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Douglas Harris: A Response to Critics of the 2015 New Orleans Study

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Douglas Harris of the Education Research Alliance at Tulane University responds here to critics of the 2015 study of New Orleans in which he was the lead researcher. Its findings were the same as his 2018 study.

He summarizes and links to the divergent views about the New Orleans’ adoption of market-driven reforms.

The school system before Katrina was corrupt and dysfunctional. After the hurricane in 2005, the state stepped in to turn most schools into privately managed charters.

He writes:

“In a study I conducted with Matthew Larsen, we found that the city’s test scores rose dramatically because of the post-Katrina reforms. Even the most pessimistic estimates suggest that the reforms significantly increased scores (and probably high school graduation rates and college entry) and more than alternative policies and programs would have. These achievement gains also occurred across the board. In this respect, low-income students were not hurt. They benefited academically.

“That being said, some of the rhetoric of reform supporters has gone overboard. There are some real issues and questions, just not the ones that these critics have set their sights on.

“For example, though disadvantaged students benefited, they seem to have benefited less than other groups. Early on, as this entirely new type of system was being put in place, there were real horror stories about how special education students and others were suspended and expelled at high rates. Under pressure from community groups, state and local leaders took several steps to address the problem, yet it remains unclear whether the problems are solved.

“Critics are concerned that schools under the reforms are too focused on test scores. This is a national concern as well, but the intensity of test-based accountability in New Orleans is even stronger and may reduce focus on other important educational goals like creativity and local cultural knowledge. In the coming years, we’ll get a better sense of the real results by looking at college and beyond.

“One potential weakness of a system of autonomous schools like the New Orleans model is that disadvantaged students can more easily fall between the cracks. With neighborhood attendance zones, a specific school is responsible for each student. With school choice, tens of thousands of students are in the hands of one or two district staff people. And there are signs that high school dropouts are being under-reported.

“Finally, whatever lessons we might draw from New Orleans may be exclusive to New Orleans. Our student outcomes had nowhere to go but up. New Orleans also saw a massive influx of federal and philanthropic funding and skilled people from across the country that other cities are unlikely to experience. Other districts should look to New Orleans, but tread carefully.“

If only the professional Reformers heeded Harris’ words of caution. You can be sure they will use his New Orleans study to tout the advantages of privatization.

For example, David Leonhardt did not write two columns in the New York Times to report the findings and cautions that Harris here reports, but to tout the wonders of charters.

Now that Harris has won $10 million from the DeVos’ Department of Education to establish a National Center for Research on School Choice, perhaps he can help shine a light on how School Choice has worked in Detroit and Milwaukee. Perhaps he can persuade the professional Reformers that the neediest kids are the ones least likely to benefit and most likely, as he put it, to “fall between the cracks.” Then, they might drop their false narrative about “saving poor kids from failing schools.” But that may be too much to hope for.

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