Tag Archives: Education Research Alliance

The Complexity of the New Orleans Reform Effort Might Actually Make It Easier to Scale


A recent study found that the New Orleans education reforms achieved a ~.4 effect size, which is the largest citywide effect the researchers have ever seen an effect that surpasses most of what you see in pre-k and class size reduction studies (at about a quarter of the cost).

In their write-up of the study, the researchers made a very important point about comparing the New Orleans reforms to pre-k interventions.

While it might seem hard to compare such different strategies, the heart of the larger school-reform debate is between systemic reforms like the portfolio model and resource-oriented strategies.

Readers of this blog will know that I’m a structuralist.

I believe that changing the structure of public education, by handing power back to educators and families, is likely to achieve much better long term results than any specific programmatic intervention. The researchers were right to point out this difference within the reform debate.

The researchers also note:

Unfortunately, the effects of even the most successful programs are often not replicated when tried elsewhere, and there are good reasons to think the conditions were especially ripe for success in New Orleans.

The researchers site New Orleans low absolute performance and the city’s ability to attract talent as reasons that replicability may be difficult to achieve.

Perhaps, though I do think there are plenty of cities in the country that have very little where to go but up and have access to a lot of talent (Oakland, Atlanta, Philly, Camden, etc.).

But here’s a point I think the researchers missed.

My guess is that because New Orleans took on a structural reform, and not a specific programmatic reform, the effort might actually be easier to scale. 

Often times, interventions that show the largest effects, such as labor intensive pre-k programs, require a lot of specialized expertise, high fidelity to implementation, and significant resources.

The confluence of organizational talent, strategy, and implementation is very hard to replicate.

But the New Orleans reforms were not particularly operational in nature. There was no multifacteded curriculum that had to be adopted, no teacher coaching model that required years of training, no wrap-around model that necessitated the coordination of numerous agencies.

Instead, most of what needed to happen was for the government to approve charters that had a decent shot at succeeding, close the schools that didn’t work, and expand the schools that did.

Of course, certain caveats deserve mention: these regulatory functions require building some expertise; they need a lot of political leadership; and an intentionally nurtured non-profit sector provided many supports.

But, even considering these issues, the fact is that the New Orleans model is predicated more on layering in a structure and strategy over a complex system than it is on executing an operational heavy, resource intensive intervention.

In the long run, this is exactly why I think the New Orleans model has the potential to scale.

Time will tell if it can.

Were the New Orleans Reforms Worth It?

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Times Picayune Headline from coverage of the Education Research Alliance conference

There was a reoccurring theme at the Education Research Alliance Conference: people admitting that student achievement had gone up but now asking “was it worth the cost?”

This is very important.

Numerous studies and data analysis have shown that the New Orleans results were real, but I do think Doug Harris’ study – if it holds up – will be the definitive research that puts to bed any notion that the reforms did not increase student achievement.

In case you missed his presentation, Doug found .2-.45 standard deviation achievement gains. In subsequent posts, I’ll try and put that in context, but for now it’s worth spending time on the rhetorical shifts that are happening.

Instead of fierce debates denying improvements,conversations shifted to whether the reforms were worth it.

This is an important question, and it’s a fair one.

Surely, there is some cost to reform that is too high. Weighing different values and interests will determine where one sets this bar.

In the case of New Orleans, the main cost discussed at the conference was how the democratically elected Orleans Parish School Board fired the teachers after Hurricane Katrina.

It is undeniable that this occurred and that it led to real harm in the lives of many people. I also think that it’s difficult to extrapolate what this might mean for other cities.

Katrina did not just disrupt the lives of teachers, it disrupted the lives of everyone. Hundreds of thousands of people lost some combination of their homes and jobs. All of this was devastating.

Other cities, thankfully, will be trying to improve education under very different circumstances.

As for the future of New Orleans, I think there is both a moral and pragmatic imperative to increase the number of teachers being drawn from within the city.

No one is thinking about this more than the leaders of New Orleans schools, and I’m excited to watch New Orleans educators reinvent what it means to recruit and develop teachers in a manner that empowers communities, children and adults alike.

My hope is that other cities will be able to learn from these innovations, and that these innovations will change the current calculus of the question: “was increasing student achievement worth the cost?”

I remain convinced that reform need not be a zero sum game between community empowerment and student achievement. People should not misread New Orleans history and draw an erroneous conclusion that this is the moral of the story.

My Remarks at the Closing Session of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans Conference

Doug and his team at the Education Research Alliance put on a great and important conference. More importantly, they’ve done a lot of solid research. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be chronicaling the implications of the research as it is released publicly.

But for now, in case it is of interest, see below for my remarks.


Over the past year, we’ve all had to watch the consequences of social injustice. In Ohio, Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old boy, was slain by police. In Baltimore, protestors demanded that we pay attention to police brutality and social decay.

Increasing educational opportunity will not solve all the problems of social injustice, but these problems will not be solved without increased educational opportunity.

All this is to say is that the stakes are incredibly high.

Children, many of them black, are dying in the streets.


The following is taken from a presentation Doug Harris gave on his study on the New Orleans reform efforts.

“The results suggest that the reforms had large positive cumulative effects of 0.20 to 0.45 standard deviations. The reform effects are larger than the effects from other commonly discussed reform strategies, such as class size reduction and early childhood education.”


New Orleans educators have done what no one thought was possible: they transformed a struggling urban educational system.

Classroom by classroom, student by student, they reinvented what public education could be.

We don’t know if their efforts can be replicated in other cities.

There are reasons to think they can: other cities will not have to grapple with trauma of Hurricane Katrina

There are also reasons to think it will be difficult to replicate these successes: it may prove easier to build new educational systems than it is to change existing once.

We simply don’t know whether the New Orleans successes can be scaled.

But what scares me is that we’ll never get the chance to find out.

There’s a very real chance that many educations leaders will look at this study, intellectually understand the magnitude of the effect, but then say: “I can’t support this because it’s not my kind of reform.”

I hope that this doesn’t happen. Because we can’t build tribes around our preferred educational approaches. The stakes are too high. If we’ve uncovered something that can be a partial antidote to the inequities that still plague our nation, then we owe it to our children to see if this antidote can work elsewhere.

As a country, we can’t turn away from what happened in New Orleans. We need to keep on studying it, we need to keep on making it better, and, most of all, we need to see if the reforms that happened here can be a part of righting social injustices across our country.