THE BLOG
08/25/2014 02:24 pm ET | Updated Oct 25, 2014

The New Orleans Experiment in School Reform: Lessons Learned

As another school year begins, the annual question arises: what are we going to do about our schools? Every president since Truman has made education a top priority, including President Obama, whose "Race to the Top" incentivizes communities to improve their schools. But despite the efforts of the current and past presidents, none have been able to significantly improve K-12 school performance on a sustained basis. Clearly, there is no silver bullet for school reform: every community is unique and requires an array of approaches to effect positive, sustainable change.

In New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina, in one of its many ironies, created the opportunity for genuine reform by wiping out a dysfunctional and corrupt school system in which 96 percent of graduating students fell below basic proficiency in English and 94 percent in math. Immediately after the storm, with most public schools closed for the year, an Education Committee created by the then mayor outlined principles of reform based on high standards, autonomy, engagement, accountability, investment in human talent, a holistic approach to student development, and choice, while discouraging rigidity, apathy, and waste. Nowhere did the Education Committee mention any particular kind of school; to us on the Committee, the debate between charter and traditional schools was the wrong conversation, a distraction from the real stakes and the real options. Charter schools were to simply be a means to an end, not an end unto itself.

Still, it's significant that, nine years after the storm, 91 percent of students in New Orleans attend charter schools. What we've ultimately done is develop the concept of a portfolio of schools in the belief that freedom breeds initiative, civic engagement, creativity, and innovation. The notable success of charters in New Orleans, alongside a handful of traditional schools, signals a healthy oxygenation and ferment, derived from competing ideas and the commitment of passionate educators.

In a city where more than 90 percent of charter students are African American and most live in poverty, a number of schools have made significant progress. Ben Marcovitz, founder of Sci Academy, an open enrollment charter high school that has achieved a 100 percent senior graduation rate and nearly a 100 percent college admissions rate, relies on continual assessments to construct a "best practices" model. When he saw that his incoming ninth graders lacked the basic skills to tackle grade-appropriate subjects, he revamped his entire curriculum to introduce months of literacy training. Similarly, FirstLine Schools, founded by CEO Jay Altman (who spearheaded the charter movement in New Orleans back in the 1990s), has achieved success by adopting a "blended learning" model: teachers hold small group sessions or confer one-on-one while scheduled computer time allows children to work toward individual goals at their own pace.

It's true that decentralization has its costs compared to unified governance that efficiently coordinates services across schools. (In New Orleans, networks are beginning to be established to support special needs services, provide a uniform application process, and create system-wide programs for students at risk.) It's also true that some charters do fail and are closed, and that traditional school systems can work extremely well. Union City, New Jersey is one such place, where excellent teachers and administrators, engaged citizens, and committed planning-- including a citywide two-year preschool to promote literacy and learning capacities like attention and self-regulation--are producing success. The bottom line: success can come in different packages. The type of school is far less important than a system that sets expectations, provides reliable feedback, rewards competence, penalizes failure, encourages creativity, and inspires commitment.

In New Orleans after Katrina, there was general agreement that the old way had to go, to be replaced with a new approach. Nine years later, the voice of the public continues to be crucial. Watchdog organizations like Tulane's Institute for Public Education Initiatives and Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, which aims to build a comprehensive school data warehouse for the city, are identifying successes and failures and bringing the entire community into the conversation.

The turnaround of New Orleans' public schools -- only 5.7 percent are now failing compared to 65 percent pre-Katrina -- has been critical to the resurgence of the city as a whole. New Orleans suffered a singular man-made disaster when the levees failed, but the lessons we learned are applicable to cities struggling with the ongoing catastrophe of depopulation, unemployment, poverty, crime, and blight. Cities like Cleveland and Detroit are wise to address their school systems first, because improving education is the most powerful means of changing the inner city dynamic. For example, in Cleveland, success stories are beginning to emerge, like the charter school Citizens Academy, named a Blue Ribbon school by the U.S. Department of Education, and MC2STEM, a public magnet school with an innovative program of project-based learning in citywide science venues and a 100 percent senior graduation rate.

Education isn't about allegiances and ideologies. It's about our children and the world they're going to lead. We can make that world better if we commit to systematic reform, create space for innovation, and engage whole communities in the effort.