Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine considers the impact of school reform in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina, “a disaster that paradoxically gave the city the chance to redesign its failing school system”:
Rather than re-create the neighborhood-based schools that had recapitulated generations of poverty, the city created a network of public charter schools. The charters, which have open admission and public accountability, have produced spectacular results. Before the reforms, New Orleans students — like overwhelmingly poor students in most places — lagged far behind more affluent students. Since the reforms, the achievement gap has nearly closed. The proportion of New Orleans students performing at grade level, once half the rate of the rest of the state, now trails by just 6 percent.
Chait also discusses one of the most frantic arguments against school reform: in a newly-conceived system where families choose schools based on preference, rather than the traditional system where “wealthy families literally buy access to the best schools,” the hallowed concept of “neighborhood schools” breaks down. Also in the break-down lane, however, are “inflexible” teacher union contracts:
[C]harters also break the traditional union model of teacher compensation. That model gives teachers high, and virtually absolute, levels of job security, and pays them based on years of tenure. There is no empirical basis to believe that this is an optimal method to recruit and retain quality teachers. Evidence shows that experience improves performance only after the first few years, after which longer tenure does not produce better outcomes. American teachers are much more likely than the teachers in other, higher-performing countries to graduate from the bottom tier of their college class, and the hiring process for teaching is far less competitive than for other fields. But teacher unions and their allies have lionized the old neighborhood-based model and its inflexible contracts.
Also check out the CREDO study, linked to in the piece, that found that “urban charters on the whole produce an extra 40 days of classroom learning — eight weeks — in math, and 28 days of extra classroom learning in reading per student per year.”