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The Worst Book Ever Written on Hurricane Katrina

[ 58 ] November 19, 2015 |
Photos by Kathy Anderson Flood Street These are aerial photos of the Ninth Ward area of New Orleans after it was flooded by Hurricane Katrina. September 9, 2005

Photos by Kathy Anderson
Flood Street
These are aerial photos of the Ninth Ward area of New Orleans after it was flooded by Hurricane Katrina.
September 9, 2005

Above: An opportunity for wealthy white men to promote their careers through “leadership”

Scott Cowen is the former president of Tulane University. He wrote a book on Hurricane Katrina and how it transformed New Orleans. It is unspeakably awful. It is all about how awesome Scott Cowen was for using Katrina as an opportunity to charterize all of New Orleans’ public schools, kick people out of their homes, and privatize the city to make white corporate leaders comfortable. Moreover, the only person capable of this was Scott Cowen, so each point is combined with his own bullshit leadership jargon. I was originally going to review the book here. But then I hated it so much I thought it needed a broader audience. So I reviewed it at the Boston Review. It’s really long (I submitted this at 1500 words and they were like, this should be longer. Oh, OK! I can do longer!). An excerpt:

In The Inevitable City, Cowen is proud to have taken advantage of the hurricane to implement Shock Doctrine ideology in New Orleans, starting with Tulane and moving on to the New Orleans public school system. His first post-Katrina priority was to get Tulane up and running because the city needed the jobs and the potent symbol of a functioning university. But in doing so, Cowen led two controversial initiatives. First, he pushed through the chartering of a nearby, predominantly African American school so that the children of his mostly white employees would have a place to send their children. Second, he unilaterally reorganized Tulane, firing tenured professors and consolidating programs without input from faculty. This led to his censure by the American Association of University Professors. He justifies both as examples of his leadership in tough times:

A first principle of leadership is “Do the right thing,” despite opposition. Leaders have the realism to face the facts, the wisdom to weigh the options, the will to make a decision, and the audacity to act. Which is another way of saying, Stand up and do what you think is best.

Cowen’s vision of leadership seems to be that one simply does what one wishes—that displaced black schoolchildren are in effect mere impediments to a kind of self-actualization that one achieves through proper “leadership.”

Unfortunately, that school was merely the beginning. Cowen went on to be a central player in the transformation of New Orleans into the first all-charter school district in the United States. While Cowen and others champion the results—including purportedly higher test scores and graduation rates—researchers at the University of Arizona have shown that even when one controls for race and class, New Orleans schools perform significantly worse on these metrics than Louisiana public schools as a whole, which already rank fourth worst in the nation.

Time and again, test score fraud and false research has put the lie to many such claims about the benefits of charter schools. The Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, Cowen’s post-presidency lobbying group that aims to turn New Orleans into a giant experiment for charters, released a 2014 report lauding its success. However, the institute soon had to completely repudiate its own report for its flawed methodology. Despite well-funded charter industry “studies” claiming improved test scores, the nonpartisan Spencer Foundation and Public Agenda has found, “There is very little evidence that charter and traditional public schools differ meaningfully in their average impact on students’ standardized test performance.” On New Orleans schools specifically, the Investigative Fund has written, “seventy-nine percent of [New Orleans] charters are still rated D or F by the Louisiana Department of Education.” Moreover, it has chronicled how the emphasis on test scores and college preparation has led charter schools to eject low-performing students who would require additional help to overcome the tremendous class and race-based barriers that impede their educational success.

Remember when we ripped on Chicago Tribune columnist Katie McQueary for saying she wished a Katrina would come to Chicago and wash away the teachers unions. That’s actually what Cowen is arguing for New Orleans and he was there at the time. The book actually starts with him fleeing New Orleans and supposedly feeling bad that he was staying at the Houston Hyatt (as I recall) when all these other people were suffering. Then he figured it was OK and went to sleep. It was quite a riveting story.

Couple of interesting points that didn’t make it into the review. First, the publisher changed the title in the paperback edition. The original was The Inevitable City: The Resurgence of New Orleans and the Future of Urban America That’s why I picked it up to begin with. Thought it would be interesting. Now it is The Inevitable City: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and 10 Principles of Crisis Leadership. That’s actually a much more accurate title. It also plays up to the actual audience of this book, which is people Scott Cowen wants to pay him large sums to give speeches about leadership.

Second, let me quote from my original draft for the single most infuriating part of the book:

Even Cowen’s admissions of error are designed to promote an agenda to destroy traditional education. Noting that New Orleans lacks the well-trained citizenry that will attract many corporations, he gives a half-hearted nod toward a liberal arts education yet calls himself “partly to blame” for training students in “medieval French literature, or higher math, or even critical thinking” because many jobs do not require these skills.

A public apology for supporting the humanities and critical thinking from a university president. You can imagine how this sent me through the roof.

The Inevitable City is one of the worst books I have ever read. Lucky for me I have an outlet when I face that situation. I read it so you don’t have to.

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  • rea

    Tell me, what kind of job does not require critical thinking?

    • Malaclypse
    • David Hunt

      Apparently, President of Tulane University.

      • dp

        +1

        • hylen

          +2

    • SoRefined

      Is it too late for this fellow to jump in the 2016 presidential race? The Louisiana slot recently opened back up.

      • The thing is, I’m pretty sure Cowen is a Democrat. He really rips on FEMA’s response in New Orleans and how little Bush seemed to care when he met with him. And he does understand the history of racism in New Orleans, etc. It’s just that his response to this sort of thing is the same response of Kevin Johnson, Michelle Rhee, Campbell Brown, and others combined with shameless self-promotion.

        • Linnaeus

          I’m not surprised. I’m sure DFER loves this guy.

          • pianomover

            Whenever anyone says its for the kids I say run.

        • Phil Perspective

          The thing is, I’m pretty sure Cowen is a Democrat.

          Which means he’s a Democrat the same way Rahmbo is a Democrat. And then we wonder why poor and middle class people don’t vote, or vote Democratic when they do.

  • Gregor Sansa

    Mein Katrina.

    • To be sung to the tune of “My Sharona.”

      • Manju

        Ooh, my little pretty one, my pretty one

        When you gonna give me some dime, Katrina
        Ooh, you make my wallet run, my wallet run
        
Got it coming off the line, Katrina

        Never gonna stop, give it up, till I’m canonized
        
I always get it up, for the touch, of the non-unionized
        
My, my, my, aye-aye, whoa!
        
M-m-m Mein Katrina

      • rea

        Man, I was just dealing with the Fieger Law Firm a couple of day ago, and you are giving me a flashback

        • jim, some guy in iowa

          do they have the muzak knack playing in the background?

    • Thom

      Excellent!

  • CaptainBringdown

    What Katrina did for New Orleans, Scott Cowen can do for you!

  • pianomover

    The book review is excellent.

  • Murc

    Cowen went on to be a central player in the transformation of New Orleans into the first all-charter school district in the United States.

    The thing that I don’t think some people who are gung-ho for charters understand (and there are people who legitimately believe in charters and aren’t just union busters, often because the public school system has failed their families so badly they’ll look for any alternative) is that if you charterize an entire school district, you remove one of their big advantages in improving performance; namely, their ability to kick out undesirables.

    Well, I really should have put advantages in quotes. “Advantages.” When you just have one or two charters in a district, what happens is that they function as pseudo-magnets; the engaged, driven parents are drawn to them because those sorts of parents will do anything, anything, to get their kids a good education, and the school itself will aggressively boot out troublemakers and sometimes, if they’re really aggressive, academic underachievers. (The latter is flatly illegal but they can find a reason if they want to.)

    And hey, it turns out if you do all that the charters look really good performance-wise!

    Only if you charterize a whole district that “advantage” goes away, because people no longer gravitate towards the charters (because everything is a charter now) and because the kicked out kids have to go somewhere; they remain in the system, because the system is obligated to continue to attempt to educate them unless something really egregious happens. So one of the huge ways that allows charters to goose their scores goes “poof.”

    A lot of people just… don’t seem to get that. It blindsides them.

    (I’m anticipating sometime soon for the idea that schools should be able to vigorously expel students to go mainstream; so far that hasn’t happened yet as public discourse still demands at least the pretense that public education is for everyone, but give it time.)

    • Steve LaBonne

      I hate to say this for fear of giving anybody ideas, but a really horrible thought occurred to me while reading your comment: creating charter “schools” to warehouse such kids could be a great business opportunity for for-profit prison companies.

      • Linnaeus

        Oh, I really doubt that you’ve voiced something that someone else hasn’t already thought of. Maybe not implemented yet, but I’m certain they’ve thought of it.

        • Steve LaBonne

          Sadly, I expect you’re right.

      • Richard Gadsden

        Just call them borstals.

    • Brett

      I knew a few kids growing up who had basically bounced between middle schools in the school district. They’d get expelled from one, shifted to another, and then so on and so forth. So in a sense it’s already here.

    • Gwen

      You’re giving me flashbacks to my senior year of high school (1999-2000), when the NFL cross-ex debate question involved federal education policy.

      Of course, the leading aff plans were charters and vouchers, and just about everyone who ran those had to be prepared to argue “creaming,” i.e. the argument that vouchers or charters would only appear to look good because the “cream rises to the top” and everyone else gets kicked out.

      As a high school student, and a pretty lousy debater, I tended to giggle every time it came up (fortunately for the world, “that’s what she said” had not been invented yet).

      I came away from that year with an impression that maybe charters were OK, maybe not, but definitely not a silver bullet.

      (I stand by my belief in the year-round schools plan I wrote, though).

      Also, on a total side note, has Farley ever written an article with the secret purpose of screwing up some rich kid’s nuclear war DA?

      (Don’t laugh, I’m pretty sure Walter Russell Mead’s entire career was the result of some high school plebe losing a bet).

      • Gwen

        Anyway, I only bring this up to point out that much ink has been spilled re: Murc’s point. In the 15 years since I left public secondary education, I imagine that barrels more have been used up.

      • Murc

        Of course, the leading aff plans were charters and vouchers, and just about everyone who ran those had to be prepared to argue “creaming,” i.e. the argument that vouchers or charters would only appear to look good because the “cream rises to the top” and everyone else gets kicked out.

        I’ve encountered people who view this as a positive thing. Usually parents. When you say “the magnet is only going to be good because the high-achieving kids will be isolated in it” they go “Fucking GOOD. My kid is a high achiever and I watch them like a hawk and am willing to commit literal crimes to get them into the magnet. I want them to be isolated from the other kids, because the public schools have massively failed in controlling the ones who act out in an effective way.”

        It’s hard to look someone who is working three jobs and knows the only hope for their kid is to be the first one in their family to go to college and argue against that, because usually the choice isn’t between “magnet or doing public schools right” it’s between “magnet or we continue doing jack shit.”

        (My mom used to have to do community liaising as part of her teachers union work and I would help her out, because it is intimidating and emotionally exhausting for a tiny middle-aged lady to face a lot of desperate people late at night by herself.)

    • djw

      Yeah, charterizing an entire city seems like a classic case of getting greedy and forgetting how the con is supposed to work.

  • Hogan

    First, the publisher changed the title in the paperback edition. The original was The Inevitable City: The Resurgence of New Orleans and the Future of Urban America That’s why I picked it up to begin with. Thought it would be interesting. Now it is The Inevitable City: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and 10 Principles of Crisis Leadership.

    They really should have gone with The Leaderly Leadership of Scott Cowen, starring Scott Cowen, with a special appearance by Hurricane Katrina.

    • Yeah, that would have been pretty accurate. It’s really that bad.

    • Warren Terra

      The New New Orleans, by S. Cowen and H. Katrina?

      • JustRuss

        Quit your day job, there’s a career for you in publishing!

  • Steve LaBonne

    So many horrible people, so little time.

  • JustRuss

    Leaders have the realism to face the facts, the wisdom to weigh the options, the will to make a decision, and the audacity to act. Which is another way of saying, Stand up and do what you think is best.

    He left out “the responsibility to have open discussions with those who will implement or be impacted by their decisions.” In fairness to Cowen, a lot of leaders are leaving that out these days.

    • Consulting the plebes about their lives is the opposite of leadership in 2015.

      • Steve LaBonne

        Real leaders don’t have followers, they have victims.

        • tsam

          They’re subjects. Once in a while they get a Christmas ham or something to remind them of the benevolence of their sovereign.

          • Hogan

            Yonder peasant, who is he? Oh, who the fuck cares.

            • rea

              In the opera of life, some people are born to be prima donnas, and others to carry spears and keep their mouths shut.

              • Lee Rudolph

                It’s not over until the fatter singers are made into Christmas hams.

            • Gregor Sansa

              Bad King Scott Owen looked out
              on NOLA post-Katrina
              where corpses floated about
              the Superdome arena

              Brightly shone his star that night
              though his mien was cruel
              when a poor kid came in sight,
              on the way to schoo–oo–ool.

              “Hither, veep, and stand by me,
              as you get my boots all well-licked,
              Yonder peasant who is he,
              where and what his district?”

              “Sire, he goes to Lusher, see,
              a school with many lacks. It’s
              right against the A-Y-P
              and has too many bla—ack kids.”

              “Bring me admins, bring me whites,
              we can drill them harder.
              We’ll terminate the union rights,
              and we’ll build a charter”

              Veep and douchebag forth they went,
              in perfect biz-school fashion.
              Faculty brats there were sent,
              and leaders got to ca–ash in.

              “Sire, the test scores are not high,
              controlling for the whiteness.
              My p-val hacking comes up dry,
              I can’t see the rightness.”

              “Call the teachers, tell them this:
              their pay depends on test scores.
              Thou wilt find they soon won’t miss
              they’ll cheat and get the be–est scores.”

              So he his master’s memo sent
              to teachers as aforesaid.
              Soon the testing rules were bent
              and “bad kids” were expelléd.

              Therefore, MBAs be sure,
              wealth of goodness telling,
              ye who now can screw the poor,
              can soon your book be selling.

              • brettvk

                You have a unique and frightening talent.

              • Gregor Sansa

                Actually, when I was a wee lad, and we’d go anti-capitalist caroling at the mall (“Oh, the gap and Old Navy/ Banana Republic/ o-of all the stores that are in the mall/ these assholes take the trick”), Good King Wenceslas was the one carol we’d always sing straight, without changing any words; it’s anti-capitalist enough as it is.

              • rm

                Those elongated vow–owels are devastating.

        • Gwen

          ::heathledgerjokerclap::

    • Hogan

      Russ Cargill: Mr. President, you chose me, Russ Cargill, most successful man in America, to head the EPA, the least successful government agency. Why did I take the job? Because I’m just a rich guy who wants to kick some ass for good old Mother Earth. I want to give something back. Not the money, but something. That’s why I’ve narrowed your choices down to five unthinkable options.

      [spreads the files on the President’s desk]

      Russ Cargill: Each one will cause untold misery and…

      President Schwarzenegger: [points to File #3] I pick Number Three!

      Russ Cargill: Really? You don’t want to read them first?

      President Schwarzenegger: I was elected to *lead*, not to *read*. Number Three!

  • It can’t be worse than the book Jǝb!® is going to release about the way his brother handled the disaster.

    • medrawt

      He kept us dry, ok?

  • Bruce Vail

    I have a relative who was enrolled in Tulane when the hurricane hit.

    They closed the main campus for a year and farmed out the students to other schools.

    • Gwen

      Yup, University of Houston got some, I remember them joining us mid-semester for Federal Income Tax class.

      (which I mostly slept through).

  • EliHawk

    Given the #WarPorn that was posted yesterday, I have to think there’s an even more terrible book out there, written by some nutter about brave armed people defending their homes from terrible looters during the Hurricane. Or blaming it all on tehgays. Or doing both, really.

    • efgoldman

      I have to think there’s an even more terrible book out there

      There’s always a more terrible book out there. Peak (nadir?) book publishing is like peak wingnut – it can never actually be reached.

      • There’s always a more terrible book out there.

        Is there a Chick tract on Katrina?

        • Zamfir

          Yes.www.chick.com/reading/tracts/1055/1055_01.

          It says Katrina was retribution for when Bush pressured Israel to pull settlers out of Gaza.

          God wants Israel to extend from Egypt to Baghdad (there’s a map) , and he’ll keep sending storms to the US until that’s true.

  • acox

    The thing is, the academic performance of New Orleans has continued to rise as (practically) the entire system became charters. Which provides some pretty strong evidence that New Orleans charters are not relying on creaming to achieve those gains.

    It’s also somewhat ironic that the selective enrollment charter school attacked here, Lusher, is much more aligned with the traditional school district than most of the open-enrollment charters in New Orleans. Lusher is accountable to NOPS, the local board. NOPS governs the only selective admission charters in the city, and the only selective admissions district schools. And NOPS principals are notorious for gaming the enrollment system to admit students for athletics or band.

    Loomis cites a couple of studies that say New Orleans charter schools perform worse than the state in an attempt, I believe, to say they were ineffective at increasing student learning (or at least less effective than district schools). But this ignores the fact that New Orleans schools before chartering, when run as traditional schools under the local board, were even farther behind the state averages. Since 2006 New Orleans has consistently outpaced the state in academic growth, narrowing the gap the traditional public school system created.

    Perhaps one might argue that some other intervention that preserved the traditional schools might have achieved more gains, or achieved the gains in a better way. Some even argue there was no need for gains. But to simply point out that New Orleans is still behind the state average as a way to discredit New Orleans charters is, at best, incorrect.

    I realize that most in this commentariat are very critical of charters and I may be speaking into the wind here. But the teachers and principals and central office support staff working every day to make better lives for their students here in New Orleans are not con artists. They are not greedy. And they have not been hoodwinked by corporate masters. They are building better schools for students. And succeeding. Parents in the city support charters schools. No, the problem has not been solved completely. But the hole that the traditional system dug is deep.

    • Lee Rudolph

      How much of the reported improvement in the schools can be attributed to the sharp change in the (racial and class) demographics of New Orleans after Katrina? Much? Little?

  • Peterr

    Noting that New Orleans lacks the well-trained citizenry that will attract many corporations, he gives a half-hearted nod toward a liberal arts education yet calls himself “partly to blame” for training students in “medieval French literature, or higher math, or even critical thinking” because many jobs do not require these skills.

    For the sake of the rest of NOLA, let’s hope that those designing improved levees and flood control did not attend Tulane under the administration of President Cowen.

  • dp

    Scott Cowen is a very special snowflake in any number of ways. Thanks for reading this and thus avoiding my having to up my blood pressure meds had I done so.