What Explains the Post-Katrina Success of New Orleans’ Schools?

Six years later, the city is fetted as a prime example of how aggressive reforms can improve results. But the question there is the same elsewhere: do the market-based ideas help all students or just those with resources?

By Julianne Hing Aug 29, 2011

New Orleans is in many ways not the same city it was before Hurricane Katrina touched down along the Gulf Coast six years ago. The landscape of the city was wholly changed by Katrina–and nowhere more than in its school system, which New Orleans rebuilt from scratch after the storm. Now, six years later and with the city’s school system all but remade, New Orleans is being cited as a prime example that aggressive reforms can lead to real progress in public schools. Still, as New Orleans residents transition from discussing a city in recovery to a city that’s remade itself, they face many of the same hurdles as every other major reform-minded school district in the country–testing scandals, fights over school choice and the edging out of the most at-risk students. What no one contests is that Katrina ushered in an era of change. What’s still unclear is whether New Orleans’ school reforms have brought the city’s neediest kids along with everyone else. This year New Orleans students showed marked improvement on the state’s english and math standardized tests and the state’s Graduation Exit Exam, which fourth and eighth graders must pass to move on to the next grade. New Orleans, which has always lagged behind the rest of Louisiana’s schools, is steadily closing the gap in math and reading test scores. In fact, say researchers at Tulane University’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, if the rate of improvement in New Orleans schools stays steady, the city will surpass the state’s achievement on high-stakes tests. What’s more, the achievement gap between New Orleans’ black and white students–which has always been stubbornly larger that the statewide achievement gap–is narrowing as well. This year’s data showed that the 56-point achievement gap that existed between New Orleans’ black and white students has narrowed to 42 percentage points. There have been improvements all around. For the first time, 53 percent of the city’s black students performed at grade level on the state’s standardized tests, compared with 51 percent of the rest of the state’s black students, the [New Orleans Times-Picayune](http://www.nola.com/education/index.ssf/2011/08/new_orleans_public_school_achi.html) reported. In 2006, 40 percent of the state’s black students were performing at grade level or better, but the same could be said for only 32 percent of New Orleans’ black students. So the big question now in front of education experts is: to what does the city owe its test score gains? **Market-Based Reforms** Immediately after the storm, the state passed legislation that allowed the Louisiana Department of Education to take over 107 New Orleans schools that had been labeled failing and place them in a Recovery School District (RSD) that operated separately from the New Orleans Public Schools. The law forever changed the education landscape in New Orleans. Within months, the city had the largest percentage of charter schools of any city in the country; before the storm, just five New Orleans schools were housed in the RSD. Meanwhile, dramatic reforms were brought to schools that were still traditional, or so-called "direct run," public schools. That overhaul earned New Orleans a reputation as a testing ground for school reform, and it attracted the attention–and dollars–of education reformers and philanthropists. Last year, the Fordham Institute crowned New Orleans the ["reform-friendliest" city](http://www.edexcellencemedia.net/publications/2010/201008_SchoolReformCities/Fordham_SchoolReform_Final_Complete.pdf) in the country. "These schools had the opportunity to create their own schedules, they extended the day so they could offer instruction for longer periods, schools were given more autonomy to make hiring decisions at the school level," said Debra Vaughan, the research director of the Cowen Institute. Teachers who came back to New Orleans, however, found that they didn’t have a job to return to–every New Orleans teacher, [75 percent](http://www.theroot.com/views/myth-charter-schools-have-saved-new-orleans?page=0,1) of whom were black, had been laid off. Many had to start from scratch; the RSD does not operate on a system of tenure the same way that most public school systems do. "If you were a veteran teacher before," Vaughan said, "the storm wiped that out." The dramatic reforms invited a crop of new, young teachers to the city. The RSD runs in large part on the backs of brand new teachers and those recruited by the short-term teacher project Teach for America. Was it choice and charter-school driven reform, then, that paved the way for dramatic change and allowed the city to make a fresh start in educating its students? It’s a tempting, but oversimplified, explanation that education experts say folks ought to resist. "I don’t like comparing what we have now to what we had before the storm too much because we’re a completely different system," said Andre Perry, an assistant professor of education at Loyola University. **New Schools–or New Students?** Indeed, it’s not just the system that’s changed. New Orleans today is whiter and more male and richer than it was before the storm. The median income in New Orleans has risen, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center’s latest report on the state of the city. Data show that the level of poverty in New Orleans metro has declined from pre-storm rates, while more poor folks live along the periphery of the city, a trend the Community Data Center calls "the suburbanization of poverty." "We had a percentage of students who could not return, a significant number in fact who could not return," Perry said. Vaughan said she’s familiar with the argument that it’s brand new demographics that are responsible for New Orleans’ educational changes, but says that researchers still don’t have access to some key data. She notes that the number of New Orleans students who rely on free and reduced lunches is about the same as it was before the storm. Meanwhile, the RSD, as large and as reform-minded as it is, still hasn’t escaped many of the struggles facing other school districts. The RSD has been run on the idea of choice, a concept that remakes parents and students as consumers who can shop around for the school that best fits them. Parents and students can theoretically choose where they want to send their kids, but they must apply to schools. So whether the choice model holds up in reality is a hotly debated topic among parents of kids with the most needs, such as those who are poor or who have disabilities. The RSD has battled allegations that the choice model functions more as a selective application system, because the most successful schools have a limited number of seats and many parents have found themselves without the same level of access as other parents. And like elsewhere, schools in the RSD also have been slammed with allegations of impropriety and even [teacher cheating](http://www.nola.com/education/index.ssf/2011/08/new_orleans_charter_testing_dr.html) in the last year. The RSD conducted an investigation and concluded that some cheating had taken place, but the charter school in question’s own investigation found no wrongdoing–a discrepancy which has fostered much debate. In the wake of cheating scandals that have recurred around the country, reports of teacher cheating threaten to mar New Orleans’ new accomplishments. "We see that scores are improving and schools are getting better … but there are still too many schools that are failing, even though they are improving," Vaughan said. Perry cautions against giving too much weight to the new test score gains when so many of the city’s students still face such great challenges. "Tests are just a proxy for performance," he said. "They’re not the be-all and end-all. And when school leaders and the system have too much pressure to achieve based on a proxy, then you may miss the bigger picture." "Now that we’re seeing some baseline established, we have to concern ourselves with not just chasing the test," Perry said.