Katrina’s Silver Lining

Here is Amy Waldman writing in The Atlantic in 2007:

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. That system had begun with great promise, in 1841, as one of the first in the Deep South. It had effectively ended, in 2005, in disaster—and not just the natural kind. Its defining characteristics were financial high jinks and low academic performance. On the last state achievement test before Katrina hit, 74 percent of eighth-graders had failed to demonstrate “basic” skills in English/Language Arts, and 70 percent scored below “basic” in math. The Orleans Parish School Board, which ran the city’s schools, was $450 million in debt. Yet these numbers did not begin to capture the day-to-day texture of the schools: when students held a press conference to express their post-Katrina wishes, they asked for textbooks, toilet paper, and teachers who liked them.

…New Orleans, barely a presence in the charter-school movement before the storm, now had a higher proportion of charter schools than any other American city—and unlike most of the country’s 4,000 such schools, these had the backing of the establishment. Most radical of all, the neighborhood school had been banished—parents would have total freedom to choose which school their children would attend, no matter where they lived. Introducing school choice and weakening teachers’ unions had both long been goals of many educational reformers. Circumstance had made New Orleans the laboratory for these ideas. Ben Kleban, a charter-school proponent drawn to New Orleans by this flourishing, called it “the biggest experiment in a system of schools of choice we’ve ever seen.” Leslie Jacobs, a member of the state school board, called it “the most market-driven system in the United States.”

So what are the results? Here is an article from Tuesday’s Times-Picayune:

Standardized test scores improved for the fourth year in a row for students in the state’s Recovery School District, providing more evidence that the radical reforms undertaken after Hurricane Katrina are producing results.

New state data show results in the RSD, a state body that took over most city schools after the 2005 storm, progressed somewhat unevenly, but once again outpaced the rest of Louisiana.

Since 2007, the proportion of students in the district scoring “basic” — essentially at grade level — or better has now more than doubled from 23 percent to 48 percent, rising faster than any other district in the state.

Many problems remain, of course, and educational reform has a way of nearly always disappointing.  I have not crunched the numbers or looked at controls but the gain is impressive and the growth in scores is higher in the RSD region compared to other Louisiana regions.

It’s amazing that getting rid of “neighborhood schools”, i.e. neighborhood monopolies, should be considered a radical reform but it is and I am pleased that the signs are positive.

Bonus Discovery: Treme explained, a guide to the series.


Comments for this post are closed