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New Orleans Charters Latest to Show Positive Results, But Challenges Lie Ahead

A few weeks ago I pointed you to a study that showed Indiana charter schools outpacing their public school peers in making student academic improvements. Another place where charter schools are being done right — and on an unsurpassed scale — is New Orleans. Six of 10 public school students there is served by one of the city’s 51 charter schools.

A recently-released study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) finds significant academic advantages achieved by New Orleans charter schools, as reported in the Times-Picayune:

A new analysis of standardized test scores in New Orleans shows a majority of the city’s independent charter schools are improving student performance in reading, math or both, at a notably faster rate than traditional schools.

Joanne Jacobs summarizes the report’s overarching findings well:

Of 44 independent charter schools, 23 were improving at a significantly faster rate in reading, math or both than other New Orleans schools. Twelve charters were doing about the same. Nine showed slower progress; three of those have turned in their charters.

That last sentence is crucial. One of the advantages of charter schools is that it’s easier to close them down if they aren’t netting results. The more charters face the possibility of genuine loss for failing to delivery a quality education, the more effective the reform will be.

Partly due to the necessity created by the devastating 2005 Hurricane Katrina, charter schools have thrived in New Orleans. As the CREDO study demonstrates, the first phase of charter growth has made a positive dent in the lives of local students. But a great article by Jed Horne in the latest issue of Education Next also explores the question of whether NOLA charters can continue and expand their success:

Amid changes as exciting as they are fragile, this much seems clear to the reform community: Even briefly settling for today’s improved performance levels is to avail critics of the opportunity to say that school reform has stalled after early gains that were easy and perhaps unsustainable…. It would be to settle for schools that are, not excellent, but merely “good enough.”

Efforts by the old order to claw back power are portrayed as only the most obvious threat to the gains achieved in New Orleans. The more insidious threat, reformers contend, is for schools and the communities of students and parents they serve to get comfortable with a still-inadequate status quo. A stubborn loyalty to the school they know, and indeed may have helped build, can abort the wrenching changes that may be required for a school to become truly excellent.

The whole piece is worth reading. Horne chronicles the successes well, while making a vital point about both the internal and external challenges that lie ahead. It’s important to remember that with education reform, as with investments, “past performance is no guarantee of future results.” Hard work, vigilance, and thoughtful approaches to policy must continue moving forward.

Speaking of the latter, allow me to say one more time that just calling a school a charter guarantees absolutely nothing. However, state and local conditions that provide for the creation of high-quality public charters using strong laws and policies do make a difference. Far more useful than trying to ask what’s better nationwide, charter schools or neighborhood schools, is looking at specific local conditions and factors. Among other things, the quality standards and accountability for Indiana and New Orleans charters — along with the expectations and programs for the students they serve — are indeed very positive developments in American education.

Now we just need to keep it up so we can help kids like me.