The Storm

The storm ravaged the city’s architecture and infrastructure, took
hundreds of lives, exiled hundreds of thousands of residents. But it
also destroyed, or enabled the destruction of, the city’s public-school
system–an outcome many New Orleanians saw as deliverance….The floodwaters, so the talk went, had washed this befouled slate
clean–had offered, in a state official’s words, a “once-in-a-lifetime
opportunity to reinvent public education.” In due course, that
opportunity was taken:…Stripped of
most of its domain and financing, the Orleans Parish School Board fired
all 7,500 of its teachers and support staff, effectively breaking the
teachers’ union. And the Bush administration stepped in with millions
of dollars for the expansion of charter schools–publicly financed but
independently run schools that answer to their own boards. The result
was the fastest makeover of an urban school system in American history.

That’s from The Atlantic just over a year ago.  Guess what?  It’s working. The storm is coming.



Alan, that was my first thought too. But N.O. did re-elect Mayor Nagin; I'd say most of the under-educated are back.

@JSK: Mayor Nagin a Republican? I don't think so...

At no time is the epistemological admonishment "correlation is not causation" more a propos. I strongly doubt that the New Orleanian's that fled and did not return were a representative, randomly chosen cross-section of public school students. I don't have the data, but one wonders how the exodus rearranged the demographic composition of the student body.

Ditto to Alan. To Tom's point, there was a large exodus of lower class into cities like Baton Rouge and Houston. Many of the ones who were permanently displaced out of the city did not have the resources to return, and it is part of the story as to why the footprint of New Orleans is now smaller. I suspect there's a selection story in this.

While we await some unassailable evidence on school choice, can anybody tell me why school privatization (while subsidizing those who can't afford schooling, of course) isn't better than the status quo?

The Atlantic article gives a figure of 75% of NOLA students being eligible for free/reduced lunch in 2004.

Current numbers from Teach For America's site -- -- give 99% eligible in Orleans Parish, 66% in Jefferson, and 78% in St John. I'm not sure what the extent of the New Orleans school district is, but it is at least obvious that public school students in NOLA are not richer on average now than they were pre-Katrina.

Josh - My sense was it was the least well off who were permanently displaced. I know, for instance, that Houston, Jackson Mississippi, Atlanta, Baton Rouge all received waves of lower class individuals. But I don't know of hard data, just anecdotes. But, the March CPS included a set of questions in 2005 on migration related to Katrina that would enable one to answer that easily.

I realize my previous comment did not have much to do with this post, but I figured that some teacher bashing will come up at some point, so I though I better get it in.

Another comment: I am a public school teacher who is started to agree with the ideas of privatizing school.

By the way, here is a related question. We typically compare our school results with those of other countries, and the outcome is usually that we are falling short. Most or all of the countries have public school systems, so what are they doing that we are not, and if it is our government control that weakens our outcomes, why isn't that a problem in other countries? In all other matters, we (the USA) usually suggest that their governments are more inefficient than ours (France, Italy, Japan, etc.), so why are schools flip flopped there? Do other countries have local control? Is it all socio-economic? I honestly don't know and would be interested in what other people have to say about that.

we can already see the stratification in our society between rich kids whose families can afford to move to places where other rich families live, or send their kids to expensive private schools to make sure they go to school with only kids from rich families. Privatization and vouchers will merely accelerate this process.
Wealth also creates other potentials. Poor parents are forced to work, and so are not able to participate in the education of their children. In wealthier families the mom, dad, or sometimes both, are able to achieve a 'better work-life balance' and participate in the education of their kids. This fact alone creates enough incentive for private schools to use price discrimination to keep the poor working family kids out, and thus raise their test scores simply using demographics, and not better teachers.
@liberarts, my feeling is that if more conservative christians in the US actually lived in a place like the UK where religious institutions can receive public funding, as long as they adhere to a centrally administered national curriculum, they would be more open to the idea of this. As long as we only offer one-size-fits-all public schooling, this will be used by both conservative and liberal politicians as a hot-button issue for years to come,


First, English is something most students don't need? Last time I checked, people need to read and write fairly competently for most of their lives in order to be effective workers, citizens, etc. In fact, one could pretty persuasively make the case that more people need high-school level reading and writing skills more than they need high-school level chemistry, physics, or even math skills.

Second, like many libertarian advocates of so-called performance-based teacher pay, you seem to elide the whole question of how performance is measured. (And you also neglect to consider that a teacher's pre-tenure period is effectively that type of evaluation period. But back to measurement...)

How does one measure teacher performance? Student tests? Who designs the tests? What do the tests measure? Do we create a situation in which some states dumb down the tests, which we have now? Do we have some teachers simply teaching wrote memorization for the test and therefore possibly arriving at better scores than teachers who teach more creatively, but who put less stock in the test? What about a situation where one teacher only teaches to the test and another does that and then some? Would they both get paid the same if their respective classes score roughly the same on the test, even if one's students actually learn much more? Is an effective teacher one whose students meet "x" average score? Won't that just encourage teachers who want to make more to teach in high-income areas, since that's correlated with high achievement? Or will the testing track individual students' performance from year-to-year and reward teachers for improvement? What happens if a teacher inherits a class that already has high scores, leaving little room for improvement? What about the fact that since curricula, etc. differ from year-to-year, one needs to find some way to control for that so that teachers who teach "easy" years don't get unduly rewarded?

Or what about having principals or fellow teachers doing the evaluation? But what happens if the principal has a personal grudge against the teacher? Or the fellow teachers represent the teacher-in-question's overachieving nature? Does it just become a popularity contest?

As I think the above makes clear, there's good reason why teachers' unions have advocated for seniority based pay.

That being said, I'm not totally opposed to considering some type of performance pay, but only if it complements, not replaces, performance pay, and if it's something a lot more complex and nuanced than the naive test-based pay suggested by many proponents.

In any case, it's far from the panacea that many suggest.

in the UK, the state sponsored school system is rigorously managed at the federal level. There is school choice based on the fact that you can send your kid to any school that you can physically deliver the kid to at the schools designated start time. With the trains and bus systems (not that great, but much better than in the US), this makes it much easier to shuttle kids around to different schools if the one in your city (or village, hamlet), isnt up to par. As I stated above, people can also choose to send their kid to a publicly funded Church of England, Catholic, Baptist, Secular, Islamic, Hindu, etc,. school, but these must meet rigorously enforced mandates and follow a national curriculum. This means that the christian school would need to teach evolution as part of the national science curriculum, but could offer electives for creation science as well for those children seeking to avoid the inconvenient facts that they are being forced to learn in the science class. The very wealthy can elect to send their kids to elite public (e.g. private) schools, such as Eton, which are not regulated like the state sponsored schools.
So, the fact that conservatives argue for local control, and vouchers as the solution to our problems despite evidence from every other country whose children perform better than ours is truly a conundrum.

Detroit desperately needs a hurricane.

Matt, I'm a Teach for America teacher in a school that has 10 of us plus 2 alumni. Don't take the hype at face value.

@Rex_Rhino I am willing to pay higher taxes to support the education of poor kids along with my own. I am fairly well-off, and white. I also would would rather have my kids go to school with a diverse racial mix, as I myself benefited greatly from my own public school education with my Asian, Mexican, African, Indian, Native, and other American friends. Living in the UK made me realize the value of a public-funded education system that everyone values. Vouchers are not the solution to getting poor kids into the rich white private schools. These schools will merely raise their rates to ensure an optimal (to them) demographic makeup. What you will see instead is the emergence of a single, monopoly school over which you will have not a wit of influence. Call it the Walmart School, Inc.


It is absurd to say that it is too difficult to measure the performance of teachers and so we should give up. How do you measure performance at ANY job? You can't just give the employee a test to see how well they performed on the job. And yet we don't seem to have much trouble figuring out who are the good workers and who can't cut it. I imagine the same is largely true for teachers. Students know who the bad teachers are. Parents know. Everybody knows.

I think it might aid the discussion if the following three questions were being kept apart:

1. Should schools be publicly funded?

2. If so, should schools in richer neighbourhoods get more money?

3. If so, should parents be allowed to send their children to whichever school they like?

My understanding is that the three go together in the US, but this need not be so.

"Ok so I don't know where you are coming up with the assumption that a full on voucher system would be more expensive per student (tax wise) then the current system."

What I reported is that a voucher system may reduce the pressure to fund the system, hence it may be less well funded. And again, that is not really my argument, just one that I have heard.

"2) "Many people do not want their tax money to go to schools that are sponsored by or sympathetic to religions that they don't approve of."

And yet they are currently forced to pay taxes for secular schools, which itself is a religious bent that many don't approve of."

What I mean here is that many would not like their money to support Madras-style Islamic schools or fundamentalist christian schools that teach that homosexuality is an abomination, etc. Public schools simply ignore

More likely explanation: In addition to bad teachers, Katrina swept away bad students.

Back to the fundamental question, here are some data from the 2007 Census for New Orleans.


"B. New Orleans’ 2006 post-storm population was smaller, older, more educated, less poor, with fewer renters, and fewer households with children than was recorded in Census 2000."


"C. Compared with “stayers† in the city of New
Orleans, out-migrants were younger, poorer,
more likely to be black, and more likely to
have children."

There is some danger in extrapolating from aggregate characteristics to school enrollment patterns, but this appears to be the most comprehensive data available, since NO school district is not required to report demographic and achievement data for state and federal accountability purposes.

From the data, it appears as though the demographic makeup of the suburbs was largely undisturbed. This would provide a nice research design for analyzing the true effects of the variables extolled by school-choice advocates.

What I am arguing is that vouchers will make the overall educational output of our system worse off, and, thus, make our society as a whole worse off. I will actually cede to @Rex that vouchers would be a short term benefit to some poor families over the next 10 years, as the transition from a multi-tiered to a two-tiered education system will take some time to occur. Why do you think the Republicans have been pushing the issue?! They were hoping to use the issue to get a few more people to vote for them against their economic interest, along with the conservative christians, and tax haters. In the long-term, we will all suffer together as the cost of sending our children to the 'right school' becomes prohibitively expensive, while the diversity of schools offering 'alternative education' proliferates. Meanwhile, the sale of government services to the private sector at fire-sale prices will continue unabated. And what little political influence we have over the education of our children will be lost.

While we await some unassailable evidence on school choice, can anybody tell me why Government schools are better than privatization (while subsidizing those who can't afford schooling, of course)?

BTW I think this emphasis on test scores is wrong becuase I think that they are not testing the right things. To me the schools are more off in what they teach than how well they teach.

mdesus and Cliff,

Essentially, you're both just articulating a pretty basic anti-union -- anti-employee input, workplace democracy, or whatever-you-want-to-call-it -- attitude.

What does Cliff's comment -- "Students know who the bad teachers are. Parents know. Everybody knows." -- mean exactly? What about students who like easy classes. (Most students today?) They'd surely give poor ratings to the difficult math or history teacher. Who knows, they're parents might (probably would?) take their child's side. Let's even assume the school has a good principal who disagrees and thinks the teacher is great. Who wins that debate? Does the teacher get fired? A raise? It would depend on who was making the decision.

It's one thing to say that someone in authority -- principal, PTA, school board, whatever -- has the ultimate say over who is a good teacher or not, regardless of the consequences, but that's not really advocating meritocracy or "performance pay." It's just shifting power from teachers to someone else. Period.

Simply because bosses in most business environments have the right to fire non-union employees at will -- even for petty or wrongheaded reasons -- doesn't mean that it's the right model for that workplace, or that it would make schools better. Education isn't as easily quantifiable as other things.

Assuming that union-based seniority isn't perfect, either, (it isn't), the choice is then between a system that gives employees more protection from arbitrary power and one that gives them less. Certainly when it comes to schools, I'd prefer the former.

Once again, if the goal is to recruit better people to be teachers, undermining their security and autonomy (two of the few clear benefits to teaching today) isn't one of the answers.

I can honestly say that it has been the observation of every teacher I have known who has been at it for 20+ years that a combination of bad parenting and administrative capitulation to unreasonable parent demands (typically in the form of assigning higher grades to undeserving students) has virtually destroyed the public school system. My father, a former teacher, now retired, likes to tell a story from his childhood of a teacher calling home to say he wasn't doing his work (an assessment with which he disagreed) and coming home to be disciplined with a belt by his father, no questions asked. As he put it, "I doubt there are any parents like that left."

What you will see instead is the emergence of a single, monopoly school over which you will have not a wit of influence.

Errr, are you kidding? Because people have a lot of influence when they're not being forced to pay money, but instead can simply use their money at other schools.

The last time I checked, the public school system is a textbook example of a monopoly. And without coincidence, it has the same problems as other monopolies.

I always find funny that liberals come off as anti-choice when it comes to schooling.

How are we going to attract the best and brightest this way?

I could simply say, "if we wanted the best and brightest," we'd pay more for them (with vouchers and a free market), but that'd be too simple and quite frankly that doesn't highlight the problems in wanting to pay more for every teacher.

See Akerlof's Market for Lemons. I'm not going to explain it because I trust that you know it. Note that the same situation is applicable in hiring teachers. Think about it. How do you know that the person you are hiring is a good teacher? You don't!

So schools have to use signaling to make sure they get the best... but there's actually no difference in performance between people who have MA's and BA's, despite that the public school system often pays people with MA's substantially more. I skimmed through an NBER report on it, but I can't find it as of now.

See, just because you know how to, oh, derive Schrödinger's equation from the Feynman Path Integral, it doesn't mean that you can intuitively explain Newton's Laws of Motion in a way that an eighth grader could easily understand and relate to, and then run a grade school class efficiently. And even if you can, it certainly doesn't mean that you can do it better than anybody else. There are plenty of intelligent people who make bad teachers, many times because they "just get it" and can't teach it to students who are extremely slow learners. So was it this blog or Freakonomics where the post writer hired the guest speaker and that speaker delivered one of if not the best lecture the writer had ever seen?

Paying more only attracts more fodder that needs to be sorted through and quite frankly may be chosen. Plus, who's to say that the "best and brightest" deserve to shine by teaching students? Bright people are just as useful doing things that pay more money, you know. Generally, I'd say that's why they get paid more money to do those things!

"In many other countries, the students are separated according to ability early in their academic careers and moved into different tracks: High School, trade school, etc. As a result, many of these tests compare the brightest Japanese or German students with all of the American students."

As far as Germany in the PISA and TIMMS studies is concerned, this is incorrect. That was a representative sample of classes in all tracks.

By the way, some people advocate tracking as a remedy for the problems of the American school system. That's sort of funny because Germany didn't do too hot in the PISA studies and lots of people blame that on tracking. They point to Finland (which seems to come out as the winner pretty much all of the time), which has a one-track system.

I think it's safe to say that the teachers union is detrimental to public school education. Other than that I disagree entirely with your sentiment. Especially the idea that students prefer easy teachers. Students prefer good teachers. I think you miss interpret my stance as being opposed to things rather than for something other than the status quo.

Take a basic economics course bud it would help. Paying more (fiscally or in social recognition) is the way every industry in the world attracts talent. Want better people? Pay them more, and the better people will come.

How is it possible that on an economics blog run by two libertarians that (what I'm assuming) the regular readers differ so greatly from both economic theory and libertarian ideals? I had just assumed everyone on this site agreed unions, in todays market, where citizen worker rights are largely guaranteed, are bad and stifle competition. Strange...

@The New York City Math Teacher, RE: point #3:
Your choice of probability distributions seems wrong. Testing a group of kids is not sampling from the same random variable (Bernoulli) many times but is instead sampling from many different (independent?) RV's once. This seems to lend itself more to a Gaussian.

Not everyone! :-p

The "Teach for America" program isn't driven by high minded altruism from the students it recruits. These kids come from elite programs, they're not going to be career teachers on a scale you can implement on any large scale. Just another status game to demonstrate to employers that they are willing to toil for long hours in adverse environments before making big bucks at BIGLAW.

Matt - you're absolutely right, the real measured variables don't follow Bernouillian distributions, but we don't have real access to the real measured scores. The only data available is multinomial relative frequency data of test score category in percents.

But the magnitude of whatever performance gains can be estimated, and it's not large. 200 extra passes in 5500 - ~3.8% - is in the noise of all the other variance a big city school district can provide, not to mention potential variability in testing.

I'd actually want to do a chi-square goodness-of-fit on the multinomial probability distribution of the five categories of performance on the tests, but the only data actually available is relative frequency in percents, so back to estimation again.

, and perhaps afterwards do an ANOVA on the t

I'm always amazed that so many people will predict dire social outcomes for vouchers, and use this as an explanation for why we mustn't use them even to replace, say, the nightmarishly bad DC public school system. Because hey, what bad effects could shorting thousands of poor black kids out of a decent education possibly have?

Mark In Texas, i see no problem with believing that good teachers matter, while simultaneously believing that their quality is hard to measure, and that the measurement itself would distort education to produce worse results. I am not sure if it is true, but I do not think it contradicts itself.

If the results of the measurements are only a weak proxy for quality, then it is possible that the improvements from selection effects are more than compensated for by the quality decrease from teach-to-the-test behavior.

"quality decrease from teach-to-the-test behavior. "

Actually understanding English and Math is a negative in some places?

So far the best argument that I have seen for vouchers has been that it ca not be any worse than what we, in America, already have, so why not let private companies profit off of it, they might make things better. Some of us believe that the economics of mass education preclude the generation of sufficient profit for private firms in any way that would bring about the improvements that all of us are wanting to see. We then point to evidence from other countries whose students do better than ours across the board. These countries generally do not have the decentralized, privately funded, non-unionized system that others argue would improve our school system. We wonder what is wrong with this evidence?

@Cyrus: Good question. Let's set them a test, then we can find out.

Billare, I dare you to come to my professional development meeting tomorrow and say that to us in person.

I'm really sorry to have to tell [almost] everyone on this thread that you have no idea what you're talking about. For that reason, I encourage you to stay out of the next conversation about public schooling you run across.

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