New Orleans Education System Remade After Hurricane

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan once called Hurricane Katrina "the best thing" that happened to the New Orleans' education system. In Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, a state agency took over almost every school in the city, and charters remade what used to be one of America's lowest performing districts. NPR's Education Correspondent Larry Abramson discusses the current state of New Orleans schools.

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ALLISON KEYES, Host:

I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a few minutes, the moms take on child discipline, the kind that's out in the open.

But first, earlier this year Education Secretary Arne Duncan, perhaps somewhat clumsily, called Hurricane Katrina the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans. In the aftermath of the storm, a state agency took over nearly every school in the city and a wave of charters remade what was once one of the lowest performing districts in America. We're reexamining those changes just ahead of the fifth anniversary of the storm.

NPR's education correspondent Larry Abramson is with me. He just got back from a visit to the city. Thanks for joining us, Larry.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Hi, Allison, how are you?

KEYES: I'm great. So New Orleans is now basically the charter school of the U.S., right?

ABRAMSON: The charter school capital of the U.S., that's right. There's 61 percent of the schools in New Orleans that are charter schools. Only Washington comes close to that, and they basically have half the number. So it's really become, you know, a laboratory. That term has been used a lot for different approaches to education, lots of charter school operators basically want to have their finger in this pie because the whole slate was wiped clean by the hurricane.

It's a chance for people to do things down there that they really can't do in other cities in the same way.

KEYES: I think most people have the idea that charter school means better. Is that true for achievement?

ABRAMSON: You know, as far as achievement goes, really, there's no evidence in New Orleans that charter schools are doing any better than the traditional public schools. Of course charter schools are public schools, but they're independently run. And they're doing about the same. There are a number of charter schools that are doing especially well. But the recovery school district, which is the state-run school district, is also seeing huge achievement gains.

Of course it's easier to get achievement gains when you were doing terribly before. They only can go up. And so I think the real challenge for both the traditional public schools and the charter schools is as they start reaching, you know, average levels of achievement to other schools in the country, will they be able to continue these gains?

KEYES: I heard from you talking about complaints you'd heard from people about the level of security in some of the schools. Is that affecting the achievement level - I mean the kids that are being asked to walk along the lines of security guards?

ABRAMSON: Well, you know, they really cracked down on security after the storm because there was a huge amount of upheaval. A lot of schools were opening in the middle of the year. There was a lot of chaos obviously in the city.

KEYES: So the security is a good thing, right?

ABRAMSON: So the security you would think is a good thing. But if you sort of militarize a lot of high schools, then you really are not going to help achievement. You're not going to help relationships between different neighborhoods that are sometimes mixing in these schools. So there were a lot of complaints, I think, in the first few years of the reform effort that the crackdown was too severe.

And the recovery school district has rolled back. They've pulled some of the security guards out of these schools. But at the same time, you know, I think a lot of people feel that there's evidence that, really, a firm structure in some of these urban schools is necessary in order to boost achievement again among some of the lowest performing schools in the country. So you will see very, very stern discipline in some of these schools in a way you just don't experience it in other parts of the country.

KEYES: Really briefly, has a takeover made it easier for everyone to get a better education because there was some disparity in the system before?

ABRAMSON: Well, you know, I think it's raised a floor. So I think the lowest performing schools were taken over and have been reformed and are really doing a lot better. But the highest-performing schools are still overwhelmingly white. They have admission standards. They're very difficult to get into if you're not mobile, if you don't come from a background that's affluent and educated. So there's a lot of equity progress that needs to be made in order to make sure that everybody has access to all of the schools, which is what's supposed to be happening right now under the choice system, but doesn't entirely.

KEYES: So a model for the country or no?

ABRAMSON: You know, this is a - New Orleans is a weird city in every way - whether it's cuisine or music. And I think when it comes to education the same is true. It's very difficult to imagine these reforms taking place in another city where you had an existing school system, unless a hurricane happened to come through and wipe the slate clean.

KEYES: NPR's education correspondent Larry Abramson, just back from a trip to New Orleans, joins us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you, sir.

ABRAMSON: Okay, thank you.

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