Education Opinion

The New Orleans Debate: Taking on the Arguments

By Douglas N. Harris — September 04, 2015 3 min read
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Last week was a time to reflect on the terrible tragedy in New Orleans 10 years ago. In the last blog , I asked that we all take a day or two to remember that tragedy and to take a break from the school reform debate. But now we need to get back to that important debate.

I’ve now read through almost all of the national media reports over the past month or so. As I indicated in a Washington Post op-ed, the arguments are all over the map--with some a bit over the top on both ends of the spectrum. Over the next several weeks and months, I’m going to focus the blog on a more in-depth discussion. Here is my first take on the arguments made for and against the reforms so far:

One Big Argument in Favor of the Reforms. Proponents of the reforms almost always lead with the argument that the reforms caused dramatic increases in student outcomes.

The second argument in favor is that families now have the freedom to escape failing schools. Some proponents might make this argument because they think choice “works” in generating better outcomes, but there is also a more philosophical argument that freedom is valuable in and of itself.

Many Arguments Against the Reforms. There are many arguments against the New Orleans school reforms and I break these into four categories (in no particular order): (a) arguments that require empirical evidence that is unavailable; (b) arguments that either ignore or dispute existing evidence; (c) arguments that are more about educational philosophy than evidence about policy consequences (or at least they are very difficult to test with data); and (d) other arguments, including those with logical fallacies and those that pertain to the implications for other cities and policy generally. It’s worth pointing out that the arguments about any policy fall into these four categories--the categories aren’t particular to New Orleans.

The arguments below are in no particular order. After each argument, I indicate in parentheses which type of argument it is.

(1) The test data (and other data) have been distorted or manipulated (limited evidence).

(2) Test scores and other typically measured student outcomes miss other important outcomes (e.g. long run outcomes and other short-term outcomes like creativity and cultural knowledge) (limited evidence).

(3) Student outcomes in New Orleans improved due to population change, not the reforms (questioned evidence).

(4) Student outcomes may have improved on average but disadvantaged students were harmed (questioned evidence).

(5) The process of creating the new system, and continuing to run it, has been undemocratic--the system was “done to” citizens rather than “done with” them (philosophy).

(6) The school reforms deepened racial wounds and hurt the city’s black middle class (philosophical).

(7) We should have neighborhood schools, something that school choice prevents (philosophy).

(8) Measureable student outcomes in New Orleans are still dismal (other argument).

(9) The state has changed the cut scores for proficiency and/or changed the way school grades are given to make the system look better than it is (other argument).

(10) We should not be comparing New Orleans to pre-Katrina, but rather to some third policy option (other argument).

(11) Student outcomes improved because more money was put into the school system rather than because of the intensive market-based and test-based accountability. (other argument).

(12) The state government has only released the data to pro-reform researchers (other argument).

(13) The results are particular to New Orleans and would not arise in other cities (other argument).

The fact that I am listing only two arguments in favor and 13 opposed should not be taken to mean that I am slanting this against the reforms. The two big arguments in favor are really big. In fact, almost everyone speaking out in favor of the reforms leans heavily on the student outcomes.

There is the outline. Please let me know if you think I’m missing anything. Next week, I’ll start working my way down the list and digging deeper into each one. The discussion will rely heavily on the results we’ve released so far (here and here), as well as the presentations and debate at our conference (videos online).

I’m going to take the arguments out of order because we’ll be releasing the long technical paper soon that will explain some of the evidence in more detail so I’ll take those last.

The opinions expressed in Urban Education: Lessons From New Orleans are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.