Education Opinion

Why New Orleans Matters

By Douglas N. Harris — March 27, 2015 3 min read
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Welcome to the new blog, Urban Education: Lessons from New Orleans. The premise for the blog is simple: The school reforms put in place in New Orleans after the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina--nearly 10 years ago--represent one of the most important events in U.S. K-12 education policy in the last century.

This is not a statement about whether the New Orleans schooling approach has worked or whether other cities should adopt this approach. We take no position on those points, Instead, when I say it is important, I mean:

(1) The New Orleans model is unprecedented in its rejection of the century-old traditional school district model, and many other cities are following suit;

(2) The New Orleans model is based on accountability strategies that have dominated national policy discussions for two decades and we are at a time when these strategies are now being reconsidered; and

(3) The New Orleans model is receiving support that is widespread, national, and bipartisan--from President Obama, Secretary Duncan, and Louisiana Governor and presidential-candidate-in-waiting Bobby Jindal--and opposition from Diane Ravitch, among others.

In short, New Orleans symbolizes both the last 20 years of reform and perhaps the next 20 years as well. Consider the entire package of the city’s policy changes:

- Choice: Attendance zones were essentially eliminated and replaced by a centralized enrollment system (called “the OneApp”) where students are assigned based on a ranked list they submit to a state agency, the Recovery School District (RSD).

- Charter Schools: Governance of almost all schools was taken out of the hands of the local school board and turned over to a state agency, which contracted out to charter school operators.

- Teachers: All the city’s public school teachers were fired and the union contract allowed to expire. A large proportion of the replacement teachers were not prepared in university schools of education.

- Test-Based Accountability: The RSD started closing schools based on low test scores.

A few cities have done one of these as fully as New Orleans, but no city had ever come close to doing them together, almost all at once. New Orleans has essentially blown up the traditional school district model and this could have significant implications for New Orleans, other urban districts, and the direction of national school reform.

In this blog, we will present evidence and debate the merits of the New Orleans approach. We aren’t going to shy away from controversial topics and findings. We aren’t going to try and convince you that the reforms are a bad idea or a good idea. Rather, we aim for a richer and more evidence-based conversation than has occurred to date.

We hope the blog will reach a broad audience--supporters and opponents, researchers and practitioners, local and national leaders. To facilitate that, I’ll be leaning on my colleague and journalist Sarah Tan. We will also rely on guest bloggers and interviews with the long-standing New Orleans educators involved in the reform effort, educational leaders in other cities and states, and experts from around the country.

We especially hope to reach leaders in other cities where the New Orleans approach has been a key part local school reform conversations. That’s a long and growing list, from Kansas City, Memphis, Little Rock, Atlanta--and Detroit where I was born and raised and where I first started studying school reform two decades ago. The results here are also pertinent to the re-authorization of ESEA, which has itself become increasingly rooted in test- and market-based accountability.

Some of the discussion will be based on evidence from an interdisciplinary research center I direct, the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (Era-New Orleans) at Tulane University. Much of this research will be released at a national conference we are organizing this June. Both the conference and the blog can be best described as research-based policy conversations. That is, they will be briefly discuss research findings as a jumping off point for broader conversations about key policy issues.

I hope you’ll join us. The New Orleans school reforms could be the first step toward a seismic shift in U.S. school governance over the long run, and it merits a full debate.

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.