Before Hurricane Katrina, more than 60 percent of children in New Orleans attended a failing school. Now, only about 18 percent do, says a New York Times editorial.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan says the progress made by New Orleans's school reform effort in the six years has been "stunning".
There are three important things to consider about the New Orleans experience, says the editorial:
Many of the structural changes occurred because the hurricane essentially destroyed the old system, allowing the city to begin fresh.
Charter schools, while a foundation of the system now, did not by themselves improve achievement.
New Orleans has done the hard work of changing the school culture while embracing new instructional methods.
By the time of the storm, the state and the city were fully intent on strengthening the teaching corps. The city has put in place a system for steadily ratcheting up school performance requirements. It has also been helped by state education reforms passed in recent years.
With its schools empty, New Orleans laid off the entire teaching force, requiring basic skills tests for those who wished to return to their jobs.
"By some estimates, only about 20 percent of the original force returned to work."
The Recovery School District, which now oversees an overwhelming majority of the city's schools, streamlined the central bureaucracy, and pushed money and policy authority down to the school building level.
Three-quarters of the city's schools are charter schools. Nationally, charter schools — which are publicly financed — are often accused of siphoning off scarce resources and taking the best students from traditional schools. That is less of an issue in New Orleans, where most schools are charters with open enrollment, and where school officials are monitoring to make sure schools stay open to all comers, writes the New York Times.
In New Orleans, charter schools appear to be better on average than charters elsewhere. They generally have a longer school day and a longer school year than most schools. They spend a great deal of time teaching study and time management skills, and plan each student's development.
"None of these attributes are particular to charters, but they have helped turn the schools around."
New Orleans still has a long way to go to become a uniformly good school system, writes the New York Times.
"But by bringing in fresh ideas and strong instructional methods, it is showing that even a system with a long history of failure can improve."