Category Archives: New Orleans

Applying portfolio reforms to postsecondary problems

I just got back from a trip to New Orleans, which continues to be a well of friendship and inspiration.

I. Where should you spend the next philanthropic dollar? 

In a few conversations, the following questions came up:

  1. Are the kids we serve going to succeed in life after high school? What will their lives be like when they are 30? Will they be living meaningful and happy lives?
  2. Is the marginal dollar of philanthropy best spent on making the K-12 system better (after 10 years of improvements) or trying to overhaul the post-secondary landscape?
  3. If you wanted to radically improve post-secondary, what would you do?

II. Post-Secondy portfolio 

The K-12 portfolio mindset entails viewing an educational system in terms of operators (running schools) and seats (how many students are served).

This mindset could also be applied to post-secondary.

By 2020 or so, New Orleans will be graduating around 3,000 students a year.

Let’s say that about 1,500 of them will be prepared to succeed in a four year college; 1,000 of them will be prepared to succeed in a 1 to 2 year credentialing program; and 500 of them will need deep support to enter the workforce and exit crisis situations.

Of the four year college students, you might need 500 to 1,000 “KIPP to College” type supports to ensure students make it through.

For the credentialing programs, you’d need 1,000 seats that can reliably produce students with employable credentials.

For the crisis students, you’d need employment and social service operators that could transition students into jobs.

III. Post-Secondary investment intermediaries 

Instead of assuming this will naturally happen in New Orleans (or any other city), you could capitalize a new or existing non-profit intermediary to launch, recruit, and support post-secondary providers.

At the outset, the intermediary would create a business plan where it laid out how money it would need to get X% coverage on the aforementioned 3,000 seats.

High-Quality existing local providers (like the coding bootcamp Operation Spark) could cover some of the seats, and national providers like Match Beyond could be recruited in.

Overtime, you’d expand what was working, close what wasn’t, and support new entrepreneurs to keep innovation going.

IV. Getting funding streams right

Most states subsidize mediocre public universities; the federal government tops this off with Pell grants.

To make the 3,000 seat post-secondary strategy viable, you’d need to blend a mixture of public support and tuition to make providers sustainable.

Louisiana’s course choice provides a revenue stream for programs that started working with kids while they’re in high school.

Creating a new university that housed many of these programs could allow for the accessing of Pell grants.

Wage contigent loan programs could also be an option for programs that were consistently placing graduates in high-performing jobs.

V. Who are the entrepreneurs that will seek out the 10x play?

The early New Orleans K12 entrepreneurs felt that they could deliver something to students that was significantly better than the existing system.

They were right.

A post-secondary transformation won’t happen on its own.

It will take a set of entrepreneurs to put forth a plan, galvanize funding, and spend a decade building the new system.

Is this the right play? If so, who will step up?

What if everything you believe about education is wrong?

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.


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.

NOLA Return Bill: Is it Good?

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So far, many articles focused on the new bill have concerned themselves with raising or lowering the status of specific players – but what about the bill itself?


Overall, I think the bill is strong on equity, democracy, and protecting existing academic gains.

I worry about what the future holds for maintaining a sense of urgency on increased academic performance and innovation. A cementing of structure will likely favor the incumbents.

But a law can only do so much.

A good framework has been set. The return bill enshrines much of what has led to NOLA’s gains in equity and performance.

In a world of toxic national politics, it’s heartening to see complex and important legislation being crafted and adopted by a politically and racially diverse coalition.


More reflections:

  1. This is nationally important: we now have a law on the books that clearly defines how a portfolio district can be implemented. A debt is owed to Paul Hill.
  2. The bill is strong on equity: the weighted student funding, enrollment, and expulsion provisions are extremely important. As I’ve written before, I think NOLA’s greatest innovations have been in equity.
  3. The bill is sticky: with fairly broad support, the bill codifies 10 year’s worth of work – this should make it stick. Moreover, the marketshare limits and charter autonomy provisions should prevent roll backs to a one best system.
  4. The return is really a rebalancing: the school board now has much more power, and the state has much less – however, the state still has the RSD as a check on the local school inaction on underperforming schools. Democratic power exists at both local and state levels, and this is a readjusting rather than a jettisoning of state power.
  5. Who will be the leaders? Many of the local leaders in education reform have been unelected: non-profits and civic organizations have held a lot of power. This will shift as the local school board gains more power, but with elections happening this fall, we don’t yet know who this slate of leaders will be. The first wave of local leaders post-return will set a vision and culture for what local control means…
  6. Incumbents are protected – but what about future schools? The bill outlines clear powers for the school board, superintendent, and existing schools, but less ink was spilled on ensuring there is a continually pipeline of new (and hopefully innovative) schools. I think this amongst the biggest risks in NOLA over next decade: will the incumbents of the system (government, charter schools, non-profits, etc). utilize their hard and soft power to block new entrants?


Lastly, here are what I think to be the most important parts of the bill – with excerpts of the exact language for those who want to understand the mechanics.

Equity Provisions 

Student based budgeting w/ weights for specific needs: “…establishes a process to determine the district-level funding allocation to be effective beginning July 1, 2017, and as revised in subsequent years as appropriate, based upon student characteristics or needs…”

Unified enrollment and expulsion: “…shall require all charter schools under the board’s jurisdiction to participate in the parish-wide enrollment system and student expulsion process, according to policies established by the board…”

Allows for some (but not exclusive) neighborhood preference: “May provide a lottery preference for enrollment at elementary middle schools under the board’s jurisdiction for students residing with defined geographic zones as one of the factors to determine student assignment, according to policies adopted by the board. Such preference shall be applied to not more than one-half of the seats available in each grade level…”

Promotes integration: “…so that such schools shall be exempted from the minimum enrollment percentages…”

Performance Provisions

Prevents monopoly / too big too fail: “shall adopt a policy establishing a process which allows the local superintendent to limit the percentage of system enrollment that any single operator of schools or charter governing authority may serve to ensure that a diverse system of schools led by multiple high quality operators exists at all times.”

Empowers superintendent as portfolio manager: “superintendent shall present recommendations to the local school board regarding the approval, extension, renewal, or revocation of the charter for any charter school under the board’s jurisdiction…Unless vetoed by a two-thirds vote of the full membership of the board, the local superintendent may implement any such recommendation submitted to the board.”

Protects charter autonomy: “the local school board shall not impede the operational autonomy of a charter school under its jurisdiction.”

Promotes test security: “each charter school under the local school board’s jurisdiction shall provide for independent test monitoring from third-party entity approved by the school board for the testing period immediately preceding the board’s consideration of renewal of the charter school’s contract.”

Love It or Hate It, Common Core is Giving Us Interesting Data About Black Student Achievement

Roughly ten states now use PARCC assessments. For the first time, this allows us to get a comparative standards based snapshot of how students are doing across numerous geographies.

Two caveats: because this is the first year of testing, we don’t yet have growth data; additionally, there  appear to be differences in results between the on-line and paper versions of the test, which seem to be more pronounced in later grades.

With these caveats in mind, early Common Core results (as measured by PARCC) indicate that Black students in Massachusetts and *New Orleans* are achieving at higher levels than many Black students across the country, including those in Washington D.C.

Over time, as growth data is included and test administration is cleaned up, we should have an even better data set with which to make stronger comparisons.


I created the table below to compare New Orleans African-American students and economically disadvantages students against the same subgroups in other places across all subjects in grades 3-8, with the hope that looking across grades and varied proficiency differentials might illuminate trends.

It should be noted that New Orleans students used paper and pencil versions, so in later grades especially this might result in inflated NOLA results. But as the chart details, New Orleans did well in 3rd and 4th grade as well (where other states saw less scoring differentials based on test type).

Green cells indicate where New Orleans students outperformed their peers; red cells indicate where they underperformed their peers.The numbers in the cell are +/- differential rates for how other geographies scored compared to NOLA proficiency.

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You can download the spreadsheet here: nola-parcc-data-comparison

Overall, there is a lot of green.


Hopefully, over time, this type of data will tell us more about what’s working and what’s not – as well as what policy makers and educators might do to increase educational opportunity for all students.

So far, it’s exciting to see New Orleans students doing comparatively well.


Last thought: what do you think is the ratio of articles on coverage of the opt-out movement vs. coverage of what we might actually learn from the PARCC achievement results?


The Big Short, David Kirp, Newark, Union City, New Orleans


I saw The Big Short last night. It is an excellent movie and I agreed with much of its implicit and explicit critique of banks, government, and consumers.


David Kirp has a piece on Newark in the New York Time today. He argues that Union City (district reform) is a better path than Newark reforms (including expanding Newark’s charter schools).

He did not mention New Orleans in his piece.


I’ve written a lot on Newark.

You can read the shortest and most direct version here.


As with most great movies, in The Big Short the audience feels connected to the protagonists.

In The Big Short, the protagonists are those betting against the big banks by shorting the housing market.

Here is how I personally related to the protagonists: I feel like I hold an opinion that most people view as wrong (that charter districts will outperform traditional districts); that I have data to support this case (New Orleans + CREDO analysis of urban charter markets); and that many people are either ignoring or misinterpreting this data.

Of course, this is a fairly self-serving way of looking at the world (and watching a movie). And the world is surely more complicated than this. As such, I try to check myself as often as I can.

But most of us who takes sides on an issue, except in moments of deeply honest reflection, are the heroes of our own story – and I’m no different, especially when caught up in watching a great movie.

I’m sure that David Kirp views his tribe as the protagonists who are fighting against the corporate reformers who have all the power and money.

There is some truth in this.


Another way to say all this: strong opinions are inherently egoistic, as such, it is often best that they are weakly held.

I sometimes worry that my strong opinions are no longer weakly held.


What I loved about The Big Short – and financial markets as a whole – is that there is a way to call bullshit.

You can short the people who are wrong.

I wish there was an accepted way to do this in public policy that actually worked.

First, I want there to be a way to more quickly correct policy beliefs that I believe are harming children.

Second, I want to hold people (including myself) accountable for our beliefs.

Third, as with most competitive people, I want to win.

I try to keep the first reason, rather than third reason, at the forefront.



Last year, when Doug Harris’ study came out and demonstrated that New Orleans had achieved greater academic gains than any other urban school district that the researchers knew of, I thought this would change people’s opinions on whether the reforms worked.

I’m not sure that it did.

Instead, the argument shifted to the gains coming at too high of a cost. And to the gains not being replicable in other cities.

In short, the goal posts were moved.

If you have not made a bet, you can move the goal posts all day long.


Of course, I might be wrong about my beliefs.

If I end up being wrong, I hope that I am honest enough to close down this blog with a post that says: I was wrong.

Most of all, I’ll be saddened that I devoted a good bit of my working years to something that did not help anyone.

Brown University vs. Science

The Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University just released a report on state turnaround districts.

Brown University 

The report states:

In short, the Recovery School District, which was marketed (and continues to be lauded) as ushering in a miraculous transformation in New Orleans, has not kept its promise to some of the country’s most disadvantaged students.

The report cites another report, from Stanford University, and makes the following claims about equity and accountability:

The SCOPE [Stanford center] review also found that school quality and accountability are impeded by the lack of a strong central system (within the RSD) to support instructional improvement or maintain safeguards to ensure equity and access to reasonable quality of education.


Here is what Doug Harris, who actually studied student achievement in New Orleans, wrote:

For New Orleans, the news on average student outcomes is quite positive by just about any measure. The reforms seem to have moved the average student up by 0.2 to 0.4 standard deviations and boosted rates of high school graduation and college entry. We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time.

Here’s a graph that captures these gains:

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As for equity, I think this has been NOLA’s greatest innovation. I wrote a report on it. Here’s a highlight: despite serving a very at-risk student population, New Orleans has a lower expulsion rate than the state.

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As for accountability, it’s hard to think of a city that has been more serious about ensuring students don’t attend failing schools. In 2004, 60% of New Orleans students attended a school that was in the bottom 10% of the state. Now 13% do.

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People Who Live in New Orleans 

Lastly, here’s what New Orleanians think about the reforms:

Reasonable people can debate whether or not other states will see the same results.

But to say that the RSD has not kept its promise to the country’s most disadvantaged students is not supported by science.

Of course, there is still an incredibly long way to go in New Orleans. ACT scores, for example, are at an all-time high at around 19, but this still falls short of college and career ready.

Also, the New Orleans reforms were messy. While the academic results are undeniable, it’s been ten years of tense and difficult work, with many mistakes made along the way.

But if you don’t want things to be messy, you’re in the wrong line of work. The issues or race, class, and poverty are insanely complicated. If you work in the sector and haven’t changed your mind about a major issue, then you’re probably not thinking deeply enough.

All that being said… the student achievement gains are real. Children are better off.

And students across the country would be much better off if other cities achieved results similar to those in New Orleans.

Hopefully this will occur.

Corporate Reformers Make Their Demands: Integration, Wrap Around Services, Career Training

So far the corporate reforms in New Orleans have delivered significant student achievement gains.

A recent, rigorous study by Doug Harris noted:

 We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time… The effects are also large compared with other completely different strategies for school improvement, such as class-size reduction and intensive preschool.

As I wrote in a recent report, the reforms also radically increased equity.

It is well within reason to make the claim that New Orleans is both the fastest improving and most equitable urban district in the nation.

But corporate reformers aren’t satisfied.

In a recent op-ed, Ben Kleban, the CEO of New Orleans College Prep, wrote:

The evidence is clear — diversity in schools requires intentional design. So, I would propose a systemwide approach to manage the enrollment of all our schools — let’s make them all “diverse by design.”

We could allow all of our public schools, not just a small group, to add some form of admissions criteria — based on income level — for a subset of seats in entry grade levels, and allow that diversity to flow up one year at a time to the whole school.

In a recent interview in Education Week, Patrick Dobard, the head of the Recovery School District, noted the following:

I feel like the first 10 years has just been laying the foundation of getting good academic growth, and the foundation of schools solid. I think the next 10 to 15 years is literally around those areas, again, that are called like “wraparound services,” so what are the mental health interventions that we could put in place? Do we need more than school psychologists? Maybe we need psychiatrists, and really dig into some of the deep, emotional trauma….

Another big area of focus is around how do we create a more robust career and technical education component within our schools? A lot of our high schools right now are like college-focused in the “no-excuses” model, but we really need to start diversifying our portfolio, and our school leaders have embraced that.

The first phase of New Orleans reforms was an intense focus on student achievement.

The next phrase layered on an intense focus on equity.

The third phase may be very well be much more holistic in nature, with a focus on diversity, mental health, and careers.

Of course, one could make the argument that New Orleans educators should have focused on all three issue areas right from the beginning.


But reform is incredibly difficult. And trying to do to much can lead to nothing getting done.

Moreover, I think the order of operators is roughly right: achievement -> equity -> holistic reforms is a logical sequence in attempting to transform a dysfunctional educational system.

As for how to make the next phase of reform a reality, I’m not entirely sure. Integration is notoriously difficult to achieve. New Orleans social services have been chronically poor. And career training so often leads to lowered expectations.

But if any group of educators can figure out how to achieve broad scale integration, effective wrap around services, and high-quality career training, I’d bet on the corporate raiders of New Orleans.

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.

The AFT vs. Science

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Statement of American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall:

Rather than miraculous, the gains are similar to those in districts that adopt cost-effective, community-oriented changes like offering universal, high-quality prekindergarten or lowering class sizes.

Education researcher, Doug Harris, on New Orleans reforms:

We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time… The [New Orleans achievement] effects are also large compared with other completely different strategies for school improvement, such as class-size reduction and intensive preschool. This seems true even after we account for the higher costs.

The AFT took Doug’s study, interpreted it to mean the exact opposite of what it actually said, and then wrote a press release.

What makes me sad: the AFT represents many of the nation’s best public school science teachers.

What can we learn from the last day of enrollment in New Orleans?

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My piece on this subject is over at the 74. Read it here.

You’ll notice that the tone and style is a little different than the writing on this blog.

I prefer writing as I do on this blog, but this seems not to appeal to many readers.

Here is something I said in the piece that I don’t think we talk about enough:

By drawing on our country’s deepest values and skills – entrepreneurship, problem solving, and perseverance – New Orleans educators delivered the greatest achievement gains of any city in our country’s recent history.

We should think more deeply about aligning our educational reform efforts to our nation’s history, culture, and assets.

Here’s something I did not say in the piece (but hinted at) that I don’t think we talk enough about: by the time a school needs to be transformed or closed, thousands of people have already turned their back on the institution. The business community and political elites have focused their attention elsewhere. The district has often given up on making any real changes at that school. Families have chosen not to enroll there. Educators have avoided working there.

So it feels a little off to blame the state for the ultimate takeover or closure.

One last note: creating successful high schools in cities with high poverty rates is incredibly difficult work. Students come in very, very far behind and they are dealing with extremely difficult social lives.

A few mistakes by anyone involved can begin a cycle of events that can lead to tragedy. Violence is too common.

The work of the students and educators in these schools is worthy of our greatest admiration.