Blog: The Educated Reporter

Parachutes and Shoe Leather: Reporting on New Orleans’ Schools

Students participate in the "Rethinking New Orleans Schools" Conference in 2009. (Flickr/Laura Slotkoff)

It would be difficult to find an education writer who has put in more time, or produced more nuanced stories, examining the big changes in New Orleans’ public schools sector than Sarah Carr. She spent seven years covering the post-hurricane education landscape, and its transition to nearly all charter schools. As Carr (now the editor of The Teacher Project at Columbia University) wrote last week for Slate, there can be benefits to “parachuting” into a community for quick-hit reporting just as the old-fashioned “shoe-leather” approach also has merits. But Carr, who wrote a book about the city’s schools,  contends that the more superficial examinations of NOLA’s education “reform” efforts are too distilled through the wrong lens:  

These reporters’—not to mention pundits’—tendency to focus on quantifiable results, including test scores and graduation rates, is valid and important, but less meaningful when unchecked by the on-the-ground realities that complicate and contextualize the numbers. And their proclivity to frame the issues in political terms—making sure, for instance, to talk to both a vehement charter supporter and an opponent—frequently fails to incorporate the far more nuanced perspectives of the people who matter most: educators and families. 

New Orleans education reporter Marta Jewson and her colleague Charles Maldonado (both of The Lens), dispel some myths about Hurricane Katrina in a piece that should be required reading for anyone writing or talking about these issues. Indeed, I’m guessing many of us would fail a pop quiz on the name origins of the “Recovery School District.” As Jewson and Maldonado explain for Slate readers: 

Although it’s true Hurricane Katrina hastened the expansion of Louisiana’s state-run Recovery School District, the district was not born from the storm. The Recovery School District was created in 2003. The name comes from its mission to help failing schools recover academically. It was a natural next step in the state’s accountability system established in mid-1990s. Going into the 2005–06 school year, the RSD already had taken over a handful of schools in New Orleans.

It was after the storm, in a special session of the legislature, that lawmakers changed the threshold for failing and allowed for the state takeover of a failing district. The move was clearly targeted at New Orleans’ crippled school system. That change enabled the RSD to take over a majority of the city’s schools, leaving only the highest-performing ones under the Orleans Parish School Board’s control.

And, as the reporters note, the two districts operate alongside each other. While the vast majority of the city’s schools are charters, there are still five locally run schools. 

For more on Katrina, take a look at our roundup of the coverage by local, regional, and national education reporters. You can also find out more about these issues generally at our Charters & Choice Topics Page. We also delved deep into the topic at a recent seminar in Denver, and you can find write-ups and videos from those sessions here