School reforms in New Orleans have been a boon for students, according to a new report — the latest contribution to a body of research lauding the city’s 13-year-old charter school movement.
After the state seized control of most of the city’s public schools in 2005 and began turning them over to charter operators, test scores shot up by as much as 16 percentiles, researchers at Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance for New Orleans found.
High school graduation rates have risen by as much as 9 percentage points, college graduation rates are up by as much as 5 points, and the city’s college entry and "persistence" rates also have improved, according to the study, which was released Monday.
“We aren’t aware of any other district or program that has had this kind of improvement across such a wide range of outcomes,” said Douglas Harris, the alliance’s director. “Compared with pre-(Hurricane) Katrina student outcomes, we see substantial increases in every measure available.”
The report arrives as the Orleans Parish School Board this month reclaimed all of the city’s charter schools, after years of state oversight. Those schools will retain their right to be independent, but the local school board must hold them accountable when they underperform.
That board has praised the city's long-term progress but notes, as reformers and Harris have, that test scores have stagnated in recent years.
The new report is the alliance’s second look at student achievement since the post-Katrina reforms. Its first, which mainly noted growth in test scores, was released in 2015.
Those reforms included empowering individual schools to make their own academic and financial decisions, and letting families send their children to schools anywhere in the city, rather than confining them to a single neighborhood.
Schools can be closed when they do poorly, while high-performers are encouraged to expand by taking over other campuses.
Whether those moves have actually helped students has been long debated by charter school backers and their critics. The latter question whether other factors, such as student population shifts, are in fact the reason for test score gains.
Harris’ group seeks to debunk that claim in its latest review. Even students who left New Orleans after the storm and came back later did better, on average, under the new system, the report says. There’s also little proof that the overall public school student population today is more apt to succeed than it was before Katrina, it says.
“To the extent that the goal of the reforms was to increase ... commonly measured student outcomes, the reforms have to be judged a great success,” Harris and Matthew Larsen, of Lafayette College, note in their report.
Those outcomes include the scores on state standardized tests, which increased by 11 to 16 percentiles, depending on the subject, from 2006 to 2014.
They also include the high school graduation rate, which has gone up by between 3 and 9 percentage points, depending on the analysis used.
College entry rates have gone up by as much as 15 points, while the rate of college freshmen who remain in school through graduation has risen by as much as 7 points. The college graduation rate itself has increased by as much as 5 points.
The changes in schools also likely led to a reduction in the achievement gaps between black and low-income students and their white and higher-income peers, at least when it comes to high school graduation rates and college success, the report says.
It’s unlikely that the success in New Orleans could be duplicated elsewhere, the researchers warn, given the unique circumstances that helped prompt it. New Orleans did not have trouble attracting new talent, for one, because Katrina’s devastation tugged at newcomers’ heart strings.
The city’s education system, mired in corruption and mismanagement before the storm, also provided a low bar from which to improve, the authors note.
Although the report does not detail the recent flatline in public school progress — New Orleans schools have been outpaced by other school districts in the past five years — the group said it would examine that phenomenon in a future review.