ERA’s New Report: Reforms Brought Measurable Progress

July 15, 2018

Today, a powerful new report on over a decade of education reform in New Orleans was released. The findings are unequivocal: reform brought significant progress across the board. Scholars Douglas Harris and Matthew Larsen at Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (ERA) published an unprecedented collection of data analyses on the outcomes of the New Orleans model in the report, “What Effect Did the New Orleans School Reforms Have on Student Achievement, High School Graduation, and College Outcomes?” Their study demonstrates that our students’ test scores, high school graduation rates, and college acceptance, persistence and completion rates have all improved – and that this growth occurred across races and income levels.

The report used multiple carefully designed research methods to determine these results. Harris and Larsen examined student characteristics and outcomes before and after school reforms were implemented, and ruled out other potential explanations for their findings. Their approach involved comparing New Orleans’ results with those from other Louisiana districts that were affected by Hurricane Katrina and that have both similar student demographics and similar pre-Katrina test scores. Their conclusion was clear: reforms have had striking, strong, positive results on public education. As Harris and Larsen state, “we are unaware of any other district that has improved this much in less than a decade, across so many outcomes.” 

This report is a testament to the hard work of many in recent years, and a call to continue our efforts. The changes we’ve made show we’re moving in the right direction. The changes we still require call for strategic clarity and persistence on the part of the district and its partners.

As we take a closer look at the findings, we can draw three main conclusions:

  • Academic results improved across all the metrics Larsen and Harris examined.
  • Progress occurred across racial and economic lines.
  • New Orleans’ unique reforms and subsequent outcomes hold important lessons for school reforms nationally, despite the role that certain local circumstances likely played in that success.

Academic Results Increased Across the Board

The report describes a school system that struggled academically prior to Hurricane Katrina. Harris and Larsen provide sobering reminders: the high school graduation rate was at 56%, and the city was ranked 67th out of 68 Louisiana districts in terms of math and reading test scores.

After Katrina, a series of significant reforms were implemented, including state control of most city schools, eventual conversion of almost all schools into autonomous charter schools, and citywide school choice. This model brought dramatic changes in student achievement and outcomes. Because of the reforms, explain Harris and Larsen, test scores, high school graduation rates, and college matriculation, persistence, and graduation rates all rose.

  • Student achievement as measured by test scores grew significantly, equivalent to a typical student’s performance improving by 8-16 percentile points.
  • College entry rates increased by 8-15 percentage points.
  • College persistence improved by 4-7 percentage points.
  • College graduation rose by 3-5 percentage points.
  • High school graduation rates increased by 3-9 percentage points.

Growth Across Lines of Race and Income

Whenever we look at growth, we must also look at equity. The results of this report are hopeful: progress was not limited to a single racial or economic group in the city. The reforms led to improved outcomes for both advantaged and historically disadvantaged student groups.  Black and low-income students earned higher test scores, graduated high school at higher rates, and had stronger college results after the reforms. Additionally, the black-white gap in high school graduation rates and college outcomes has narrowed since the start of the reforms.

National Lessons, Despite Unique Local Conditions

Harris and Larsen declare that it “is very unusual for programs and policies to have such success across such a wide range of outcomes,” and thus “the New Orleans reforms provide important lessons for school reform efforts nationally that are worthy of attention.” Even so, they caution that the approach may not be directly replicable—particular circumstances in New Orleans created the right conditions for our reforms and the magnitude of their success.

The degree to which schools struggled before the storm, for instance, gave fuel to forward momentum. Additionally, post-Katrina New Orleans was viewed on a national level as “school reform central,” which contributed to an influx of talent and energy to the city’s schools. Finally, Harris and Larsen note that an urban context allows for large-scale, meaningful school choice in a way that suburban and rural settings may not.

While these particular circumstances made New Orleans’ exact process of reform unique, Harris and Larsen suggest that other districts and states can still learn from New Orleans’ progress, particularly in terms of the role of government in education reform. Despite the frequent use of the term “market-based reforms” to describe the New Orleans approach, a significant aspect of our system is the distinctive and active role played by government entities. The essential elements of charter school autonomy and parent choice are combined with specific, intentional government functions related to accountability and equity, such as charter contract enforcement and centralized student enrollment.

Looking Forward

The New Orleans reforms worked. We must let this serve as both a cause for pride and a call to action; our work is far from done. The data—and our experience—still show gaps to fill and growth to pursue. For instance, despite gains by black students on long-term outcome measures, the gap between black and white students on achievement scores has widened since reforms began. This calls for continued innovation and dedication to change. We can’t rest at progress when inequities persist.

We also note that some measures of success have dipped or stalled in the past few years. While there remains overall growth, we must push forward with more energy and strategic clarity than ever, so that progress is strong and steady.

We are proud to be a beacon nationwide, and we know there is still work to do. This is the moment for us to lean into our strategy for change. This report is not a capstone; rather, it is a marker and a motivator. We are on the right path, and we must continue with urgency for all of our students.