New Orleans’ schools have improved significantly since Katrina devastated the city 10 years ago, writes Douglas N. Harris, a Tulane economics professors who directs the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans.
Within the span of one year, all public-school employees were fired, the teacher contract expired and was not replaced, and most attendance zones were eliminated. The state took control of almost all public schools and began holding them to relatively strict standards of academic achievement. Over time, the state turned all the schools under its authority over to charter management organizations (CMOs) that, in turn, dramatically reshaped the teacher workforce.
Test scores, once very low, are now higher than in comparison Louisiana districts that were affected by the hurricane but didn’t remake their school systems. More New Orleans’ students are earning high school diplomas and going on to college.
The research looks at various confounding factors: Students who returned to New Orleans were slightly better students than those who left — the poorest neighborhoods suffered the worst flooding — accounting for a small percentage of the gains. On the flip side, most returnees were struggling with trauma and dislocation, depressing school performance.
The gains are real and significant, Harris concludes. “The effects are also large compared with other completely different strategies for school improvement, such as class-size reduction and intensive preschool,” even factoring in higher per-student spending in post-Katrina New Orleans.
The state has the authority to close low-performing schools and to choose new school operators with a record of academic success. In a city with 90 public schools, 16 schools have been closed and 30 taken over.
School leaders can hire and fire the teachers they want. Teachers are much less experienced and less likely to have traditional certification. Turnover is high. Yet despite these metrics going in the “wrong direction,” schools have seen large improvements in student learning, writes Harris.
Two factors helped: The schools were so bad before Katrina, they had “no place to go but up.” In addition, teachers saw New Orleans as an exciting place to live and work.
Parents can choose from an array of different schools with different specialties. They can use the OneApp to apply to multiple schools (89 percent of the city’s public schools participate), ranking their preferences.