By Bruce Alpert
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., is so impressed with improvements at New Orleans public schools that she's inviting Senate colleagues and staffers to a roundtable discussion today on lessons the other struggling school systems could learn from the effort.
"Through a relent less focus on account ability, human capital and charter school development, New Orleans has become a national leader in education reform," Landrieu said Wednesday.
She said representatives of the group New Schools for New Orleans and others will tell the story about "how one city is making dramatic gains in student achievement by reimagining public education."
Landrieu will use the event to release a new report by New Schools for New Orleans and the Public Impact, a North Carolina research group, titled "New Orleans-Style Education Reform: A Guide for Cities." It outlines the lessons learned from the city's public education overhaul efforts since Hurricane Katrina.
The report notes that serious problems remain but that the progress achieved since 2005 is substantial.
Among the gains cited in the report: The district's performance score, measuring student proficiency, attendance, dropout rates and graduation rates, increased 49 percent since Katrina and the percentage of students attending "academically unacceptable" schools dropped from 78 percent in 2005 to 40 percent using 2011 criteria.
New Orleans reduced the "achievement gap" between the performance of its students, compared to the statewide average for Louisiana, from 23 percentage points in 2005 to 10 percentage points in 2001.
"There are a lot of struggling school dis tricts out there and I think anything they can learn from our experience in New Orleans helps," said Neerav Kingsland, chief strategy officer for New Schools for New Orleans.
The report, financed through a federal education grant, portrays the city's effort, which relies heavily on charter schools with more freedom to tailor curriculum for its students, as making a positive input on the city's students. But the report said major challenges remain: Achievement gains will plateau if educator skills don't increase. School officials must "rethink" educator roles, career paths and training to promote both retention and improved performance.
The city must transform the remaining low-performing city-run and charter schools and increase the number of college and career preparatory programs.
The city must establish a long-term governance model to support a decentralized system, with a greater focus on charter school oversight to assure quality education throughout the system. Families need more help to navigate the decentralized system to select the best option for their children.
As for what other school systems might learn from New Orleans' experience, the authors of the report said tra ditional school governance systems might not achieve the major changes required.
"Political and constituent pressures make turning around failing schools difficult," the report said. "A superintendent reporting to an elected board will generally be in the weakest position to force change and may preside over a lethargic bureaucracy."
The report said that an entity, such as the Recovery School District in New Orleans, authorized by the state "to take over schools has the best position to break long-standing patterns of failure especially given this entity can build a new governmental structure."
That view, however, isn't universal.
Some in New Orleans complained that the state take over of schools after Hurricane Katrina ran roughshod over veteran school administrators and teachers, as well as some parent groups, shedding valuable veteran educators from the system.