There’s Understanding the Limits of Your Data…

…and then there’s New Orleans educational data, which defy both understanding and belief.

After Hurricane Katrina, education reformers saw an opportunity to prove that charters were better than regular public schools. Since then, the overwhelming majority of New Orleans’ schools have been turned into charters. One of the justifications for this radical shift has been the ‘fact’ that high school graduation rates increase from 54.4% in 2004 (pre-Katrina) to 77.8 in 2012.

Sounds promising! Except there’s one problem: the ‘before’ 2004 number is made up. Really (boldface mine):

The reality is that no one – including the journalist who first cited the figure – knows where the pre-Katrina graduation statistic came from. Official government figures on New Orleans graduation rates from both state and federal Department of Education sources are nonexistent, lost either in the wake of Katrina or at some point during the many incarnations of Louisiana’s Department of Education….

When education becomes charity rather than a right, an investment instrument rather than a civic good, the ability to distinguish between substance and marketing becomes by design, overwhelming. Like a refund department with a six hour wait time, the frustration in attempting to navigate this neoliberal maze of “private/public” responsibilities is precisely the point. Even the most basic of acts – hosting a website – turns out to be one of the primary reasons finding data is so difficult. The LDOE has had, inexplicably, five differnt primary domains in the past decade – from doe.louisiana.gov to doe.state.la.us to louisianaschools.net to louisianabelieves.net to its current, full-flown corporate iteration louisianabelieves.com. It’s the kind of shell game that renders one so dizzy, that when asked, as Ms. Dreilinger was, for one specific data point, the response “I get bits of data from different spreadsheets” somehow makes sense….

“I think”
“I estimated”
“I don’t remember.”
“Folks have been using 54%.”

Like some kind of PR folklore, low graduation rates pre-Katrina just were. Passed down from marketing hack to marketing hack, the internet had allowed for a kind of oral history that was good enough for Ms. Jacobs and Nola.com, and thus everyone else who cited it. And though my follow up emails to Ms. Jacobs have yet to be returned, the Louisiana Department of Education got back and their verdict was clear: No such data officially exists.

Indeed, U.S. Department of Education data corroborates that no such graduation data exist, omitting the entire state of Louisiana from the records of its 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 state-by-state graduation rates.

Of course, the reality doesn’t matter:

What mattered then – as it does now – was the creation of an image, the image of a decaying, morally bankrupt education system beyond repair. That the only ones who could defend the status quo – or at least its core institutions of collective bargaining and democratically elected school administrators – were either too displaced, too poor, or too muted by tragedy wasn’t seen as subterfuge, it was praised as “a golden opportunity”.

This dishonesty is the reality of reform.

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