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How is New Orleans School Performance Evolving, and Why?

A new study by Douglas N. Harris, Lihan Liu, Alica Gerry, and Paula Arce-Trigatti examines how school quality and program offerings are changing in New Orleans.

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How is New Orleans School Performance Evolving, and Why?

by Douglas N. Harris, Lihan Liu, Alica Gerry, Paula Arce-Trigatti

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The New Orleans school reforms — com­bin­ing char­ter schools, per­for­mance-based con­tract­ing and school choice — are now almost 15 years old. In this study, we ana­lyze how ele­men­tary and mid­dle schools have evolved over time, in terms of their aver­age qual­i­ty and vari­a­tion in qual­i­ty. We exam­ine school qual­i­ty using val­ue-added mea­sures, which cap­ture how much schools con­tribute to stu­dent achieve­ment (mea­sured by test scores). We are par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in the how much of the city’s school improve­ment and evo­lu­tion have been caused by the process of per­for­mance-based school clo­sure and takeover. We draw four main con­clu­sions from this work: Con­sis­tent with our pri­or research, we find that aver­age school qual­i­ty has sig­nif­i­cant­ly increased from the pre-reform peri­od. How­ev­er, qual­i­ty peaked around 2013 and has either stag­nat­ed or start­ed to decline dur­ing 2014 – 2016. The aver­age school improved from the first to the sec­ond year after it opened, but school per­for­mance remained most­ly flat after­wards. Schools start­ing off above the state aver­age saw slight­ly declin­ing per­for­mance in lat­er years. Aside from the improve­ment when schools first opened, essen­tial­ly all of the improve­ment in New Orleans’ aver­age test scores has been due to the state reg­u­lar­ly clos­ing or tak­ing over low-per­form­ing schools and open­ing new high­er per­form­ing char­ters (i.e., to char­ter autho­riza­tion). The ​variation​in school qual­i­ty spiked upwards just after the reforms start­ed, but then trend­ed back to the pre-reform dis­tri­b­u­tion. In our most recent year of avail­able data, the vari­a­tion in school qual­i­ty is actu­al­ly slight­ly low­er than before Kat­ri­na. This recent decline in qual­i­ty vari­a­tion is also most­ly due to the school closure/​takeover process. Elim­i­nat­ing the low­est-per­form­ing schools increased the aver­age school qual­i­ty and reduced vari­a­tion. Schools’ con­tri­bu­tions to stu­dent achieve­ment, or val­ue-added, is not the only way to look at schools. For exam­ple, we briefly ana­lyze the num­ber of and vari­a­tion in pro­gram options avail­able (e.g., extracur­ric­u­lar activ­i­ties) after the reforms start­ed. These results sug­gest that the aver­age num­ber of extracur­ric­u­lar activ­i­ties adver­tised by schools increased dur­ing the post-reform peri­od, along with, to some degree, the vari­a­tion in school­ing options. There are two gen­er­al ways to improve school qual­i­ty. First, exist­ing schools may improve through inter­nal efforts and with the sup­port, pro­grams, and poli­cies of school dis­tricts and oth­er gov­ern­men­tal and non-gov­ern­men­tal agen­cies. Sec­ond, since it some­times may be dif­fi­cult to improve schools from with­in and with exist­ing per­son­nel, we can also start over — by clos­ing schools and mov­ing stu­dents to oth­er schools, or by tak­ing over low-per­form­ing schools and turn­ing con­trol over to oth­er groups of edu­ca­tors. Our analy­sis sug­gests there is still room for New Orleans schools to improve through both of these mech­a­nisms. The per­for­mance of new schools con­tin­ues to be high­er than schools that have closed or been tak­en over. How­ev­er, the impacts of such extreme mea­sures will very like­ly be small­er than in the past. Clo­sure and takeover alone can­not pro­duce a high-qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion system.

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