Friday, January 16, 2009

What Does it take to Eliminate the Achievement Gap for African American Students?

In our winter 2007 issue, the Journal of Educational Controversy had a special section on Washington state politics. Among other articles, we published the position papers prepared by the Multi-Ethnic Think Tank (METT) in Washington State. The Multi-Ethnic Think Tank is an umbrella group that comprises individual think tanks - African American, Asian and Pacific Islander American, Hispanic American, Native American and Low Socio-Economic think tanks. It is a community inspired coalition aimed at making a difference for the education of its children who are struggling in our public schools. For a personal critique, read Thelma Jackson’s separate article, “Educational Malpractice in Our Schools: Shortchanging African American and Other Disenfranchised Students” in our journal’s Volume 2 Number 1, Winter 2007 issue on the theme, Jonathan Kozol's Nation of Shame Forty Years Later.
For readers who are interested in learning about the state's response to these ongoing community concerns, we have an update. During the 2009 legislative session, the Washington State Legislature is considering the problem of the achievement gap. A statewide advisory committee, which included some prominent METT members like Thelma Jackson, was created following passage of House Bill 2722 in the 2008 legislative session. Its charge was to investigate the African-American student achievement gap and recommend solutions to the problem. The committee has now presented its report, "A Plan to Close the Achievement Gap for African American Students," to the legislature. In a press release on the website of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, Mona Humphries Bailey, committee co-chair, says "We want to make sure that our State's 57,700 African American students are no longer left behind. We want to make sure that the system cares about them and that it sees them in all their individuality and potential." A copy of the report can now be read online.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

What Ever Happened to the Schools in Post-Katrina New Orleans?

Editor: In our winter 2008 issue on "Schooling as if Democracy Matters," we published a review of Kenneth Saltman's book, Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools. In his post below, Saltman adds to the conversation that was started by Margaret Crocco in her update on "New Orleans and its Citizens: Three Years Later" by sharing his views on what is happening to the public school system in New Orleans since the Katrina tragedy. We invite our readers to read the review, Smashed, by Christopher Robbins and join in the conversation.

A Post by Kenneth Saltman

In my book Capitalizing on Disaster I detailed the vast experiment in neoliberal privatization orchestrated by right-wing think tanks and politicians in the wake of Katrina. I covered the imposition of a massive voucher scheme, no-bid contracting and corporate corruption by those with ties to the Bush administration such as Alvarez & Marsal and Rome Consulting, the dismantling of the public system and union by a for-profit consulting firm, and the replacement of public schools with a charter network. As I argued in the book this has to be understood as a concerted effort to dispossess poor and working class predominantly African American citizens of their communities by the business and political elite of the city and state and to turn them into investment opportunities. I contend that this is part of a much broader movement for privatization and deregulation which is not only about economic redistribution but about the redistribution of political control over public goods and services. As well, I argued these initiatives only make sense in relation to a history of racialized disinvestment in public services and infrastructure that resulted in a city with the least funded urban school system in the country. In short, I argued that the political right capitalized on natural disaster and in the process exacerbated the human made disasters that predated the storm. The consequences were a radical shift in educational governance and material resources away from those most in need of them. It seems to me that honest discussion about the state of the New Orleans schools and communities must take seriously this history and recognize that what is at stake in this is more than a vague notion of educational quality (especially the anti-critical kinds defined narrowly by tests scores) but struggles over material resources and cultural values by competing classes and groups. In other words the role that public schools play for a society theoretically committed to democracy has to be considered. When business and political elites wrest control of schools and communities from the public and then describe it as a gift to the public (the "silver lining in the storm") we are hardly approximating those collective ideals.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Orleans and its Citizens: Three years later

Editor: Authors Margaret Smith Crocco and Maureen Grolnick, whose article, Teaching the Levees: an Exercise in Democratic Dialogue, appears in our winter 2008 issue of the journal, give us an update on their groundbreaking curriculum that ties it to the artistic efforts to give voice to Katrina's victims. Margaret Crocco writes that our readers will find this quite different from what they might read in the popular media. We invite readers to respond to her post or to her article from our Volume 3 Number 1 Issue on "Schooling as if Democracy Matters."
This posting is cross-posted on the Social Issues blog.



Margaret Smith Crocco, Teaching The Levees (Teachers College Press, 2008)

Anyone who saw Spike Lee’s masterpiece, When the Levees Broke, will remember its “star” – Phyllis Montana LeBlanc. Straight-shooting, opinionated, and profane, Phyllis and her husband, mother, sister and autistic nephew were stranded in New Orleans on August 28th 2005 as Katrina struck. Like many native New Orleanians, they discounted the warnings of a massive hurricane until it was too late to evacuate. As the water level in their apartment rose in the days after the storm hit , the rescue helicopters flew past, ignoring their cries for help and moving on to those in even more dire circumstances. Phyllis and her family climbed onto refrigerators to float through water infested with alligators and snakes the two blocks necessary to reach higher ground. Phyllis and her husband spent nearly three years in a FEMA trailer while the rest of her family was relocated to Houston so her nephew could get schooling.

Spike Lee’s decision to tell the story of Hurricane Katrina through stories such as Phyllis Montana LeBlanc’s was not just a brilliant directorial decision (witness the scores of cinematic awards the film has garnered) but a shrewd maneuver in addressing what’s been called the “psychic numbing” and “compassion fatigue” that often accompany natural disasters, genocides, and other human tragedies. If Lee’s intention was to provoke empathetic responses for Katrina victims, his strategy was on target, according to decision researcher Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon.

According to psychological research, we are far more likely to be motivated to help out in the face of disaster if we can put a human face on events. Slovic notes that “images seem to be the key to conveying affect and meaning, though some imagery is more powerful than others” (p.8). He goes on to comment that, “When it comes to eliciting compassion, the identified individual victim, with a face and a name, has no peer” (p.8). For a copy of the full article, see:

Of course, Spike Lee offers not just one face and one story but well over a hundred faces and stories in his film, which is effective in conveying the multiple perspectives on these events. Over four hours of such narratives, interspersed with analysis and commentary by experts on poverty, race, science and politics, viewers of When the Levees Broke get a full sense of the human dimension, suffering, and costs of Hurricane Katrina. The film makes an extraordinary effort to use art to address the potential collapse of compassion in the face of so much misery.
In an appearance at Teachers College, Columbia University in September 2007 at the launch of the “Teaching The Levees” project, New Orleans City Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell noted her gratitude for the tremendous outpouring of assistance from citizens—of all ages, races, and regions—to help New Orleans’ residents get on with life and rebuild ( ). I do not claim that Spike Lee’s film can be credited as the cause of this generosity. But to the degree that his film got the story out in such a compelling fashion on HBO, it is clear that When the Levees Broke gave a human face—or many human faces--to this epic story.

So, now, three years later, how are Phyllis Montana LeBlanc and New Orleans faring? Have compassion and volunteerism trumped the government indifference and belated investment in rebuilding to provide solace, support, hope, and meaningful recovery for residents of the city? Well, as you can imagine, the answer is a mixed one.

According to the Brookings Institute, which has produced an annual report on conditions in New Orleans since 2005 ( ), positive signs can be found. In a report issued in late August 2008, Brookings indicated that New Orleans’ economy is improving; the population is returning slowly to a growing job sector; the trolley cars on Canal Street are reappearing ( ). Eighty-seven public schools have been opened, including many new charter schools, with many new teachers recruited from around the country. Affordable housing, however, especially for low income service workers in the city, remains a big problem. One prominent home rebuilding project ( has been underwritten by Brad Pitt whose “Make it Right Foundation” ( has garnered extensive publicity for the architectural distinction of its homes as well as their high-profile celebrity backer.
The Brookings report also notes that “nonprofit groups, business leaders and some politicians are working hard to repair the city’s buildings and improve the criminal-justice and health-care systems.” Groups such as Women of the Storm,, Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, Catholic Charities, and the Citizens Road Home Action Team, among others, are leading the recovery effort on multiple fronts.

Nevertheless, the progress of recovery has proceeded at what seems a glacial pace to many residents of the city. The Californian hired to help rebuild New Orleans, Ed Blakely, has been the subject of much criticism for the slow pace of the recovery, his absenteeism, and the lack of visibility of Mayor Ray Nagin in the process ( Unsurprisingly, many politicians have come in for criticism, at the city, state, and national levels. Many residents are hoping the Obama-Biden administration brings new attention to the city’s plight.

And what about Phyllis Montana LeBlanc? She wrote a book, which appeared in August 2008, while living in the FEMA trailer. Entitled Not Just the Levees Broke: My Story and After Hurricane Katrina, the book was published by Simon and Schuster. LeBlanc did an interview with ( ) and seems to have used her faith and family to sustain her throughout the ordeal of the last three years. Spike Lee wrote the forward to the book, and it seems that her colorful personality and commentary have made her into something of a celebrity herself.

Despite the positive aspects of this update on New Orleans three years later, it is also clear that the devastation wrought by Katrina and the continuing debate about how best to remedy the damage and prevent further disasters continue. Let me conclude by turning to other works of art, completed and in progress, which can also be seen as efforts to put a human face on tragedy.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Trouble the Water, the “home movie” shot by self-professed “street hustler” Kim Roberts and crafted by professional filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal (, which won an award at the Sundance Film Festival. In the works is The New Orleans Tea Party by Marline Otte and Lazlo Fulop (see a clip on YouTube at: ). This film gets at some of the controversies related to rebuilding—by whom and for whom and to what end, with footage shot in early 2008. It also addresses issues of politics—global and local related to Katrina—and the effects of climate change on the city. Finally, the award-winning filmmakers who created Revolution ’67 ( about the 1967 race riots in Newark, New Jersey, Marylou Tibaldo-Bongiorno and Jerome Bongiorno, are working on a “love story” set in Venice and New Orleans—two cities threatened with extinction in the face of global climate change and rising sea levels. If a love story can make the threat of global climate change and a world that is too “hot, flat and crowded” (, as Tom Friedman puts it, real to us, then it will offer an interesting twist on Slovic’s theory that putting a human face on disaster is the best way to trigger a response in action.
If there’s any good news in looking back at the tragedy of Katrina, it may lie in enhanced recognition of the need for more democratic dialogue and civic action about the problems we face as a nation. We can thank enlightened filmmakers like those mentioned here for helping motivate us to engage in both talk and action. With a new administration coming to Washington, DC in January 2009, we can hope that they will join the citizens of New Orleans and concerned citizens across the country in taking the steps necessary to prevent other such disasters and help residents of the Gulf Coast to continue to recover from the lingering problems associated with Hurricane Katrina.