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Tulane Researchers: New Orleans school changes successful, but can they be duplicated?

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NEW ORLEANS — Even as New Orleans is held up nationwide as a model of school reform for changes that took place after Hurricane Katrina, researchers at Tulane University say there are questions about whether the apparent successes can be duplicated in other areas.

Three articles by researchers at Tulane's Education Research Alliance for New Orleans published Tuesday on the website Education Next look at various aspects of the education overhaul that took place after levee failures and catastrophic flooding in 2005 led to a state takeover of most New Orleans public schools — and the eventual turnover of those schools to independent charter organizations.

The studies find evidence of improved student performance in the post-Katrina system and say that New Orleans' changes are a valuable model for other districts to examine. But researchers raise questions about whether the successes can be duplicated in other areas. Political hurdles to such widespread change are a consideration. Also, the highly motivated teachers and reformers who were drawn to the city after the storm might not flock to other cities — or other parts of Louisiana — making such changes.

"The national response to the hurricane aftermath was heartening, and for many young people, contributing to the rebuilding effort became a calling," Tulane Economics Professor Douglas Harris writes in one article. "Later, as the reform effort took hold, New Orleans also became the nation's epicenter of school reform, an ideal place for aspiring reform-minded educators. Because the city is smaller than many urban districts, school leaders could be very selective in choosing from the pool of educators who wanted to come and work there."

Critics are still upset over the Louisiana takeover and mass conversion to charter schools, saying it has wrested control from the local elected school board. They question the extent of improvement and whether it is attributable to the post-Katrina changes.

The Tulane researchers said the data they examined show graduation rates, college entry rates and student performance scores for New Orleans students rose post-Katrina compared to their counterparts in other districts affected by the hurricane. And they say data show the improvements are attributable to the changes.

Tuesday's articles acknowledge persistent inequities. For instance, while parents in theory can apply to have their child attend any school in the city, some of the best-performing schools have selective admissions.

And low-income parents living in areas of the city far from the best schools may be unable to drive their children to school themselves and reluctant to put them on buses for long periods of time, Harris said in an interview Monday.

Some of the best schools still don't participate in a city-wide system allowing parents to fill out a single application on which they can list a ranked choice of schools they would like their children to attend. That system remains confusing to some, the researchers said.

But the big question outside New Orleans may be whether the success so far can be duplicated.

The reform in New Orleans required major legislative changes that would have been politically impossible had the disaster not shut down the city in 2005. "There was nothing to stand in the way of that with everybody out of the city," Harris said.

New Orleans' apparent successes may strengthen the case for similar changes in other cities, he said.

"That may create a new kind of political pressure to become more like New Orleans," Harris said.

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