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After the disruption of Hurricane Katrina, students in New Orleans fell behind academically. A new study finds that students subsequently bounced back and prospered after the public school system was replaced with charter schools, which are privately run but publicly financed. Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

The coronavirus pandemic led many in education to hunt for lessons from the last major disruption in schooling, after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, when the state of Louisiana tossed out the city’s public school system and replaced it with controversial market-based reforms. Until now, we haven’t really known whether that overhaul was a success or a failure.

Paul Hill, founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a nonpartisan research group, noted that students missed wildly different amounts of education after New Orleans schools closed abruptly in August 2005. Some schools on higher ground were able to reopen in 2006. However, the majority of children weren’t back in New Orleans schools until the following 2006-07 school year or later, Hill wrote. Some had gone to school for a few months in Texas or other parts of Louisiana but most were out of school until they returned to New Orleans. The parallels with missed instruction during the pandemic are striking. 

Hill, also a political scientist at University of Washington Bothell, interviewed school administrators in New Orleans and learned that students tended to arrive back in New Orleans more than two years below grade level. Some students returned much further behind. But it was unclear how much the hurricane had disrupted their education; many New Orleans students had been well behind grade level before Katrina. 

Student test scores soared as New Orleans recovered. New Orleans was among the top 10 districts nationwide for academic growth in a 2017 study by Stanford researchers of the largest 2,000 school districts in the U.S. On average, students gained 5.7 grade levels over five years. So-called education reformers trumpeted the success of the city’s post-Katrina experiment that replaced nearly all of the locally controlled public schools with charter schools but it was controversial. The charter schools were run by private organizations, similar to private schools, but publicly financed. Families could choose to apply to any school in the city and were no longer restricted to neighborhood attendance zones. 

“We have no ability to say if New Orleans students caught up after Katrina because it’s not the same group of students,” Hill said when I interviewed him in January 2021. “There is overlap. But many students permanently left and new higher income students arrived in the city.”

When Douglas N. Harris, an economist at Tulane University, started researching the educational recovery in New Orleans, he was skeptical. “I thought that can’t be real,” he said. “We’ve never seen a school district improve the way New Orleans improved. I thought that’s got to be population change.”

Harris recently concluded that the gigantic improvements were real. In a May 2021 technical report, “Taken by Storm: The Effects of Hurricane Katrina on Medium-Term Student Outcomes in New Orleans,” he and a colleague at the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans disentangled the population shifts from the academic gains. They obtained detailed data including parent education and income from the U.S. Census. They identified students who stayed and those who returned and compared how they did before and after the hurricane. They tracked their performance for years afterward, through college. (Their research was partly funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, and the W.T. Grant Foundation. Both the Arnold and the Spencer foundations are among the funders of The Hechinger Report.)

Surprisingly, the composition of the public school population hadn’t changed as much as many assumed. The percentage of Black students dropped from 94 to 88 percent but poverty actually increased. The share of students whose families are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch rose from 83 to 88 percent. Many of the wealthier newcomers to the city, Harris explained, were young adults without children or families who opted to send their children to private schools. 

The size of the school system shrank. More than 60 percent of the city’s 65,000 students had disappeared by 2006. In 2014, the final year of this study, the number of students had risen to 44,000. Today there are about 50,000.

The economists crunched the numbers in more than four different ways, comparing student gains in New Orleans with those of similar students and similar schools elsewhere in Louisiana. Each time, they came to the same conclusion: New Orleans students were doing a lot better. “I was surprised,” said Harris. 

Student test scores dipped when students first came back to the city but they bounced back. “Within about two years of Katrina, they were back to where we would have expected them to be,” said Harris. “It’s not entirely clear if that’s just resilience as opposed to school reform.”

Test scores continued to rise considerably through 2013, after which they appeared to plateau. High school graduation rates also increased by 9 to 13 percentage points, above and beyond increases seen in nearby parishes, in a city where just over 50 percent of students earned a high school diploma before 2005. 

Most impressive were students’ college milestones. College attendance improved by 7 to 11 percentage points. Before the hurricane, fewer than 23 percent of the city’s 12th graders enrolled in college right after high school. That increased to almost 34 percent — nearly a 50 percent improvement in immediate college going. Students who might not have enrolled in college at all in the past tried two-year community colleges. Students who might have enrolled in two-year colleges in the past shifted to four-year institutions, which have higher graduation rates.  College degrees increased by 2 to 3 percentage points. That might sound small but it’s a gigantic improvement when you consider that before Katrina, only 10 percent of New Orleans students obtained a college degree within five years of high school graduation.

It’s important to point out that students in New Orleans are still “behind” by many objective measures. New Orleans remains one of the lowest performing school districts in the state of Louisiana, which ranks near the bottom of the nation in academic performance. What this quantitative analysis shows is that the students in New Orleans were much worse off before the hurricane and they improved a lot from this low starting point.

By eliminating other likely explanations, the researchers conclude that the controversial school reforms of charter schools and school choice were likely responsible for the improvements. Many of the schools adopted a “no excuses” approach to educating children with strict behavioral rules and high academic expectations. Schools were able to hire and fire teachers as they saw fit, unrestricted by tenure rules, certification standards or salary schedules. But that was accompanied by penalties for underperforming schools. The state regularly shut down schools that didn’t raise student achievement. Forty of the city’s 80 schools were replaced. 

What are the lessons from Katrina for helping students catch up after the coronavirus pandemic? Might high-performing charter schools be the way forward? “No,” is Harris’s answer. “There were particular circumstances that made the reforms more likely to work in New Orleans than they would in other places.”

One reason, he explained, is that the New Orleans school system was corrupt and badly run before Katrina, and student performance was notably low to start. “It’s easier to improve whenever you’re at the bottom,” he said. “You had nowhere to go but up.”

The city also benefited from an influx of idealistic young adults who wanted to help rebuild. “People from all over the country wanted to come and be a teacher in New Orleans,” he said. “So they were able to attract more talent to the system.” 

What does Harris, as a long-time education researcher, think the rest of the nation’s schools should do to help students catch up? Tutoring. 

“We’ve known for years that tutoring is a cost-effective way to help students academically,” he said. “That’s not new but for some reason, that’s something that has not been widely adopted.”

Indeed, in Hill’s interviews with school leaders who taught children during the post-Katrina recovery, tutoring is often what ended up working in New Orleans, especially with older high school students. “It often took multiple years of individualized attention to resolve the largest learning losses,” Hill wrote.

New Orleans can’t give us all the answers but it is a place to start looking for solutions. 

This story about lessons from Katrina was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletters.

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Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

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