Disruption, Standardization, Diversification


Leslie Jacobs recently had an op-ed in the Times Pic: New Orleans Charter Schools are All the Same? Not True.

The title of the post makes her thesis clear: there are a lot of different types of charter schools in New Orleans. The whole piece is worth reading.

And Leslie is right. While quality remains uneven, New Orleans families have a diversity of school choices that has not exited in the city’s recent history.

This got me thinking about how the New Orleans charter sector developed.


Disruption often begins with start-ups catering to users that existing incumbents ignore. And while it’s probably a stretch to call New Orleans students who attended public schools before Katrina “non users” – our 50% dropout rate points to the fact that many students were barely being served.

This extreme dysfunction, coupled with a constitutional amendment and then a hurricane, ushered in a period of rapid new school development.

In roughly a ten year period, charter school market share grew from 5% to 95%.


Many of these start-ups quickly gravitated toward a set of successful practices that are common amongst high-perfoming public schools that serve students in poverty.

Roland Fryer wrote a paper – “Getting Beneath the Veil of Effective Schools” – that identifies five of these practices: high expectations, data-driven instruction, extended school day, small group tutoring, and frequent teacher feedback.

Many schools in New Orleans, with mixed success in execution, attempted to implement these practices.

Interestingly enough, decentralization led to standardization.


But then a couple of things happened.

First, schools began tinkering with the aforementioned five practices. To get the gains of small group tutoring, some schools implemented blended (computer based) learning; to ensure that high expectations were grounded in the reality, some schools developed community college partnerships for students that were not yet ready to thrive in a four year college environment.

Second, often because of family and student demand, schools began expanding their programmatic offerings to include aspects of schooling beyond the five practices. Bands, football teams, and language immersion programs spread all over the city.

Third, some entrepreneurs launched new school models to meet the unmet desires of families in the city. Within a couple year period, three schools opened with missions that explicitly incorporated student body socioeconomic diversity.

In short, innovation, competition, and entrepreneurship fueled the diversification of the charter sector.

Some Thoughts 

I don’t know if charter sectors in other cities will develop in a similar manner.

Unfortunately, I think too many charter school founders ignore the benefits of standardizing the five practices that Fryer identified. Or understand the benefits but are unable to execute the practices.

Additionally, for family demand to truly drive program development, choice needs to me a reality for all, not just a few.

So I guess time will tell if the New Orleans trajectory will be replicated in other cities.

But I think the disruption -> standardization -> diversification process has benefited New Orleans students greatly, even if the schools are not yet as good as we’d want them.

3 thoughts on “Disruption, Standardization, Diversification

  1. Wm. Murphy

    Having just participated in the process last spring as a parent, I am pretty passionate about it. I’d say that the degree of diversification that you and Leslie attribute to the system is overstated. There is a lot more sameness than difference.

    Looking at school options was a bit like perusing the menu at Olive Garden; it’s mostly vaguely Italian themed pasta-centric meals. Some of it is better pasta than others but the difference between Angel Hair, Fettuccine, and Spaghetti is one of shape not substance. Sure, there are a couple non-pasta options if that’s your preference but there aren’t many such choices. The difference between my tortured Olive Garden metaphor and our city’s schools is that Olive Garden has unlimited amounts of the non-pasta options and we have only one Morris Jeff, one Bricolage, one NOCCA, a couple French Immersions, and then a lot of No-Excuses style dishes that differ in form but not much substance. The non-pasta options can only serve so many.

    That having been said, anyone who asserts that the average (or perhaps any) school system has a great variety of schools with varied pedagogical philosophies, instructional practices, and cultural systems is frankly delusional or lying. I’ve worked in several cities now. I have colleagues in many more. There are always a couple schools for the arts, some vo-tech options, maybe a montessori, and some advanced selective schools or poly-techs. But other than that, it’s mostly flavor and not nutritional differences. The best schools do three to four of the Fryer things very well and are largely the same in most ways except for mascot, colors, and fight song (all form, not substance). For anyone to critique New Orleans as having less variety than is typical is silly.

    New Orleans before the storm had less variety than the other systems in which I’ve worked and no real degree of choice save for testing or performing into schools with criteria. New Orleans now has those same schools from pre-2006 and a handful of other options that include arts based, community based, maker-movement focused, immersion, etc. It’s not like a Cheesecake Factory level of delicious variety but it’s a solid Olive Garden with a couple daily specials that are worth a look. We’d do well to find ways to add Vo-Tech among other choices.

    I’d simply caution that I think parents, or at least this parent, participating in the process may find the choices to be remarkably similar in ways neither you nor Leslie are recognizing. To say there is great diversity of choices is an exaggeration. But to assert, as many nay-sayers do, that it is less than is typical is also inaccurate. I would also assert that because certain schools refuse to participate in the OneApp and others run their own lotteries with an muddied degree of transparency it makes the variety of choices of public schools in the city appear to be even fewer. If all those schools were also involved in the shared process I think it would be more clear that while the choices are more limited than we might like they are at least as varied, if not more so, than most urban districts.

    1. nkingsl

      Hey Bill – good to hear from you. And thanks for sharing from parent perspective.

      I agree that diversity is probably best understood in relative terms – better than before, and better than many other places – but not good enough.

      One other point: there is a tension between diversity and what works. The No Excuses model has proven to be very effective with low income students; to be honest, I wish more schools in NOLA implemented this model with more fidelity…



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