Were the New Orleans Reforms Worth It?

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Times Picayune Headline from coverage of the Education Research Alliance conference

There was a reoccurring theme at the Education Research Alliance Conference: people admitting that student achievement had gone up but now asking “was it worth the cost?”

This is very important.

Numerous studies and data analysis have shown that the New Orleans results were real, but I do think Doug Harris’ study – if it holds up – will be the definitive research that puts to bed any notion that the reforms did not increase student achievement.

In case you missed his presentation, Doug found .2-.45 standard deviation achievement gains. In subsequent posts, I’ll try and put that in context, but for now it’s worth spending time on the rhetorical shifts that are happening.

Instead of fierce debates denying improvements,conversations shifted to whether the reforms were worth it.

This is an important question, and it’s a fair one.

Surely, there is some cost to reform that is too high. Weighing different values and interests will determine where one sets this bar.

In the case of New Orleans, the main cost discussed at the conference was how the democratically elected Orleans Parish School Board fired the teachers after Hurricane Katrina.

It is undeniable that this occurred and that it led to real harm in the lives of many people. I also think that it’s difficult to extrapolate what this might mean for other cities.

Katrina did not just disrupt the lives of teachers, it disrupted the lives of everyone. Hundreds of thousands of people lost some combination of their homes and jobs. All of this was devastating.

Other cities, thankfully, will be trying to improve education under very different circumstances.

As for the future of New Orleans, I think there is both a moral and pragmatic imperative to increase the number of teachers being drawn from within the city.

No one is thinking about this more than the leaders of New Orleans schools, and I’m excited to watch New Orleans educators reinvent what it means to recruit and develop teachers in a manner that empowers communities, children and adults alike.

My hope is that other cities will be able to learn from these innovations, and that these innovations will change the current calculus of the question: “was increasing student achievement worth the cost?”

I remain convinced that reform need not be a zero sum game between community empowerment and student achievement. People should not misread New Orleans history and draw an erroneous conclusion that this is the moral of the story.

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