Gove looks to New Orleans for inspiration – but is the comparison valid?

Janet Downs's picture
New Orleans’ schools that survived Hurricane Katrina were closed indefinitely by the City authorities. Many teachers, who had suffered themselves in the disaster, tried to enter schools to clean up but were met by armed guards, TES reports. The state intervened, reopened the schools using the Charter model and sacked all existing teachers who were replaced by young, idealistic college graduates. However, the majority of teachers displaced were just as passionate but they lost their jobs – many had also lost their homes.

New Orleans may be hailed as a "miracle" but it isn't possible to apply this to England. The New Orleans educational change has been likened to the fall of communism in the Eastern bloc. I'm sure Secretary of State, Michael Gove, would like to use this analogy to describe his tearing down the structure of English education but it doesn't quite match. New Orleans schools were run on a highly centralised model unlike anything experienced in the UK. Charter heads now have considerably more autonomy but their freedom is no more than has been enjoyed by heads in community schools in England for 20 years.

New Orleans charters use the same “no excuses” model – a philosophy enthusiastically endorsed by Mr Gove. However, not all UK charters use this model. Some like Freire in Philadelphia are more relaxed but even here there is a high attrition rate, something that characterises charter schools.

TES reported that Sam Freedman, Gove’s special adviser, found no evidence that the “competitive autonomous system” in New Orleans led to fragmentation. He discovered charter schools in the city tended to work closely together. However, one teacher who supports the reforms says this cooperation doesn’t always work. Some charters are reluctant to collaborate and this makes it difficult in a city where family instability means pupils frequently change schools. The teacher said the high level of accountability in the city’s charter system was a positive innovation but it did have undesirable side-effects. Neighbouring schools could face a sudden influx of new pupils if an underperforming charter was closed. The same teacher expressed concern that many charters opted out of teacher pension schemes and regretted that there was no union representation.

Freedman was impressed with the broad support for the charter system in New Orleans. This is hardly surprising when the choice was between charter schools or no schools. He told TES, “They didn’t have for-profit schools, nor did they need any profit to make it work. It is very much driven by philanthropy.”

But this dependence on philanthropy has serious downsides. The underfunded California education system relies on philanthropy and fund-raising but donor fatigue has set in – it was, in any case, non-existent in poorer areas. In Philadelphia, where the system is also in meltdown, schools funded by philanthropic finance tend to attract more motivated pupils leaving the poorly-funded state system to cope with the rest.

If Gove is looking at the US for evidence to underpin his academy conversion and free schools policy, it behoves him to consider the drawbacks.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 27/06/2012 - 14:06

75% of schools in New Orleans are charter schools so it is seems worthwhile looking at the success claims of the 38,000-student district.

1. The Lousiana Department of Education claimed in a release last month that the number of students attending failing schools in New Orleans has dropped from 68% in 2004-2005 to just below 18% in 2009-2010. The designation of schools is based on standardized test scores.

But a November 2010 report,, written by Barbara Ferguson, board chair and attorney for Research on Reforms, a nonprofit foundation, found that the district left out 30% of its schools in its 2009-10 success record.

She wrote that during that year there were 71 schools in the district, 21 of which did not have baseline School Performance Scores.

2. The population and demographics of New Orleans have totally changed. The Greater New Orleans Community Data Center released a report in February showing that, since 2000, five years before Katrina, “the metro area lost 22 percent of children under 18 compared to only 7 percent of all adults.” Another report says that the families slowest to return are low-income minority families, students who are more likely to score lower on standardized tests than white students.

3. Students with special needs can’t find schools that will take them because there aren’t enough schools with special education facilities. Last year the, Southern Poverty Law Center, the Loyola University Law Clinic, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Southern Disability Law Center jointly filed a complaint with the state Department of Education charging that the department was in breach of the U.S. Individuals With Disabilities Education Act by systemically failing to guarantee that students with disabilities received equal access to educational services.

Finally, Look at this chart which proves that there is NO miracle in New Orleans :-

The chart shows the proportion of students in each charter school and voucher school who were rated basic or above on state tests of reading and maths.

The statewide average (in an already low-performing state, incidentally) of students who reached basic or above was 75%.

Only SIX six of the charter-voucher schools met or exceeded this average (two more came close).

The average proportion of students in the New Orleans Recovery School District that reached basic or above was 49%.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 27/06/2012 - 14:44

Allan - there's an interesting debate at the following link giving two views about charters. One says successful charters find effective ways to engage disadvantaged pupils but that could apply to all schools (PriceWaterhouseCoopers made the same point in 2008 - improving schools use similarly effective methods irrespective of academy status). The same article mentions the success of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) and his demanding programme but it doesn't mention that children unwilling, or unable, to cope with this programme will not attend KIPP schools. The article quotes the CREDO study which found that "just 17% of charters were providing superior education opportunities for their students, half were no different from traditional schools and a third delivered results that were worse than public schools." It ended with saying that the authorities should just shut poorly-performing charters. However, this leads to the problem highlighted in my article - a large number of pupils without a school place descending on neighbouring schools.

The article against charters (available by clicking on a link within the article above) says the charter system is based on two flawed ideas: that unions are to blame and "packing poor kids into high poverty schools" will raise results. The author points out that non-unionized Southern schools tend to perform badly and the lack of union representation leads to high teacher turnover. The author suggests allowing more disadvantaged pupils to attend advantaged schools. This chimes with OECD research which found that all pupils, disadvantaged and advantaged, tend to do better in schools with a more advantaged intake.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 27/06/2012 - 17:12

A judge in a court case today rules that the post-Katrina school firings were wrongful. AP News Break says:

'In 45 pages of reasons that accompanied the ruling, [Judge] Julien said the fired teachers and others were deprived of "the vested property interest held in their tenured or permanent employment positions." She also said the employees were denied due process that school boards by state law must go through if finances require a reduction in force.'

The article continues:

'The result [of education reorganisation in New Orleans] has been steady if often incremental progress overall. But there also have been complaints about the state running local schools; allegations from some that local communities have not had enough say in the operation; and complaints that teachers and others who lost their jobs after the storm have been treated unfairly.'

The article said that the school population in New Orleans had reduced from around 59,000 to 39,000 before and after the hurricane. That's a 20,000 drop, a third of the school population. This should perhaps be borne in mind when comparison is made of results pre- and post-Katrina.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 27/06/2012 - 17:23

"Was it choice and charter-school driven reform, then, that paved the way for dramatic change and allowed the city to make a fresh start in educating its students? It’s a tempting, but oversimplified, explanation that education experts say folks ought to resist."

The Recovery School District, which hires predominantly brand-new teachers according to the article below, faced allegations of impropriety and even teacher cheating last year. The RSD theoretically runs on user choice, but this is hotly-debated among poor parents or those whose children have special educational needs who accuse the "choice" system of actually being selective.

So, allegations of cheating and wrongdoing - and this is the model that Gove's adviser admires.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 27/06/2012 - 17:39

New Orleans is not the city it used to be, post Katrina. The subtext is that charters swept into an area brimming over with African-American poverty and worked a miracle on transforming achievement amongst a challenging demographic. The fact is Katrina swept away many of the poor from their homes and they never returned. Today New Orleans is much whiter and more affluent than it was before.

It is difficult to believe what the RSD say when they withheld 30% of schools in its 2009-2010 success record.

Paul Smith's picture
Wed, 27/06/2012 - 23:11

Isn't the editor of the TES a governor of the same school where Sam freedman is governor? in Haringey, where coincidentally Downhills was closed down on the orders of Michael Gove?

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.