Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

[Susan notes: I'm just spitting in the wind but Gladwell's glib dismissal of what happened to "the other poor" is inexcusable.]

Submitted to The New Yorker but not published

To the editor

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan provoked a storm of criticism when he opined that Hurricane Katrina was "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans." But now, in Starting Over: Many Katrina victims left New Orleans for good. What can we learn from them? (Aug. 24, 2015), Malcolm Gladwell extends Katrina's good outcomes to all the poor folk driven out of their New Orleans neighborhoods, insisting that they're better off elsewhere.

Gladwell is glib and engaging--and disingenuous. Employing his hallmark technique, he offers an amazing anecdote about KIPP that is sure to grab the reader: "We should go to Houston and find our students." Following a few more anecdotes that grab the reader, he can then announce:

  • To the KIPP leaders, the sacrifices caused by the revolution were necessary.

  • The schools of New Orleans made a necessary and painful sacrifice: they extended the pain of Katrina in order to build a better future for the city's children.

  • There are plenty of scholars and practitioners who worry that the KIPP "revolution" involves training youngsters to become obedient workers for such rapacious global market behemoths as Amazon. But Gladwell pounds home his thesis with another great anecdote: Tyreal Samuel is off to Grinnell.

    Gladwell fans would do well to heed Andrea Gabor's warning in the New York Times ( The Myth of the New Orleans School Makeover, Aug. 23, 2015). Gabor concludes, "For outsiders, the biggest lesson of New Orleans is this: It is wiser to invest in improving existing education systems than to start from scratch. Privatization may improve outcomes for some students, but it has hurt the most disadvantaged pupils."

    Certainly, social scientists will agree that moving to a better neighborhood improves one's chances for upward mobility, but a better solution would be to improve the pockets of poverty. Ensure a living wage and a social safety net; use government money for public works projects instead of drones and bombs.

    Susan Ohanian

    This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.