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Duncan on Katrina: ‘Best Thing’ for New Orleans Schools

January 29, 2010 4 min read
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From State EdWatch blogger Lesli A. Maxwell

Did the usually smooth-tongued U.S. Secretary of Education really say that Hurricane Katrina was the best thing to happen to the education system in New Orleans? Oh yes, he did.

In an interview to be broadcast this weekend on Washington Watch With Roland Martin, Arne Duncan says, “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.’”

Arne Duncan does speak frankly when it comes to the shortcomings of urban school districts, but this comment seems unusually callous, even though we know what the secretary is trying to say. The public schools were a wreck before the storm, no real debate there. And, yes, the schooling options for many students are better in the city now, and student achievement is slowly, but surely on the rise.

But to the thousands of teachers, students, and school employees who lost colleagues, jobs, classrooms, school records, and the like, a remark like that from the nation’s top education official is beyond insensitive.

Thanks to an enterprising public relations shop that sent out these blurbs on a Friday afternoon. Here are the two blurbs in full:

On New Orleans’ progress in education since Katrina:
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 - that city was not serious about its education. Those children were being desperately underserved prior, and the amount of progress and the amount of reform we’ve seen in a short amount of time has been absolutely amazing.
On New Orleans’ educators:

I have so much respect for the adults, the teachers, the principals that are working hard. I spent a lot of time talking to students at John - John Mack High School there, many of whom had missed school for six months, eight months, 13 months after the hurricane and still came back to get an education. 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.

UPDATE: The folks over at the Ed. Dept. called to air concerns about this post (especially the headline), saying that it doesn’t fully reflect the context in which the secretary made his comments and his obvious concern and sensitivities about the people and students in New Orleans. They wanted to share a bit fuller version of the transcript, and a follow-up statement from Sec. Duncan this afternoon.

Here’s the transcript:
Roland Martin: I was talking to you on James Carville and Mary Matalin. They’re of course very involved in what’s happening in New Orleans. What’s amazing is New Orleans, is that everything was devastated because of Hurricane Katrina. But because everything was wiped out, in essence, you are building from ground zero to change the dynamic of education in that city.

Arne Duncan: That’s a fascinating one. I’ve spent a lot of time in New Orleans and this is a tough thing to say but I’m going to be really honest. 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 it 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 underserved prior. And the amount of progress and the amount of reform we’re seeing in a short amount of time has been absolutely amazing. I have so much respect for the adults, the teachers, the principals that are working hard. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to students at John Mack high school there. Many who had missed school for six months, eight months, 13 months after the Hurricane and still came back to get an education. Children in our country, they want to learn. They’re resilient. They’re tough. We have to meet them half-way. We have to give them opportunity. And New Orleans is doing a phenomenal job of getting that system to an entirely different level.

And here is the secretary’s statement: “As I heard repeatedly during my visits to New Orleans, for whatever reason, it took the devastating tragedy of the hurricane to wake up the community to demand more and expect better for their children.”

Let me just say one last thing about this. During the 2007-2008 school year, I spent one week every month in New Orleans reporting about the overwhelming challenges of rebuilding the city’s public school system in the wake of the hurricane. And while many of the long-time educators I got to know there recognized that the storm had provided a sort of fresh start, they were angry, and frankly weary, of hearing well-meaning outsiders talk about the opportunities that such a devastating event brought to their city. I don’t think any of us can know, unless we’re from New Orleans, how raw the emotions still are about Katrina.

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