When I first started think about increasing educational opportunity, I had a lot of beliefs, and, given the opportunity, I was willing to act on any of them.
Now I have fewer beliefs and am only willing to act on them under very specific circumstances.
I. Acting on Limited Beliefs in New Orleans
As an undergrad and law student, I had a lot of beliefs on education policy. If you named an education policy topic, I had a strong opinion.
By the time I was working deeply in New Orleans, I was, for the most part, only acting on two of these beliefs:
(1) Starting and scaling high-quality charter schools (generally based on the high expectations / high support model); and
(2) Recruiting as much high-quality talent as possible (generally measured by leadership potential, undergraduate selectivity, and GPA).
Those seemed like the two most important near-term problems to solve in New Orleans.
Eventually, I also started working on systemwide regulatory issues, as we had to figure out how to govern an all charter school system.
II. So Much Conventional Wisdom (on All Sides) Was Wrong
10 years later, we’ve a learned that New Orleans achieved dramatic student achievement results while, at the same time, upending much of the conventional wisdom of education policy.
The Education Research Alliance has done a bunch of great research that should humble pundits and educators alike; some highlights below:
Popular Belief #1: Experienced Teachers are Better
New Orleans increased student achievement while the % of teachers with less than 5 years of experience skyrocketed, and the % of teachers with over 20 years of experience plummeted.
Popular Belief #2: Teacher Credentialing Matters
New Orleans increased student achievement while the % of teachers with no, temporary or, the lowest level of certification (C/1) skyrocketed, and the % of teachers with advanced credentials (A/3 and B/2) plummeted.
Popular Belief #3: Teacher Turnover is Bad
New Orleans increased student achievement while teacher turnover significantly increased.
Popular Belief #4: Education Choice Markets Will Fail Due to Information Problems
A continuing criticism of choice based reforms is that parents will make poor decisions due to being incapable of understanding school quality. In New Orleans, student achievement (SPS score) was one of only a few factors that strongly increased the likelihood a family would choose a school in the open enrollment system.
Popular Belief #5: School Choice Only Benefits a Select Group of Choosers
A continuing criticism of choice based reforms is that only the active choosers will get into the schools they want. In New Orleans, 75% of families were matched with one of their top three choices.
Popular Belief #6: School Choice Increases Student Mobility
Numerous commentators have argued that school choice will cause significant increases in student mobility. New Orleans moved to an all choice system and student mobility decreased.
Popular Belief #7: School Closure Harms the Children Attending the Closed School
In New Orleans, students attending schools that were closed (intervention schools) saw their student achievement increase significantly in the subsequent years.
Popular Belief #8: Money is Best Spent “in the Classroom”
In comparison to other districts, New Orleans increased student achievement while spending more on administrative costs and less on instructional costs.
III. We Might be Wrong About More
To be clear, I’m not saying that any of the above caused the student achievement gains in New Orleans.
Rather, I’m only pointing out that New Orleans saw some of the most dramatic student achievement gains in our country’s recent history while doing a bunch of things that you’re not supposed to do.
I’m sure we’ll learn more over the coming decade.
Lastly, New Orleans is one city with a very unique set of circumstances, we don’t yet know how similar types of reforms will work in other cities.
IV. Keep Your Policy Identity Small and Your Problem Solving Identity Large
The more strongly held beliefs you have on education policy, the more likely you are to (1) be wrong (2) find it hard to admit you’re wrong and (3) mandate broad solutions that don’t work in many circumstances.
The more strongly oriented you are toward solving problems, the more likely you are to (1) be right in your specific circumstance (2) change your mind if you’re wrong and (3) be willing to admit that your solution might not work in other contexts.
V. Help Build Systems that Increase Problem Solving Capacity
Given how much we don’t know, as well how many problems are context specific, one of our primary policy goals should be to experiment with system level structures that increase the power and ability for educators and families to solve problems.
I view New Orleans as one example of how a system can be structured to empower families and educators to solve problems.
Hopefully we’ll build more examples over the coming years.