A Debate Within the Family: Can NOLA Scale? Should it?

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Robert Pondiscio just wrote an interesting post where he argues:

One of the most important questions is whether New Orleans can stand as a national model for those seeking to transform the education—and therefore the life outcomes—of low-income children of color. I’m not completely sold yet…. New Orleans is doing very well. But let’s think long and hard before trying to graft its approach onto other cities.

Do read the whole post. Robert’s a good thinker and writer. Moreover, reading his post reminded me how much more I enjoy debating within the family rather than debating with folks who will fundamentally oppose NOLA style reforms regardless of what the data says.

Robert makes a few points. I think only one has real merit.

Robert’s First Point: If You’re Low Income, Wanted a Great Education, and Could Live in a City in the United States, You Wouldn’t Pick New Orleans 

Ok. But so what? It’s not like this was the choice given to New Orleans families. Rather, much more pertinent to New Orleans families was: which set of reforms would make New Orleans schools better? Given that New Orleans has likely grown faster than any other city in the nation, the reforms seem to have delivered about all you could ask for in terms of student achievement.

It’s unfair to compare New Orleans absolute levels to the absolute levels of schools in cities.

A much better question is: would New Orleans’ style reforms lead to similar gains in other cities?

That’s a question worth debating.

Comparing the entire New Orleans school system with cities that have smaller, high-performing charter sectors (and also happen to have 2x the public funding and greater access to talent) seems fairly misguided.

To be fair, Robert says as much, but he still makes the argument anyway!

Robert’s Second Point: Charters Should Only Grow if They are Excellent 

Robert writes: “Frankly, I don’t see a lot of upside for the charter sector in allowing its reach to exceed its grasp.”

This is a more interesting question. I’ll reframe it as this: would it be better to for charters to have 25% market share and a .2 effect or 75% market share and a .1 effect.

I think 75% and .1 effect is what we should aim for because:

1) A city with 75% and a .1 effect will likely also have 25% and .2 within it (a subset of higher-performing charters). This is roughly what we see in NOLA, where 15-20 schools or so hit a .2 effect.

2) .1 effect is a big deal over time. Note that CREDO effects cover a three year period. Assuming that there is some cumulative effect, attending a .1 effect school for an entire K12 education could lead to 2-3 years of extra learning. To say: “this isn’t good enough” seems pretty callous given what it could mean for families.

3) Chartering creates the conditions for continuous improvement. Chartering is a twofold process; it (a) creates an individual schools and (b) moves the public system into a more dynamic structure. A city where the best schools annually expand and the lowest performing schools change governance will lead to more rapid improvements for all schools.

I don’t think we should just expand great schools. We should also expand good schools. And in doing so we’ll create a structure for public education that leads to continuous improvement.

Robert’s Third Point: New Orleans Reforms Might Not Work in Other Cities

A fair point. We don’t really know. I of course think the reforms can scale.

But I might be wrong.

So I agree with Robert here that we must be cautious in attempting to scale the model.

But it seems very important to try.

1 thought on “A Debate Within the Family: Can NOLA Scale? Should it?

  1. Ed Jones

    Robert likely wasn’t proposing that Detroit, St. Louis, Baltimore, etc not increase charter schools. More likely he was cautioning that over-expansion would lead to the accountability/blame issue we have in Ohio.

    In a weaker-stomached state, one step forward might lead to two steps back. Too many people are invested for life in seeing charters fail.

    It’s also a caution, I think, that we still press hard on innovations within public schools. Here in the 2/3 of the nation outside cities, we need that too.

    Robert and I are intellectual soulmates when it comes to the power of intellectual content. We need to remain vigilant on this front for all our schools.


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