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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

New Orleans improves — a lot

“After Katrina’s devastation, New Orleans embarked on the the most ambitious education overhaul in modern America,” writes David Leonhardt in the New York Times.

New Orleans’ reforms raised achievement, graduation rates and college success, concludes a new study.

“The state of Louisiana took over the system in 2005, abolished the old bureaucracy and closed nearly every school. Rather than running schools itself, the state became an overseer, hiring independent operators of public schools — that is, charter schools — and tracking their performance.”

Achievement and graduation rates are up significantly, concludes a study by economists Douglas Harris and Matthew Larsen for the Education Research Alliance. In addition, more students are enrolling in college, persisting and graduating. “The reforms also improved all outcomes for disadvantaged students.”

New Orleans’ charters “educate almost all public-school students,” notes Leonhardt. “And the students are overwhelmingly black and low-income — even lower-income than before Katrina.”

Before the storm, New Orleans students scored far below the Louisiana average on reading, math, science and social studies. Today, they hover near the state average, despite living amid much more poverty. Nationally, the average New Orleans student has moved to the 37th percentile of math and reading scores, from the 22nd percentile pre-Katrina. . . . In most of Louisiana, the share of 12th graders going directly to college has fallen in recent years, probably because of budget cuts to higher education. In New Orleans, Harris and Larsen report, the share has jumped to 32.8 percent, from 22.5 percent before Katrina.

In the new New Orleans, school leaders have more control, writes Leonhardt. “Principals choose their teachers — and can let go of weak ones. Teachers, working together, often choose their curriculum.”

. . . autonomy comes with accountability: Schools must show their approach is working. They are evaluated based on test scores, including ACT and Advanced Placement, and graduation rate — with an emphasis on the trend lines. Schools that fail to make progress can lose their contract. . . . Harris’s research has found that much of the city’s progress has stemmed from closing the worst charter schools and letting successful charters expand.

Achievement gaps are shrinking, Harris tells The 74’s Kevin Mahnken. Black and low-income students are catching up to white and more affluent students in high school graduation and college entry.

On July 1, New Orleans regained control of the city’s schools from the state. An elected school board will manage the all-charter school system.

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