6 Takeaways on New Orleans’ charter initiative

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Earlier this week, at a Pioneer forum we had the pleasure of hosting an impressive roster of speakers on the enormous shifts in the charter and school choice sectors in New Orleans and Washington DC.  Representing NOLA, we had Neerav Kingsland, the CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, who gave an overview of the student outcome data resulting from the significant expansion of charter schools in New Orleans post-Katrina, and Jed Horne, the author of  Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City.

(Representing DC, we had former Mayor Adrian Fenty and University of Arkansas scholar Patrick Wolf, who has studied the impact of the DC Opportunity Opportunity Scholarship program for the federal government.  More on that in a subsequent blog.)

Here are the six takeaways from Kingsland’s presentation–important for boston and Massachusetts’ other major cities at a time when there is legislative debate on whether to lift the charter caps in the state’s lowest performing 29 districts.

1. Today, 90 percent of the schools in New Orleans are charter schools.  (By way of comparison, in DC, the charter sector serves 43% of the city’s public school students, and in Boston 18% of public school students.)  The change was indeed one based on seeing endless reports on the public schools’ failure in the city.  As Kingsland noted, those involved in the effort to expand choice felt that they needed to change the structure of the school system, rather than just making minor curricular and length of day adjustments, to avoid having the same conversations about the failure to move the needle on student performance a decade later.  The underlying philosophy was to move power away from the centralized bureaucracy and give it to educators and parents.  As Kingsland put it, Let educators run schools, let parents choose the school that’s right for their kids, and let the government hold the adults accountable for performance.

2. Forget all the debate (mostly partisan) on whether the NOLA experiment has worked: It has. A great way to look at this is not simply to look at NOLA and say, well, yes, the scores went up.  After all, we have seen states over time lower the quality of their state tests in response to NCLB and also because adults in bureaucracies tend to hate risk and accountability.  (Smile.)  But if you compare statewide Louisiana and NOLA performance over the years, with a specific focus on the gap between them, then you can make some informed judgments on whether the performance of the city’s students has improved.  The good news is that it has – and significantly since the post-Katrina reforms.  NOLA started out in 2000 with only 25 percent of its students rating proficient; by 2005, that percentage increase to 35; but statewide proficiency went up by 7 percent (likely in part due to lowering the difficulty of the state test).  So NOLA reforms pre-Katrina only resulted in closing the state-city gap by 3 percent.

Post-Katrina the news is far better.  From 2005 to 2011, the percent of NOLA students’ scoring proficient went up from 35% to 56% proficiency, a 21% jump; during that same time, statewide Louisiana students’ proficiency went up only 8%, meaning that the NOLA reforms have closed the state-city gap by 13%.  NOLA is poised to surpass the state proficiency average in the very near future.

3. The improvement in New Orleans students’ performance is not due to demographic changes post-Katrina.  The current NOLA student body is more impoverished than pre-Katrina, with the city’s free and reduced lunch student population increasing 6%.  In addition, the city continues to face a severe mental health crisis since Katrina.  A RAND Corporation study noted that nearly 40% of NOLA residents had probable mental illness after the storm, with half classified as severe.  Follow-up studies suggest that the incidence of mental illness, unlike the situation with natural disasters in other parts of the world, has not declined significantly since.

4. NOLA charters are not getting more money than the rest of the state of Louisiana.  In 2002, per-pupil funding for NOLA and the state was nearly equivalent.  Since 2009, funding for both has gone up, but they remain more or less equivalent.  (The handful of NOLA district schools that remain open receive significantly more.)

Then there are the two most important things to learn about and from the NOLA Experiment.

5. Most significantly for NOLA students, “The New Orleans system is undeniably significantly better than it was pre-Katrina.”  Stanford’s CREDO research arm is not known as an advocate of charter schools. In fact, for many years the Massachusetts Teachers Association and its parent, the National Education Association, made constant reference to a 2009 CREDO report, which suggested that nationwide the performance of charters were no better than district schools. (The report also noted that certain states seemed to have gotten the policy frame right given the quality of their charters, but the 1009 report was nationwide in focus.)

A recent CREDO report on NOLA’s charter sector examined student achievement and, as they did in the case of their Boston/Massachusetts charter study, CREDO translated the performance statistics into a “days of learning” metric. That is, if performance is higher, there would be additional days of learning; and the reverse if a school’s academic performance was lower.  By these metrics, NOLA charter school students get an additional 80-90 days of learning a year over their peers in NOLA district schools.  That’s five more months of learning each academic year.

So what do Boston and Massachusetts have as a whole to learn from the NOLA Experiment?  After all, Boston charters, by CREDO’s analysis provide an extra 12 and 13 months of learning in English and math.  As Kingsland put it, “I have never seen anything like it.”  And, as Massachusetts is not immune to bragging, we often note that the state as a whole outperforms the rest of the country.

6. Kingsland suggests that Boston could reasonably aim to have the highest performing urban public school district in the nation if it simply handed power back to educators and parents. And he suggests a gradualist approach that would use something akin to NOLA’s Recovery School District mechanism, which could be used to break off and address the dysfunctional parts of our school districts.  The RSD, which preceded Katrina, is a state-based organization that pulls kids from failing districts and allows the state to apply pressure on a district in much the same way the receivership team in Lawrence has (though in a more limited way).

Kingsland suggests a 5 percent annual growth in charters in Boston to ensure capacity and planning for proven charter providers and district schools alike.  And he suggested that the endgame was to preserve and support the third of Boston district schools that are working just fine, thank you, while allowing failing schools to be replaced by highly accountable charters.

John Connolly and Marty Walsh, how high would you allow the number of charter schools to go in Boston?

Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, visit Pioneer’s website, or check out our education posts at the Rock The Schoolhouse blog.