The Complexity of the New Orleans Reform Effort Might Actually Make It Easier to Scale


A recent study found that the New Orleans education reforms achieved a ~.4 effect size, which is the largest citywide effect the researchers have ever seen an effect that surpasses most of what you see in pre-k and class size reduction studies (at about a quarter of the cost).

In their write-up of the study, the researchers made a very important point about comparing the New Orleans reforms to pre-k interventions.

While it might seem hard to compare such different strategies, the heart of the larger school-reform debate is between systemic reforms like the portfolio model and resource-oriented strategies.

Readers of this blog will know that I’m a structuralist.

I believe that changing the structure of public education, by handing power back to educators and families, is likely to achieve much better long term results than any specific programmatic intervention. The researchers were right to point out this difference within the reform debate.

The researchers also note:

Unfortunately, the effects of even the most successful programs are often not replicated when tried elsewhere, and there are good reasons to think the conditions were especially ripe for success in New Orleans.

The researchers site New Orleans low absolute performance and the city’s ability to attract talent as reasons that replicability may be difficult to achieve.

Perhaps, though I do think there are plenty of cities in the country that have very little where to go but up and have access to a lot of talent (Oakland, Atlanta, Philly, Camden, etc.).

But here’s a point I think the researchers missed.

My guess is that because New Orleans took on a structural reform, and not a specific programmatic reform, the effort might actually be easier to scale. 

Often times, interventions that show the largest effects, such as labor intensive pre-k programs, require a lot of specialized expertise, high fidelity to implementation, and significant resources.

The confluence of organizational talent, strategy, and implementation is very hard to replicate.

But the New Orleans reforms were not particularly operational in nature. There was no multifacteded curriculum that had to be adopted, no teacher coaching model that required years of training, no wrap-around model that necessitated the coordination of numerous agencies.

Instead, most of what needed to happen was for the government to approve charters that had a decent shot at succeeding, close the schools that didn’t work, and expand the schools that did.

Of course, certain caveats deserve mention: these regulatory functions require building some expertise; they need a lot of political leadership; and an intentionally nurtured non-profit sector provided many supports.

But, even considering these issues, the fact is that the New Orleans model is predicated more on layering in a structure and strategy over a complex system than it is on executing an operational heavy, resource intensive intervention.

In the long run, this is exactly why I think the New Orleans model has the potential to scale.

Time will tell if it can.

1 thought on “The Complexity of the New Orleans Reform Effort Might Actually Make It Easier to Scale

  1. Pingback: Structural vs. Operational Education Reform | Schools & Ecosystems

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