Tag Archives: New Orleans

When It Comes to Schools, Who Knows Best?

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Traditional public education systems assign students to schools based on postal addresses.

This can be viewed as either a feature or a bug of public schooling.

Postal address assignment can be viewed as a feature if one holds either of the following opinions: (1) school district officials will be better choosers than families; or (2) the costs of allowing families to choose individual schools are too high to the system as a whole.

I view postal address school assignment as a horrible bug.


I have no illusion that families will always choose a great school for their children. But this is not the right question. The right question is whether or not, on average, families will be better choosers than district officials.

Two pieces of evidence make it very clear to me that families will, on average, choose better than district officials.

First, to date, district officials (who do not give families choice) have not improved on their century old algorithm of assigning schools based on geographic proximity. If this is the best that they can come up with, then good riddance.

Second, district officials continue assigning poor black and Hispanic families to terrible schools. If they cannot see that their algorithm is terribly racist, then good riddance.

As for the second issue – that the cost of giving choice to families is too high – New Orleans, Denver, and Washington D.C. have already demonstrated that this concern can be overcome. Rather than choice negatively hurting these schools systems, choice has been expanded while these cities have seen significant gains in overall achievement.


One last issue: should we do anything if families choose to send their children to terribly failing schools?

Yes. I think that we should transform or close these schools.

Here, an analogy might be made to health inspections – even if a restaurant has a line out the door, if it is dishing out salmonella the government will close it.

While it’s a complicated issue, I do think there are instances where the government should override family choice.


Fordham just released its analysis of school choice in cities across the country (the Laura and John Arnold Foundation helped fund the work).

Here are the results.

I am glad they did not grade on a curve.

This would have masked the brutal reality that most district officials do not trust families to choose schools for their own children.

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What New Orleanians Say About Education Reform When You Call and Ask Their Opinions

I have mixed feelings on public opinion polls.

On one hand, I feel like a pollster can get any answer she wants by manipulating question wording, especially on complicated policy issues.

As such, I prefer to study revealed preferences (behaviors) instead of polling results.

On the other hand, it can be difficult to get behavioral data on all issues, so polls are sometimes the best we have.

At the very least, people who argue for and against the New Orleans reforms, especially national commentators, should grapple with what actual New Orleanians say about the reforms.

With that in mind, see below for some data from the Cowen Institute’s new poll results.

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A 3:1 ration in favor of support of charter schools is pretty significant. This is an odd result if it is actually true that charter schools have ruined public education in New Orleans.

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Unlike two years ago, more African-Americans now believe that schools are better than before the storm, though the margin is slim. Interestingly enough, white support has declined.

For both African-American and white results, I’d be curious to see if there is a difference in between (1) people who newly send their children to public schools (2) people who don’t send their children to public schools (3) people who sent their children to public schools both before and after the storm.

All told, I think this is a real issue for reformers. Middling African-American support threatens both the legitimacy and the sustainability of reforms, in New Orleans and elsewhere.

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Most New Orleanians, like myself, do not believe a child should be assigned to a school based on her address. I still find it remarkable that many people believe that geographic assignment is the more just policy.

That being said, this might be another place where a polling question prevents nuance. There are regulatory solutions that can attempt to combine both  geographic preference and citywide choice, and I’d be curious to understand how families might preference various regulatory regimes.

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Given how difficult transformations can be, it is interesting to see this strong of support. I’m curious if we’d see this amount of support for outright school closures.


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Given that one of the major criticisms of the New Orleans reforms is that they were done without local democratic oversight, it’s interesting to see nearly a 2:1 margin of support for the state takeover.

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Support for return within two years has gone up significantly, but the current policy of schools being able to choose still whether or not to come back is still (barely) the most popular policy.

This will clearly be an issue to watch over the next year or two.

Empathy and Education Reform


Matt Candler has a piece over at the 4.0 blog that is worth reading.

Matt’s Argument

1. New Orleans has made incredible academic gains over the past decade. It has gotten from “F” to “C” faster than perhaps any failing urban district in our country’s recent history.

2. Matt identifies the following as major drivers of the reforms: charters, human capital reforms, choice, and good government regulation and oversight.

3. However, he worries that some of the above was done in a non inclusive manner with regards to the greater New Orleans community, which has caused him to reflect on how he will work going forward.

4. Getting from “C” to “A” will require less hubris from reformers.

5. Getting from “C” to “A” will require more listening to parents and families, as well as more innovation from reformers.

The History of “C” to “A”

I think Matt largely captures how New Orleans achieved results: families were empowered through choice; educators were empowered to operate their own charter schools; and government thoughtfully regulated the system.

I also think, especially right after Katrina, reformers moved very fast to create the new system. While most people were rebuilding their lives, a new education model was also built.

That being said, it’s worth noting that, today, New Orleanians support the reforms. By a 2 to 1 margin, voters think the schools are getting better. And 82% of voters think the state should remain in control of most of the schools for at least two more years.

Getting From “C” to “A”

Matt’s strategies for  getting from “C” to “A” (listening to families and students, as well as spurring more innovation) seem like areas worthy of focus. One could imagine these strategies leading to a new set of solutions. I hope 4.0 ventures do exactly that.

I would, however, encourage all these folks to stay humble. To date, New Orleans entrepreneurs have yet to create any truly new educational models. Schools like Bricolage Academy (socio-econmocially diverse, emphasis on innovation), Arthur Ashe (blended), and Collegiate Academies (no excuses) are all iterations on schools that exist elsewhere. This is not to say that these schools aren’t doing amazing things, only to note that, to use Matt’s phrase, at their inception they were not really examples of schools “that do not exist yet.”

In short, Matt’s theory of change, while plausible, has not been proven.

Empathy and Education Reform

Another way to think about this is societal empathy vs. student empathy methods of reform. In using the word “empathy,” I’m not talking about whether one cares about kids or not, but rather whether empathy for the student’s social condition or the student’s academic experience was the driving force of the initial reform.

There’s an argument to be made that test based accountability, human capital reforms, and charter reforms have largely been social empathy modes of reforms. They have been driven by desires of social justice; by concerns over racial inequality; by frustration with large unresponsive bureaucracies. Of course, these reformers cared about the student experience in the general sense (it’s unsafe, unjust, a civil rights violation, etc.) but perhaps less so in the specific academic sense (it’s boring, not engaging, etc.)

I think this has been changing over time, especially in the high-performing charter community, but the origins of the reforms do feel to have more of a social justice history.

I think what Matt is calling for is reform based more on empathy for the student academic experience.

A couple thoughts on this:

1. The social justice empathy reforms were perhaps a necessary precondition to have the opportunity to tackle student experience empathy reforms.

2. I think there is a risk that empathy for the student experience can be used to justify school based practices that actually aren’t good for students (rejecting some of the best of the no excuses model).

3. I think empathy for the student experience can be used to justify systems level practices that aren’t actually good for students (never close a school).

4. I think empathy for the student experience will likely be a key driver for the next phase of reforms.

Or, to put it another way, true empathy is about the student, not about how you want to feel. Whether the next phase of student experience empathy driven reforms succeeds or not may very well hinge on this difference being truly understood.

Sometimes doing great things for students can make you feel good, sometimes it can make you feel terrible. How you feel should of course be considered as useful information, but it should not be weighted over what the student ultimately needs.

These are really tough issues. New Orleans is lucky to have so many great people thinking about them. As more of an observer than anything else (most of my time is spent outside of New Orleans), I am eager to see what the next decade holds.