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Education in New Orleans and the Rhetorical Power of Numbers

Guest post by Andre Perry

Over the last year, numerous organizations in New Orleans have released conflicting reports that use similar data to present different positions on whether or not public schools are improving. Some camps argue that schools haven’t improved beyond pre-Katrina rates, while others state that growth is undeniable. Ultimately, the battle over whose numbers are better only shows the contentiousness of the fight for the control of the public schools.

One of the first lessons taught in research methods courses is that data paint pictures of reality. Data are not truths. Numbers and words can be powerful proxies that describe trends, behaviors, and opinions, but they’re also filled with contradictions that paint pictures of different realities. For instance, socioeconomic status is still one of the strongest predictors of academic success. After the storm, New Orleans became 5 percent wealthier primarily because a disproportionate number of families who lived in the former housing projects did not return. These data suggest we became a different city.

Reform advocates will point that poverty rates of students are roughly the same to its pre-Katrina numbers--approximately 85 percent are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Therefore, claims of we’re measuring growth based on different students are falsehoods. 

Meanwhile education researchers don’t like using the free and reduced lunch standard because the metric doesn’t show the range of poverty that inevitably shows differences. In other words, saying a set of schools is 90 percent poor, doesn’t say much about what poverty is in a given population. So in the case of performance, how much should we attribute growth or decline to demographics?

You certainly will have an easier time predicting what position organizations will take to that question than the data will. One of the problems with education research in New Orleans is that much is conducted by think tanks, non-profits, associations, and universities that have investments in particular systems or reforms. Reports, white papers, and studies from the usual suspects seldom rise above simple market research, which peddles their own product. A purer brand of research isn’t afraid to disprove itself.

And it’s not like the varying advocates would listen to data that conflicts with their agendas. Researchers have a long history of understanding the inner workings of schools and learning, but that doesn’t mean stakeholders heeded that information. Besides, we should rather listen to those who are most impacted by reform--students and families.

If there is a statistic that’s a good proxy for current trends, it’s student attendance. Good schools compel students and families into attending, and bad schools don’t. Another statistic is the percentage of school-aged children in schools. Personally, I do believe schools are improving for those who are in them. However, I’m not so sure that our new system is maximizing the number of school-aged students in schools. 

I’m constantly asked, if schools are improving so dramatically, why is murder still so high among school-aged children and young adults; why didn’t my child complete his first year in college; why won’t anyone hire my girl; etc.?

If school advocates focused on the real fights, maybe our numbers would actually mean something. 

Andre Perry, Ph.D. is the Director of Education Initiatives for the Loyola Institute for Quality and Equity in Education and author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City. He can be reached at, or on Twitter @andreperrynola.