A new Tulane University study shows that the state’s takeover of the majority of New Orleans public schools after Hurricane Katrina paid off for New Orleans school children.  

The Education Research Alliance of New Orleans studied the impact of education reform in a nine-year period after Katrina and determined that “public schools saw sustained gains in student achievement, high school graduation and college outcomes.”  

This recent study adds to a growing body of evidence that New Orleans schools are better today than they were pre-Katrina. Moreover, school administrators are operating under more demanding state academic standards than their predecessors.  

The alliance study is one of two pieces of good news New Orleans educators have received recently. Another development is one of those bitter-sweet moments. In July, the state released test scores for the 2017-2018 academic year that showed New Orleans’ student performance scores appear to have stabilized after last year’s decline as result of increasing state standards. The state’s new LEAP tests adhere to standards agreed upon nationally. The leveling off beats more downturn, but officials are worried that scores could worsen when the state eliminates temporary curving to help districts adjust to new challenges.

Public attitudes about schools remain positive, however. In June, the Cowen Institute of Tulane released results of its annual survey of residents and parents.  It showed more people believe schools have improved compared to last year. Thirty-nine percent of participants believe schools are “getting better,” compared to 33 percent last year, the report says.  

During the nine years studied by the Education Research Alliance, the state Recovery School District transferred the “failing” schools the state seized in 2005 to charter operators, giving them broad authority over budget decisions and personnel.  Of the handful of high performing schools retained by the Orleans Parish School Board, many also became charter schools early on and others moved in that direction later.  

Overall, the shift from the old-style, centralized model of school operations to contracted school-based management resulted in significant improvements in student achievement.   

Douglas Harris, director of the Education Research Alliance, said the uptick in student performance in New Orleans outshines all other system improvements that alliance researchers know about.  “We aren’t aware of any district or program that has had this kind of improvement across such a wide range of outcomes,” Harris said in a summary of the report’s findings.  

“Compared with pre-Katrina student outcomes,” he said, “We see increases of 10 percent to 67 percent on every measure available.”

The report reveals that before Katrina, New Orleans schools ranked second from the bottom on state performance measurements while Louisiana itself ranked at just above the bottom in national performance.

Among other measurements, the alliance reports that through 2014, student achievement increased 8-16 percentiles; high school graduation rates shot up 3-9 points; enrollment in college increased 8-15 points; and college graduation rates climbed 3-5 points.

Critics of charter schools have long argued that a change in student population led to achievement improvements, not improved school management and instruction. The alliance report “rules out” that argument.

The report warns, however, that other school districts might not achieve the same results from similar reforms because New Orleans’ situation was unique.

“However,” Harris said in the report, “the New Orleans reforms provide important lessons for school reform efforts nationally that are worthy of attention.”