After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans educators embarked on what has been called the nation’s biggest experiment in school reform. Nearly a decade later, a decentralized system of independent charter schools stands in the place of a traditional public school district with neighborhood attendance zones.
But it is working?
Analysts at the Cowen Institute at Tulane University say yes.
The academic performance among New Orleans public schools and students has improved “dramatically” in the decade since the storm, according to a report released Wednesday.
That, of course, is a controversial conclusion, and perhaps the most assertive one that the institute has come to in the nine years that it has been putting out annual reports on the local school system.
“Due to the relentless efforts of educators, policymakers and nonprofit leaders, our schools have shown marked academic improvement over the past decade,” former Tulane University President Scott Cowen wrote in a letter attached to the report. “We’ve seen increased accountability, greater autonomy for educators and administrators, and new school facilities replace those that had been in disrepair even before Katrina.”
The report goes on to praise student performance gains on standardized tests and the ACT, as well as an increase in graduation rates and college enrollment.
It says new facilities in many cases have replaced decrepit, moldy buildings, and a decentralized system has replaced a monolithic one often criticized as ineffective and corrupt.
Yet the report also cautions that much work remains to be done.
Collectively, the city’s public schools have climbed from a failing grade to just average. In 2014, New Orleans schools earned a C on their state report card. According to the report, fewer than a third of students — 31 percent — attend public schools that rate above the state average.
Still, the Cowen analysts said, it’s important to understand how far the city has come: In 2004, just 16.5 percent of the city’s students went to schools that ranked better than average.
Before the storm, a whopping 62 percent of students attended a so-called failing school, compared with 7 percent today.
“The success of the schools comes not only with the autonomy but also the accountability,” said Jay Altman, the founder of a charter school group called FirstLine Schools. “When schools aren’t doing well (now), they either get closed down or someone else runs the school.”
The report also notes big improvements in the quality of school buildings, a reality brought about by nearly $2 billion worth of FEMA money.
In 2005, 73 percent of the city’s public school buildings had been constructed between 1852 and 1975; many were crumbling.
With federal dollars, school officials have completed 30 different projects, either new buildings or renovations, since Katrina. Another 42 are underway, and nine are in the planning stages.
Of course, not everyone agrees that post-Katrina reform efforts have paid off. There is still deep resentment from many of the teachers and administrators who worked in public schools before the storm and who feel they’ve been blamed for problems that have more to do with poverty and neglect than with schools themselves.
The quality of special education continues to be of “pressing concern,” according to the report, with decentralization adding to the complexity of making sure the most vulnerable students are served.
“We can’t claim victory yet,” Cowen wrote. “Perhaps the prime test for all those who work so tirelessly in our schools will be to continue the transformation and ensure our schools become not just good or ‘better than before,’ but excellent.”