School & District Management

School Choice Boosted Test Scores in New Orleans Post-Katrina, Study Finds

By Arianna Prothero — August 05, 2015 3 min read
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Student academic performance has risen considerably in New Orleans over the last decade as most of the city’s public schools were turned into charters, according to the Education Research Alliance.

The education overhaul following Hurricane Katrina boosted student performance by eight to 15 percentage points in the last decade. (That’s effects of 0.2 to 0.4 standard deviations for the more statistically minded among you).

That range takes into account a variety of factors that could skew the numbers either way: the effects of trauma, population changes, test-based accountability, and students spending a spell in better-performing out-of-state schools after evacuating from New Orleans.

“We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time,” writes economist and Education Research Alliance Director Douglas Harris in his article for Education Next.

“The effects are also large compared with other completely different strategies for school improvement, such as class-size reduction and intensive preschool.”

But Harris also points out that there was a lot of room for improvement. Pre-Katrina, New Orleans’ original school district was the second-lowest ranked in the state, while Louisiana was the second lowest-ranked state in the country.

New Orleans’ Unique (Almost) All-Charter System

Shortly after the storm, Louisiana took over most of the city’s schools and either closed them or turned them over to charter school groups. Ten years later, over 90 percent of students attend charter schools in the city—a far higher percentage than any other city in the nation.

That makes New Orleans not only a one-of-a-kind education system, but also the largest testing ground for some of the major tenets of the school choice movement. Students no longer automatically attend their neighborhood schools, but rather the ones their parents choose—forcing schools to compete for students.

Principals have more autonomy and can hire non-union teachers and, subsequently, the teaching force is swollen with educators from Teach for America and similar-styled alternative teacher prep programs.

But in addition to that, a lot more money has been pumped into the system: per-pupil spending increased by $1,000 from the 2004-05 to the 2011-12 school years, according to the Education Research Alliance.

It’s difficult to distinguish whether a single factor is propelling achievement scores up, and it’s likely a combination of all of the above, Harris says.

Could—and Should—the New Orleans Model Spread?

And Harris is not convinced the ‘New Orleans model’ can simply be exported to other areas of the country and produce the same results—other cities’ school system may not be starting from as low of a mark, and they may not be as successful at attracting hordes of young educators.

Even though New Orleans’ academic gains have been dramatic, the Education Research Alliance has also found not-so-positive side effects of moving to a total-school choice system.

Low-income families still face competing interests that get in the way of simply choosing the academically best school for their children. For example they may opt for a lower-performing school that offers an extended day so they don’t have to pay for childcare. Another earlier study by the Education Research Alliance also found that—until a few years ago—principals, under competition-fueled pressure, were cherry-picking students.

You can check out the full three-report series on New Orleans at Education Next.


Photo: Students arrive at Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School in the Lower 9th Ward (Swikar Patel/Education Week)

Graph: “Good News for New Orleans” by Douglas Harris, Fall 2015 Vol. of Education Next

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A version of this news article first appeared in the K-12 Parents and the Public blog.