Reflections on an Extraordinary Decade of New Orleans School Reform

Last week, the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans held a three-day conference to examine what we’ve learned from a decade of post-Katrina education reform. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. One consequence was that the New Orleans school district—for all intents and purposes, the second-worst performing district in the nation’s second-worst performing state—pretty much ceased to exist. In its place emerged a radical experiment in urban education that’s produced extraordinarily impressive results and extraordinarily heated local debate.

Katrina killed 2,000 residents, forced a massive evacuation, and shut down the city’s schools for a year. In the aftermath, all district employees were terminated and the collective bargaining agreement was allowed to expire. The state took control of nearly all local public schools via the Recovery School District and rebooted the district as a system of charter schools. Meanwhile, organizations like Teach For America (TFA), the New Teacher Project, and New Leaders for New Schools, as well as major foundations, explored ways to pump talent and resources into the city. Sarah Usdin, formerly executive director of TFA in Louisiana and now a member of the Orleans Parish school board, launched New Schools for New Orleans to support and quarterback this effort (NSNO has gone on to be the model for what’s now frequently referred to as the “harbor master” role).

A lot of what transpired was done “to” the community—by outsiders or a handful of insiders. Thousands of middle class black educators lost their jobs, and whole swaths of the community felt like the destruction of Katrina was followed by educational disenfranchisement—and plenty of disrespect. Bitter local debates about questions of race, class, and power have ensued. So, while the academic results look good, the New Orleans story is hardly a simple one or a uniformly happy one.

Everyone is understandably eager to draw “lessons” from what transpired in New Orleans. The thing is that it can be tough to know just what worked or why it worked. After all, state takeovers had been tried before, typically with disappointing results. Other states have attempted versions of the recovery school district, with much more mixed results. So, given that humility seems called for, I’m going to content myself with a few reflections.

It seems to me that the story of New Orleans’ success entails two parts: a disaster that created room to reinvent a deeply troubled urban school system and an energetic commitment to seize that opportunity. Post-Katrina New Orleans wasn’t just about reforming what already existed; it was an invitation to be free of rules, regulations, relationships, and routines that had created the status quo and to start anew. Of course, as Howard Fuller pointed out in New Orleans on Saturday, this restart also meant that the good embedded in those relationships and routines was lost along the way. Offered a fresh start, a platoon of private actors seized that opportunity. It’s a testament to what can be created when reform is given a fresh slate, but it’s also a reminder that neither a fresh start nor school choice guarantee anything—they provide only an opportunity to design promising solutions and then make them work.

New Orleans also offers an intriguing story when it comes to teacher quality. New Orleans has posted remarkable results even while witnessing a substantial drop in the share of certified teachers and veteran educators—and despite a big increase in teacher turnover. According to conventional wisdom, what happened in New Orleans should’ve been a recipe for disaster. Instead, the results have been quite positive. Why that might be seems like a pretty important question—and caution to the prescription-minded.

Would-be imitators should also note that New Orleans had a number of easy-to-overlook advantages. It’s a historic city that held a romantic appeal for aspiring educators and assorted do-gooders. It’s a fairly small city, especially post-Katrina, with an enrollment even today of just 46,000. Rebuilding New Orleans became something of a national cause, helping to attract attention, resources, and people. And New Orleans was seen as a pioneer and a potential proof point, lending it an outsized significance for philanthropists, advocates, and others. All of this created a web of circumstances that may be difficult to replicate, meaning that other locales will probably need to modify the New Orleans model if they hope to enjoy similar success.

Just for instance: it will be hard for other cities to attract the raft of young, impassioned talent that New Orleans did—even though these are cities are likely to have larger enrollment and thus a larger appetite for teachers. So reformers elsewhere may have no choice but to be more aggressive about leveraging technology, differentiating roles, and retaining terrific teachers. Similarly, I remember a window in the late aughts when Matt Candler, as CEO of NSNO, was personally identifying and wooing each new charter operator to New Orleans and then providing scaffolding to get them up and running. It can be brutally hard to replicate that tender loving care in an environment that needs a lot more schools, where support and resources are scarcer, and where there’s no NSNO.

The lesson is not that the successes in New Orleans can’t be replicated. It is that the Crescent City’s success has been largely a product of circumstances, strengths, ingenuity, and persistence—and that simply declaring elsewhere that the goal is “to do what worked in Nola” misses just about all of that.

-Rick Hess

This first appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up

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