New Orleans Reforms Boost Student Performance

Douglas N. Harris:, 850-445-1306
Amanda Olberg:, 617-496-2064, Education Next Communications 

New Orleans Reforms Boost Student Performance

Families have many options as 93 percent of public school students attend charter schools 

Before Hurricane Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans in 2005, it was the second-lowest-ranked district in the second-lowest-ranked state in the country, as measured by student performance on state and national tests. After the hurricane, the city essentially erased its school district and started over.  Within the span of one year, all public-school employees were fired, the teacher contract expired and was not replaced, and the state took control of almost all public schools.  Eventually the state turned all the schools under its authority over to charter management organizations (CMOs), dramatically reshaping the teacher workforce and providing the first direct test of an alternative to the U.S.’s century-old system of school governance.

But are New Orleans’ schools living up to the expectation that once schools are freed from district and union contract rules and allowed to innovate, schools will work better and students will learn more? In three new articles published in Education Next, researchers with the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (ERA-New Orleans) at Tulane University, directed by professor of economics, Douglas Harris, investigate how schools and student performance have responded to the policy shifts.

In “Good News for New Orleans,” Harris summarizes research conducted with ERA analyst Matthew Larsen, that uses two complementary strategies to determine how the reforms affected student performance on state tests. The analysis first compares the test scores of students who returned to New Orleans after the hurricane to their own performance before the storm. The analysis then also compares the performance of different cohorts of students before and after the reforms – for example, students in 3rd grade in 2005 and students in 3rd grade in 2012. In both cases, the changes in performance in New Orleans are compared to those in a comparison group of other districts in Louisiana that were affected by the hurricane.

Before the reforms, students in New Orleans performed well below the Louisiana average, at about the 30th percentile statewide.  The comparison group also trailed the state average, although to a lesser extent. After the reforms, the performance of New Orleans’s students shot upward by 0.2 to 0.4 standard deviations by 2012, enough to improve a typical student’s performance by 8 to 15 percentile points.  In contrast, the comparison group from other districts largely continued its prior trajectory.  Over the same time period, state reports indicate that the high school graduation rate in New Orleans rose by 10 percentage points and the share of high school graduates entering college rose by 14 percentage points.

The article also describes how the reforms changed New Orleans schools and, in particular, their teacher workforce. The percentages of teachers with regular certification and with 20 or more years of experience both dropped by about 20 points. The teacher turnover rate also nearly doubled, apparently because schools had greater autonomy over personnel and because of the increase in educators from alternative preparation programs such as Teach for America.

In “Many Options in New Orleans Choice System,” ERA-New Orleans researchers consider to what degree the city’s system of school choice, where 93 percent of public school students attend charter schools, provides a variety of distinct options for families. The schools are overseen by three different agencies and managed by more than 30 school operators and CMOs.  To determine if schools differ substantially from one another, the researchers use a statistical method known as cluster analysis to group the schools based on similar characteristics, including whether they have a college-prep mission; a curricular theme; selective admissions; and comparable school hours, grade span, sports, extracurriculars, and support staff levels.  They find considerable differentiation among the schools.  Their analysis reveals that school characteristics vary even within governing agencies and CMOs.

In “The New Orleans OneApp,” the research team takes a careful look at the city’s unique centralized enrollment system, which enables families to apply for a seat in 89 percent of the city’s public schools by ranking their preferred schools on a single application known as the OneApp. A strategy-proof computer algorithm then assigns students to schools. They conclude that, in many ways, the OneApp is more efficient, fair, and transparent than the decentralized choice system that preceded it. But the system is also more complex, leading some families to misunderstand and distrust it. The OneApp continues to evolve as its administrators learn more about school-choosing families and families learn more about this novel system.

The articles, all of which will appear in the Fall 2015 issue of Education Next and are now available online at, are:

Good News for New Orleans: Early evidence shows reforms lifting student achievement,” by Douglas N. Harris

Many Options in New Orleans Choice System: School characteristics vary widely,” by Paula Arce-Trigatti, Douglas N. Harris, Huriya Jabbar, and Jane Arnold Lincove

The New Orleans OneApp: Centralized enrollment matches students and schools of choice,” by Douglas N. Harris, Jon Valant, and Betheny Gross

For embargoed copies, contact Amanda Olberg at Amanda_Olberg@HKS.Harvard.Edu.

About the Authors

Douglas N. Harris is economics professor and director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans at Tulane University.  Paula Arce-Trigatti is postdoctoral fellow in economics at Tulane University.  Huriya Jabbar is assistant professor of education policy at the University of Texas at Austin.  Jane Arnold Lincove is assistant research professor of economics at Tulane University.  Jon Valant is postdoctoral fellow in economics at Tulane University.  All are associated with the ERA for New Orleans.  Betheny Gross is research director at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell.

About Education Next

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. For more information about Education Next, please visit:

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