Monday, August 30, 2010

Disaster bred reform

One of the success stories coming out of post-Katrina New Orleans is the turnaround in the public schools there. Once home to one of the worst school systems in the country, the disaster forced city officials and school leaders to reform the school system.
New Orleans has become a laboratory for education reform, largely by necessity. With virtually all its students and teachers evacuated for the better part of the 2005-06 school year, it had to dramatically downsize and regroup. In the wake of the storm, the state became the overseer of most schools through its Recovery School District (RSD), originally set up to take over academically failing schools.

That paved the way for New Orleans to be named the most "reform friendly"

This distinction is partly because of the dominance of charter schools, which are free to experiment and which the RSD has encouraged. Out of 88 public schools in New Orleans, 61 are charters run by a variety of state and local operators. That represents 70 percent of the city's 40,000 students (there were 65,000 before Katrina). The percentage is much higher than in any other school system in the United States.

In addition to the charters, a small number of schools are run by the local school board, and the rest are run by the RSD.

Among the changes in New Orleans schools: One structure that gave way was the collective bargaining agreement with the teachers union, which reformers have praised for giving schools more flexibility on salaries and work hours. Many new teachers have flocked to the city through alternative training programs such as Teach for America.

Demographically, the student population hasn’t changed much. Ninety percent of public-school students are African-American, and 82 percent are low-income. Both figures are within five percentage points of pre-storm figures. But it’s not clear how many are returnees versus new to the city.

Before Katrina, 64 percent of New Orleans schools were deemed academically unacceptable by the state. By 2009, that was down to 42 percent.

Another good sign: In the RSD, the number of seniors who made it to graduation rose from 50 percent in 2007 to about 90 percent in 2010.

New Orleans students still test well below the state average in math and reading. They were improving before Katrina, but since schools have reopened, they’ve made gains at a much faster rate than the state.

On the 10th-grade Graduate Exit Exam, the portion of local students scoring at or above the basic level in English language arts rose from 37 percent in 2007 to 52 percent in 2010. Statewide, that number rose from 56 percent to 65 percent.

With so many changes, it’s difficult to pinpoint the cause of such gains, but several factors appear to be playing a role, says Shannon Jones, executive director of the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University in New Orleans, which published a recent report on the schools.

For one, “schools are being held accountable for results” in a new way, she says, because parents now can choose any school in the district.

Money is another factor. An influx of federal funds, as well as private donations, has enabled schools to offer extended days or school years, invest in technology, and boost teacher salaries.
Whatever the cause, the city has become a model for reform that other urban districts should look to. Charters, flexibility in paying teachers, and holding schools accountable are all factors that other districts should emulate instead of thinking that reform can take place within the existing structures without any real, substantive change in how things are done.