School & District Management Opinion

The Changing New Orleans Teaching Labor Force

By Sarah Tan — April 23, 2015 4 min read
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In 2005, as New Orleans began to rebuild after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the Orleans Parish School Board made an unprecedented move and fired all the teachers who had been in the school system before the storm. As schools rebuilt, most were transformed into independently managed charter schools. Many critics argue that pre-Katrina teachers were unfairly terminated, and that the teacher workforce suffered a loss of experienced teachers who were never rehired. One of the most polarizing of stories about rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina has centered on the question of the impacts on African-American teachers in particular. Critics of the reforms feel that there has been a shift in New Orleans teachers toward a group that is younger and less experienced pushing out older veterans.

The story is one that hits a lot of sensitive points in New Orleans, and nationally, the implications of the shifting teacher demographics may point to changes that need to be made in teacher hiring practices and compensation.

By demographics, we are mostly referring to the racial makeup and experience level of teachers. About half the teachers in New Orleans today are African American, compared to over two-thirds before the storm. It is unclear if hiring practices of charters schools or changing demographics of the city are responsible for this shift. However, in a majority African-American school district, the decreasing number of teachers of color is a concern.

Additionally, many in education in New Orleans are concerned that the teacher workforce is now less experienced than it was prior to Katrina. The data show that over half of teachers now have zero to five years of experience, compared to only one-third in the year before the storm. Experience and teacher effectiveness, however, are two separate points, and we caution against saying that a less experienced teacher is necessarily less effective for students. One undeniable point however, is that there are far fewer teachers in the system now with over 20 years of experience, and the system has lost their valuable institutional knowledge.

Michael Stone, co-CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, notes that this might be based more on retirement system rules than on charter managers actively not choosing veteran teachers.

“It gets difficult to recruit veteran teachers because of their involvement in the Teachers Retirement System of Louisiana,” he said. Many new charters are choosing not to participate in the Teacher Retirement System because of the high cost to the employer. “I think that’s why you see such a drop in teachers with 20 or more years of experience.” It’s interesting to note that schools under the Orleans Parish School Board still participate in this system, and as a result, may attract a greater number of veteran teachers than charter schools in the state’s Recovery School District.

Renee Akbar, professor and chair of the Division of Education and Counseling at Xavier University, has had direct experience with the shifting teacher demographics, and points to charter hiring practices as a source of recent changes. Pre-Katrina, most Masters in Education students were hired into schools in Orleans parish. Today, Akbar stated that about 70 percent must find jobs outside the parish, though their preference is to stay in New Orleans. She attributes this to the growth in charter school networks that selectively choose applicants based on teacher preparation programs.

“Charter schools are locking our students out because they’re not being trained by their particular programs,” Akbar said. “University-trained students are not getting into these charter schools which is why the demographics are looking the way they are.”

She claimed that some charter management organizations* seemed to only want to take teachers who had been trained in alternate certification programs such as Teach NOLA, Teach for America, or the Relay Graduate School of Education. Xavier’s students are mostly African American, while programs like Teach NOLA or Teach for America have fewer African-American participants.

Looking forward, the demographics of the teacher workforce might depend on the choices of policy-makers and charter managers. Stone says that Orleans Parish is continuing to see growth in student enrollment, and because of that, organizations will continue to look to attempt to attract more teachers to New Orleans. How they do this will influence the demographics of the teacher workforce. Stone recommends increasing efforts to draw novice teachers from the local population with roots in the city.

Regardless of what the data shows in terms of shifts, there are some points about the reforms that will continue to be emotional for many people. “It doesn’t change the fact that people’s lives were totally upended by the storm, and the very real hurt people felt when they were fired,” Stone said.

A full policy brief on the shifting teacher demographic and the teacher pipeline in New Orleans by Era researchers Nate Barrett, Jane Arnold Lincove, and Douglas Harris will be available in May.

*We edited the original post, dropping the names of two charter school organizations. Our general policy is to not name individuals, schools, or CMOs and never without allowing them to respond and/or approve the reference.

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.