By David Leonhardt
Photographs by William Widmer
David Leonhardt is an Opinion columnist
July 15, 2018
NEW ORLEANSTwelve years later, Nigel Palmer still remembers the embarrassment of his first days as a fourth grader in Monroe, La. He was a Hurricane Katrina evacuee from New Orleans, living with his family in a La Quinta Inn, 250 miles from home. As soon as the school year began, he could tell that the kids in his new school seemed different from him.
They could divide numbers. He really couldn’t. They knew the 50 states. He didn’t. “I wasn’t up to par,” he quietly told me. It’s a miserable feeling.
Until the storm, Palmer had been attending New Orleans public schools, which were among the country’s worst. The high-school graduation rate was 54 percent, and some students who did graduate had shockingly weak academic skills.
After Katrina’s devastation, New Orleans embarked on the most ambitious education overhaul in modern America. The state of Louisiana took over the system in 2005, abolished the old bureaucracy and closed nearly every school. Rather than running schools itself, the state became an overseer, hiring independent operators of public schools — that is, charter schools — and tracking their performance.
This month, the New Orleans overhaul entered a new stage. On July 1, the state returned control of all schools to the city. The charter schools remain. But a locally elected school board, accountable to the city’s residents, is now in charge. It’s a time when people in New Orleans are reflecting on what the overhaul has, and has not, accomplished.
So I decided to visit and talk with students, teachers, principals, community leaders and researchers. And I was struck by how clear of a picture emerged. It’s still a nuanced picture, with both positives and negatives. But there are big lessons.
New Orleans is a great case study partly because it avoids many of the ambiguities of other education reform efforts. The charters here educate almost all public-school students, so they can’t cherry pick. And the students are overwhelmingly black and low-income — even lower-income than before Katrina — so gentrification isn’t a factor.
Yet the academic progress has been remarkable.
Performance on every kind of standardized test has surged. Before the storm, New Orleans students scored far below the Louisiana average on reading, math, science and social studies. Today, they hover near the state average, despite living amid much more poverty. Nationally, the average New Orleans student has moved to the 37th percentile of math and reading scores, from the 22nd percentile pre-Katrina.
This week, Douglas Harris — a Tulane economist who leads a rigorous research project on the schools — is releasing a new study, with Matthew Larsen, another economist. It shows that the test-score gains are translating into real changes in students’ lives. High-school graduation, college attendance and college graduation have all risen.
Jones and his colleagues recently decided that their ninth graders needed more writing practice than they were getting from their literature-heavy curriculum. But the teachers still wanted to expose the students to great books. So they combined two curriculum plans to get the right mix, cutting down on novels without eliminating them. The students now read “Lord of the Flies,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Parable of the Sower,” Ray Bradbury short stories and journalism about terrorism, among other things, and also do more writing than they used to.
Crucially, all of this autonomy comes with accountability: Schools must show their approach is working. They are evaluated based on test scores, including ACT and Advanced Placement, and graduation rate — with an emphasis on the trend lines. Schools that fail to make progress can lose their contract.
Over the past decade, the district has replaced the operators of more than 40 schools in response to poor performance. “You have to meet these minimum standards to continue to have the privilege of educating kids,” Patrick Dobard, the superintendent until last year, told me. Harris’s research has found that much of the city’s progress has stemmed from closing the worst charter schools and letting successful charters expand.
Think about how different this is from the norm in American education. In most districts, a single entity — a board of education — is responsible for both running schools and evaluating them. That combination is not a recipe for rigorous evaluation and consequences. It’s akin to letting students grade themselves.
Obviously, very few districts elsewhere are going to replicate the New Orleans model and start from scratch. But most would benefit from introducing both more freedom and more accountability. Together, the two spark human ingenuity.
For all of the improvement here, the schools still have their troubles. The academic results still trail those in less impoverished districts, and progress has slowed lately. “We’re not where we want to be,” Rhonda Dale, the principal of Abramson Sci Academy, said. Some residents told me they hoped that the new local control could accelerate academic progress – while also making the school system feel like more a local institution and less like one imposed on the city. My column next week will focus on these challenges.
Yet even with the caveats, it would be a terrible mistake to let the imperfections obscure the progress here. The city’s residents certainly recognize that progress. In a recent poll by Tulane’s Cowen Institute, 70 percent of public-school parents said the charter schools had improved education.
And what ended up happening to Nigel Palmer? In seventh grade, he moved back to New Orleans, a stronger student than when he left. Fortunately, the city’s schools had improved too. His high school, KIPP Renaissance, was “a fun, competitive environment — people wanted a high G.P.A.,” he said. “School was cool.”
This spring, he graduated from Xavier University, a historically black Catholic college here, and he recently started his first job — as a middle-school social studies teacher in New Orleans.
David Leonhardt is an Op-Ed columnist. Before joining the Opinion department, he oversaw a strategic review of The Times’s newsroom and served as The Upshot’s founding editor and Washington bureau chief. In 2011, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.
A version of this article appears in print on July 15, 2018, on Page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: A Better Way to Run Schools.