.C., we only got much action to fix our schools when we slid to the worst system in the country. New Orleans was not quite as bad as we were, but still pretty bad, and with a bureaucracy that was famous for getting in the way of progress.

Duncan is a smart and caring guy who will undoubtedly apologize for the pain that his words inflict on people who lived through that tragedy, or who care about one of our greatest cities being so damaged, and all the lives lost in the tragedy.

I haven't seen the interview. I hope Duncan explained that the people of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana were working to fix those schools before Katrina. Many people think the Recovery School District in the city was created after the hurricane, but no. It is the result of a school improvement law passed by the state in 2003.

They had good intentions, but moved slowly. The aftermath of Katrina sped that up considerably, and made possible one of fastest turnarounds ever of an ailing district.

I have visited several of the New Orleans charter schools that replaced schools damaged by the floods. They have had a great start. But I think Duncan, as well as I and every other thinking human being, would have been happy to forget that progress if, by some divine bargain, the city could have been spared Katrina.

Duncan's poorly chosen words do not help the New Orleans schools, or the cause of education improvement in America. I hope we can get back to talking about that as soon as possible.

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By Jay Mathews  | January 29, 2010; 4:28 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Arne Duncan, Duncan and Katrina, Duncan was right, Hurricane Katrina changed New Orleans schools, Katrina comment, Recovery School district  
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This, as well as this past week with Armao/Hiatt/Turque/Spayd, last week with Rhee and her "teachers... who had sex with students", and Roderick Paige's The NEA is a terrorist organization comment show us our "leaders" need more humility and less hubris.

Posted by: edlharris | January 29, 2010 10:54 PM | Report abuse

If the head of the Recovery School district doesn't have any problem with Duncan's comments, why is the Post wasting so much time on it?

Moreover, 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 | Report abuse

Jay, the only thing wrong with Duncan's comment was that it was politically lead-footed. The implication that a natural disaster that killed lots of people and did tremendous property damage was just an ill wind that, look!, blew some good indicates a cognitive deficit on Duncan's part.

Other then that he's right of course.

By all accounts I've read of the New Orleans school district it was even more corrupt, wasteful and ineffective then the D.C. school district which sets quite a standard in those areas. Whatever progress was occurring it was occurring against the interests of the adults who live off of and benefit from the school district. As far as they were concerned the only thing wrong with public education in New Orleans was that it wasn't more clearly and completely in their service.

Posted by: allenm1 | January 30, 2010 7:08 AM | Report abuse

Duncan was basically accurate in saying “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.'"

Cal Lanier, I bet, is correct in challenging the following by Duncan:

“And the progress that they’ve made in four years since the hurricane is unbelievable." I've got no idea who is right about "the aount of progress and the amount of reform we’ve seen in a short amount of time has been absolutely amazing..." It remains to be seen how much of that progress is the result of "creaming" for the charter schools and dumping the toughest problems on Houston.

But I find Jay's enthusiasm for the efforts of people who've come to New Orleans in a civil rights-type effort to be believable.

But all of this shows the limits of "reformers'" creative destruction. We would not have chosen a Hurricane Katrina, but D.C. has chosen a Hurricane Rhee.

This hubris is wrong-headed, but we shouldn't cheap-shot Duncan.

If I read Jay correctly, he's acknowledging the value of incrementalism as well as innovation. We would have better off to have kept Detroit, DC, and some other urban districts from hitting rock bottom. The answer is not a bunch of Hegelian "reformers" who wipe away "the status quo."

Duncan, we should remember, has a foot in both camps. Think of how much better of a chance we would have for a successful RttT if it had invested equally in data-driven gambles AND safer bets like preschools, community schools, and community colleges.

Posted by: johnt4853 | January 30, 2010 10:26 AM | Report abuse

" U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan never should have said, as he did on a TV interview to be aired Sunday and Monday, that Hurricane Katrina was "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans." -- Jay Mathews, Class Struggle, WAPO

Mr. Duncan believes passionately in the Theory of Creative Destruction. So do I. But not in social sector contexts. The Theory of Creative Destruction is an appropriate strategy for improving market economies and advancing scientific thought. But as a strategy for improving public education it falls short.

Mr. Duncan's comment about Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans' schools is not just an enthusiastic politician's gaffe. It is a view into the character of a man who sees life, just as he sees basketball, as a zero sum game.

This is very fashionable now, of course, because it appeals to an odd form of capitalist populism that has come to dominate our thinking on education. Most businesses die. And the economy is often better for it. Secretary Duncan wants many schools to die so that education will be better. But he has no plan for how this "destruction" will lead to new "creation" -- only the certainty that it will. Common sense and commonly available statistics suggest otherwise.

Mr. Duncan is the national leader of a new Educational Darwinism. At its core is not caring and cooperation but competition and conquest.

Hurricane Katrina was a lot like Race to the Top. Folks who raced to the top of their houses, "won". And Mr. Duncan's remark is simply an honest expression of how he feels about the value of lives lost versus improvements in a struggling school system that now seems to be making some progress.

Mr. Duncan believes, as so many people do nowadays, that there have to losers in order for their to be winners. Again, this works well in the business world most of the time. But in the social sector, where so many issues have an uncomfortable moral inflection, it is insensitive, uncaring, and ultimately immoral to say that some lives are worth less than others.

Steve Peha
Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc.

Posted by: StevePeha | January 30, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Jay that the comment was unfortunate. Also, one can see the supporters of the status quo using any ammunition they can to try to derail long-overdue reform efforts.

Posted by: fredcorgi1 | January 30, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

US Education Secretary Duncan committed a Kinsley-style gaffe: "A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth." The truth is that the "school reform" movement that Duncan--and DCPS Chancellor Rhee--represent is one that substitutes charter schools for a public school system.

Rhee takes it one step further. She has made no bones about it, since Day One in 2007: Her "reform plan" for DCPS depends on her winning the power to fire experienced DCPS teachers at whim or at will.

That comports with Rhee's background. She has no academic training in education, little experience, but lots of time spent as a headhunter and teacher "trainer" for public school systems.

Headhunters profit from turnover.

Of course she continues to see replacement of experienced teachers with 3-year-wonders from Teach for America as the definition of progress. The simple-minded applaud, saying, "How can it not be progress to fire teachers who participated in the old, failed DCPS?" It's not that easy, just as it was not that true that the 266 RIF'd teachers hit kids, had sex with kids, or were chronically absent.

School reform is hard. It involves the consistent efforts of administrators, principals, teachers, parents and kids. My own kids have been in DCPS for 20 years, and I saw consistent progress in the schools they attended over that time. They are both well-prepared for college. Since Rhee arrived, however, I have also seen a spirit of fear and vindictiveness creep into those schools.

I remember meeting with the U.S. Education Department Secretary, Deputy Secretary and top staff to deliver results of a study my firm had completed for them. I was sad to hear one of the junior staffers tell me she thought public education required a "complete revolution." No, it did not. Not then, not now. It requires improvement. Those who mistake destruction for improvement take us down an easy, tempting and dangerous path.

The intemperate remarks of Duncan and Rhee this week have exposed their true feelings about the schools for which we've made them stewards. That accidental truthfulness on their part is what makes their remarks "gaffes."

Posted by: Trulee | January 31, 2010 12:19 AM | Report abuse


You are absolutely right in saying

"That comports with Rhee's background. She has no academic training in education, little experience, but lots of time spent as a headhunter and teacher "trainer" for public school systems.

Headhunters profit from turnover."

Here's an example from an RttT proposal.

"Human Capital projects include the expansion of teachers trained by alternative licensure programs such as The New Teacher Project and Teach for America, specifically $30.6 million within the Achievement School District; ... The total budget for Human Capital projects is approximately $61.3 million?"

Posted by: johnt4853 | January 31, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Trulee and John - Great minds think alike.

I've been saying this over a year now. TFA clearly benefits the headhunters, the teacher trainers and the TFA recruits, who get a prestigious entry on their resume before heading off for the rest of their lives.

It's not at all clear that it helps the kids and it definitely hurts the profession of teaching - if anyone cares about that anymore - and TFA definitely does not. Here's Rhee in the 10/08 Atlantic:

“Nobody makes a thirty-year or ten-year commitment to a single profession. Name one profession where the assumption is that when you go in, right out of graduating college, that the majority of people are going to stay in that profession. It’s not the reality anymore, maybe with the exception of medicine. But short of that, people don’t go into jobs and stay there forever anymore.” Michelle Rhee, The Atlantic, 10/08

…I’d rather have a really effective teacher for two years than a mediocre or ineffective one for twenty years.

And here's her close colleague Katie Haycock, President of Education Trust, in the 9/1/08 Newsweek:

"But what we need to do is change the idea that education is the only career that needs to be done for life. There are a lot of smart people who change careers every six or seven years, while education ends up with a bunch of people on the low end of the pile who don't want to compete in the job market."

Posted by: efavorite | January 31, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

Arne Duncan's appointment was one of Obama's biggest mistakes and may cost him reelection.

Posted by: lacy4 | February 1, 2010 9:22 PM | Report abuse

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