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New Orleans Recovery School District Not Quite as Recovered as Advertised

Higher test scores may come at a steep price


William J. Mathis, (802) 383-0058,
Huriya Jabbar, (512) 475-8586,
Mark Gooden, (512) 475-8574,

URL for this press release:

Boulder CO (July 13, 2015) - This year marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which resulted in the deaths of over 1,800 people. The tragic events exposed many Americans to the class and racial inequities in New Orleans––failed levees, an inadequate evacuation plan, and a paralyzed federal response. The pre-Katrina injustices also included a massive opportunity gap that resulted in large achievement gaps for New Orleans’ children.

Following this tragedy, an extraordinary experiment in market-driven governance of public schools was imposed on the city. On this anniversary, advocacy groups and think tanks have issued numerous reports touting the claimed success of the New Orleans model, pointing to test scores that are higher than those before Katrina, and championing its export to other disadvantaged communities.

Past claims put forward by these groups have rarely been supported by rigorous, objective research. In fact, independent researchers have disputed these claims, arguing that the massive out-migration of students may have resulted in inflated scores for those remaining. Other scholars have noted that the test standards were changed and the gains were exaggerated.

“Recently, the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, an organization at Tulane University dedicated to objective analysis of the New Orleans reforms, shared preliminary results from a study that reported meaningfully higher test scores following the post-Katrina reforms, even after accounting for population changes,” said Professor Huriya Jabbar, who has studied the New Orleans reforms. “However, the authors also report that the gains were not equal across groups: white students gained more than black students from the reforms.

“Furthermore, researchers have not yet determined which features of the reforms were successful (e.g., autonomy, teacher labor market reforms, and increased resources, including the influx of private philanthropic funds), as well as the role of other citywide changes in housing and employment.”

Moreover, groups of students, parents, and community members remain skeptical of the reform movement and have raised concerns that the new school system remains inequitable. For example, students and parents have raised concerns with some charter schools that have been unresponsive to students and too harsh in their disciplinary policies. After years of complaints lodged by parents about the treatment of students with special needs in the charter system, including physical and emotional abuse and “counseling out,” the parties settled a lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, acknowledging these grievances and requiring independent monitoring and auditing of charter schools’ special education services. According to news reports, the decentralized, fragmented school system in New Orleans has also been particularly unprepared to serve the growing percentages of English Language Learners in the city.

Further, within the choice system family income exerts a strong influence. A recent study found that low-income families make schooling decisions differently than affluent families. Low-income families are much more constrained in their choices because of practical considerations such as after-school care and distance, and therefore measured academic outcomes play a smaller role their decisions.

Schools have also engaged in behaviors that constrain parents’ choices. A recent study revealed that school leaders in New Orleans, facing the combined pressure of recruiting more students and raising test scores, cream-skimmed the more affluent or high-achieving students through, for example, selective advertising and recruitment.

Mass layoffs that occurred after Katrina dramatically changed the composition of the teaching force. Recent reports have confirmed that there was a large reduction in the percentage of black teachers, from 70% African American to about 50%. The number of teachers with more than 10 years of experience also fell from about 50% to 30%. The long-term effects of these staffing changes on student outcomes and on the New Orleans community more broadly are still unclear, but these patterns have deepened longstanding local concerns about the racial make-up (overwhelmingly White) of the reform leaders.

There are also political implications of the education reforms. The state-run Recovery School District (RSD) now operates more than 70 percent of New Orleans schools, formerly run by the locally elected school board. Voters in New Orleans have lost control over the majority of their public schools, and have almost no say in whether they will get those schools back.

Despite advocates’ arguments that the post-Katrina reforms “hand power back” to local actors, parents and community members are concerned about their inability to participate in school decisions, the diminished local control, and the lack of transparency. Charter-school boards have been criticized for violating open-meetings laws, and the public does not elect charter board members, even though these boards hold authority over publicly funded schools. Indeed, in some cases, these boards have voted against the recommendations of school leaders, teachers, and parents in the charter network. Some local leaders and parents want to return to local control, in which the majority black voting population would elect board members to oversee the city’s traditional as well as charter schools.

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent reforms, there remain more questions than answers. Even if the reforms implemented under such a hyper-politicized arrangement show some clear gains in student achievement, as seems to be the case, it is important to attend to the serious equity concerns that remain in the system, and to examine other outcomes, beyond test scores. The preliminary evidence, from a combination of news reports and research studies, suggests that the New Orleans reforms disproportionately benefit more advantaged students, relative to the most at-risk and under-served students. In light of these concerns, there is a need for more research that systematically examines whether the reforms have truly altered the structure of opportunities for students who are low-income, of color, English Language Learners, or have disabilities. Given the additional resources and the unique New Orleans experience, there are also questions about how sustainable and replicable the New Orleans model is, even though many cities are adopting similar reforms.

It is also important to ask how much local, democratic oversight the public is willing, or should be willing, to trade for somewhat higher test scores. In New Orleans, as well as in many other cities and states seeking to adopt a “recovery” or “portfolio” model, policymakers should ensure that the temporary turnaround measures do not permanently disenfranchise local actors.


The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence.  For more information on the NEPC, please visit