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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.