Tag Archives: Doug Harris

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.

The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker vs. Science

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There are things we do not know: for example, can the New Orleans education reforms work in other cities at scale?

There are things we do know: for example, that scientific research shows that the New Orleans education reforms signficanlty increased student achievement.


Here is what Doug Harris, an education researcher, found when studying the New Orleans education reforms:

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… Given the large improvements in average outcomes in a district that is almost entirely low-income and minority, and the mixed evidence on other equity indicators, it would be hard to say the outcomes from the New Orleans reforms are inequitable relative to what came before them.

Here is what Andrea Gabor, a journalist writing in the New York Times, found when studying writing about the New Orleans reforms:

For outsiders, the biggest lesson of New Orleans is this: It is wiser to invest in improving existing education systems than to start from scratch. Privatization may improve outcomes for some students, but it has hurt the most disadvantaged pupils.

Here is what Brenton Mock, a journalist writing in the Atlantic, found when studying writing about the New Orleans reforms:

This system-wide charter-ization of public schools in New Orleans is a project that has yet to be replicated at the same scale in any other American city. So far, the experiment has produced mixed results at best.

Here is what Malcolm Gladwell, a journalist writing in the New Yorker, found when studying writing about the New Orleans reforms:

Ten years in, the results of the experiment have been mixed. Test scores have not risen anywhere near as much as had been hoped, and dozens of problems have had to be solved on the fly.


I don’t really know what to say anymore. John White summoned up the energy to respond more gracefully than myself. You should read his piece.

All I can do is articulate a third category of knowns and unknowns:

There are things many journalists do not know but we do know: for example, that New Orleans education reforms increased student achievement.

We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time.

In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed New Orleans.

Over the past ten years, New Orleanians, with the support of the nation, rebuilt their school system.

The system is predicated upon three principles: educators operate schools, families choose from these schools, and government holds the schools accountable for performance and equity.


The title of this post comes from Doug Harris’ article on his study on the New Orleans reforms. After summarizing the effects, which he estimates at .4 standard deviations, Doug writes:

We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time.

Doug also notes that these reforms were accomplished at a significantly lower cost than reforms such as pre-k access and class size reduction.

Here’s a chart that tracks the progress of the reform impacts:

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To put this .4 standard deviation in context, the black-white achievement gap is about one standard deviation.

Over ten years, in the midst of chaos and a struggle to rebuild, New Orleans students and educators achieved an effect that is almost half the size of the black white gap in this country.


The cynic in me assumes that this study will not change much.

After all, it’s just the latest in a series of studies and data analysis that clearly demonstrate that New Orleans children are now getting a much better education than they were before the storm.

Education reform is so polarized that an effort that radically increases student achievement for poor and minority students will likely continue to be dismissed.

The cynic in me wonders: How much do the glaciers have to melt? How much does the sea have to rise? How high do CO2 levels need to be? At what point does denial become a clear signal of scientific ignorance?

The optimist in me believes that these results will further build momentum for education leaders to engage in meaningful reform. Reform that hands power back to educators and families rather that simply shuffles the deck chairs.

Because let’s be clear, that’s what too many school districts are doing: they are shuffling the chairs while kids get screwed.

The realist in me knows that we that we have not yet proven that the New Orleans reforms can scale to other cities; that the reforms, despite all they achieved, included numerous and signficant missteps; that there is much we still don’t know; that there are decades of work ahead.

The realist in me also knows that we need to ensure that New Orleans schools continue to improve. And that this will be very difficult. The .4 standard deviation gain needs to become a one standard deviation gain.

But, after ten years of work, here’s a big shout of praise, admiration, and joy for New Orleans families and educators.

It’s only because of them that we can say this:

We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time.