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School & District Management Opinion

‘Race to the Top’ Lessons From New Orleans

By Paul G. Vallas & Leslie R. Jacobs — August 28, 2009 6 min read
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As the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top competition focuses new attention on what it takes to turn around failing public schools, New Orleans is proving that the job can be done.

New Orleans schools now operate under a decentralized system that is unique. Sixty percent of students attend charter schools, and both charter and noncharter schools have autonomy over staffing and budgets. All schools are schools of choice. The money follows the student, so schools receive funds based on their enrollment. There is no longer a collective bargaining agreement, nor a citywide salary schedule.

The results thus far are compelling. In the four years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, New Orleans has shown more growth in student achievement than any other district in the state. The percentage of failing schools is down significantly, and student test scores are up in every grade and subject. Some of the gains are dramatic. The 10th grade math proficiency rate has jumped from 39 percent to 58 percent, and the senior graduation rate from 79 percent to 89 percent. The percentage of 8th graders proficient in English has grown from 26 percent to 42 percent. For context, from 1999 until the state takeover in 2005, 8th grade English proficiency had improved by a meager 3 points.

Our schools have made these gains while serving a more challenging student population. Since Katrina, a higher percentage of students are poor (84 percent), and many returned to New Orleans after the disaster having missed months, even years of school.

Fortunately, it does not require a natural disaster to enact reforms like those under way in New Orleans. In truth, key policy innovations predated Katrina and can serve as a road map for others.

In New Orleans, reform was shaped by four key strategies:

• School accountability legislation that placed failing schools under the control of a separate, state-level governing entity, the Recovery School District;

• Chartering of new schools with a rigorous screening process to ensure quality;

• An unequivocal embrace of parental choice for all schools, not just charters; and

• Staffing schools with mission-aligned, talented educators.

More than any other factor, creation of the state-run Recovery School District paved the way for the transformation of New Orleans’ public schools.

While school accountability systems across the country identify failing schools, districts and states still wrestle with how to fix them. Typically, states require districts to address their failing schools, leaving these schools under the same local governance, same collective bargaining agreements, same board policies and management that did not work in the first place. Often, failing schools are concentrated in low-performing districts, and policymakers ask them, in effect, to “heal thyself.”

In 2003, Louisiana created a different mechanism, linked to its school accountability system, to address chronically failing schools: the Recovery School District, or RSD. (“Recovery” refers to recovery from academic failure—not from the hurricane, a common misperception.) Chronically failing schools are removed from local school board control and placed into the state-run RSD, where they get a fresh start.

When the RSD takes over a school, it assumes control of its building, students, and funding. The school, whether chartered or traditional, gets a clean break from the local school board’s policies, procedures, contracts, and central office. Further, the faculty does not automatically come with the school.

By using the RSD mechanism, the low-performing schools in New Orleans were able to reopen with not only the mission of turning around a failing school, but also with the freedom to do so. As states and districts look to turn around their own failing schools, creating an RSD-like vehicle would give them a powerful way to free a troubled school from the shackles of the status quo.

A second key strategy was to embrace high-quality charter schools. Louisiana is one of the five states in the recent study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO, where charters are outperforming traditional schools, and most of the state’s charter schools are in New Orleans.

The state set up a rigorous screening process for charter operators—in the first year, only six of 44 applicants were approved—then put strong monitoring and accountability in place. Renewal of a charter’s contract requires meeting specified academic-performance standards by year five.

Just as important, charter schools have the support of the RSD and are treated fairly. They have use of school buildings and receive student funding, just like any other public school. They also have the option of participating (paying their portion of the costs) in a shared-services system set up by the RSD for transportation, food services, and special education support. And they are embraced as part of the solution, not as a threat.

The third determinant of New Orleans’ success has been public school choice—for everyone. While many districts have dabbled in parental choice, all public schools in New Orleans are subject to it. After Katrina, with whole neighborhoods in ruins, the state abolished attendance zones for schools in the RSD, both charter and noncharter. Today, families can choose their school, and schools must provide transportation, no matter where the child lives.

To make choice more accessible to parents, local nonprofits publish a parents’ guide with information on all schools, and have helped implement a coordinated enrollment process. To assure transparency, all school performance indicators are made public through multiple mediums.

Finally, we have achieved dramatic gains by eliminating the blame game. For decades, New Orleans excused its abysmal performance by blaming it on poverty, demographics, and other issues external to the schoolhouse. No longer. Proof that significant improvement is possible now puts the onus on schools to perform and has led to a true embrace of a “whatever it takes” mind-set: If students aren’t learning, it is the responsibility of the adults in the building.

School leaders can no longer blame “the system” if a teacher is not performing. In all but a handful of schools, principals now have the autonomy to select and promote their staff members. This freedom, combined with the need to perform, has led to a laser-like focus on both teacher quality and alignment.

Charter and traditional schools are blending veteran educators together with new ones. Working closely with Teach For America, the New Teacher Project, and New Leaders for New Schools, the city has embraced alternative-certification programs, dramatically increasing its pool of talented educators.

Across the city, there is now an exciting and pervasive mission-driven focus and a core belief that we can—and will—continue to improve student achievement and close the performance gap.

The call from President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to transform 5,000 of the country’s failing schools has been backed with large sums of money for innovative efforts. The reforms under way in New Orleans can serve as a model for others seeking to transform failing schools.

A version of this article appeared in the September 02, 2009 edition of Education Week as ‘Race to the Top’ Lessons From New Orleans

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