Category Archives: Recovery School District

What Happens When What Works for Children Doesn’t Feel Good?

Closing schools does not feel good: it’s painful for families, educators, and politicians.

But closing schools, and opening new better schools, can dramatically help low-income children.

Sometimes, the best thing that can happen to a child is for her school to close.

Closing Schools Led to a +.3 SD Gain for Elementary Students in NOLA 

In New Orleans, Tulane researchers found that closing schools and creating new better schools led to very significant achievement gains:


Elementary students who attended a failing school started .1 SD behind their matched peers – two years later, these same students were .2SD ahead of their matched peers.

This +.3 SD impact is higher than the impacts of most educational interventions, and it equates to closing about 33% of the black-white student achievement gap.

You Don’t Have to Harm Existing Children for the Sake of Future Children

What’s incredible about these results is that the students whose schools were closed increased their student achievement.

Before seeing this data, my guess would have been that closing schools slightly harms existing students but is much better for future students who get to attend a better school without going through the disruption of closure.

But the NOLA data indicates that it’s possible to help both existing and future students, which should increase your belief in the benefits of school closure.

You Should Not Close Failing Schools and Send Children to Other Failing Schools 

In Baton Rouge, school closure did not lead to positive effects. This seems to be because these students enrolled into other failing schools after their original school was closed.


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For school closure to work, a city needs to either have open spaces in existing higher-performing schools or be opening new high-quality schools.

There are Good and Bad Ways to Close Schools

School closures are hard, but they can be done with respect. Families deserve to know why their schools are being closed; families should get support (and preference in unified enrollment systems) in finding a better school; and political leaders should ensure that empty school buildings are put to good use for the community.

Unfortunately, in many cities, political officials do not close schools thoughtfully. Instead of being honest with families about the poor performance of the school, they let failing schools linger for year until enrollment dwindles and the school folds academically and financially.

It is Difficult to Scale Something that Causes Political Pain

It is unclear to me whether or not deliberate school closure will scale. Reforms that cause political pain tend not to do well over time.

However, opening new great schools need not be politically painful, which bodes well for continued charter growth.

Of course, continued charter growth can lead to the closure of failing schools – and this is exactly why charter moratoriums have some political support.

Charter moratoriums have the potential to reduce pain for adults even as they inflict pain on children.

Can New Orleans Continue to Close Schools? Should It?

Over the past few years, academic performance has stagnated in New Orleans:


During this time, there has also been a reduction in school closure activity.

So here is an interesting question: has the stagnation in performance been caused because New Orleans ate up most of the low-hanging fruit of closing schools, or has the stagnation in performance been caused because New Orleans has slowed down on closing failing schools?

At this point, I’m not familiar enough with the data to have strong opinions.

But I do worry that New Orleans, especially as it moves toward more local control, may stop using one of the strategies that has proven to dramatically improve the achievement of its students.

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.

The Not So Scary Lessons of Recovery and Achievement School Districts

Around ten years ago, the Recovery School District (RSD) assumed governance over all of the failing schools in New Orleans.

Around four years ago, the Achievement School District (ASD) assumed governance over many of the failing schools in Memphis.

Recovery School District 

Here is the official presentation that the RSD just made to the state school board. Note that the data is presented as a RSD pre / post comparison, not city as a whole. Some highlights:

First, lest you think it’s because student body changed dramatically:

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State based college scholarship eligibility:

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Lastly: none of the above qualify as rigorous research results (though I still think they are very useful, illustrative, and paint an accurate picture). But, as readers of this blog will know, next month Doug Harris is going to release a study that shows that NOLA reforms achieved .2-.4 effects at an ROI that surpasses that of pre-k and class size reduction.

The RSD worked.

Much still to be done, of course.

Achievement School District

See here for a deck on the ASD’s results.

Unlike Louisiana, Tennessee actually has a statistically rigorous state based measurement: TVAAS (a growth measure).

School can achieve a TVAAS rating of 1-5, with 5 being the highest.

If all ASD schools in their second and third years were considered districts, they would each receive a 5, the highest TVAAS score.

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Note that first year schools scored a 1 on TVAAS.

The ASD has a hashtag for this phenomenon: #MoreTimeMoreGrowth.

Read the whole deck for the rest of the data. There a lot of bright spots, as well as a few worrisome trends (reading scores).

Looking Ahead 

The RSD worked, though under unique circumstances.

The ASD is on the right track, though it’s still early.

The Education Achievement Authority (EAA) of Michigan, continues to struggle.


Because the RSD and ASD are building great ecosystems of high-peforming operators (though, to it credit the ASD direct schools are doing great, a testament to Chris Barbic’s ability to get 10,000 things done at once). But the long-run ASD game is still in non-profit operator management.

The EAA attempted to direct run all it schools.

Directing running all your schools runs afoul of this data on the performance of urban charter schools.

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Currently, Nevada and Georgia are in the midst of enacting RSD / ASD models.

I hope they will learn from the above lessons. In Georgia, this will be easier to do, as there is already a base of decent charter operators. Nevada, unfortunately, has one of the worst performing charter sectors in the country. Perhaps they can use this opportunity to grow a higher-quality supply as well close some of their low performers.

Don’t Be Scared

Over the past week, I’ve been harping (I hope not trolling!) on Libby Nelson’s piece on the scary lesson of No Child Left Behind:

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As I mentioned before, I think Libby is a good reporter.

The only reason I’m hammering this point is because I believe it’s so important to the future education of millions of low-income children.

We do have very good ideas about how to fix failing schools. And when reporters cover this issue, they should point to the effectiveness and scale of urban charter schools.

Urban charter schools are working. Governance interventions such as the RSD and ASD have enabled high-performing charters to grow.

Scaling these reforms will continue to be a difficult path.

But it’s not a scary path.

It’s a hopeful one.