Tulane researchers have a new paper that attempts to determine the causal mechanism for New Orleans school improvements.
A similar paper was written by Harvard researchers on the Newark reforms.
Both papers tried to answer the question: did things get better because schools opened and closed, or because existing schools improved?
Both papers come to the same conclusion: opening and closing schools is driving the gains in student learning (as measured by test scores).
The Tulane report came to a particularly strong conclusion. The authors write:
“The average school improved from the first to the second year after it opened, but school performance remained mostly flat afterwards… aside from the improvement when schools first opened, essentially all of the improvement in New Orleans’ average test scores has been due to the state regularly closing or taking over low-performing schools and opening new higher performing charters.”
The below graphic captures this finding in visual form:
The authors end their study with a strategic recommendation and warning:
“The fact that newly opened schools continue to be better than those closed and taken over also suggests that the extreme measure of replacing school operators also still has some potential to generate further gains. At some point, the benefits from this strategy are likely to run out, but it does not appear that we have reached that limit yet.”
New Orleans has had strong government regulation over the past decade. For the most part, the best schools expanded and the government closed or transformed the worst schools.
It is an open question whether this good regulation can persist in New Orleans, or if it can be consistently scaled to other cities.
Of course, strong regulation is not the only way to shift enrollment to higher-performing schools.
A city could also simply let family choose amongst all schools and wait for lower-performing schools to fold under enrollment pressures. This process will be parent driven and likely slower.
Every city will need to figure out its own path when it comes to balancing top down accountability and bottoms up family choice.
Personally, I favor a combination of both. Let government have the ability to selectively transform the lowest performing schools in a city, and let families choose from a wide array of schools.